“You couldn’t be sure about anything”: Facades in William Trevor’s “Beyond the Pale” and “Death in Jerusalem”

By Annalie Buscarino ’21, an English and Sociology double major and Creative Writing; Psychology; and Justice, Law, and Society triple minor.

The following work was created for ENG 334: Irish Short Story.

Brief Description: Willian Trevor’s “Beyond the Pale” narrates the disruption of British imperialism through the ignored outburst of a woman against the indifference of her longtime friends regarding the violence that they perpetuate through their ignorance. Trevor’s “Death in Jerusalem”, on the other hand, describes the experience of homebody Francis Daly when his disappointment in the aesthetic of the Holy Land is reiterated by the hypocrisy of his consecrated brother who withholds the news about their mother’s death. Trevor’s stories are connected by the hypocrisy of characters and institutions that subscribe to façades of artificial morality. In my essay, I argue that Trevor synecdochizes his characters from “Beyond the Pale” and “Death in Jerusalem” to represent the negligence of social and religious institutions in order to deconstruct the facades of European power structures and to effectively satirize their artificiality.


“Everything was ruined for us,” concluded Millie, narrator of William Trevor’s “Beyond the Pale.” Millie, an aristocrat from Surrey, England, agonizes over the deviance of her annual trip to Glencorn Lodge from its strict daily schedule, the outburst of her tolerated friend, Cynthia, forcing her to confront the symbolism of her own imperialistic presence in Ireland. Cynthia’s articulation of a tragic Irish narrative interrupts the superficiality of the British imperialist image, demanding attention to the hypocrisies within it. Similarly, Trevor’s short story “Death in Jerusalem” criticizes the degradation of the church through an acknowledgement of its falsehood, emphasizing the dissonance between its religious sentiment and its materialistic reality. The touristic spectacle of Jerusalem, alongside the meaningless routine in Co. Antrim, Ireland, compose a rhetorical façade that operate to suppress the historical realities of each. The narrators of Trevor’s stories, Millie and Father Paul, personify the failure of the political and religious institutions in which they respectively operate. The disillusioned experience of other characters as a result emphasizes the danger of their initial ignorance, a silence that upholds the maintenance of superficial continuity. Situating his characters from “Beyond the Pale” and “Death in Jerusalem” as synecdoche of the religious and social institutions they operate within, William Trevor deconstructs facades to satirize the negligent hypocrisy of European power structures. 

The corruption of tourism in Jerusalem and the meaningless maintenance of routine in Co. Antrim overshadow the historical realities within each. In the materiality of their sentiments, both geographies are framed in superficiality. Following his brother Francis’ anticipation of foolishness in “doing such a showy thing as going to the Holy Land,” Father Paul reiterates its touristic status by insisting to Francis that “there’s nothing we’ll miss,” insinuating that Jerusalem is an exhibition in which sites can be seen and moved on from as if belonging to an itinerary (“Jerusalem,” 459). In its description as a touristic site, the Holy Land is framed by a pretense of superficiality that supersedes its religious purpose before the reader even makes it there. Similarly, the courtship-like appearances of Millie and her friends in “Beyond the Pale” suggest their emphasis on materiality, a shell that is consistently inhabited in place of their identities. Their constant tightness of appearance, emphasis on routine, conversational tone, and insistence on conformity occupy their days and distract them from the realities of their imperialistic power (750, 752, 754, 759, 760). In both “Beyond the Pale” and “Death in Jerusalem,” the mini-societies that the characters operate within are thus maintained solely through appearance. 

The superficiality of the religious and social cultures within the texts transcend over the relationships within them as well. Paul and Francis, for example, only “say what had to be said” after Francis flies in to Israel to see his brother, coding their first visible interaction in “small talk” that lends no depth to their familial connection (“Jerusalem,” 459). In “Beyond the Pale,” Millie’s friend group is similarly shallow as they fail to acknowledge the adultery, homosexuality, and rape that circulates through their group (770). Their silence emphasizes the ignorance of their morality when offered an alternative of frivolity. In the insistent maintenance of superficiality within and beyond their relationships, the characters of Trevor’s stories contribute to the suppression of historical realities that are meant to define their own. The danger of such shallowness is reflected in the emotional vacuity of the characters placed within it.

