Secrets by Bernard MacLaverty

Secrets - Bernard MacLavertyIn Secrets by Bernard MacLaverty we have the theme of curiosity, letting go, guilt, love, innocence and forgiveness. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that MacLaverty may be exploring the theme of curiosity. Though the boy knows that he is not allowed to read his Aunt’s personal letters he still nonetheless does so. His curiosity getting the better of him. It is also through the boy’s curiosity that the reader gets an insight into the boy’s Aunt’s life. How she may have once loved a soldier called John. However John while recuperating in hospital during the war chose to follow a religious path (Brother Benignus). There is also a sense that the Aunt has never let go of John. Something that becomes clearer to the reader by the fact that the Aunt has still kept all of John’s letters and postcards. There is no mention of any other letters from any other individuals which suggests just how important John was to the boy’s Aunt. She was a young woman who was very much in love with John. Though he chose a different path. A path that he most likely hoped would bring him closer to God after all the atrocities he had witnessed during the war.

There is also a sense that the boy despite the passing of time and his Aunt’s death still feels guilty about having invaded his Aunt’s privacy. Something that is noticeable at the end of the story when the boy is crying and hoping that his Aunt can forgive him for his actions. This longing for forgiveness may be important as it suggests that the boy knows that he has done something wrong. At the time he may not have felt that reading his Aunt’s personal letters might be wrong which is understandable when the reader considers that the boy was young and curious. He wasn’t to know that the woman who read him stories when he was younger was also a woman who had the capacity to love a man and to keep it secret all her life. In reality the Aunt was a very private person. She attended Church and spent her time at home. To an outsider she would look like no more than an old woman who was religious. It wouldn’t seem possible to others (and to the boy when he was younger) that she may have fallen in love with someone.

MacLaverty may also be exploring the theme of innocence. Though the reader never knows how old the boy was when he read his Aunt’s letters. There is a sense that there was a loss of innocence after his Aunt struck him on the face. No longer was their relationship the same. Something that is clear to the reader by the fact that the Aunt tells the boy she will never forget what he has done. Their relationship has been reshaped due to the boy’s curiosity. Though it may feel as though the boy is being severely punished the other side of the coin suggests just how important the letters were to the Aunt. Nobody, including the boy, were allowed to read them. The boy has also seen another side of his Aunt that he had previously not imagined. It might also be important that the boy allows his mother to burn the letters without taking them from her. This suggests that the boy has learnt a lesson. That he knows that the contents of the letters are private and not for him to read again. Where many people on an individual’s death might read a person’s letters. This is not the case in the story. The boy is no longer curious. Though he does ask who Brother Benignus was. Which might suggest that there is still a part of the boy who would like to know more about his Aunt. Though he is not intrusive enough to read the letters again to see if he can find out who Brother Benignus is.

The end of the story is also interesting as the boy breaks down crying, hoping that his Aunt forgives him for his actions when he was younger. It is difficult to say as to whether the Aunt has forgiven the boy but what is noticeable is that despite the passing of time the boy has not forgiven himself. In reality he was a young boy who was curious about his Aunt’s life. He was not to know just how private his Aunt wanted to keep her past. Yet the boy is unable to forgive himself. Which may suggest that the boy truly loved his Aunt and respected her. Though on one occasion (reading the letters) he may have unknowingly at the time went a step too far. In reality the boy can’t be blamed for his actions due to his young age. Every young boy (and girl) has a curious streak. Though on this occasion the boy’s curiosity when he was younger has left a lasting impression on his life. He will never know anything more about his Aunt which may be the point that MacLaverty is attempting to make. MacLaverty may be suggesting that we all have aspects in our life that we wish to keep private. Parts of ourselves that might hurt us or that we wish had turned out differently and that we like the Aunt in the story can never let go of.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Secrets by Bernard MacLaverty." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 13 Sep. 2017. Web.

204 comments

  • Helped me bro

  • Good job M8 it helped me study for my exams

  • Very well developed analysis of the circumstances presented in the story. Well done, thank you for the pleasant read.

  • This really helped me out.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Jeff. I’m glad that you found the post helpful.

      • Can u pls tell me the symbols and literary devices used in this story

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Thanks for the comment Anish. MacLaverty appears to be using the stamps and letters as symbolism. They represent one thing to the boy (stamps for his collection). However for his Aunt they represent a lost love and a ever lasting connection to John (Brother Benignus). Also the fact that the boy is doing his A levels may be symbolically important as it suggests he is still learning just as he is learning more about his Aunt. The bureau bookcase is also symbolic of the past and the Aunt’s relationship with John.

