Chapter 4, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’



Onward, into a disturbing account of one of the most wretched episodes in the wretched history of warfare. Chapter Four:


Months have passed at the front and Willie is upset that Gretta has not responded to his letters. He writes to her declaring his love, and retains the hope that she loves him too, but feels more and more angry and humiliated by her lack of reply. Before leaving Gretta, it transpires that Willie has asked her to marry him, and she refused. He once understood the reasons for her refusal, but longing for her without remittance, he writes short letters that veer between lumpen description of life in the trenches and blurted declarations of love. Writing in this way sharpens his self-consciousness and anxiety.

It is now spring and the Fusiliers decamp to a section of line near the village of St Julien. The men relax somewhat, skinny dipping in the river together and playing football. They find a joy in their momentary leisure together, though the noise and bustle of the front is near. Disarmed and naked, they talk frankly at the riverside; amidst the aimless chatter Captain Pasley speaks of his worries about the manning of his father’s farm at home.

Soon the men are back in the line. They first make it their business to tidy a trench once badly kept up by French soldiers. They settle into a time of distracted dull fear there, until the day when, as Captain Pasley censors his men’s letters home and the platoon are relaxing after a satisfying meal, Christy Moran sees a strange yellow cloud floating over no-mans land.

It is a German gas attack, but the men do not know this. It is an inexplicable sight as it advances towards them. At first the fusiliers fire into the yellow fog, but cease firing when there is no sign of an advancing enemy. The lieutenants consult their commanding officers, who are as nonplussed as their subordinates. The fog eventually reaches an Algerian trench to the platoon’s right. Screams of torment there prompt Pasley to the thought that the smoke is poisonous. The fog reaches the Dublin fusiliers’ trench and inspires panic as Irishmen, like the Algerians, begin to die. Christy Moran asks for permission for the company to retreat, but Pasley declares he has no orders to allow it. As the chlorine begins to fall into their section and men die in the trench, Pasley assents to withdrawal, but refuses to move from his post. Willie and the still-surviving men climb the parados and run for their lives amidst the general terrified scatter, every man for himself. Officers behind the line stand confused by the soldiers’ sudden, mysterious capitulation. Eventually, Willie finds himself in the air beyond the gas, and collapses.

He awakens to the aftermath of the attack. Blinded men move in lines. The countryside is poisoned. Eventually, later in the week, reserve battalions move up to replace the massacred soldiers. Willie is bereft. He makes his way back to the section of trench and amidst the now-grotesque bodies of his comrades discovers the corpse of Captain Pasley. He encounters Father Buckley, blessing the bodies of the dead. The two awkwardly console one another. Over five hundred men of their regiment are dead. Later, Willie (a protestant) politely refuses communion with the priest.

When Willie sees Christy Moran again, he is furious at his sergeant’s brutal assessment of Captain Pasley’s refusal to run. As more men are brought up to the line to replace his comrades, he also begins to have an inkling of the nature of the war.

The survivors see out the summer into the freezing winter of 1916, hearing of more Irish losses at Gallipoli. They are posted away from the front. Willie’s platoon traverse the countryside. His memories of building reviving within him, Willie admires the roads and particularly enjoys singing marching songs, especially the ubiquitous ‘Tipperary’. Willie’s singing voice is admired but has been weakened by his faulty lungs, damaged by the chlorine gas. He also notes the damage to himself. He mourns Clancy and Williams and feels haunted by the ghost of Captain Pasley. The grief of death has lodged within him, and he secretly rails against the world.


A shocking and moving read, this chapter, as it surely must be if well written.

The stalling of Willie and Gretta’s relationship while Willie fights abroad is perhaps unexpected, given the account of the relationship we read in the first chapter. She is, to use a phrase used in theory, an absent presence at this point in the story. What does the silence of Gretta suggest to you about this couple’s relationship? In what ways might her silence reflect a larger truth about the presence of women in literature of the First World War?

Captain Pasley, who reads Willie’s letters to Gretchen, judges that Willie is one of those soldiers who “tried to write the inside of their heads” when writing home (p.43). What do you think is meant by this? Given the evidence of Willie’s letter to Gretta (p.38), is Pasley’s assessment accurate? How would you describe Barry’s presentation of Willie in this letter? What does it reveal about Willie?

The narration often uses free indirect speech: that is, the voices of the novel’s characters often merge with or are articulated through the voice of the narrator. This creates interesting ways of manipulating and moving between different characters’ perspectives, but inevitably in the story thus far, we have most often presented with the perspective of Willie Dunne. In this chapter, however, the omniscient narrator is used to voice the thoughts of Captain Pasley as he censors the men’s mail (see the paragraph that begins, “Captain Pasley was in his new dugout writing his forms…” (p.42)). Why might the author decide to give the reader access to the thoughts of this particular character at this particular moment in the novel, before the gas attack? In what way is Pasley’s reading relevant, in terms of storytelling, to the events that follow? How effective is this narratological shift of perspective?