The superficiality of Jerusalem and Glencorn Lodge facilitate an emotional emptiness within its embedded characters. For example, in his inability to internalize “Christ’s journey,” rather aligning his local congregation closer to God than he does the biblical churches of Jerusalem, Francis feels deprived of the spiritual movement he anticipated in visiting such profound historical sites (“Jerusalem,” 461, 462). Realizing that such touristic artificiality is the foundation of the entire Holy Land experience, Francis concludes that “Nazareth would be a disappointment. And the Sea of Galilee. And the Church of Loaves and Fishes,” expanding his articulation of disillusionment from the experience of one site to the experience of all of them, positioning his dejection against the institution of the Church as a whole (468). Therefore, when Francis, upon learning of his mother’s death, sobs that “I’ll always hate the Holy Land now,” his hatred is not directed at the sites of Jerusalem in which he was dissatisfied, but at the entirety of the Catholic Church (469). In its aesthetic artificiality, the Church fails to serve the spiritual needs of Francis in the way he anticipates. Similarly, the superficiality of character relations in “Beyond the Pale” propels their own emotional detachment. Embedded in a context of violence that they unknowingly perpetuate, their emotional dissonance is from the people they unknowingly oppress. 

The irritation of the narrator and her counterparts towards Cynthia’s outburst, apparent in their disdainful comments throughout, is best summarized when Cynthia suggests “’perhaps there can be regret when two children end like this’” (767). Followed by silence, her provocation of empathy fails and her hopes for the humanity of her peers fails with them. Rather insisting on her own desire that “nothing disturbs the peace,” Millie’s glorification of her materialized normalcy prevents her from internalizing the violence that happens just outside her hotel door (769). The superficiality of Millie’s social life and of Jerusalem’s touristic appeal prevent Trevor’s characters from accessing the historical sentiments within them. As participants in their respective superficial cultures, Millie and Father Paul personify the corruption of each. 

Representing the hypocrisy of their social roles, Millie and Father Paul synecdochize the failure of their respective social institutions. The values of each character, like those of their respective environments, are grounded in the construction of appearance. Omitting God as a propellant of his work and his actions, Father Paul fails to act as a priest when needed most by his suffering brother (463, 464). When Francis despairs that he could not be saved of his mournful pain and that “he would never forgive himself,” Paul does not step in as a priest but as a drunk, arguing that their mother “can’t be brought back no matter what we do” (467). His whiskey in place of his Eucharist, Father Paul fails to recognize and articulate the Catholic tenets of forgiveness and resurrection, ultimately failing to retain the values of Christianity that would assert his fulfillment of the role of a priest beyond simply touting the title of one. Constantly named to his role but constantly failing to fulfill it, Father Paul becomes nothing but his label, nothing but an appearance of a spirituality that is not there. Father Paul’s service as a priest is therefore contingent on his appearance as one, as he, like Jerusalem itself, fails to embrace the religiosity of his purpose.

In “Beyond the Pale,” Millie’s character is similarly dependent on the construction of her appearance. As she grows increasingly frustrated with Cynthia’s invocation for empathy, asserting that Irish violence “hardly concerns us,” she participates in the aristocratic British tradition of ignoring imperialistic abuse (764). However, like Britain does in their own ethnocentric presentation, Millie insists on maintaining her image of civility, refusing to yell at Cynthia in the midst of the crowded room, rather internalizing her thoughts about Cynthia’s self-victimization and unreliability (770). Millie’s attempts to preserve her image as she reinforces detachment from the tragedies of Cynthia’s story situates her as a symbol of England’s imperialistic ignorance towards its exploitive violence in Ireland. 

Millie and Father Paul are parallel in their refusal to recognize the realities that their respective institutions are meant to address. Both characters turn to materialism to avoid confrontation with death. Father Paul, occupying the bar after his mother’s passing “was in good spirits in spite of the death that had taken place” (“Jerusalem,”, 462). Similarly, Millie returns constantly to the importance of her schedule as Cynthia articulates the tragedy of two corrupted children (767). Millie and Paul’s conscious neglect of death represents their conscious neglect of their respective institutions. Both characters further corrupt their coinciding roles in turning to them for illegitimate reasons- Paul turns to priesthood to escape his mother’s corrosive grasp and Millie turns to privilege to escape political self-condemnation (“Jerusalem,” 468, 469, “Pale,” 768). Their statuses as symbols of the Church and of the British government, but their failure to do embrace them for genuine reasons, symbolizes the inauthenticity of the institutions they represent. Therefore, Cynthia’s declaration that “humanity had left both of them” is not only applicable to the artificiality of Father Paul and Millie, but also to the artificiality of the Catholic Church and the British government (“Pale,” 767). Through the insincerity of their institutional representation, Millie and Father Paul embody the decay of the cultures they operate within.