          One noticeable literary device used by MacLaverty is a simile. When describing the Aunts hair when she was younger it is described as being like a ‘knotted rope.’ Similarly in the picture by the beach the bucket hats on the girls head are described as being like ‘German helmets.’

          • thank you so much….are there any more literary devices which are in this story?

            • Dermot (Post Author)

              MacLaverty also uses metaphors. An example of this is in one of John’s letters to the Aunt. He says ‘when we swam the last two fingers of your hand went the colour and texture of candles with the cold.’

  • What are the themes used in Secrets?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Rohan. The central theme is love with there being sub themes of curiosity, letting go, guilt, innocence and forgiveness.

  • Great work! Any thoughts about her cameo ring, and what that might symbolism?

  • Any evidences how MacLaverty shows the strength of the love relationship between John and Mary ?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Chohan. The fact that Mary has still kept every letter from John despite the passing of time would suggest that there was strength in her love for John. Time has not lessened how she feels for him. Also the secrecy behind the letters suggests that Mary feels that her relationship with John is so personal that it is only for her and John. They have a strong and deep bond that nobody can come between.

  • Do you know how war was portrayed by the letters in the story? How could it be significant?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ameer. MacLaverty uses the letters to not only highlight to the reader how deeply in love with Mary John is but as readers we also get an insight into the effect of the war on John. One letter in particular stands out. When John tells Mary about the dead soldiers that are lying around him. The reader senses just how traumatic the position is that John finds himself in. Just as he is struggling to be apart from Mary. He is also struggling to accept what is happening in the war.

  • Can you tell me how does Bernard MacLaverty illustrate the theme of loss in the story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Omer. MacLaverty by way of the funeral explores the theme of loss. The Aunt after all has died. Her family have lost her. Also the Aunt’s love for Brother Benignus has not reached its full potential with Brother Benignus rather than marrying the Aunt after the war was over. Enters a religious order. Despite this the Aunt has never forgotten Brother Benignus. She still loves him even though she has lost him.

      • Hello I have a question is Brother Benignus John, however he is choosing to go by a different name signing of the letters using Brother instead of John which shows that he has chosen a path that brings him closer to god and he has made the sacrifice that he was talking about in the last letter that the boy read ?

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          John is Brother Benignus. He changed his name when he became a Brother (a member of a religious order) after the war. As for the sacrifice that John made. He gave up Mary (aunt) and chose to dedicate his life to God.

  • That really helped me, I got an A because of that summary, thanks bro

  • Quite informative especially for those who tend to find this at the end time for the revision of literature test . I would totally aced with that wouldn’t u .

  • Wow, my teacher gave us a copy of your notes and it’s really helping me out. Thank you!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Amna. I’m glad that you are finding the notes helpful.

      • Hey, can you please add a little detail about the different relationships in the story like the relationship between aunt mary and the boy and the relationship between the boy’s mother and the aunt?

        • I would also like to know how this story has been composed by Brenard Maclaverty?

          • Dermot (Post Author)

            The story begins in the present (funeral) but becomes a memory piece as the story progresses when the boy is looking back at his time with Aunt Mary.

            • the story begins with the young male character whose ” Great Aunt Mary had been dying for some days now and the house was full of relatives.”
              in the house, prayers are being done for the dying aunt. the prayers reflect the seriousness of the situation. through the prayers, the readers are also introduced to the Christian beliefs and context. prayers were performed to relieve the dying aunt from her unbearable pain.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Aunt Mary had a close relationship with the boy. She allowed him to go through some of her post cards so that he could pick out some stamps. However their relationship deteriorated when the boy started to read Aunt Mary’s private letters.

          As for the relationship between the boy’s mother and Aunt Mary. We learn from the boy’s mother that she considered Aunt Mary to be a private person. So they were not necessarily close. Not as close as the boy and Aunt Mary were.

  • Thank you so so much! This helped me out a lot in my exam. I couldn’t have done it without these notes. Really appreciate the time and effort you put into this.

  • Very well written. It helped me a lot while studying for my exams. I understood the whole story just after reading this. It was short and sweet and very helpful.

  • Wow, a great summary and analysis. Do you think you could break down the significance (maybe irony?) of the last question the boy asks his mom?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      It looks as though the boy is feeling guilty and the question he asks his mother is more for his own benefit than anything else. He is looking for forgiveness. What might be ironic about the situation is that the Aunt didn’t need to say anything. We knew all about her through her letters which the boy read. Another way to look at it is that the Aunt remained private right up to her death yet again as readers we knew more about her than she would have liked.