Barry’s description of the gas attack is memorable and shocking. He cleverly selects surprising foci in his description of the attack that make it particularly strange and frightening. What does the narrative describe that emphasises the transformation of the familiar world into one completely unfamiliar and peculiarly terrifying?

“All the Irish were on the fire-step now, all along the length of the trench, some fifteen hundred men showing their faces to this unknown freak of weather, or whatever it might be.” Reading this sentence, and the whole of the gas attack sequence (p.43-8), how does Barry create tension within the text?

As Barry builds a sense of scene in this chapter, he returns again and again to the colour yellow— at first “yellow world” of the wild flowers and caterpillars that hang on them, then the “strange yellow-tinged cloud” itself, and finally the “yellow world” that Willie awakes to, with its men wearing bleached uniforms and yellow, greased faces. What could these different kinds of yellowness represent?

“If it were a battle proper, these men would never have turned tail. They would have fought to the last man in the trenches and put up with that and cursed their fate” (p.48). Besides this odd (and surely redundant) bit of moralising narration, Barry is, I think, both clever and subtle in reflecting on a broad sense of shame felt in the aftermath of the attack. Why could a gas attack be seen as particularly shameful in the theatre of war? In what ways does the use of poison gas differ to other more traditional forms of warfare? How do the characters focused on in the novel respond to the trauma of the gas attack?

The passage at the end of the chapter, where Willie finds pleasure in singing marching songs like ‘Tipperary’, seems significant to the narrative as a whole. The novel, after all, is called ‘A Long, Long Way’, a metalepsis of the fuller song title, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’ (see the entry ‘Opening Lines’ and comments beneath for an explanation of this term). Song, therefore, has meaning in this text (and indeed was ubiquitous in the trenches during the war: see these entries about the Ragtime Infantry and read these poems by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney.) At the end of this chapter, how does Willie’s singing, and song more generally, cause us to reflect on the gas attack on the Royal Dublin Fusiliers? How significant is it that now, “when Willie sang too mightily he felt a dire need to cough” (p.58)?

Some thoughts

The gas attack in this chapter was exceptionally well written. Before writing an appreciation, it’s best to make clear that I currently have questions about Barry’s presentation of the attack at St Julien. This is presumptuous to a degree— Barry has plainly read deeply around the subject— but I’m still trying marry up elements of the historical record with the movements of Willie’s company.

On first reading, I had assumed that the gas attack depicted in the book is the gas attack of the early evening of 22nd April 1915, the beginning of the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge, itself the first battle of the murderous Second Battle of Ypres. I thought this because this was indeed the first German gas attack of the First World War, and the absolute incomprehension of the Irish troops in the face of the new weapon depicted in the book is more readily explicable than it would be in any depiction of the later gas attack of the 24th May, when the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were massacred. The April attack took place, as depicted in the novel, during the day-time: moreover, there was an Irish presence in the line during the attack of the 24th, the Royal Irish Fusiliers being positioned north of Wieltje, though not in a position that precisely reflects that described in the novel.

The attack of the 24th May 1915 is the more likely source of the massacre described in the novel: 666 men of the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ were in the line that day, and of that number, 645 men died. This chimes with Willie’s observation that there were “five hundred men and more of Willie’s regiment dead” (p.53). Crucially however this gas attack took place at night, at 2.30 in the morning, quite unlike the attack described in the book. The question that presents itself, then, is what Irish battalion Willie is part of? Willie’s first letter home in the book gives as his address the “Royal Dublin Fusiliers… Fermoy” (p.16) yet even with joining up in August 1914, and training in Fermoy in December of that year, I can’t see how Willie would have seen action at all near St. Julien in May (as far as I can discover, the second battalion of the RDF was moved from Harrow to Bolougne in August of 1914).

I’m assuming that I’m missing something important here, and I’d appreciate any pointers from military historians as to how to make sense of Barry’s timeline in the novel. Of course, some might say that I’m making a category error here in bothering about this stuff. It’s fiction, you know? I think these things do matter in understanding a novel, however. If Barry has decided to conflate these two attacks, then he has done so with a purpose. That purpose would be well worth speculating on, especially as the presentation of the gas attack is so effective, so moving, so shocking. If however, I’m simply short of information, then that of course is well worth knowing too.

I don’t want to speculate on what is probably a matter of my own ignorance. The gas attack depicted in the novel may be historically accurate and it may not be. Indeed, the virtues of historical accuracy can weigh against the virtues of drama or plot or authorial intention, and art is one of the only pursuits in which we can say without blushing that sometimes by making things up we can get closer to the truth of things. Yet interesting ethical and aesthetic questions are opened up here regarding the lengths of literary invention desirable or permissible in writing a historical novel (as alluded to in my earlier post on the novel form).

Especially, I want to say, when reading something as convincing as Barry’s gas attack. What a piece of writing it is.

