Lanark: Prose Commentary Essay
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This extract from Lanark ,written by Alasdair Gray, is a highly evocative piece of narrative prose. Set within a church in Lenzies, Glasgow, the excerpt illustrates the loss of love and theloss of self-belief which are inextricably intertwined for the character Duncan Thaw. Writtenin a post-modern style, it is also representative of the subjectivity of perception and its abilityto change with the passage of time. Duncan is forced to reflect upon his experiences as he isvisited by haunting representations of his past, in the form of two characters: Marjory and theunnamed man.
The extract begins by immediately evoking a sense of atmosphere: µThe afternoon darkenedearly.
The setting of the piece at dusk, which marks the beginning of darkness in theevening, creates a sense of ominous foreshadowing in its transition from optimistic brightnessto sinister lack of light, representative of the eerily gloomy images of grief and sorrow. Themovement of the man µworking peeringly is humble and unobtrusive, reflected in the slowrhythm of the sentence.
His quiet concentration, though, is abruptly shattered; the harshonomatopoeia of µcough creates a sudden break in the deliberate rhythm of the sentence justas the cough itself creates a sudden break in the tranquillity of the scene.He turns around to µa man and a woman [standing] in the aisle.
Taking place in a church, itis an image symbolic of a marriage. This in turn signifies the apparent relationship betweenthe two people. In the µbetter light¶ he realises that the woman is not just any woman: thesyntactical arrangement of the sentence causes the emphasis to fall on the name µMarjory,illustrating her clear significance to the man. The importance of Marjory to Duncan, on a personal level, is placed in contrast to the namelessness of the man standing by her side, whois referred to using distancing language; he is simply µthe man. He is merely a character.This same anonymity, however, heightens the power of his words, tone and actions incompletely upsetting Duncan Thaw.
There is no emotional association to a name, and thus heis detached from the reader.Immediately the man is portrayed as a gloating, swaggering, arrogant character; ³We werevisiting friends « and we thought, old times and so forth, why not run in and see Duncan?´That Duncan is simply an afterthought to the man is vexingly offensive; clearly, this meetingdoes not mean much to him at all, and his intention is obviously not to visit him out of friendship – the man does not even choose to identify Duncan as a friend. However, it isinteresting that he should use the inclusive pronoun µwe as if it were Marjorys opinion too.This is an indication of the mans dominant character. Marjory, her passivity illustrated in her mere µ[raising of] her hand and [smile], has no opinion of her own, even though it is very possible she should want to meet with Duncan, considering their obvious connection.
The mans disparaging tone carries an infuriating sense of superiority. ³No no. No no. I quitelike it in this dimness, more mysterious, if you know what I mean« Very impressive. Veryimpressive.´ The constant repetitions in his sentences, which, at first, seem to imply sincerity,in fact have the opposite effect: they emphasise his lack of honesty. His insistence in preserving the µdimness of the light, and therefore the suggestion that Duncans artwork would be less pleasant in its full exposure, reflects his blatant disapproval of the mural. It isan implication of the artworks shortcoming; Thaw is made to feel completely inadequate asan artist.
His inner insecurity, then, intensifies when Marjory says something he cannot hear:Duncans fear of disapproval by Marjory, who was evidently once close to him, is embodiedin his fearful ³What?´. Marjorys reply, and the only sentence she offers in this interchange,is euphemistic. Her understating, biting criticism is remarkably unpleasant to hear: ³This isnt your usual style of work, Duncan.´ Her past familiarity with his work ± possibly even her appreciation of his art ± is reduced to a single sentence of polite disapproval.Thaw is evidently upset at Marjorys disapproval.
His silence breaks the rhythm of conversation, and his slow reply is dispirited ± ³Im trying to show more air and light.´ Of course, the man, his insensibility and insensitivity to the artist, the artists intention, and theartists art emphasised through repetition, gives Duncan an empty response: ³So you are. Soyou are.´ His impudent confidence is evident in his audible µhumming, which is placed incontrast to Thaws silent self-doubt. ³Youre nearly finished.´ His tone is one of certainty; hissentence is a statement, rather than a question.