  • Why is the character of the aunt portrayed in a particularly memorable way?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      If you’re asking why the boy remembers the aunt so well. Then it is probably because she was good to the boy. She may of had secrets but the boy bonded with the aunt.

  • Can I ask who is Brother Benignus in the story? And btw this summary is so good and was very helpful thank you so much

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks. Brother Benignus was the Aunt’s love interest. Before he joined an order he fought in the war and his name was John (as far as I remember).

  • Thanks for the summary mate…tomorrow is my exam I hope I get good marks.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      You’re welcome Advani. Good luck with your exam.

      • Mate can u plz help me out with who was brother benignus as aunt’s love was john so what is the connection between brother benignus and aunt? Hope u reply soon.

        • And one more thing if u can help me as my teacher gave me a question. If u can help me out to answer it.

          Q. Was the act of sneaking into the aunt’s personal letter the only thing that destroyed their relationship?

          • Dermot (Post Author)

            Yes. As far as I remember. You might want to double check that though. It’s been a while since I read the story.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          John is Brother Benignus. He changed his name when he became a Brother (a member of a religious order) after the war.

  • Nice one. Can you send me some good questions about this?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      1. Why did the Aunt and the boy fall out?

      2. Does the Aunt forgive the boy?

      3. Does the boy forgive himself?

  • Thank you so much for this! I have my English final tomorrow based on this and some other stories I found on here.

  • Hi, can you give me more examples of literary devices? please, its urgent!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      It’s been a while since I read the story but this previous answer might help. Also MacLaverty uses an epistolary (letters) narrative in sections of the story.

  • This was of good help for my test in a few hours, thanks mate.

  • It helped me a lot with my essay. Thanks a lot and keep up the good work.

  • Keep the good work up. It really helped me for my essay. Thanks again.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’m glad you found the post helpful.

      • You are welcome but could I know about how the story is tragic especially with war?

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          The story is tragic for several reasons. Firstly the Aunt has lost the love of her life. Secondly John has changed as a person because of the war and thirdly the boy has lost the trust of his aunt.

  • Could longing and loss also be themes?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Yes I think they could. The boy still longs for his aunt. Not only so she can forgive him but so that they can be friends again.

  • Thanks bro this helped me a lot.

  • Amazing, do you do this for GCSE as i read Lemon Orchard also from here. Thanks

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’m reading a lot of stories from a collection called Stories of Ourselves. Which I think is part of the GCSE curriculum.

  • It’s really helpful but could you please tell me a little more about the relationship between Mary and John? Thanks in advance.

  • I use this page to prepare for my igcse it’s really helpful. Could you tell me how the writer’s use of symbolism makes the story more effective?

  • what is the relationship between the nephew and aunt

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The relationship moves from one of loving to hostility after the nephew is caught reading the aunt’s letters.

  • great summary it helped a lot, thanks!! I just have to answer this question but I can’t seem to figure it out. could you please help?

    Q: What would be considered a central conflict ? In three to five sentences, explain the conflict, the characters involved, and resolution(s) where applicable.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The central conflict in the story is two-fold. Firstly the fact that the nephew has read his aunt’s letter. Secondly how the nephew feels about the termination of his relationship with his aunt. There is no real resolution apart from the fact that the aunt no longer wants the nephew in her life. She feels that the nephew by reading her letters has invaded her privacy.

  • I wanted to know who are the main characters of the story and who are the supporting characters and what are their function(s)

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The two main characters are the aunt and the nephew. Their relationship helps to build tension and conflict. The supporting characters are the nephew’s mother and Brother Benignus (John). Brother Benignus serves as a connection to the past for the aunt while the nephew’s mother serves somewhat to reconcile the nephew and the aunt (after her death).

  • Hey I found it really helpful and great. Do you have analysis for the poetry section do let me know if there is.

  • What is the sense of guilt of the boy?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The boy got caught going through his aunt’s private letters and he has never had a chance to reconcile with her.

  • Can you clarify and explain the repetition of the boy being ‘inquisitive’ as well the aunt’s dignity.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Most young boys are inquisitive. Especially when something is forbidden to them as is the case with the boy in the story. With regard to the aunt’s dignity she has lived her life in a dignified way despite the loss that she feels. She has kept her emotions private when it comes to John.