The great risk in writing about a First World War gas attack is to fall into cliché and simply retread where others have gone before. Two British works of art overhang any depiction of gas warfare during the first world war; Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, of course, and John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’. Both are referenced in Barry’s account of the St. Julien attack: in his description of “faces [that] were contorted like devils’ in a book of admonition” and the “long lines of men going back along the road, with weird faces, their right hand on the shoulder of the man in front”. A-level Literature students should as a matter of course read Owen’s and Barry’s texts together here, exploring their commonalities and differences.

Yet it seems to me that Barry’s creation stands well clear of the shadow of these more famous texts, and, by mark of its invention, to signal towards texts both more marginal and imaginative. In terms of the A-level exam, I would also want to explore the narrative strategy found in Robert Frost’s ‘Range Finding’ to explore how Barry uses the presentation of the natural world to momentarily decentre the human experience of war. Nature, it seems plain, is both a consolation and a source of grief in Barry’s novel, as it was for many of the poet-soldiers of the First World War. Its fecund life and beauty is a counterpoint to the ugly, wilful and mechanical destruction of man. The horror of the foaming caterpillars, fizzing grass, dying trees and silenced birds in the path of the chorine gas speak quite as loudly of the directionless violence of man’s death-dealing as does Barry’s horrifying description of the massacre of the fusiliers.

Another text I felt at the edge of Barry’s reference, peculiar though it may seem to some, is HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1898). Peculiar because Wells’ story of an invasion of Earth by aliens from Mars might seem, at first blush, an irrelevance to Barry’s staunchly realist text. Yet Wells’ novel was one of the first to imagine such devastating gas attacks: Wells’ invading Tripod machines drop asphyxiating ‘black smoke’ over the cities and towns of Southern England in their march on London. Now, Jules Verne imagined a freezing gas used in artillery shells by dastardly Germans in his 1879 novel ‘The Begum’s Fortune’: but it is the message regarding imperialism that is made explicit at the start of Wells’ novel that I feel makes it peculiarly relevant to Barry’s novel. The narrator, who has lived through the Martian invasion, takes to task those who complain of the inhumanity of the invaders:

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

It strikes me that the political roots of warfare are understated in the novel thus far, as the author focuses on the personal experience and horror of war. Yet in this description of the supposed inhumanity of the alien invaders and their deadly technology, Wells performs a similar trick to Barry. Colonialism and Imperial Wars—human pursuits, of which the First World War is a prime example— are refigured as assaults from beyond earthly nature, beyond humanity. Both writers manage to make the precarious empire of man both utterly strange and frightening. Indeed, I want to say that the gas cloud in chapter four is one of Barry’s most memorable characters yet: a “dark and seemingly infernal thing creeping along”, the disowned monster of the terrible and grasping intellect of man.

Chapter 3, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’


Eastward ho! For Willie and co. Now:


Chapter three begins with Willie and his company manning a trench ironically dubbed Sackville Street (the name of Dublin’s main thoroughfare, later the site of the Post Office where the Easter 1916 rising began, and today named O’Connell Street, after the Irish political leader). Willie does not know where he is but notes the flowered graves that mark a great battle nearby (in fact, Willie appears to be stationed somewhere near Ypres; later, in April, the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers would see action north of the city in the small village of St Julien). Noticing the graves and the lingering grief of those on the front, Willie’s former romanticism begins to be replaced by traumatic fear. His hands involuntarily shake with the thought of the deaths of those in the supply party.

Sergeant Major Christy Moran satirically entertains Willie and company in a forward trench. He talks of how he longs to take a girl out on a date at home in Kingstown on Dublin bay, and contrasts the attractions of a woman with the revolting conditions (and revolting men) at the front. Captain Pasley then appears for the first time in the novel: he emerges from a dug out and consults Moran about missing rations. He appears generous and cavalier—he pleases his men by declaring he will ensure double rations the next day, and unselfconsciously alarms them by placing his head above the trench parapet to gaze out on no-man’s land. Pasley speaks admiringly of the beauty of the landscape and night sky, and evidently wins Willie and the company over, with his aristocratic air of confident and sensitive control. Pasley tells the men he will be leading a party out into no-man’s land that night.

Willie goes out that night as part of the wiring party with Pasley, Moran, Clancy and others. Willie carries immense wire cutters as they check four hundred metres of line in no-man’s land, looking for gaps in the barbed wire laid. As they fix the wire Captain Pasley spots a German patrol, and the group taking cover, Willie pisses himself in fear on the ground. Yet, as the Germans pass by, Willie is elated to find his fear has passed too. He grins in ecstacy at the knowledge he has passed this first test; that fear has not debilitated him. Moran and the rest of the crew, relieved, make their way back to the safety of their trench.


A short chapter, this, but important, and containing a first set-piece description of a common soldier’s task, wiring in no-man’s land. Barbed wire, first invented in the US as a way of penning cattle, was the first line of trench defence for armies on both sides of the Western Front: this Western Front Association article is particularly informative.

“Willie was not thinking of the killed supply party exactly. But his hands were.” (p.30) How does this sentence work? How does it describe Willie’s state of mind at this stage in the novel? How is it suggested that “thinking” works here? Try and answer these questions by breaking down the structure and possible meanings within the sentence; no shortcuts via Freud, please.

