Date of Award

Spring 2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Gillespie, Michael P.

Second Advisor

Radcliffe, Krista

Third Advisor

Karian, Stephen


Encompassing the Intolerable examines John McGahern's depiction of individual consciousness struggling with postcolonial Ireland's three dominant and interconnected institutions: nation, family, and the Catholic Church. While McGahern's work, especially the early fiction, is often considered unremittingly bleak, this study argues that his exposure of abuse, repression, and disillusionment within these institutions does not finally entail a pessimistic vision. Instead, through close readings emphasizing character and epiphany, I contend that his texts use the motifs of laughter, memory, and inscription to demonstrate how consciousness can accommodate intolerable realities such as violence and loss rather than becoming defined or controlled by them. Moreover, these motifs trace a progression of subjectivity from survival (laughter) to private identity (memory) to public identity (inscription). Through this process, I argue that McGahern's fiction uncovers a guarded sense of continuity with the above institutions and the awareness that they provide the raw materials for (re)constructing a valid worldview.

Chapter 2 argues that for McGahern's physically or psychically wounded characters, a self-reflexive and dianoetic laugh functions as a minimum confirmation of subjectivity and prepares consciousness to encompass the intolerable. Chapter 3 examines McGahern's portrayal of the extraordinary power of memory to revivify images, refrains, or narratives, and argues that characters who successfully encompass a traumatic past do so by relinquishing the will to power expressed by silence or dogmatic interpretations of individual or collective history. Instead, these characters construct and continually revise dissertation-ended narratives and find that meaning resides in the recounting of such narratives rather than in affixing a final and singular meaning to events. Chapter 4 looks at both the public role of the writer and his or her audience. I argue that McGahern's writing protagonists trace an approach to point-of-view that moves from a defensive posture of isolation and recrimination toward an dissertation posture based on community and forgiveness, and that the latter elicits new ways to encompass the intolerable.