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Cal by Bernard Mac Laverty – Critical Evaluation Essay

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“Cal” is a romantic-tragedy novel written by the Irish author, Bernard Mac Laverty. It is a fiction story about a young man living in Northern Ireland during the troubles of the 1970s. The writer conveys a number of significant themes through skilful writing and the novel’s plot, such as guilt, hypocrisy and bigotry. In this essay, I will be focusing on the themes of the story, the purpose of why the novel was written and the author’s use of imagery to enhance his writing.

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The events of this story take place in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s. During the period of time in which this story is set in, Northern Ireland was going through what we would now refer to as being “The Troubles”. This was a period of conflict involving republican and loyalist paramilitary organisations and included conflicts and violence. “Cal” is about a young adult named Cal who is living in Northeren Ireland at this time. He is a Catholic living in a Protestant area with his father, Shamie. This leads to him being the victom of many bigotry driven attacks, such as his house being burnt down and to him being insulted on his own street. He starts to fall in love with a woman named Marcella, which, from the very beginning, is a doomed relationship.

This is because a year earlier Cal was reluctantly involved in the murder of a Protestant policeman, who was, in fact, Marcella’s husband. Cal becomes closer and closer to Marcella as the novel goes on, and you find out more about the murder as the plot develops. He then lands himself a job at Mrs. Mortons farm, the mother of Marcella’s husband, Robert. This brings him even closer to Marcella and they start to have a relationship with each other. This relationship becomes even more intense when Cal is offered to stay in Mrs. Morton’s outhouse (as his house had been burnt down). He is then arrested at the end of the novel, for the murder of Robert.

The ending of the story was very skilfully done. Near the end of the story, Mac Laverty builds up massive tension through certain events in the plot. It is then all concluded in a small, yet effective, paragraph. It tells us enough information to feel satifsfied, yet wanting to know more. It leaves key questions in the reader’s mind such as whether he deserved it or not and what will be his fate. I believe that the plot is a very important aspect of the story as it develops the mood and atmosphere and it is the events which take place which allow the themes to be conveyed.

All the characters in “Cal” have complicated lifes. Most of them have good and bad sides and are all affected in different ways by the troubles. Cal is nineteen years old. He lives with his father and he is a Catholic. He is caught up with the IRA (Irish Republican Party) and takes part in a number of crimes which he does not want to be part of. After he joined, he had to do what they asked, such as when Cal thinks of the things the IRA do:

“They shoot deserters – even deserters who protested that they had

never joined in the first place.”

This quotation shows that Cal is scared of Crilly and Skeffington (members of the IRA) and that he is in danger. It also shows that Cal never wanted to take part in the violence – making it sound stupid that they would shoot him. This whole section shows that Cal is vunerable. The writer makes out that Robert is a hard working loving man throughout the story. For example, when Marcella is telling Cal about her husband:

“He was so plausible – one of those people that everybody likes in


This quote shows that Robert was popular and was a worthy man, and there is also evidence showing that “he was witty and intelligent”. However, we later find out that he was not all what he was meant to have been, as Marcella confesses to Cal:

“He told lies, Cal. All the time. About his affairs I know he had two or three at least – about his drinking and the money he spent”

This is an example of how the characters have both good and bad characteristics. Despite this, Marcella still loved him and was distraught when he was murdered. This also makes the characters more realistic, which lets the reader relate to the different characters in “Cal”. It also creates the question of ‘who was too blame for The Troubles’ which relates to the theme and purpose of the novel, which I will be discussing later in this essay.

All of the characters are affected by the troubles as well, as most of their problems are due to that situation. For example, if it was not for the troubles, then Cal would not have been involved with the IRA and Robert wouldn’t have been murdered, taking problems out of all of the characters lives. All of the characters’ features reflect the themes, such as Cal’s characteristic of being vunerable, leading to his self loathing and guilt.

There are many themes in the novel ‘Cal’. One of these themes that I will be focusing on is the theme of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy means the pretence of possessing virtues, beliefs or qualities that one does not really have, especially in matters of religion or morality. One way in which the author displays this theme is via specific characters, such as Crilly. Crilly is part of a gang who are fighting for independence from Great Britain. For example, when Skeffington is talking about Crilly:

“There are not many aspects of our culture which interests Mr Crilly. But he’s a useful man.”

This quote shows that Crilly does not care about Irish independence and culture but is only in the gang as he likes the thrill of violence. It also shows that the IRA are not offended about his beliefs – but just want him to help with their struggle. This shows them being hypocritical as they kill people who do not believe or reject their views, but someone who does not care about Irish independence can help with the violence. Another way in which hypocrisy is showing is through thoughts of characters and their dialogue. This is taking from a part where Dunlop (Cal’s Protestant employer) is talking to Cal about the situation in Northern Ireland:

“Would you do the same to the Loyalist prisoners every time a Catholic was murdered?”

