Reading in the Dark

A Novel Full of Stories

Student Hannah Clifton shows how Seamus Deane uses stories in Reading in the Dark to show the interconnectedness of Irish politics and personal life.

In an interview in 1997 Deane stated “I don’t suppose that there was any point at which I ever felt that there was a visible gap between what people call politics and my private life[1]” and this stance is central to Reading in the Dark. Although a prolific writer, this is Deane’s only novel and it is clear that there are strong autobiographical aspects to the book and that the unnamed narrator has close connections with the author. Reading in the Dark addresses the political situation in Ireland during the latter half of the twentieth century; it mixes the difficult and “strange world”[2] of Irish politics, culture and domestic life, focusing on an individual family. Ireland has a long standing tradition of story-telling, the culture is rich with myths and legends, both of the older supernatural nature and the more modern stories of freedom fighters and hero martyrs. Deane exploits this way of life and gives each individual vignette its own element of mystery and every character his or her own plot or issue. It is this combination of the family’s political troubles in relation to its domestic life which makes Reading in the Dark “profoundly emotive”[3].

The Shan Van Vocht

The title of the novel is taken from a section in which the boy is alone and struggling to read in the dark. It is no coincidence that the book he is reading is a symbol of Irish, nationalistic culture called “the Shan Van Vocht”. The original Gaelic translates as “The Poor Old Woman” which is a personification of 18th century Ireland, yet the words of the “Shan Van Vocht” have been adapted to reflect the situation at any period and its meaning can be interpreted according the political climate[4]. It is significant that Deane uses this book as a device since it is about Ireland’s history and a “great rebellion of 1798” which could be compared to the twentieth century rebellion, in the midst of which the boy is growing up. The book also has romantic elements which can be compared to Reading in the Dark as both novels are examples of how personal relationships are moulded according to the political circumstances. It could be said that Deane uses the “Shan Van Vocht” as a tool to show the reader the narrator’s reaction to a world very similar to his own, yet it is notable that the character in the book is a romantic rather than a political figure. The boy states that he “wouldn’t go out on the rebellion at all but just sit there and whisper in her ear” showing that he views personal and domestic issues as more important than the political. This cameo of Deane’s novel is also representative of the boy’s life in that he imagines various conclusions to the story and the “endless possibilities in the dark” can also apply to his own life in Derry. There is an element of duality within the stories, connecting them in tone and mood and although each is a separate unit, the reader is able to follow the pattern. Throughout Reading in the Dark stories are left unfinished and many questions are left unanswered so the reader, like the boy, is left “re-imagining all I had read” and trying to imagine how each story will end.

Deane mixes the romantic and fairytale side of life with sharp truth and it is this juxtaposition between imagination and reality which allows the reader to identify with situations which they have never experienced. In the vignette entitled ‘Reading in the Dark’ Deane follows the narrator’s colourful description of “her deep golden-brown eyes and her olive skin” with “For Christ’s sake, put that light off…you blank gom” which abruptly brings both the narrator and the reader back to 20th century Ireland. Deane uses language to make a distinction between fantasy and the everyday, in the former the prose is flowing and romantic with alliterative terms such as “wind wailing” creating a somewhat distant atmosphere.  In contrast, the latter has an immediacy due to its colloquial tone, this short comment refocuses the reader and narrator back to “ordinary life” and personal relationships.  The boy himself uses “long or strange words” when writing his English essay, whereas Deane disparages that style as pretentious and therefore does not allow himself or his reader to be consumed by unrealistic notions.

Deane makes it clear that Irish story-writing has always been significant, the reference to “the Shan Van Vocht” describes how Ireland was dominated by the English as they “came across the wave, but to plunder and enslave, and should find a robbers grave”[5]. However it is interesting to note that in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Deane states “the greatest national literature, in being essentially English or Irish, also would be universal”[6] showing that Deane’s personal view contrasts with the strong anti-English stance in other Irish works. Although Deane has written what is clearly a political book, there is an irony in that he has forced the reader to observe the situation from the perspective of a young boy and therefore from an apolitical viewpoint.

Realism to Fairy Tale

The narrative combines a variety of styles from a detective novel to stark social realism to allegorical fairytales.  It tells stories of the past, present and future of Irish politics yet also the individual story of a family. Through these stories the boy gradually discovers the differences between truth and folklore. The boy as well as the reader is able to discover the “Facts of Life” about Irish culture, the political situation and his personal family history.