  • Can you please tell me the context of this story? Thank you.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      A young boy after his aunt’s funeral is recalling an event that occurred with his aunt (reading her private letters).

  • What is the genre of the story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’m not too sure I actually know the answer to that question.

      • What would u think it is. I have an exam tomorrow. Plz answer

      • The genre to me is not openly blown but one reading can assume from events, characters disposition and general atmosphere of the story is a biography profiling the aunt’s personal life, personality in relation to her love life, family associations which is strictly on the principles she cherishes and will not despite her love for the unnamed nephew or boy she doesn’t forgive him for encroaching into her private life by reading her cherished secret mails.

  • I understand the significance of the boy letting her mother burn the letter, but do you think burning the letter in the first place rather than keeping them has any importance? Just wondering.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      By burning the letters the aunt’s secrets are being lost or forgotten about by others. She has the privacy she craved for while she was alive in death.

      • Well I was thinking if there could have been a theme of ‘continuity of life’ here, as the aunt dies consequently her possessions have no importance anymore.

  • I know this is a weird thing to ask but….does the boy have a name? if so what is it? by the way this review helped me out a lot for my studies.

  • Thanks this helped me a lot.

  • Can you please tell me either quotations or at which stages does felling of guilty represent in the whole story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The boys feelings of guilt manifest early when his aunt gives out to him for reading the letters. It remains with him till his aunt dies.

  • can you explain me more clearly please?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      If I’m picking you up right you are asking when the boy begins to feel guilty and how long it lasts. His guilt begins when his aunt gives out to him for reading the letters. Their relationship changes completely and at the back of the boys mind till the time of the funeral and beyond. He continues to feel guilty.

  • how does the writer make the aunt/nephew memorable

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I would suggest that MacLaverty manages to make both characters memorable by associating them with history. Firstly the aunt with John and secondly the nephew with the conflict that remains from his opening and reading of his aunt’s letters. There is an unbroken connection between both characters. Even if the aunt has shunned the nephew.

  • Could you please tell me the tone this story is told in?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Calm, angry and reflective. Calm before the boy finds his aunts letters. Angry when she discovers he has read them and reflective when the boy thinks about what he may have done.

  • I’m studying for my exam and i need help with the old lady’s character sketch.could u plz help

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The old lady is a very private person. She keeps to herself and does not really engage with others. She is fair and kind to the boy till he reads her letters and then she because of the pain she feels over the loss of John gets angry.

  • I really enjoyed reading your analysis of the story. A lot of posts are about the literary devices that the writer uses and in my opinion, one of them is analogy.
    The aunt has lost her dignity in her death. She seems to have shrunk and is making deep, guttural noises in the throes of death. It is analogous to the relationship between the boy and his aunt which had been full of sweetness and light for the most part but had soured irredeemably by his violation of her privacy.
    The irises that had been put in in the vase by her are dying simultaneously and are described in detail.
    The letters that had meant so much to the aunt and had been preserved through her lifetime are burnt unread at the end. She has turned to dust and the letters that she cherished have turned to ashes.
    Another device is of flashback. The story begins in the present and then through the recollection of the protagonist, it passes on to the past.
    Dialogue is also a technique used to carry the story forward. In the beginning, we can feel the way she playfully tells the child not to be too inquisitive. It is in direct contrast to her tone of voice when she finds him reading her letters. ‘You are dirt,’ she hissed. There is suppressed violence in her tone at having her secret exposed.

    She is an orderly and methodical person which is shown by the way she keeps her things in her bureau. The boy, not only disrupts the order of her life but also of the bureau when he shoves the letters in higgledy piggledy to avoid exposure.

    I especially liked your reference to the change that comes over time in people due to their circumstances. John sacrificed his love because of his experience of war, the aunt who never got married lost not only her love to war but also lost her loving relationship with her nephew. The boy by stoking his curiosity developed a sense of guilt which he could not overcome.

    In the end his tears of remorse might help him overcome his sense of loss and he might be able to forgive himself.

  • It’s mentioned that Great Aunt Mary’s favourite extract was from Great Expectations – Pip’s meeting with Miss Havisham. Just like Aunt Mary, Miss Havisham had been jilted by a mysterious man many years ago and since then she had never been the same again. Also, the nephew entertained his aunt somewhat similar to how Pip was supposed to entertain Miss Havisham, and maybe that was why this was the aunt’s favourite extract.

