Mrs. E. Richardson University English II



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Harri



Adina Harri

Mrs. E. Richardson

University English II

18 November 2013

The Destructive Power of History in Fools of Fortune

Thesis: William Trevor’s Fools of Fortune effectively illustrates the destructive power of history through the allegorical love story of Willie and Marianne, the destruction of Kilneagh, and the tragedy of Imelda’s insanity.




  1. Love story

  1. Links to Romeo and Juliet

  2. Allegory to relationship of Ireland and England

  3. Tension between English and Irish families

    1. Kilneagh house

    2. Woodcombe Park

  4. Depiction of Marianne’s steadfastness

  1. Kilneagh’s destruction and its consequences

  1. Black and Tans

  2. Willie’s schooldays

    1. Father Kilgariff

    2. Miss Halliwell

  3. Mother’s and father’s deaths

  1. Imelda’s insanity

  1. Imagines the house before it burned

  2. Meditates on past of Kilneagh

  3. Driven by father’s revenge and exile

  4. Displays irony of her “gifts”

Adina Harri

Mrs. E. Richardson

University English II

18 November 2013
The Destructive Power of History in Fools of Fortune

In Fools of Fortune, William Trevor entwines Irish history with forbidden love, producing a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy. The story is told through three protagonists: Willie; Willie’s child, Imelda; and Imelda’s mother, Marianne. Trevor centers the novel on Willie Quinton, whose family and home of Kilneagh were destroyed by British Black and Tan soldiers when he was a young boy. Trevor outlines Willie’s life as he grows up with an infirm mother, attends boarding school, falls in love with his British cousin, becomes a father to a mute daughter, and eventually satisfies his vengeance, killing the man responsible for ruining his family. When Willie returns home from his exile, he discovers that the murder did not save his broken home and family; instead, it caused irreparable damage and history’s continued command over the Quinton family. Trevor’s Fools of Fortune effectively illustrates the destructive power of history through the allegorical love story of Willie and Marianne, the destruction of Kilneagh, and the tragedy of Imelda’s insanity.

Trevor first illustrates history’s power through the complications in Willie and Marianne’s romantic relationship. Although Willie and Marianne come from feuding English and Irish branches of the same family, they still love each other. Marianne describes her love for Willie on the first night she sneaked into his room to see him, confessing, “I cared about nothing except that you should know I loved you, that you might find at least some comfort in knowing it” (Trevor 120). Willie confesses his love to Marianne as well, professing, “I have loved that summer all my life. Your dark brown eyes, darker than my mother’s your oval face, your smile that brought a dimple to one check, your long brown hair, soft as a mist it seemed” (98). This “forbidden love” mirrors that of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Moreover, as Max Larsen indicates, Fools of Fortune “relates the fortunes of two houses whose bonds of marital union are tried by the ancient curse of factional hatred. Reconciliation comes for the families of Romeo and Juliet through their deaths; reunion for Willie and Marianne in the fool's paradise of a reduced idyll.” As catharsis is achieved in Romeo and Juliet through the reunification of the Capulet and Montague families, the tragic ending in Fools of Fortune is mollified when Willie returns to ruined Kilneagh and reunites with Marianne and his daughter, Imelda. Tom McAlindon reiterates this point when writing, “the harshness of the tragic ending is modified by a consolatory reaffirmation of love and union in the midst of ruin” (1). In addition to the similar cathartic ending emphasized by McAlindon, the title of the novel itself echoes Romeo and Juliet. As Larsen asserts, “Young Willie Quinton might have echoed Romeo’s sentiments of, ‘O I am Fortune’s foole!’ when a violent act of revenge sends this lover, too, into exile.” Willie’s actions were dictated by destiny; he truly is a fool of fortune that illustrates history’s power in his tragic love story.

This tragic love story also serves a second purpose; it illustrates the love-hate relationship of Ireland and England through Willie and Marianne. Marianne illustrates this depiction later on in the novel, observing that “when you looked at the map Ireland and England seemed like lovers” and asking, “Does the map remind you curiously of an embrace? A most extraordinary embrace to throw up all this” (175). England and Ireland are symbolized in Marianne and Willie’s relationship, as suggested by Larsen when he writes, “the prologue to Trevor's tale of two houses suggests that the love story of Marianne and Willie contains an allegorical message about the historical relationship of England and Ireland.” The novel begins with a comparison of the two houses Willie and Marianne grew up in, explaining that “in Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave. To inspect the splendours of Woodcombe Park and to stroll about its gardens, visitors pay fifty pence at the turnstiles, children twenty-five” (3). Marianne’s English home, Woodcombe, stays alive by allowing visitors to explore its past, while Willie’s Irish home, Kilneagh, stays alive in his memory. In comparing the two homes, the author compares the two nations: one English, the other Irish. The relationship between the Irish home of Woodcombe and the English home of Kilneagh, bound together through marriage, proves to be unstable, much like the relationship between Ireland and England throughout history. When Willie’s mother discovers that her English sister will come to visit, she sarcastically exclaims, “Now, why ever do they wish to come to Godforsaken Ireland?” (97). This sardonic statement illustrates the palpable tension between the two houses and the two countries. Thus, Willie and Marianne’s love and the relationship between the two households serve as an allegory to the relationship between Ireland and England; the tragedy of their love illustrates the destructive power of history through the precarious relationship between the two families and the two nations.

