Big Troubles in Northern Ireland: The Conflicted Character of Cal

September 23, 2021 by Essay Writer

Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal explores the intense conflict between the Roman Catholic nationalist party and the Protestant British police forces of northern Ireland in the late 20th century. MacLaverty tells the story of Ireland’s most violent period through the teenaged protagonist, Cal, who gets unwillingly roped into helping the IRA, and subsequently faces his own internal torment after assisting in the murder of Robert Morton, a Protestant reserve policeman. Cal’s guilt-ridden conscience and desire for redemption drive the plot of the novel forward and come to a head when he develops feelings for Marcella Morton, whom he becomes infatuated with upon learning her status as Robert’s widowed wife. His obsession grows once he begins work on the very farm where Marcella lives, and through their budding relationship Cal comes to the realization that Marcella is the only one who can grant him salvation from his crime, as it is with her and only her that his constant suffering and self-hatred is at ease. As Peter Mahon observes in his long form on Cal entitled “Blood, Shit and Tears,” MacLaverty employs vivid, animalistic imagery and religious allegory to illustrate Cal’s inner turmoil over his reluctant participation in ideological warfare, and quest for absolution.

MacLaverty utilizes the motifs of animals, slaughtering, and feces in multiple ways throughout the novel. The novel takes place a year after the killing of Robert Morton, and within the first page MacLaverty steeps the text with vivid, animalistic and religious imagery to illustrate Cal’s psychological struggle, as well as to allude to the larger conflict in Ireland. Cal, having quit his job at the abattoir due to his “stomach having felt like a washboard over the past year” (20), feels sickened at the sight of innocent cows being slaughtered and “the spout of blood” (8) spewing from their bodies and so Crilly, who carries out the actual killings for the IRA, replaces Cal in his role at the abattoir. Cal’s obvious disgust by the killing of the animals, in stark juxtaposition to Crilly’s indifference, stands as the first indicator of his character’s immense guilt which pervades the novel. This theme arises again through Cal’s repeated self-association with shit, emphasizing his increased self-loathing since the murder took place. While attending church, the narrator notes “the rest of his prayers consisted of telling himself how vile he was. If he was sick of himself, how would God react to him? ‘Merde. Dog-shit. Crotte de vache.’” (37) As Mahon attests, “Cal is both an animal and shit because of his involvement in political violence,” and that for Cal, “violence is indissociable from the filthiest and most contagious impurity of all―blood” (Mahon 76). Cal’s sin essentially consumes his conscience and instills in him a mental and physical sickness that he cannot escape from. He feels so incredibly contrite to the point that it’s as if “he had a brand stamped in blood in the middle of his forehead which would take him the rest of his life to purge” (89). As a result, Cal seeks repentance and forgiveness in the arms of Marcella.

MacLaverty’s nod toward religious allegory dramatize Cal’s need to be absolved from his sin, which further explain his desperation for a relationship with Marcella. Haunted by the “sickening visions of her genuflecting husband” (139), Cal’s only relief comes in the form of a relationship with Marcella, and the possibility of her future forgiveness. After hearing the sermon regarding Matt Talbot and his physical atonement with chains, Cal basically begins to torture himself with his want for Marcella, going so far as to spy on her and sneak into her bedroom at night. Mahon expounds on this idea, citing that throughout the novel she “remains “unattainable” and must be “suffered” for” (Mahon 84). By the end of the novel, Cal embraces his inevitable arrest, looking forward to being beaten “within an inch of his life” (154). Finally, he secures the deliverance from his sin that he’s been searching for since Robert Morton was killed.

Bernard MacLaverty uses the character of Cal to again and again allude to the religious warfare in northern Ireland. Torn between helping his friend and his own moral fiber, Cal’s turmoil reflects the overarching conflict between the nationalists versus the unionists. MacLaverty evokes this character struggle by featuring literary devices such as imagery and allegory throughout the text to explore Cal’s dynamic ultimatum between sin and deliverance, innocence and guilt, and violence and nonviolence, which, as Mahon puts it, makes Cal a symbol for the brutal mayhem that enveloped Ireland in the late 1900’s.

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