  • Do you know how the last paragraph help us to relate to the themes and plot of the story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Taking forgiveness as a theme the reader can see that the boy is still seeking his aunt’s forgiveness after the passage of time. Which would fit in with the plot as there is a sense that the boy was looking for forgiveness but was unable to get the solace he needed due to his aunt’s steadfastness on the issue.

  • Really nice analysis. Just wanted to ask, how does MacLaverty make the ending powerful?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I suppose by leaving the boy still seeking forgiveness. Which would highlight the severity of what he has done in the aunt’s eyes.

  • How war is portrayed in the letters? How could this be significant?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      It may highlight why John devoted his life to religion and peace. Having seen the atrocities of war John may never have wished to see war happen again. Feeling as though he could serve a purpose if he became a Brother.

  • I can’t see where and when John left Mary in the story like u said. And pls fill me in why that happened. Apart from that dis had been of great help, thank u.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      John (or Brother Benignus) didn’t return to Mary after the war. He went to become a Brother. Feeling as though his experience of the war could be of benefit to others.

  • I am studying for my exams and this has been a very helpful resource. Thank you so much for making it public and free! I was reading through the story and found that there is a pattern in the events that take place. Two relationships have been touched by the author which include that of Mary and John, and that of the protagonist and Mary. Mary kept John’s relationship a secret, but still loved him dearly even after he had ventured in his own journey after leaving Mary. The fact that she kept these letters shows how she misses him. Similarly, the protagonist shows how he also dearly loves and misses Mary after she dies, and it seems he has kept the whole incident about the letters and his severed relationship with Mary a secret as well. Perhaps the author is trying to show how it is difficult to move on in life, and how memories and the effects of incidents can last even longer than a person’s life. Mary has passed now, and the boy is doing his A-levels, meaning he is in his late teens, but he still feels the guilt of the mistake he had made.

    Thank you again so much for this incredible analysis! It has been a great help.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the insight. I would agree with you that it can be difficult to move on and a person may be left with memories they can not let go of.

  • Is this story 3rd person limited or 3rd person omniscient? I just want to make sure because I believe its 3rd person omniscient :/

  • Dermot (Post Author)

    You could be right.

  • I recently taught this story, haven read it for the first time, and I would like to suggest a small area of interpretation that you have not covered yet as far as I can see.

    One major motif is religion, and in particular the Roman Catholic concepts of guilt, sacrifice and expiation. When God tempted Adam and Eve, he made it clear to them that there was one thing they that they were simply not allowed to do. Similarly, the aunt says “anything else, yes. That section – no!” And, just like Adam and Eve, the boy’s curiosity got the better of him and he was expelled from her presence. The reference to “dirt” reflects that that was what Adam was originally made of. The boy’s tears reflect Adam and Eve’s woe after they have been expelled from paradise.

    What do you think?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I think you have a good grip of the story. I should have noticed the religious element but it passed me by. Thanks for the explanation.

    • Richard, I never thought of the religious angle. Thanks for sharing!
      According to the Roman Catholic faith, how could the boy have expiated?

      • Hello Mahwash,

        I should preface this by saying that I was not raised in the Catholic faith, and I’ve never been a practising Catholic, so I not only apologise to anyone reading this who might know more than I do for any errors or omissions, but also would welcome any corrections.

        I think expiation is a large constituent of this story, but in different ways. I think the only character who operates it in, if you like, the way it should be operated, is the boy, and even then I don’t think he understands what it is he is doing.

        John, once he has become “a different person,” as Brother Benignus, is the representative of formal religion. His conversion proceeds from his sense that he “must do something, must sacrifice something to make up for the horror of the last year.” However, he really has nothing to apologise for in terms of the war itself. As far as we know he did not shed anyone else’s blood so, although, as he says, he is “enraged” about what happened to others, he does not seem to have any guilt associated with being a solider. Nonetheless, he does have something of which he should be ashamed His job was to censor the content of letters from the front. This was understood to be an important job, so the people back home did not realise what was actually happening. Yet, by writing to Great Aunt Mary, he was breaking that rule twice, first through the very fact of breaking it and second by being so descriptive of the “carnage.” Yet, he seems not to feel any sense of guilt or shame for that. Admittedly, it is not a sin in the religious sense, but it was certainly wrong in terms of his position. In a sense, like the boy, he has betrayed a trust that was put on him. Moreover, he seems not to have committed wholeheartedly to the sacrifice he claims to have made. He still writes to Mary and sends her books, and at one point he signs a card “Iggy.” This diminutive of his adopted monastic name seems more focused on affecting the human Mary than on appealing to the divine God he claims to have sacrificed her for. So John claims to be expiating his guilt through his new life, but it isn’t his guilt, he isn’t expiating the guilt he could more properly have and he isn’t even doing it very well, because he clearly still wants Mary to feel something for him.

