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William Trevor: Torridge - Do outsiders tell different stories?
A British newspaper critic once fittingly described William Trevor’s stories as surveying “quietly devastating little earthquakes“ (Trevor: back cover of “After Rain”). I understand that those tremors are mostly provoked by the protagonists’ glimpse of their unvarnished existence: their involvement in the mechanisms of violence and power, their being caught by social conventions and expectations, or in Marxist terms, by ideology. Taking the short story “Torridge” as an example, I will underpin the idea that Trevor sensitively reveals how the values, believes, experiences and common practices around us - in Alan Sinfield’s terms the ideological stories 1 - subtly influence and determine people’s lives.
The beginning of the narrative is set in a British boarding school. This institution links the traditional values of the glorious British past to the present and thus reassures the children of the well-to-do that the order of their fathers is the ”most plausible” (Sinfield: 26) order of things. They have no reason to question the world around them. So also thirteen-year-old Torridge can say that “he’d probably be going into the button business himself” (Trevor: 595) like his father. Yet apart from this Torridge is quite different.
Torridge does not match the usual expectations people have of promising boys. He cannot keep up with the story of adventurous, bright, self-assured, sportive youngsters like Wiltshire, Mace-Hamilton and Arrowsmith. “He wasn’t good at games and had difficulty in understanding what was being explained in the classroom” (Trevor: 595). Torridge had to find other stories to justify himself. The prevailing one did not fit his experiences. He had to question the “most plausible” (Sinfield: 26) order of things as his self was contradicting it. Accordingly, though more or less unconsciously, Torridge detached himself from
the opinion of others and built up his own ideas. He objects to knowing malice and cruelty and to taking in discriminating. judgements. He values contentment above all things. So he is pleased about a good laugh never mind if his classmates laughed about him - ‘It is a fine thing to laugh and be merry’. Or he does not let himself be distressed by homesickness or scornful treatment (cf. Trevor: 595). Thus Torridge becomes a counterpart to the other boys.
Correspondingly, Trevor writes “The friendship among the three [Wiltshire, Mace-Hamilton and Arrowsmith] developed because ... Torridge was what he was” (Trevor: 595). The three friends consider Torridge’s naiveté an extraordinary opportunity to feel distinguished and get a lot of fun out of him. Actually Torridge offers them a sort of identity in contrast to his seemingly absurd personality. They are different to Torridge: they are not fat, they are not ridiculous, they keep to the normal story of boys who will succeed in life. They do not need to question anything thanks to Torridge.
And they are self-righteous to such an extent, that their view of the world is not even challenged when they participate in homosexual practices at school. They just do what many do. It is flattering to get attention from “important fifth-formers” (Trevor: 596); it is useful to have “protectors”; it is useful to be knowledgeable about forbidden areas of life. ‘What is useful must be alright, must it not?’ Although homosexuality is surely a taboo in their social class, the story of ‘what is beneficial cannot bear any harm’ serves as the interpretative trick to stick to their overall beliefs in the world’s order: “It is hard to challenge the prevailing stories. [They] tend to drive out others” (Sinfield: 25). Torridge was not wanted in this area of school life.
When middle-aged, Wiltshire, Mace-Hamilton and Arrowsmith have good jobs and families, but their best years are over. Trevor sketches them in their attitude to drink, interpretable as being bored, and in their similarity in dress and appearance, as lacking individuality (cf. Trevor: 602). Somehow they have outlived themselves in their conventionality. Perhaps they have never been really alive but just the image, the story of the conformist upper-class should-be personality?
It is still Torridge who constitutes the main link between the three friends. Every time they and their families meet, the jokes about Torridge are retold, forming the only really amusing part of their gatherings, and thus Torridge has become a family “myth” (Trevor: 601). Naturally the jokes concerning the sexual life at school are left out. Hypocrisy is not seen - ‘those homosexual plays took place in the unreal setting of a boys’ public school and do not belong to the real life of bourgeois families’.
Trevor’s short story culminates when Wiltshire, Mace-Hamilton and Arrowsmith meet Torridge again. He was invited by Arrowsmith to renew the fun and to “recharge ... the batteries” of the joke (Trevor: 605). Yet when Torridge arrives everything is different. He has grown into a self-assured, elegant man who “crosses the dining room ... with a step as nimble as a tap-dancer’s” (Trevor: 606). He again fails to match expectations. Soon Wiltshire, Mace-Hamilton and Arrowsmith realise that their attempt to prove their superiority once again by contrasting themselves to ridiculous Torridge will not work. On the contrary, Torridge sets out to play with them. With the self-assurance of one who had “eventually found [his] way about“ (Trevor, p. 607), he shocked the families by malevolently revealing the homosexual liaisons of Wiltshire, Mace-Hamilton and Arrowsmith at school and by openly admitting his own gayness (cf. Trevor: 609).
Superficially, the narrative ends in an uproar - alternately the offended parties attempt to make things unhappen by loud protest. Yet they also get quiet - everyone seems to experience his own “devastating little earthquake”: the foundations of Wiltshire’s, Mace-Hamilton’s and Arrowsmith’s story of existence, of their wives’ stories about marriage, of their children’s stories about their parents’ world are heavily shaken. And Torridge? He must already have lived through his “quiet devastating little earthquake” when his “innocence slip[ped] away” (Trevor: 607). He simply leaves, having fulfilled his purpose.
Although Torridge had to find a proper identity in contrast to the prevailing moral story and although his homosexual story was strong enough to emerge and be openly manifested, he finally succumbs to another dominant story: he has learned to appreciate power. He takes revenge. He recognises his right to do so as the natural matter of course. Pessimistically, yet probably accurately, Trevor thus exemplifies that the “prevailing stories are hard to be challenged” as they are “flexible” and “plausible” (Sinfield: 26).
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
Sinfield, Alan. “Literature and Cultural Production”. Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. 23-38.
Trevor, William. “Torridge”. The Collected Stories. London: Penguin Books, 1993. 595-612. Trevor, William: After Rain. London: Penguin Books, 1997.
Williams, Raymond. “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent”. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. 121-127.
1 In the following I will print the word „stories“ in italics when referring to Sinfield’s understanding
- Quote paper
- Sixta Quaßdorf (Author), 2001, William Trevor. Torridge - Do outsiders tell different stories?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/105983