Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
William Trevor has long been regarded as one of Ireland's most evocative
writers, a prose stylist of the highest order with a Chekhovian awareness of the
emotional undercurrents of his characters' lives. And in The Story of Lucy
Gault, Trevor lives up to, perhaps even surpasses, that reputation in a
novel that explores the tragic consequences for one family of Ireland's
deep-seated political strife.
The Story of Lucy Gault is set in provincial Ireland in the early
1920s at the height of civil turmoil and anti-English violence. Everard Gault, a
retired Anglo-Irish army captain married to an Englishwoman, shoots and wounds
one of the boys who has come in the night to set their house afire. This act
sets in motion a chain of events that are to have grievous effects on the Gault
family. Convinced their attackers will return, Everard and Heloise decide they
must leave Ireland. But their daughter Lucy, heartbroken at such a prospect,
runs away. When some of her clothes are found by the ocean shore, her parents
assume she has committed suicide. In their grief they decide to travel,
aimlessly at first, before settling in Italy and then Switzerland, losing touch
entirely with Ireland. They remain unaware that Lucy did not die but has lived
out the years waiting for their return, unable to forgive herself for her
youthful recklessness. And, indeed, the problem of forgiveness lies at the heart
of The Story of Lucy Gaultforgiveness for the act of terror that drove
the family away, for Everard and Heloise's mistaken conclusion that their
daughter had drowned, and for all the words left unspoken that might have
changed their fates.
With a subtlety and emotional insight rarely matched in contemporary fiction,
The Story of Lucy Gault follows the inexorable unfolding of a few chance
events that alter the lives of a family and unforgettably illuminate the
contours of the human condition.
The Story of Lucy Gault is as much about what doesn't happen, or
what almost happens, as what does. Lahardane is almost set afire, Lucy comes
close to marrying Ralph, Everard writes letters to Ireland but does not send
them. What other instances reveal the significance of things not
happening? Is the novel saying that what we do not do shapes our
lives as much as what we do do?
What role does chance play in the novel? What crucial turning points are
brought about by chance occurrences? Does this preponderance of chance
events suggest the hand of fate directing the characters' lives, or rather a
meaningless randomness, the absence of fate?
Lucy blames herself, her rash decision to run away, for her parents'
leaving; her parents blame themselves for not being more sensitive and
honest with their daughter. "We told her lies," Everard says (p.
31). How should the blame be apportioned between Lucy and her parents? To
what extent are larger historical and political forces to blame for what
happens to the Gault family?
Lucy's mother and father conclude that Lucy is dead when they find some of
her clothes along the ocean's shore. What are the tragic consequences of
this misreading? Why aren't they able to search the woods, to think of other
possibilities? What is the novel saying about the role of misinterpretation
in our lives?
Why does Lucy reject Ralph's impassioned marriage proposals? What are the
consequences of this rejection, for her and for Ralph? Was she mistaken to
turn Ralph down, or was her rejection her only real option, given her
peculiar history, her character, and the circumstances of her life?
Heloise Gault imagines uncovering her feelings to her husband: "She
heard her voice apologizing, and talking then of all she didn't want to talk
about; before she closed her eyes she found the sentences came quite easily.
But when she slept, and woke after a few minutes, she heard herself saying
she couldn't have that conversation and knew that she was right" (p.
84). Why can't she have that conversation? How might it have helped her?
Where else in the novel does the inability to communicate openly and
directly have disastrous consequences?
Why does Lucy visit Horahan, the man who as a boy helped set in motion the
events that caused so much pain, after he's gone insane and been confined to
the asylum? Are her visits an act of forgiveness? What effect do these
visits have on Horahan? On Lucy herself?
In retelling the story of the Gault family, travelers and people in the
surrounding towns embellish the narrative. "In talk inspired by what
was told, the subtleties that clogged the narrative were smudged away. The
spare reality of what had happened was coloured and enriched, and altogether
made better. The journey the stricken parents had set out upon became a
pilgrimage, absolution sought for sins that varied in the telling" (p.
70). What are the subtleties that clog the narrative? Is the parents'
journey a kind of pilgrimage? Have they sinned? Why are subtleties so
important in truly understanding a story?
Compared to much contemporary fiction, The Story of Lucy Gault is
an uneventful, quiet book. How does it achieve such power in the absence of
dramatic action? How does Trevor draw out the spiritual implications of his
story? What are those implications?
At the end of the novel, the nuns visit Lucy, drawn by her extraordinary
peacefulness. "Her tranquility is their astonishment... Calamity shaped
a life when, long ago, chance was so cruel. Calamity shapes the story that
is told, and is the reason for its being: is what they know, besides, the
gentle fruit of such misfortunes' harvest? They like to think so...."
(p. 224). Are the nuns right in sensing a transcendent calm in Lucy? If so,
how has she achieved this peace? Can her life be said to have been, on
balance, a good life?
Copyright Viking Publishing
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...