In their assumption of false appearances, Millie and Paul personify the failure of the institutions that they represent. Father Paul’s failure to maintain virtuous religious values reflects the deviation of the church from its moral and spiritual purposes. Francis, disillusioned to the brother he had admired all his life, recognizes the “mockery” of the Church present in his brother’s drunkenness and indifference to familial death, “the splinter of wood beneath plastic, and in the soldiers of guns that were not toys, and in the writhing nakedness of the Holy City” (“Jerusalem,” 469). Similarly emphasizing her disillusionment, Cynthia expands her personal critique of her friends’ frivolous routine to a national one, explaining that the material indifference of her friends translates into the indifference held by the British as “people starved or died while other people watched” (“Pale,” 763). The disillusionment of Francis and Cynthia serves to synthesize personal immoralities with institutional ones, connecting the failures of their peers to the failures of their foundations. The “honey-tinted glasses” that the British choose to look through in Ireland are rendered the same as “the whiskey in [the Priest’s] glass” in Jerusalem, epitomizing the false superficies that Millie and Paul choose to embrace over the tragedies of the institutions that their alcohol seeks to conceal (“Pale,” 769, “Jerusalem”, 469). The assumption of materials over sentiment, ignorance over empathy, condemns Paul and Millie to a silence that corrodes the purpose of the institutions that they respectively represent. Therefore, when Cynthia declares that “hell has invaded the paradise of Glencorn… And we, who have so often brought it, pretend it isn’t here,” she describes the corruption of both the Catholic Church and the British government, infected by the sin of materiality that conceals its realities of hypocrisy (“Pale,” 770). The revelation of Trevor’s characters to the realities of such institutional decay allows him to deconstruct and emphasize the danger of their superficiality. 

The disillusionment of Trevor’s characters to the artificiality of the institutions in which they operate emphasizes the danger of their initial ignorance. Cynthia and Francis, whose experiences disillusion the reader along with them, also articulate a silence that allows the hypocrisy they identify to perpetually continue. The characters parallel each other in their seemingly powerless positions in society, Francis being “the one least among [his mother’s] children who she often considered least able to stand on his own two feet” and Cynthia being in a state among her peers in which she “hardly [exists]” (“Jerusalem,” 457, “Pale,” 770). Despite their protests against the hypocrisy of their companions, their liminal statuses render them invariably passive in the face of the social wrongs which they wish to correct. Francis realizes “he’d become a part of” the superficiality of the Holy Land “himself, sending postcards to the dead” in the way that Jerusalem encourages a dead spirituality (“Jerusalem,” 469). Similarly powerless against the constant discrediting she receives from her peers, Cynthia cannot break through the aesthetic superficiality that the British characters maintain as they become so intrinsically embedded in the nature of who they are. The inescapable passivity of both Cynthia and Francis is reflected in the silence they emulate at the end of their stories.

 Though both characters recognize the hypocrisy that their peers and their societies perpetuate, their criticisms culminate into a stillness that foreshadows its ceaseless continuity. As Francis “did not say anything” throughout the entirety of his experience, so too do the masses blindly adhere to the aesthetics of the church, unmoved by its spiritual emptiness (“Jerusalem,” 461). Cynthia reflects a similar condition of silence following the conclusion of her story, declaring that “no one cares, and on our journey home shall all four be silent” (“Pale,” 770), suggesting the continuity of toxic moral indifference. The silence that follows Francis’ and Cynthia’s disillusionment thus foreshadows the pervasiveness of the hypocrisy they criticize, suppressing the language of their protests and propelling materialistic routine as if it was never interrupted. It is such a dissolution of language that condemns institutional norms to the emptiness of the superficiality they impose. William Trevor’s “Death in Jerusalem” and “Beyond the Pale” ultimately personify the danger of such profound institutional silence.

Through his short stories, William Trevor satirizes the negligent hypocrisy of European institutions through the synecdochization of his characters and the deconstruction of the facades they represent. The plague of tourism in a spiritual Jerusalem and the materiality of routine in Co. Antrim suppress the historical realities perpetuated by each. Representing the hypocrisy of their own social roles, Father Paul and narrator Millie embody the failure of the Church and the British government that they respectively operate within. The disillusionment of Francis and Cynthia to the falsehood of their peers emphasizes the dangerous pervasiveness of the silence that follows their realizations. Across both of his stories, the only hope that Trevor offers for change to the monotony of hypocrisy is in the figure of Cynthia, who, before her slippage into destructive silence, articulates the question “Yet is the truth about ourselves at least a beginning?” (“Pale,” 770). Offering a rhetorical question to the immoral characters in his text, Trevor prompts the reader to reflect on herself, on the dissonance between appearance and reality that we all inevitably perpetuate. In allocating a voice to the recognition of such superficiality, Trevor hopes to interrupt the monotony in which it ceaselessly corrupts.

Works Cited

Trevor, William. The Collected Stories. Penguin Books, 1993.

Trevor, William. The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories. Oxford University Press, 1989


Annalie Buscarino ’21 is a junior at Washington College who majors in English and Sociology and minors in Creative Writing, Psychology, and Justice, Law, and Society. She serves as the captain for the Washington College Women’s Soccer team and works as a Peer Writing and Presentation Consultant in the Washington College Writing Center. Annalie is spending her quarantine eating lots of food, playing with her dogs, and looking through pictures of her semester abroad in Milan, Italy from the Spring of 2019. She looks forward to attending law school upon graduation in 2021.

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