The novel also depicts the tragedy of Marianne’s unrequited love while she waits for Willie to return to Kilneagh, again illustrating history’s destructive power upon Willie and Marianne’s relationship. The novel outlines the history of the connection between Kilneagh and Woodcombe, describing how Marianne’s ancestors had married into the Quinton family, and how she “later caused history to repeat itself, as in Anglo-Irish relationships it has a way of doing: she fell in love with a Quinton and became, in time, the third English girl to come and live at Kilneagh” (4). Marianne depicts her unwavering commitment in her decision to move to Kilneagh against her parents’ wishes and wait for Willie to return from exile. After arriving and being told to go back home, Marianne responds, “I don’t believe it would be better to go back to England” (137). Marianne further illustrates this point when she exclaims, “You think I'm extravagant in my Irish fancies? Father Kilgariff thinks so, and the others too. Yet I am part of all this now. I cannot help my fervor” (175). Marianne is determined to follow her tragic love story to its conclusion; although Willie may never come back, she remains steadfast and fully devotes herself to Willie’s Irish family and history. As critic John Hildebidle concludes, in refusing to leave, Marianne “knowingly cut herself off from England . . . by so wholly adopting as her own the plight of the Irish that she offended her English cousins” and “remolds herself into the purest Irishry she can imagine.” In addition to illustrating the precarious bond between the Irish and English families and the powerful, historical relationship between Ireland and England, Marianne’s steadfastness depicts the hopeless love that history destroyed.

History’s destructive power is also exemplified through Kilneagh’s demolition and the consequences that followed its devastation. As McAlindon asserts, “what clearly marks out Fools of Fortune as a historical novel is the impact of the War of Independence on character and action, and in particular the involvement of Michael Collins with the Quinton family” (5). The involvement of Willie’s family with Irish nationalist Michael Collins provoked the Black and Tans, English soldiers led by Sergeant Rudkin, to burn Kilneagh in a fire that killed Willie’s father and sisters. Willie bitterly reflects on past images of Kilneagh’s comforts, realizing that “the scarlet drawing-room no longer existed. Never again would I walk to the mill with my father, up the sloping pasture, down through the birch wood. Yet at night in bed I no longer sobbed before I went to sleep” (46). The death of Willie’s father devastates Willie. Before the Black and Tans burned down Kilneagh and killed his father, Willie looked forward to a promising future, acknowledging, “I knew that one day I would inherit this mill. I liked the thought of that, of going to work there, of learning what my father had had to learn about grain and the machinery that ground it” (13). However, Willie’s bright vision of the future is shattered with his father’s death. As Larsen states, although Willie “resolves to renew the pattern of his father’s life, to rebuild Kilneagh, and to take up his hereditary position at the mill,” his bitterness towards his father’s death and Kilneagh’s destruction directs him towards a path of vengeance. History’s destructive power governs Willie’s future through past events that foster bitterness in his once hopeful mind.

This bitterness, fostered by Willie’s tragic past, is furthered by his mother’s influence and her desire for vengeance. She divulges to Willie, “It’s that man who’s on my mind. You know how that kind of thing is, Willie? Suddenly, when you’re not thinking at all it comes to you. That horrible Sergeant Rudkin, Willie,” and goes on to call him “the Devil incarnate” (68). Despite Willie’s pleas for her to forgive and forget, his mother continues to live in the past; despite Marianne’s promise of love and a hopeful future, Willie’s mother’s suicide poisons Willie’s heart with a desire for revenge and aids in his decision to commit murder. As Larsen explains, “Willie is confronted with two paths and two rival goddesses--he must choose between . . . the virgin’s sacrifice for love and the mother’s sacrifice for hate . . . the mother’s razor or the lover’s lamp?” If Willie decides to take the path of revenge, he decides to let history’s destructive power dictate his life. His mother’s suicide proves to be the factor that determines Willie’s fate. Larsen illustrates Willie’s viewpoint, explaining, “Rudkin must be slaughtered with a butcher knife. Throwing over the years of preparation for the rebuilding of Kilneagh in his father’s stead, turning his back on Kilneagh and Marianne, Willie follows his mother’s example.” Willie chooses to give into history’s destructive power and allows it to govern his future. Later in the novel, even Marianne gives in to history’s power, ominously declaring to Father Kilgariff, “Destruction casts shadows which are always there: surely you see that, Father? We will never escape the shadows of destruction that pervade Kilneagh” (179). The effect of Kilneagh’s devastation and the ramifications that followed permeate the lives of Willie and his loved ones and reflect history’s power to forge destruction.