The man is so sure of himself that he feelssuperior even to the artist of the work he is making a reference to ± even though the artistdenies that the work is finished, his reply is definite ± µIt looks finished«± and hisscathingly sarcastic referral to his eye as µuntutored is insulting, as he is completelydismissive of the worth of Duncans job as an artist: ³Then what will you do. Teach?´The mans false modesty evidently injures Duncans confidence as an artist; that Duncanindicates parts of his artwork to be repainted is an indication of his insecurity.
Thaw is clearlyshaken; he cannot match the mans arrogant tone. Instead, he µ[turns] around and [pretends]to work¶. This can be taken in both a metaphorical sense and a literal sense; as Duncan turnshis back to the man and woman in the church, so he turns his back to the manscondescending words in an attempt to protect any inkling of self-worth he has left. However,the stillness of the scene is again broken again by a cough. This time, his cough is one of boredom. The man quickens the rhythm of his dialogue in a hurried attempt to leave thisuncomfortable visitation: ³Well, Marjory´; ³I think well be getting along now.´
The mans intention for visiting the church, of course, is now clear ± it was never to visitDuncan out of friendship, but to share his own news: ³By the way, did you know Marjoryand I are thinking of getting married?´ The man is obviously aware of Duncan and Marjorys past relationship. He is visiting Duncan only to ridicule him and assert his superiority over him; it is a deliberate display of masculine power. ³When were married, you must look in onus.
We still think of you now and again.´ Duncan is nobody to the man, a mere, insignificantthing; being thought of at all would be a compliment. The mans use of µwe, which includesMarjory in his indifference and lack of concern ± µwe still think of you now and again ± isthe last straw for Duncan. He has lost his love, Marjory, and with her, his self-belief; the intensity of the emotion Duncan feels is reflected in this single syllable which µclattered uponthe ceiling and walls, the plosive consonants of the onomatopoeic µclatter echoing thecomplete destruction of his self-worth: ³Good.´
He is left alone in reflection, as it is both literally and metaphorically µtoo dark to work darkness has fallen in reality just as darkness has overcome every fibre of his self-esteem.The rhythm of the phrase is slow as his actions slow; he lays on the planks, contemplating his past love for Marjory. A simile compares his experience of loss to µa tongue tip returning to ahole from which a tooth has been pulled, highly evocative in its sensory imagery. Thesensation of the pulled tooth is painful, a reflection of Thaws absolute agony.
Yet, thefeeling of returning to the hole left by the pulled tooth is almost instinctive ± he cannot helphis thoughts returning to Marjory. Thaw is puzzled, though: µhe was sure he had just seen agirl without special beauty or intelligence. He wondered why she had been all he wanted in awoman. The juxtaposition of the µgirl without special beauty to the µwoman who had all hewanted illustrates the dramatic change in perception that has happened within Duncan ± the present Marjory is likened to his mothers corpse, symbolic of the loss Duncan has suffered,for now that there is no hope of his love returning, she is as good as µdead to him. WhileMarjorys last words are painfully unforgettable in their polite disapproval ± ³This isnt your usual style of work, Duncan´, Duncan wishes he had said something µironic and memorablein order to leave an impression in her mind.
However, his love for her is one-sided; Marjorydoes not feel the same affection towards Duncan as he does towards her, in the same way thatMarjory does not share the same loss of love that Duncan is subject to.The emotional trauma he suffers as a result of Marjorys metaphorical death transposes itself to Duncans perception of his own artwork. His body is µheavy, this perhaps being ametaphor for the burdens of loss he now carries; they are µunusually heavy as he has facedthe compounded loss of both love and self-belief. The sharpness of the short sentencesquickens the rhythm, mirroring Duncans increasing distress.
His mural, an expression of hishard work, dedication, and ability as an artist, now looks µhorrible in his eyes. In the mirror is a reflection of Duncans new reality, born from the ruins of his self-worth. ³Not beauty! Not beauty! Nothing but hunger!´ The extract thus concludes with Duncans shatteringdemise of any positive perception of himself, his artwork, or his ability to love. He cannot perceive beauty anymore ± a characteristic he would only be able to recognise with a humansoul. Instead, he is stripped from his human qualities, becoming an animal reliant on the most basic of instincts: hunger. Duncan Thaw is hungry for affection, for acceptance, and for thesimple recognition of his existence as a human being.