Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark features a variety of references to Oedipus Rex in its plot and characterizations. Several critics have discussed these similarities in psychoanalytic interpretations of the novel, but the Oedipus parallels serve a more pragmatic purpose aligned with the Aristotelian narrative structure of Greek tragedy. These parallels also indicate how the troubles of a family are a microcosm for the troubles of their nation.
In “Oedipus in Derry: Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark,” Daniel Ross discusses the parallels between Reading in the Dark and Oedipus Rex. The most blatant parallel he mentions is between the characters of these texts. Ross compares Crazy Joe Johnson to Tiresias and the narrator’s mother to Jocasta; correctly pointing out that both Tiresias and Crazy Joe Johnson show how “seeing and hearing too much” (Ross 37) lead to insanity, if not the perception of insanity. Like the blind prophet of Oedipus, Crazy Joe is described as “twirling [a] walking stick.” (Deane 81) Although Crazy Joe isn’t blind, the walking stick conveys similar imagery. Moreover, Joe’s face is described “like a mask,” and he speaks with Shakespearean references. These performative characteristics evoke parallels to classical theater in more obvious ways than most of the other characters. Since Crazy Joe is seen researching people’s pasts at the library, it’s implied he would have the same prophetic wisdom that Tiresias has when he names Oedipus as the murderer of Laius.
Ross also mentions how the mother figures in both texts try to keep the narrator away from the truth. He points out how “the tragic irony of the Oedipus story, and of Reading in the Dark, is that the seeker’s attempt to undo a trauma of shame only brings more shame to the family-while causing the seeker to be cast out as an exile” (35). Ross explains how “once the boy in Deane’s novel becomes suspected of being an informer, the family and community use a variety of strategies to punish his quest for knowledge” (35). After Ena’s funeral, the narrator asks his mother to tell him about the feud, and she responds by telling him to “let the past be the past” (Deane 42). This is similar to Jocasta’s plea that Oedipus ignore the Corinthian messenger before her suicide, knowing his revelation will bring shame upon their family.
To Ross, the relationship between the narrator and his mother has more to do with the Oedipus complex than Greek legend. He cites the “Oedipal overtones” of the mother’s birthday scene where she asks the narrator to go away so she can “look after [his] father properly for once, without [his] eyes” on her. (Deane 22) Ross contrasts this with Stephen Dedalus’s mother who wants her son to stay home. Building on the Oedipus motif, Ross explains that the “protagonist of Reading in the Dark does not choose exile; that sentence is forced upon him.”
Other critics have discussed the oedipal nature of the narrator’s relationship with his mother. In “Reading in the Dark: Irish Literary Identity,” Dragana Mašović explains how “the author of a literary work can use the storage of the traditional techniques at his disposal to symbolically illuminate the social, historical, cultural, and intellectual phenomena of his time” (Mašović 101). In this article, Mašović explains the different historical and cultural angles that the text can be studied from, discussing the narrator’s mother in “Aisling- Deane’s political-patriotic Oedipus.” This section discusses how the narrator reading The Shan Van Vocht lends itself to a Freudian reading of the text. Since The Shan Van Vocht features a “mythical goddess…presented as a domineering woman” who calls “upon men to fight for her” (105). Mašović points out how the narrator thinks of his own mother while reading this book. Mašović explains how this “ancient myth” is “symbolic of a collective rather than an individual experience.” In this myth, “father dies in ignorance and shame, Mother preserves her family through secrecy and lies, Son finds out the truth, but, following his mother’s wishes, he has to bury it” (105). The symbolic and collective experience experienced by the narrator while reading this book could also refer to the Oedipus complex, which all men supposedly experience in psychoanalytic theory. Conor Carville also uses The Shan Van Vocht to make an Oedipus comparison. After mentioning the “Oedipal quality to Reading in the Dark, with the child railing against a weak but prohibiting Father and ambivalent about a remote, mysterious Mother,” (Carville 416) he argues that The Shan Van Vocht is “an extension of the original maternal body” (416). Carville argues that the narrator has a sexual fascination with his mother’s book.
Both interpretations of Deane’s Shan Van Vocht reference are valid, but I disagree with Carville’s argument that the narrator has a sexual fascination with his mother. His fascination seems more to do with the knowledge that his mother had another life before marriage. When talking about “the first novel [he] ever read,” the narrator points out how his mother “had written her maiden name” (Deane 29) on the cover, which “represented someone she was before she was the mother [he] knew.” Like Oedipus, the narrator knows that his mother’s previous life will provide insight into his familial troubles, which are inextricably linked to the Irish Troubles of Northern Ireland. The personal is political in both Oedipus Rex and Reading in the Dark, a topic discussed Hedwig Schwall’s article.