This chapter introduces the character of Captain Pasley to the novel. Earlier, Willie’s father is pleased to discover that Pasley would lead his son’s platoon, for “everyone knew the Pasleys and they were highly respected people and had a lovely garden there around their house”: he is sure the young Captain “would be a chip off the old block” (p.22). A number of questions suggest themselves about this figure. What kind of character is introduced to us in this chapter? What behaviour, what interests and observations mark Pasley out? In what way does he seem different to the men he commands? In what ways are these inflected by his class? What aspects of his character seem laudable—and what seem dangerous in this situation? How do the men regard him?

“So they rose up like shadows of the dead from their lair at the bulking of the night, a fierce frieze of stars rampant above” (p.32). A line like this, as the wiring party steps out into no-man’s land, has that remarkable poetic quality that Barry is well known for. Look again at this sentence, and consider how it works. What similes and metaphors does it employ, and what are their effect upon the reader? Where does the colloquial Irish voice emerge? What is the significance of the night sky here? (The sky is a focus again and again in trench literature, and not only because of the threat presented there to men). Barry writes in this lyrical way because, in all likelihood, he can write in no other way: so what does such a narrative voice bring to this First World War narrative? Are there any problems in using this narrative voice when writing about the First World War?

Drawing Links

This chapter’s focus on wiring in this chapter naturally calls to mind two important poems from the Oxford Anthology: Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’ and Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Dead Man’s Dump’. Gurney’s poem describes the momentary dilemma a private faces as his commanding officer instructs him to crawl through a gap in the wire in no-man’s land. Gurney’s poem is a beautifully written masterpiece of irony and understatement, telling of a kind of heroic rationalism that is, at one and the same time, anti-heroic. As a poem it’s colloquial yet lyrical, just as Barry’s writing is. Rosenberg’s poem, on the other hand, is one of the most grueling written during the war. It describes a wiring party traversing no-man’s land after a battle. Their carriage, containing wire and stakes, runs over the bodies of the dead as the soldiers, numb, cross the infernal space. It is a horrifying, anguished poem, part documentary, part existential scream. The situation Willie faces in the novel is more akin to that described by Gurney’s protagonist, though Gurney’s speaker (like Rosenberg’s) is far more self-aware than Barry’s creation. Both Gurney and Rosenberg, however, were privates during the war, subject to the commands of their COs and NCOs, and this most important fact influences all their wartime poetry. It also establishes another commonality with Barry’s creation, which through the character of Willie brings a welcome focus on the experience of the private soldier.

On a personal note I found in this a chapter a number of things to like. First, the swan’s feet submerged beneath the elegant body of the text: Barry’s hard graft of research really begins to show here. His easy and unshowy employment of his knowledge of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ campaign is impressive. Next, there is the writing itself, which occasionally has that poetic precision you find in a great writer such as Joseph Conrad—a rare pleasure in prose. I also liked the presentation of the character of Captain Pasley, added now to that of the likeably rueful Christie Moran. I think Barry captures an interesting class dynamic in this character’s relationship with his men, something true of the way the war threw members of different classes together (all in their proper order, naturally).

Chapter 2, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’


Many apologies for the length of time between some of my posts here. For those not in the know, I’m off school at the moment, looking after my wife, who has leukemia. Thankfully this week I’ve found time to get back to the book.

So, without the slightest ado, let’s get to it.

Summary— Chapter Two

Chapter two begins with Willie Dunne reading a newspaper with his father on an evening. The paper that the pair read together runs impressive stories of patriotic commitment: accounts of different peoples from around the world mobilizing to fight on behalf of the British Empire. Willie recalls an Irish Times article recounting a (now famous) speech given by John Redmond that declared his conditional approval for the enlistment of Irish volunteers. Willie’s father notes scornfully that this call for enlistment in the cause of Home Rule is precisely the opposite reason many Ulstermen are volunteering. Willie’s father, as a loyalist, is hostile to both Redmond and nationalism, and instead extols to Willie the virtues of King, Country and Empire. Yet when Willie unexpectedly enlists, his father weeps. Willie’s sisters react excitedly, though his eldest sister Maud is tense.

Willie joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and by December is training in Fermoy, County Cork. He writes a letter home about the training there and his new friends, Privates Williams and Clancy. In January the soldiers hear with some ambivalence about Christmas truces with the Germans on the Western front. One of Willie’s particular problems at camp is finding the privacy to masturbate.

The narrative moves swiftly on to the day of the Fusiliers’ departure for Belgium. The regiment arrives at a railway station in Dublin and parades through the city on the way to the docks. The adulation of the crowd excites the marching men. Willie hopes to see Gretta and his sisters on the day, but does not.