The power of the past is also reflected in Willie’s schooldays. Although he himself asserts that “It’s best to forget “ (96), he is not allowed to forget. As McAlindon expounds, “At school, Miss Halliwell’s . . . fondness entails in effect a determination not to allow him forget his tragic past: he must remain an object of pity for her affections to feed on” (8-9). Wherever he goes, Willie is reminded of his past. Even if he wanted to forget his past, he isn’t given a chance to; he truly is a fool for fortune. Father Kilgariff also engrained the importance of the past in Willie’s mind. He taught Willie about the power of history; he described historical heroes that exemplified pacifism, reason, and kindness. As McAlindon asserts, “Kilgariff’s teaching foregrounds two ethical codes which struggle for dominance in the soul of the protagonist and reflect the enduring conflict in Ireland’s history between those committed to independence by constitutional means and those committed to armed rebellion” (5). Again, Willie had to choose which path history would lead him towards: a path of revenge, or a path of pacifism encouraged by Father Kilgariff. Surrounded on all sides by advocates of his past, Willie had no choice but to remember history’s destructive power in his life and in the lives of his loved ones. Spurned by his mother and father’s deaths, Willie ultimately chose the path of revenge that history destined to him, which resulted in grievous consequences for him and for his loved ones. Marianne illustrates the consequences of Willie’s choice as she reflects on Father Kilgariff’s wisdom, writing, “He was right when he said there's not much left in a life when murder has been committed--After each brief moment there was little chance for any one of us as there was for Kilneagh after the soldier's wrath. Truncated lives, creatures of the shadows. Fools of Fortune, as his father would have said; ghosts we became” (201). After Kilneagh’s fall, the destructive power of history seized Willie’s life, leading him down a path with devastating consequences; because Willie’s past followed him like a shadow, he had little choice in the altering his tragic future. History truly illustrated its power in dictating Willie’s life.

Lastly, history’s destructive power can be observed in Imelda’s insanity. Willie’s daughter grew up in his ancestral home of Kilneagh with Marianne, waiting for his return, haunted by ghosts of the past. Imelda’s madness is first depicted in her imagination of past events; she experiences flashbacks to the fire at Kilneagh, seeing how the “pictures slipped about. The flames devoured the flesh of the children’s faces and the flesh of their arms and of their legs, and of their stomachs and their backs” (172). Imelda incessantly meditates on Kilneagh’s past, as “more and more her reveries claimed her in the classroom or when she wandered about the fields or during Sunday-evening anthems, or in bed. It was a habit she’d gotten into, like reading her mother’s diaries, and listening” (183). Imelda even dreams of Sergeant Rudkin’s murder, imagining “the head, its weight tearing the flesh that still attached it to the body. She imagined the eyes and the mouth, and the body twitching the way she’d seen a turkey’s once for nearly a minute after death” (187). The grotesque images present in Imelda’s imagination illustrate her insanity caused by history and its power on the present. As Richard Russell claims, “Imelda’s imaginative immersion in the violence of the past finally traumatizes her to such a degree that she becomes a silent, a mute, vicarious ‘witness’ of sorts to atrocities associated with Kilneagh” (3). Imelda’s reflections on Kilneagh’s past drive her insanity forward and reiterate history’s destructive power over the Quinton family.