The title of the novel, taken literally, refers to the boy trying to read stories in the dark, yet it is also a paradox in that one reads to gain comprehension but the darkness represents incomprehension, confusion and ignorance. The physical darkness is also a metaphorical one as the boy is struggling to find the truth in a world of lies and half-truths. The darkness represents the ignorance and naivety of the narrator and the difficulty of trying to uncover frightening and humiliating hidden facts to reveal the truth; Deane describes the mother as being “paralysed by shame”. Throughout the narrative Deane describes the mother using images of illness. The words “paralysed” and “plagued” associate the political problems with domestic sickness. The connotations associated with the word ‘paralysed’ refer to a state of utter powerlessness, which Deane uses to mean not merely the individual mother but also suggests the frozen state of political affairs in Ireland. Similarly, the word ‘plagued’ creates an image of a disease or contagion, spreading unstoppably through persons and country. Politics infects individuals.   Although Deane’s novel contains myths and allegories it is also a book which aims to reveal truths in several contexts. Many episodes are left without conclusions yet the book is successful because the author is “just telling the truth”.


The constant unfolding of new information and secrets maintains the reader’s attention throughout. Prominent themes are betrayal and secrecy and each is dealt with through individual stories. For example, the character of Crazy Joe has his own personal story yet he also contributes to the progression of the plot as the boy gains new information from him. When the character of McIlhenny informed the police against the IRA he betrayed not only his political convictions but also his own family and again this highlights the unavoidable link between political and domestic life. Concealment is a recurring theme throughout the narrative and it is this secrecy which destroys the boy’s mother and his relationship with her – her life is dedicated to hiding her past and when her son uncovers her mystery she is unable to survive. Deane uses language to give emphasis to this theme, an example of which is the repetition of the word “telling” which highlights that secrets are being both revealed and withheld. The boy’s frustration with these family secrets is again demonstrated through the repetition of his desire for “words, words, words”.


Deane describes the character of the mother as “becoming strange, becoming possessed” creating and blurring the image of real woman and wraith, haunted by the past. Traditions, folklore and ghost stories are encompassed within the character of the mother – Deane uses her to demonstrate the impact of past events and how “pounds of pressure” can never be removed. The section titled ‘Mother’ describes the changes within the character and this could be seen as a metaphor for the country or town itself – the past cannot be forgotten and it will impact everything that happens. Deane poses a question in his novel when the mother asks “why can’t the past be the past?” and throughout the book Deane gives the reader an answer. The past is the history which has formed Irish culture – both the harmful and progressive parts – therefore the boy must discover all of his past to understand where he, his family and his country are headed in the future. The bleakness of the narrator’s future is hinted at throughout this vignette with references to “lethal”, “epidemic” and a “lost soul” which allow Deane to create images of death and the “grieving” which the boy will suffer. He uses the word “haunting” to create the image of a ghostly past which the narrator’s parents are unable to escape and as the boy progresses through childhood his understanding of his history becomes clearer. Within the vignette “After” Deane uses short sentences and somewhat disjointed phrases along with repetition to create the impression of being “haunted, haunted”.

It is significant that the book opens with the mother seeing ghosts on the stairs, she says “there is something between us” and the implication is that it is the terrible personal secrets of her past that are separating the mother from her son. By revisiting the image of the stairs with which the book begins, Deane shows that the past cannot be left alone. The light-hearted and excited tone in which the boy states “we were haunted!” later alters dramatically when the reader is reminded of the image in a different context in ‘Mother’, and it is with despair that Deane refers to the mother being “always on the stairs”. Apart from this image the stairs also serve as a symbol of the ups and downs, twisting and turning of domestic and political life. It is also noticeable that the novel ends on the image of the stairway – a final conclusion to his so-called childhood.

Deane uses the parent-child relationship to demonstrate the impact of the ‘Troubles’ upon the family, the fact that a strong bond can be so easily ruined by previous events makes Reading in the Dark “tender-hearted” whilst also being “ultimately fatalistic” according to a review by Andrew O’Hehir[7]. Deane uses the “small figure” of the mother being consumed by darkness to represent the Irish difficulties which destroy the country’s society and its people. As she is “slowly slipping out of our grasp” the violence and hostility of the political movement is doing likewise.

Reading Stories

Stories are the way literature works and perhaps it is the fact that any of the vignettes of Reading in the Dark  could be explored and extended that makes the novel so multi-faceted and intriguing. Each fragment can exist individually, but when combined the pieces of the jigsaw come together to create the chronicle of one life; the narrator’s boyhood. The narrative blurs past, present and future and although the events are in chronological order they are not directly connected to a specific time frame – stories which occurred in the past, are relayed in the present but have reverberations in the future. Each segment has a different impact upon the narrator’s childhood and although there is no rigid sequence of events, all are linked recollections and form an integral part of the whole memory. The narrator is constantly gathering fragments of information, this being reflected in the fragmented structure of the novel, and having to piece the story together. He is travelling from an ignorant ‘darkness’ into the light of understanding and the ‘dark’ also symbolises the blackness of the narrator’s history and the potential darkness which will dominate his future.