The villages of England similarly salute the tired soldiers as they roll through on their troop train. The incongruity of Irishmen being cheered by the English is noted by some of the young men. Willie listens as they joke with one another. While his friends confidently talk, he remains reflective, dimly grasping a broader history and fate that takes men from all over Britain to the front. This confluence of soldiery in a great cause excites a sense of manhood in Willie.

The men arrive in France. They are thrilled to be abroad, taking in the small but significant differences of landscape to home. Willie’s sense of euphoria in his newfound vocation continues, but his overenthusiastic reverie ultimately overtakes him. After imagining a horse charge whilst travelling on a swaying transport, he vomits up his breakfast.

The men finally arrive at the trenches. The artillery bombardment they find is vicious and terrifying and ongoing. Willie feels the fear of war for the first time.

The narrative leaps forward. The platoon are eating together while Sergeant Major Christie Moran spies no-man’s land. Moran, exhausted and splenetic, curses the British Army to the amusement of his comrades. He damns it as the very institution that has repressed the Irish for centuries. Moran is on the edge; as he and his men perform their ablutions before taking the firestep at stand-to, his internal monologue escapes him and he talks ruefully to himself of his misfortune, overheard by the men.

Later, the men learn that the German bombardment of the night previous has destroyed the supply trench behind, killing the men there. There is nothing for the platoon to eat that night.


Here are some questions that occur when reading chapter two.

As Barry begins the second chapter he manages to convey some of the contemporary excitement in the press at the start of the war (pp. 14-15). How is this presented? How does Willie react to this excitement? In what ways does his father’s reaction to the news reveal tensions in Irish society?

Barry effectively conveys the emotional aftermath of Willie Dunne’s decision to enlist (p.15). How does Barry manage to do this- what relationships does he focus on? How do the reactions of his characters create an emotive impact?

Chapter two is largely preoccupied with Willie Dunne, his experiences, thoughts and feelings. He is presented as an innocent, even naive young man, subject to the desires of youth. What passages does Barry use to reveal important aspects of Willie’s character? Where does Willie seem innocent, where naïve, and where gullible to the reader?

Another feature of Chapter two is the introduction of Willie’s comrades-at-arms. These men are our most profound introduction to Barry’s notion of Ireland and Irishness so far. How does Barry first present Willie’s comrades? What kind of men are they? What kind of language do they use when they speak to each other? What sort of culture do they seem to come from?

It is important that you begin to get to grips with Irish history and the significance of the John Redmond speech referred to in this chapter. Follow the links I have inserted into the first chapter of the summary above. What do you now understand by the term ‘home rule’? Who was John Redmond– and what is his significance in the story of home rule? Why did John Redmond declare nationalist support for the enlistment of the Irish volunteers? By contrast, in ‘A Willie’s father in ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a loyalist and unionist. What do you understand by these terms?

For me, the second chapter of the novel is surprisingly brisk in pace— running from life in the Dunne household, to regimental training, to Willie’s departure from Ireland, journeying through England to Belgium and then finally seeing action on the Western Front in a swift fourteen pages. I thought the movement a little too theatrical for my liking, as if Barry were energetically shooing us to curtains up in Flanders (the use of a letter home to draw the sum of Willie’s training struck me as too economical, for example).

Barry is not afraid of utilising the worn stones of historical cliché in laying the path to his scene. Never such innocence, never before or since, and all that— and just because a saying is much repeated does not make it untrue. Yet Willie so far is an unremarkable character, performing the age-old narrative function of the wide-eyed youth thrust blinking into the fallen world of experience (see Candide, Oliver Twist, William Boot, Ballard’s Jim or any number of genre protagonists).

There’s the Irishness that’s undoubtedly interesting, of course, and the richness of the language that Barry reproduces in the dialogue and narration; but so far, the story rests on a too-easy sentiment that bothers me. But there is a reason why Sebastian Barry is a twice Costa-winning author, and I am just some Joe, teaching English literature in a secondary school in West London.

Opening Lines: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

Mick Jagger’s inaccurate passport. Note, ‘Dartford’, not ‘crossfire hurricane’.

I’ve recently been reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘How to Read Literature’. Terry Eagleton was once one of academia’s most interesting and, if you can believe it, entertaining writers on literary theory: a bullish Marxist who put the catholic into Roman Catholic. His most famous book, ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’ (1983) remains a scalpel sharp critical history of the field, and to its everlasting credit, it makes you laugh too. ‘How to Read Literature’ (2013) is a much more accessible if timid read, intended as a kind of instruction manual for students of close reading, a sensitive account of different ways of reading a text. I mention it because in it Eagleton writes an interesting chapter on the openings of novels. He begins by circling around this opening line from EM Forster’s A Passage to India:

Except for the Marabar Caves— and they are twenty miles off— the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.