Like the other critics, Schwall discusses Reading in the Dark from a psychoanalytic perspective in “Reading in the Dark: Flying by the Nets of Politics and Psychoanalysis,” and unlike Ross, she correctly identifies the role of Derry in her Oedipus comparison. Instead of characterizing Ireland as “mother Ireland,” Schwall explains that “like Thebes, Derry’s turmoil is built on oedipal troubles which take on mythic proportions (Schwall 218). Schwall explains how the Freudian elements of Deane’s text such as “the question of the parents’ desire, that of the wishfulfilling mother, the Oedipal triangle and the fear of castration,” can all be traced back to the “fatal mistake made by Grandfather Doherty” (218). This interpretation is useful because it bridges the gap between the intertextuality discussed in Ross’s article and the Freudian readings of Mašović and Conor.
Schwall argues that the narrator’s family is “marked by the throes felt at the violent birth of Northern Ireland” (Schwall 219). This is consistent with the narrator mentioning he’s from a “marked family” for having “cousins in gaol for being in the IRA” (Deane 29). Since Schwall’s analysis focuses more on psychoanalysis than the Oedipus myth it inspired, she doesn’t mention that Thebes is a cursed city in Greek mythology because of its founder, Cadmus. But like Ross, Schwall discusses the significance of Crazy Joe Johnson. Without comparing him to Tiresias, she explains that he “will or cannot voice the family story” (225). Instead, he sometimes blurts out a “garbled mess of things,” which makes the protagonist seek out other sources of information.
The plot of Reading in the Dark is similar to the structure of Aristotelian drama. Although Deane doesn’t adhere strictly to this format, the most crucial plot devices of a Greek tragedy are present. Like Oedipus Rex, it features an inciting action, peripeteia, anagnorisis, and denouement. Throughout the novel, the narrator’s motivation is to uncover the truth about his family’s past. He wants to know how his uncle Eddie was killed, and this can be considered the inciting action of Reading in the Dark. The narrator’s interactions with various characters allow him to gradually discover the truth about Eddie’s murder, similar to Oedipus reaching a moment of anagnorisis (or sudden realization) after speaking to Tiresias, Jocasta, and the messengers. Peripeteia describes a turning point in the plot of Greek drama, which occurs in Oedipus Rex when Oedipus is informed of his father’s death. In Reading in the Dark, the narrator’s grandfather confesses on his deathbed that he had ordered Eddie’s execution. It could be argued that the anagnorisis and peripeteia occur at the same time in Reading in the Dark.
The denouement, or resolution of Reading in the Dark takes place at the father’s funeral. While the narrator and his mother are both aware of the truth at this point, the narrator’s father dies without ever learning the truth. This gives Deane’s novel a less satisfying denouement than the exile of Oedipus. Still, the father in Oedipus Rex dies without knowing his prophecy had been fulfilled, and other plays in the Oedipus cycle such as Antigone are also known for their uneventfully bleak endings. This makes peripeteia the main area where Deane strays from Aristotelian standards. At any rate, the structure of the novel matches the overall theme of gradually uncovering family mysteries before a moment of sudden realization, a theme present in both Reading in the Dark and Oedipus Rex.
Overall, Reading in the Dark features a protagonist’s journey to understand his family history. Oedipus unknowingly follows the same pattern, and this is the primary significance of Deane’s parallels to Greek tragedy. Both journeys provide the protagonist with a deeper understanding of their nation’s troubles. With this in mind, the Freudian undertones present throughout the novel enable readers to notice this parallel. Deane’s narrator doesn’t have an Oedipus complex, and Crazy Joe isn’t a prophet, but these suggestions facilitate the narrative structure of Reading in the Dark.
Carville, Conor. “‘Ne Pas Céder Son Désir’: Symptom and Fantasy in Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark.” Irish Studies Review, vol. 15, no. 4, Nov. 2007, pp. 416.
Deane, Seamus. Reading in the Dark. Knopf. 1996.
Ross, Daniel William. “Oedipus in Derry: Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark.” New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach Nua: A Quarterly Record of Irish Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 2007, pp. 35-38.
Mašović, Dragana R. “Reading in the Dark: Irish Literary Identity.” B. A. S.: British and American Studies/Revista De Studii Britanice Și Americane, vol. 20, 2014, pp. 101, 105.
Schwall, Hedwig. “Reading in the Dark: Flying by the Nets of Politics and Psychoanalysis.” BELLS: Barcelona English Language and Literature Studies, vol. 11, 2000, pp. 218-19, 225.