Dunlop thinks that for any Protestant policeman who is murdered by a Catholic, two Catholics should be shot. This quotes shows that Dunlop is a hypocrite as he would shoot two Catholics every time a Protestant policeman was murdered but not if it was the other way around. This also shows that Dunlop is a bigot, which ties in with my next theme, bigotry. A bigot is a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to their own religion, or opinion. Bigotry is the main cause of fear and violence in the story. One night, Cal and his father receive a note stating:



This clearly diplays pure bigotry. Cal and his father are being threatened to leave their home of many years, just because of their religion. This quote also shows how ignorant the UVF are, as they have spelt “fenyan” wrongly. This leads to Cal and his father being fearful, for example:

“…Shamie was putting the gun beneath his pillow and climbing into


This shows that Cal’s father has to keep a weapon underneath his pillow as there is a constant threat of violence.

Another theme which has been cleverly developed is the theme of guilt. Cal feels guilty about his involvement in the killing of Robert, which leads to his self-loathing. At the start of the novel, the writer makes this very obvious:

“Merde. Crotte de chein. Merderer.”

Cal hates himself so much, that he makes up words to describe himself. The word “merderer” has a possible two meanings; it shows that he is guilty and secondly it shows his self loathing. As he becomes more and more involved with Marcella, his guilt increases:

“Now that he felt safe from the world outside he was being attacked

from within his own head”

This quote is taken from the section where he is living and working with Marcella. It shows that guilt is eating him up and is destroying him and his life. The author also uses writing techniques to convey the theme of guilt:

“It was as if idleness had allowed dirt to accumulate on his [Cal] soul,

to clog his mind, and work moved him through it untouched”

Mac Laverty uses this metaphor to show how Cal was brooding over Morton’s death and his involvement. It also shows that he thinks that he deserves to go to hell for what he has done. When Marcella tells Cal about what Robert was really like, it complicates his guilt as he now knows that Robert sometimes brought misery to Marcella, and maybe it was good that Robert was murdered.

All of these themes show the writer’s purpose in writing. He shows bad and good sides to both Protestant and Catholic organisations, leading to us to wonder which is the good side in the novel. The story also shows us how difficult and violent Northern Ireland was at that time in history, and how deeply everybody was affected. To an extent, the way the author writes also shows aspects of him being a bit ashamed of his country, due to the negative details and feelings he writes about.

Mac Laverty uses a range of techniques to create the mood and atmosphere in the novel. One of these techniques, is his use of imagery. The story starts with this mood with the author describing the scenes taking place in an abattoir:

“It was immediately winched up by one of the hind shanks and its

throat cut”

The author uses a lot of violence and blood imagery at the start of the novel to set the tone of the book. Other evidence which shows this use of evidence is that there are a lot of deaths and murders mentioned in the novel. An example of this is when Cal and his father are watching the news and the author describes the events that had happened, which were mainly murders and violence, in a way which seemed to be normal. Death permeates the novel as does religion. There are often references to the Bible and to religious symbols throughout the novel. Symbolism is another technique that Mac Laverty uses. There is also symbolism to certain fairytales, such as when Marcella is talking to Cal about her daughter, Lucy:

“Lucy’s favourite story at the minute is Repunzel”

This is significant as Marcella feels like she is trapped because she tries to do the right thing.

The plot has been structured in a sophisticated way. The story has two climaxes: one in the middle and the other at the end. The first one occurs when the writer tells you about the death of Robert. This is significant as there is a huge tension built up before you find out. The author does this via short clues which are spread out throughout the novel and short sentences. The second climax is done in a similar way, but the paragraph in which it concludes, is quick and snappy and tells of only the most significant point, which is Cal being arrested. The dialogue of the novel is very realistic. The author does this by using Irish forms of slang, such as ‘da’ instead of dad, and explicit language. The writer also uses great techniques to enhance his writing:

“His sin clawed at him, demanding attention”

The writer personifies the idea of the sin, describing the feeling of it clawing, to give the idea of Cal’s guilt and how is is destroying him and is eating him up. The verb ‘clawing’ is associated with violence and adds to the imagery that the author uses to enhance his novel and to create the atmosphere.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘Cal’. It made me realise how lives can be ruined due to situations which do not even involve them. The themes of the novel also made me more aware about some people’s views and how they can sometimes be full of violence and hatred. It showed me what life was like in Ireland in those days and how we have to try to avoid anything so destructive from happening again.

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