His analysis of this line—which you’ll have to read the book for—stirs a broader commentary about novelistic beginnings:

As with the opening of a lot of novels, there is something of a setpiece feel to this, as the author clears his throat and formally sets the scene. A writer tends to be on his best behaviour at the beginning of Chapter 1, eager to impress, keen to catch the fickle reader’s eye, and occasionally pulling out all the stops. Even so, he must be beware of overdoing it, not least if he is a civilized middle-class Englishman like EM Forster who values reticence and indirectness…

The poise of the syntax… is elegant in an unshowy kind of way. It is deftly managed and manipulated, but with quiet good manners refuses to rub this in one’s face. There is no suggestion of ‘fine writing’, or of what is sometimes called ‘purple’ (excessively ornate) prose. The author’s eye is too closely on the object for any such self-indulgence.  

Reading this made me reflect on the opening of Barry’s novel. Eagleton, of course, is right about the beginnings of novels. It’s something every GCSE English teacher cynically preaches to his students when asking them to write creatively: make sure that first line is a doozy. Get the reader involved; get them asking questions. And indeed, we see Barry keen to impress in the opening of ‘A Long, Long Way’. Compare the first line of the novel—

He was born in the dying days.

—with the first line of the second chapter.

Willie Dunne was not the only one.

If you want to be kind, you might say that there’s a fair amount to be said about that first line, but heavens to Murgatroyd! There’s very little interesting to be said about the second. The former is crafted, colloquial yet lyrical, ambiguous; the latter is throwaway, formless and vague. So perhaps that opening sentence—

He was born in the dying days.

—is worth dwelling on.

If I were asked for a single word to describe this opening line, the one that I would use is portentious. In any story worth telling, the narrator knows something important that we don’t, of course. The thing that the narrator knows at the start of ‘A Long, Long Time’ seems to be beyond the everyday, however, and gestures towards something of great moment. He was born in the dying days. The line has an obvious tension, between the birth announced at its beginning and the dying days invoked at the end, as if to announce to the reader, this is a story of life and death, no less, of beginnings and endings. While there is no contradiction here—a birth can occur during the last days of a historical period, say, or regime—there is an ominousness about the line. This birth seems out of place, or more correctly, it seems to have occurred at precisely the wrong time—in the dying days. On finishing the line, it is the nature of those fearful days that the reader is poised to wonder about.

The line is composed in such a way as to lead us to this question. It has two parts, pivoting around that word ‘in’. The first half of the sentence reads ‘He was born in’. The text begins, then, with the simple promise found in every realist novel, the creation of character from believable detail. We probably expect something documentary to follow: ‘Dublin’, perhaps, or ‘1896’, if we were particularly wonderful guessers. We don’t get it. The second half of the sentence holds off this satisfaction, for the mysterious man who is the subject of the sentence was born “in the dying days”.

The surprise we might feel when we read this follows on one level the nature of our everyday encounter with language. If we went to Wandsworth town hall, say, and asked a registrar when or where a particular person was born, we would be surprised to receive an answer like “He was born in the ripe fullness of time”. Similarly, if we read a newspaper obituary that read “He was born in a crossfire hurricane” we would suspect either the dead man was Mick Jagger, or the writer was cheerfully describing a very traumatic birth indeed. Our first expectation in many, but by no means all circumstances, is to have a literal and the factual statement follow the words, ‘He was born in’. What in fact follows is metaphorical and idiomatic.

Now, because this is a literary text, this isn’t quite as bizarre as the situation outlined above. We are schooled to expect surprising metaphors and florid language in literary texts, and our use of language, after all, is contingent on circumstance and expectation. And indeed the phrase ‘in the dying days’ is not so strange as to be outlandish. It is an idiom, a figure of speech familiar enough to many English speakers, that means ‘in the last days’ or ‘at the end of’. As a phrase we commonly find it appended with ‘of’ and then, again, a phrase or word more concrete: ‘the Nineteenth Century’, ‘the fin-de-siecle’, ‘British rule in Ireland’, ‘1896’, and so on. In paring back the longer, more precise idiom to the ambiguous metaphor that is its stem, the text cleverly holds off the reader’s satisfaction of meaning for a second time.

It also revives what was previously a dead metaphor— that is, a piece of language so overused as to have lost its original interest and suggestiveness. Once clipped of its withered leaves and knotted wood, the stem phrase left, ‘In the dying days’, now regains a little suggestive life. ‘The dying days’ now begins to darkly hint at apocalypse, at the end of days, rather than being merely some simple verbal colour used for describing historical dates or periods. Even if this were not a novel set during the First World War, we might begin to see the shadow of those coming events in this first line.

Finally, the abbreviation of the phrase also suggests another characteristic of Barry’s writing style. I am not simply referring here to the author’s surprising lyricism, his foregrounding of metaphorical techniques more commonly expected in poetry than prose. Rather, it is the writer’s use of idiom that is interesting. For in writing of ‘the dying days’ there is a sense that Barry is employing colloquial as much as poetic language—that he is using a familiar language about a familiar subject. That familiar language, it seems logical to propose, is the everyday language of the English-speaking Irishman (the name is for the dialect proper is Hiberno-English). And the familiar subject for these Irishmen? Endings, clearly: of the unmourned Nineteenth Century, of British rule, and of those Irishmen subject to the violence of that rule, with its history of immiseration and famine. This opening line tempts us to listen in on, and get closer to this conversation of the Irish, where mention of ‘the dying days’ at any time carries its own irony of history.