Imelda is also driven mad by her father’s revenge and exile. She repeatedly asks her mother, Marianne, when Willie is coming back. Despite the skepticism of others, her mother answers, “He will come back, you know. One day Willie will come back.” Encouraged by her mother’s hope, Imelda likes to imagine Willie’s return. She oftentimes “drifted into a familiar reverie: her father again stepped off the bus at Driscoll’s dressed in a suit that was as light-coloured as his hair” (183). She seeks to discover the father she has never known, pursuing him in “a photograph . . . in her mother’s bedroom, standing among rows of other boys. It was hard to make out what he looked like . . . he was smiling a little in the photograph, but when she tried to look more closely at his face it became misty” (171). Her knowledge of her father remains as misty as the photograph; despite her best efforts, she never gains a complete understanding of the father that left her behind, which contributes to her madness and her unhappiness. Although her friends and family believe “her happiness is like a shroud miraculously about her” (206), Russell raises an important question: “is this true happiness or is it an especially deluded form of insanity?” and goes on to assert that “her happiness is ‘like a shroud,’ indicating her obsession with the deaths and horrors that occurred at Kilneagh and suggesting that she has become the repository of these atrocities” (4). Imelda is not truly happy; history has left its final destructive mark on the Quinton family by branding her with insanity. Russell goes on to explain how “the reference to Yeats’s poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ in the phrase associated with Imelda’s supposed happiness . . . seems peaceful but is not” (4). Imelda uses the poem as a sort of comfort to protect herself against memories of the past; however, even the soothing sounds of Yeats’s poetry cannot keep the horrific images away. Sometimes, “she searched in her mind for the poetry but she could not remember the order of the words. She closed her eyes and in the room above the vegetable shop blood spurted in a torrent, splashing on to the wallpaper that was torn and hung loosely down . . . But nothing went away” (189-190). Once a safe haven, Yeats’s poetry materializes to haunt Imelda with tragedies of the past. As Russell emphasizes, “Yeats’s ‘lake water lapping’ has been transformed in Imelda’s mind into the torrent of blood that issued from Rudkin when her father Willie murdered him in his vegetable shop” (4). Willie’s revenge and absence in Imelda’s life facilitate her fall into insanity; moreover, they illustrate the tragic consequences of history’s destructive power.

History’s destructive power is illustrated once more through the irony of Imelda’s “gifts.” The locals believe that Imelda possesses healing powers analogous to the Catholic patroness entitled “blessed Imelda.” The local people describe how she can “bring the afflicted to her” and how “a woman has been rid of dementia, a man cured of a cataract” (206). Willie reiterates this belief, thinking, “in Ireland it happens sometimes that the insane are taken to be saints of a kind. Legends in Ireland are born almost every day” (198). Sadly, Willie is consciously fooling himself. As Russell explains, “despite Willie’s realization of the community’s ascription of veritable sainthood to Imelda, he himself finally accepts this unrealistic view of his daughter, undoubtedly to assuage his guilt at having been gone for so long and to occlude his own role in the violence” (13). Imelda’s gifts ironically symbolize her insanity; her parents and her community refuse to admit history’s destructive power in her downward spiral; instead, they choose to proclaim her as a saint whose powers of healing facilitate regeneration, not degeneration.

History’s destructive power permeates the lives of the Quinton family and the people who surround them. This destructive power is present from the novel’s start, first depicted in the tragedy of Willie and Marianne’s love that resembles the Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet and mirrors the relationship between the nations of Ireland and England, nations connected by a bloody history. History’s destructive power continues its rampage throughout the novel, through Kilneagh’s destruction and the consequences that followed: the death of Willie’s father and sisters, the suicide committed by his mother, and the revenge that grew into Willie’s heart as a result of continual reminders of his brutal past. History seals its power in driving Imelda into insanity that is facilitated through remembrance of past events and their consequences, and depicted in the irony of her “sainthood.” Throughout the novel, history’s destructive power reverberates clearly: in Willie and Marianne’s tragic love story, in Kilneagh’s ruin, and in Imelda’s insanity. Fools of Fortune accurately underscores the earth-shattering power history holds over its characters and emphasizes how history’s destructive power affects generations upon generations of people, even to this day.


Works Cited

Hildebidle, John. "Kilneagh and Challacombe: William Trevor's Two Nations." Eire-Ireland 28.3 (1993): 114-129. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.

Larsen, Max Deen. "Saints of the Ascendancy: William Trevor's Big-House Novels." Ancestral Voices: The Big House in Anglo-Irish Literature. Ed. Otto Rauchbauer. Lilliput Press, 1992. 257-272. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.

McAlindon, Tom. “Tragedy, History, and Myth: William Trevor’s Fools of Fortune.” Irish University Review 33.2 (2003): 291. Literary Resource Center. Web. 14 Sept. 2013.

Russell, Richard Rankin. “The Tragedy of Imelda's Terminal Silence in William Trevor's Fools of Fortune.” Papers on Language & Literature 42.1 (2006): 73-94. Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 Sept. 2013.



Trevor, William. Fools of Fortune. New York: Penguin, 1983. Print.



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