We think of stories as being for children yet it is ironic that the boy in Reading in the Dark has very little childhood; he is thrown into the adult world at a young age because harsh facts are not being hidden to protect the innocent, undamaged minds of children, they are unspoken merely because of the need for discretion between IRA members and the police as well as to avoid painful memories for family members. Stories are a personal way of dealing with history and in this novel the stories also include the way history and politics affect the family – the characters and their lives are made into legends, myths or folklore and in future generations will form the traditions and stories of that culture.

An example of this is the myth of the ‘Field of the Disappeared’ which the boy knows to be untrue and his father has “no doubt” that it is false, yet the story is part of tradition and custom and therefore remains in the people’s minds and forms their beliefs in the same way that religious convictions are learned and accepted. This story demonstrates that legend is important within Irish tradition – perhaps if the myth of religious differences were abandoned then some political conflicts could be solved.  Through his own will and determination the narrator finally escapes from Derry although the question is raised whether he will ever be able to escape his own personal ‘Troubles’.

The allegorical event with Larry McLaughlin is another example of anecdote mutating into legend. The use of stories within Reading in the Dark allows for the blurring of the truth and for the boundaries of reality to be extended.  It is this which makes the boy’s task of discovering the truth so difficult, but Deane displays for the reader the idea that these stories are an integral part of the Irish way, in which history can become tragic lament and drama transmute to the comedic. The relationship between a story and real life is highlighted in Reading in the Dark and Deane shows that the two can actually be the same thing – and are the same thing in Irish culture. Although Reading in the Dark is a novel and therefore fiction, Deane’s own experience is closely mirrored by his characters. The plot and characters could be factual and therefore Deane has written a socially realistic book.

Deaths and Disappearances

The vignette entitled ‘Disappearances’ is an example of the way a story is used to keep the family at peace, the story of the “fairies” is a way of combating the death or disappearance of a child. This story is clearly an untruth and therefore it is difficult for the boy to distinguish between fact and fiction yet he is determined to uncover the truth. This same fragment is also an example of how Reading in the Dark combines a child’s life with adult issues. The novel opens with a degree of mystery with the ghost on the staircase and throughout the narrative Deane gives many different options as to who the ghost could be; the author elucidates the story by encouraging various interpretations of this and other mysteries. Deane suggests that just as the mother has seen many people disappear or die so will the narrator himself, the death of his younger sister Una is his “first death” and this is the start of his life of distress and disruption – just like any Irish boy would expect. It is significant that he “felt uneasy” and was unable to enjoy the disappearance of the circus performer, showing that already he has lost his childhood and knows that disappearances are to be feared as sinister yet commonplace. Similarly, later in the book the boy realises that being a child is no excuse for making mistakes: “young as I was, I was being stupid”. The child’s actions bring about serious consequences for his already “marked family” and although he is a child he and his brother do not escape the political violence when “they beat us too”.  Even normal childhood experiences, for example the description of being surrounded by bullies in the vignette entitled ‘Sergeant Burke’, take on a more sinister colour because not even a boy’s relationship with his peers can escape the political ‘Troubles’. Deane shows that there was no space for childhood in 1950s Ireland.

There is a strong connection between Reading in the Dark and Brian Friel’s work Translations where the political climate disrupts domestic life. In Translations there is resentment and bitterness due to the domination by the English and imposition of English over Gaelic and it is this situation which is continued in Reading in the Dark. Yet, despite the language barrier between his characters, Friel suggests that once the political and cultural veneer is removed all people share common feelings and are in fact the same. Deane suggests that despite the most bitter and bloody hatred between people there is a way to unite over family and domestic issues – a somewhat optimistic view for a novel full of death and despair. He makes this point at the end of his novel and therefore poses a moral and political question to the reader. When the father of an English soldier, who had died literally on the family’s doorstep came to enquire after this son, the father is able to exercise compassion despite the political differences. The wider situation is temporarily forgotten and despite the father being a man broken by the ‘Troubles’ he is able to empathise with his enemy; “poor man, I feel for him. Even if his son was one of those. It’s a strange world.” Deane uses this concluding vignette as an appeal to the reader for human compassion to transcend political conviction and it is on this note that he chooses to end his “novel full of stories”.


·     Reading in the Dark – Seamus Dean, published by Vintage 1997
·     Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing – introduction by Seamus Deane
·     Translations – Brian Friel, published by Faber and Faber

[1] (page now deleted)

[2] Reading in the Dark, Seamus Dean from ‘After’

[3] Antonia Logue, Guardian 1996

[5] Translation from – (page now deleted)

[6] Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing – introduction by Seamus Dean, page xxii

[7] (page now deleted)

Further reading: a review of Reading in the Dark from Salon.