He was born in the dying days: this sentence may have only seven words, but it contains several surprises. All the better, then, for us to read on.

Thinking Historically: Form, the Historical Novel, and Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

‘Disbanded’, an engraved illustration for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’, after a painting by John Pettie. (Wikimedia)

Before we begin reading ‘A Long, Long Way’ we would do well to ask ourselves some basic questions about literature and how we tell stories about history. What kind of story are we going to read? Indeed, what do we already know about ‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry?

Barry’s novel, written in 2005, tells the story of a young Dubliner, Willie Dunne, born at the turn of the nineteenth century: turning in pretty quick time from recounting his unremarkable childhood to his ultimately grueling experience as an Irish soldier in the British army during the First World War.

This is about as brief a summary as it is possible to give, what screenwriters call a logline, but it’ll do for now. We’ll avoid spoilers, because we are going to read this story together.

From this summary we already know enough to start locating Barry’s novel within the traditions of literary form. In the following post, I want to focus first on a useful definition of what form in literature actually is; then, I want to examine more closely the type of novel that Barry adopts to tell his story, known as the historical novel.


You’ll recognise the term ‘form’, of course. You’ll have been taught about form, structure and language in English lessons since way back when. This doesn’t mean, however, that the term ‘form’ is necessarily easy to understand, as I can testify from a decade of teaching. In fact, of the three terms mentioned, I would say that form as a concept is often the most difficult to fully grasp. This is because it’s often intuitively simple to recognise form- to see that that some texts are similarly shaped, while others are recognisably different. Yet it is far more difficult to understand or explain why certain forms are as they are, and what categorical details make them similar or different to others. If you’re doing the AQA English Literature exam, recognising and understanding form is important: Assessment Objective 2 demands that students “analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts, with particular focus on the structures of texts as a form of shaping.”

So what is form? Briefly described, form is the organisation, shape or framework for any literary composition, and these forms of literature develop historically. Writers tend to work within the framework of form that they have inherited from previous writers. Form helps shape a writer’s work, supplying an already-evolved framework for him or her to work within and adapt. The expectations we have of form also of course shape an audience’s expectations.

Whilst there are many forms in literature, the three major forms tend to be identified as poetry, plays and novels. These forms have historical roots in the particular societies out of which they grew. Poetry is the oldest literary form, the product of oral prehistoric cultures: a spoken, rhetorical form that developed out of religious and social rituals such as commemorating the heroes and the dead of a community in battle, or celebrating patron gods and goddesses. Drama develops later, first in Europe in classical Greece: there, drama grew out of an extension of public religious rituals and festivals, becoming in democratic Athens a focus for the acting out of ethical and social dilemmas before the public. The modern novel is, by comparison, a very recent invention, emerging in the eighteenth century as a form explicitly concerned with the individual and his or her interior life. While there is a broad debate about what impelled the invention of this remarkable new form, critical opinion generally holds that it developed out of a new emphasis on the individual that ran in parallel with the development of bourgeois Capitalism in the West. The novel, in this sense, can be understood to be an active part of the invention of the individual and individualism in the modern age.

Form, then, is historically derived and grows out of a particular social content: the lives of specific peoples, in specific societies, at different stages of development. These forms remain available for subsequent generations to adopt and adapt.

The Historical Novel

Even the three major forms contain many other forms and subgenres, and these again are historically derived. Let us consider two novel genres: the Gothic novel and the historical novel. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Waverley’, the novel that is generally accepted to be the first true historical novel. By contrast, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, similarly generally accepted to be the first Gothic novel, is a fiction set in medieval times and was written before Scott’s novel, in 1764. Despite the fact that ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is set some time between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, it is not read as a historical novel. Why?

The answer is that Walpole’s novel does not seek to realistically evoke the medieval period; the medieval setting is in fact secondary to Walpole’s interest in creating an appropriately fantastical and beguiling time and location for a supernatural tale of haunted castles and talking skeletons. ‘Waverley’, on the other hand, romantically recreates the lost world of the Scottish highlands at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion, describing in detail the social tumult that accompanied the death of the clan system and the birth of Enlightenment Scotland. It is not that the adventures of Edward Waverley are particularly plausible in ‘Waverley’ that makes this latter a historical novel; it is, rather, the fact these adventures (however unlikely though they be) are rooted in a particular material narrative of Scottish history, without which the story of Edward Waverley could not in any meaningful sense be written.

How might the invention of this genre be said to be historically derived, then? Marxist literary critics such as Georg Lukacs argue that the historical novel is invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century precisely because the French revolution and the triumph of bourgeois society across Europe led to a new consciousness of history as a dynamic narrative, as a story in which there is social rupture and radical political change— a narrative that could be written. The same critics would argue that the Gothic novel stems rather from an earlier secularisation of the West, caused by advancing industrial Capitalism. This secularisation led to English writers expressing a growing fascination with the Catholic ‘Old World’ of Europe as exotic, mysterious, enchanted and grotesque. Indeed, in the more fully industrialised and secularised eras of the Victorian age and beyond, the Gothic has grown increasingly popular as a genre; just as the popularity of the historical novel has continued to grow in the ever-more forward-facing and rootless societies of the industrial West.

