John McGahern’s ‘Creatures of the Earth’ is in many ways a typical McGahern short story. It represents a family, touched by tragedy in rural Ireland (albeit off the mainland in Achill), it touches on the darker aspects of human behaviour and the prose remains quiet and unfancy throughout. It even contains a quotation from Jane Austen that might serve as a thesis statement for McGahern’s oeuvre in general. So what is it that distinguishes it from the other short stories in the collection, also entitled Creatures of the Earth? Not a whole lot, either thematically or technically, apart from the title, and it is this, and how it relates to the larger work, that I will now explore in depth.
The text introduces the Waldron family in the aftermath of Mr Waldron’s death. Mr Waldron worked in a hospital, and finds that once he falls ill, his colleagues about town begin to shun him: “They work with sick people and they are not ill. They are outside and above all that. They loom like gods in the eyes of these poor creatures. Now that I am sick I am simply no longer a part of the necessary lie that works. I have to be shut out.”
Here we have the first instance in which the word ‘creature’ is used in the narrative, in the almost endearing sense of ‘poor creature,’ in such a way that acknowledges their fallibility, and perhaps even pities way, for the amalgamation of social snobbery and anxiety about their own deaths that motivates them. Of course, these ‘creatures,’ are not the only ones that appear in the short story, we also have the far more abiding creature, the cat Fats, who waits out Mr Waldron’s illness at the foot of his bed. The other creature, in the conventional sense of the term, is Tommy McHugh’s border collie. Both animals are black and white. This seems important. Eileen Waldron, making use of the now empty house for her work, begins to avoid local character Tommy McHugh, as seeing the dog under his neglectful and cruel ownership distresses her, in much the same way that the hospital staff avoided Mr Waldron once he fell ill. Albeit of course, for completely different reasons.
At one point, Eileen recalls a local doctor named Doorley, who, believing in the healing powers of tar, tarred his children once a year. All of them grew up to be ‘disturbed,’ the narration (the word ‘narrator’ seems to imply a greater degree of agency than one can detect in a McGahern text) informs us. Two have committed suicide.
McGahern’s attention to detail regarding the foibles of human behaviour and to implicitly link these two manifestations of it, almost as if there was a case to be made for their similarity, is what allows him to credibly advance larger, almost cosmic truths in conjunction with the ‘mere’ pastoral realism. The spoonful of pessimism helps the medicine go down too, of course.
The cruelty of people remains a strong fixture in ‘Creatures of the Earth,’ two drifters abduct Fats on a whim and drown her. Tommy McHugh later casually mentions the fact that he threw the border collie off a cliff.
It’s a testament to McGahern’s vitality and consistency of tone as a writer that interpreting him can sometimes feel like over-reading, but there must be something to the persistence of the black and white. One could think of it as McGahern’s version of the Ted Hughes’ view of the natural world, which reveres animals for their animality or apparent simplicity. The cat’s instincts, which incline her to trust people, doesn’t lead her to suspect danger until its too late.
The final paragraph, in which Tommy ominously declares that Eileen is ‘on her effing way out,’ to the ‘absent collie’ offers us this interpretation, it is a peculiar being indeed that can conjure up a prosthesis for an animal they themselves killed in order that they may serve as a sympathetic auditor to justify their own mad theories about another person. It also returns us to the petty behaviour of the medical staff: (“he declared to the absent collie in a voice that sang out that they alone among the creatures of the earth would never have to go that way,”) each and all engaged in a perpetual denial of their own deaths.
The title, at first glance, is a very forensic, apparently objective one, but there is an implication of community in it too, the community of the earth’s inhabitants, at least together and of a part, even if so much of their actions towards the earth, and its other creatures, are destructive. Like the good doctor Waldron of course, there is a sympathy present there too.