Engaging with History

Clearly, ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a historical novel. The book tells a story set over a hundred years before. Moreover, the story is set at the time of two great historical fractures; one in the history of Europe and the world, the other in the history (or rather, histories) of Great Britain and Ireland. The first, of course, is what contemporaries called the Great War; the second, the period of political upheaval during the 1910s and 20s known as the Irish Revolutionary Period. Many critics would argue that the degree to which the novel engages with this history of state violence and revolution will, to some degree or other, determine whether in literary terms it is a successful historical novel.

Yet it may be that Barry has no interest in wars or revolutions at all. It may be that he has chosen, as in fact many historical novelists do, to a present a particular age as a picturesque or interesting backdrop, to create a fascinating setting that adds romance and spice to a tale. One contemporary definition of the historical novel is indeed simply a novel set in the past, after all. Such texts can be fun— the film industry alone makes a lot of money out of them. And indeed, even historical novels that play with historical setting or adapt historical detail to contemporary expectation are not always naïve: it is possible to explore history as one adaptable form of storytelling among others, as a kind of narrative itself (the term for this kind of narrative about other narratives is metanarrative). This can certainly be one kind of engagement with history; though such gaming with narrative will often willfully cleave the reader from a sense of particular time and place within the text. Another name for this state of being cleaved from history, of rootless character and an immersion in a seductive but empty world of objects is Postmodernity, the age in which all of us live, but contemplating that is for another post entirely.

The author’s engagement with history in ‘A Long, Long Way’ could be manifested in any number of ways in the book. The inflection that the narrator gives to this encounter with history will be determined by any number of choices. What is the author interested in exploring? Romantic love? Comradeship? Perhaps a sense of nation or familial belonging? Hatred and betrayal? Trade Union agitation in early Twentieth century Dublin? The violence inherent in European imperialism? The author is not limited to pursuing one of these ideas. Will the story follow the soldier Willie Dunne throughout? Will his character be stationed in Ireland? On the Western Front? In Turkey or Iraq? The story the author wants to tell will engineer and encourage certain encounters with history and exclude others. Will his story reproduce the content of other tales of the First World War? What political or moral lessons will it wittingly or unwittingly propagate?

As readers we need to be sensitive to the presentation of history that we find in ‘A Long Long Way’, and react to it critically. In writing a historical novel, an author makes decisions about a period and the people who live in it, some of which may be conscious, others unexamined. We need to recognise that what we read is the product of certain choices the author has made: it is a construct. Characters, setting, the plotting of events, all are authorial constructions, and to attend to them as such is to refuse an innocent response to the book and to seriously engage with literature as literature. By the same reasoning, as readers, we also need to be self-reflexive in approaching the text, willing to be challenged on our own assumptions about history and what literature should be.

My next post will summarise Chapter One and ask for some first responses to the novel.

And now for something completely different.



As my last post noted, the AQA English Literature A exam has changed. The  poems from Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry are still examined, of course, and I hope my notes for those poems will continue to be useful for you in revising for their exams. The links to wider reading that you find here will continue to be relevant to your studies. But in the new exam, these poems will be read in tandem with another text– a novel or drama. Clearly, then, for this site to remain fully relevant to the exam, we need to engage with the new element, a post-2000 novel or drama, and find the ways in which Stallworthy’s selection of poems might be found to be relevant to such a text.

Here, then, is the beginning of what I hope will be a study project that allows us to explore some of the key texts in the 2016 AQA English Literature A-level examination.

Over the next few months my students and I will be reading and writing about Sebastian Barry’s novel, ‘A Long Long Way’. This is the text we have chosen at Southfields Academy to study in combination with the Oxford Book of War Poetry.

For revision purposes I will post onto the blog at the end of every chapter a brief summary of the events that occurred in that chapter, and pose some of the questions that I feel that the chapter opens up for the reader. My students will respond, giving their own commentaries on the text, and supplying resources to the project for their peers to read and consider.

You can respond to those commentaries, answer those questions and proffer an opinion on points of interest on the Barry’s novel as we go. Join us as we read, and help us to broaden our understanding of this newly examined text.

Moreover, because ‘A Long Long Way’ is examined by comparing what we find in the novel to what we find in the poems in Stallworthy’s anthology, we will consider exactly what poems from that anthology engage with or influence the text.

As we go, I will also offer links, resources and analysis for you to explore crucial parts of the text. What kind of novel is ‘A Long Long Way’? What social or historical contexts inform the text? What have been other readers’ responses to the text? These questions and others will allow us to take a critical stance on the text, and allow us to participate in ongoing literary debates.

Do read along with us.