        Mary continues to go to church, despite her lover having abandoned her for it. I can see no reason why she would have anything to apologise to anyone for, from the day she receives John’s letter from his “hospital bed,” to the moment she discovers the boy reading the letters. John abandoned her, which was not her fault, while her family, the boy aside, seem willing to be distant from her, on the pretext that “she kept herself very much to herself.” . Church is a powerful presence in the kind of community Maclaverty is describing, so she perhaps feels it is her duty to attend, and ta least it gets her out of the house. Or maybe, like God with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she is tempting the boy to fall from grace so, like Miss Havisham with Pip, she can try to damage him for life, in recompense for what a man did to her. Maybe that’s a stretch. Nonetheless, after the betrayal and her expulsion of him, in Christian terms she would have a lot to apologise for. While her rage is understandable, she sticks to her promise never to forgive the boy. Forgiveness is one of the most fundamental Christian principles, so any prayers she might offer from then on would be hollow without a full apology to God, and then to the boy. So Mary does not even attempt to expiate her sin, but she should have.

        The family members superficially are praying for, and then mourning, their family member at the beginning of the story. The rituals around death are intended to send the dying person to heaven with prayers, while also allowing her final memory to be good in terms of her faith, as well as having a loving family around her. Yet in this case, it’s as if for the family the whole process has been an encumbrance or unpleasant duty, rather than anything either loving or spiritual. Mary starting to draw her final breaths is seen not as an occasion for prayer and love, but merely gives them a “sense of purpose which had been absent” for the previous days, where she was not dying enough to justify the final set of prayers. The family pays lip service to their religion, seeing it more in functional than spiritual terms. The entire family seem not to care one way or the other about the religion that is supposed to be the corner stone of the community, treating it more like an annoyance than an opportunity to get closer to God. This is a form of collective sin which they do not even recognise as such.

        The burning of the letters by the boy’s mother at the end of the story could have been seen as some kind of expiatory guilt purging by the mother for her feelings of loss for a close relative, as well as to preserve her privacy and dignity after death. However Maclaverty treats it primarily as simply a matter of housekeeping, through which the Aunt is removed and “the room could then be his study. “ We also see a betrayal similar to the kind the boy conducted but without any of the associated feelings: “she opened one and read quickly through it, then threw it on top of the burning pile.” The mother’s uninterested dismissal of the only parts of the Aunt’s life that the Aunt felt had been of any worth at the Aunt’s death is sinfully neglectful of a fellow human being. The mother’s casual approach to the letter and her offhand comment to the boy to his question, contrasts with the fact that for the boy they symbolise a huge moment of guilt in his life, for which he is desperate for forgiveness: “did she anything about me…?” … “not that I know of.”

        Finally, the boy’s guilt is there throughout. The story begins with a foreshadowing of the situation between Mary and John before his change. He could smell “the trace of his girlfriend’s handcream” on his hands which, like John’s memories of Mary as expressed in the letters, are the echo of of a presence that meant a lot when he was with her, but was irrelevant to the current situation. The boy’s emotions as he kneels, prays and watches his aunt in her death throes are more real than the mundane “waling” of the family as they went through the rituals of mourning. They boy instead had to leave because her death rattling was too painful for him, reminding him of the “dignity he knew her to have,” and then stimulating the flashbacks that form the main part of the story.

        His flashbacks end with Mary speaking of –“the day I die,” which is the day on which the story begins and ends. Death and the rituals associated with it are together intended to offer some kind of closure to those left behind, but for the boy it means he has no more hope of forgiveness from Mary in this life, leaving him only the hope “that she might forgive him” from her place in heaven. Mary the Virgin mother, in whose name he was praying at the start of the story, who is supposed to be a Catholic’s intercessor in heaven, has for him become personalised to Mary the maiden (therefore, supposedly at least, virgin) Aunt who he hopes will be able in some way to forgive him. This is true expiation, which he can only achieve by staying true to her memory and to the values he has learned from the experience of recalling her dignity and the stories and the love, while also recalling his act of betrayal.

        All the stories Mary read the boy have, in one form or another, betrayal as a motif. I suggest that Maclaverty wants us to see the end of Mary as the beginning of the expiatory process for the boy, who has no choice but to spend the rest of his life unforgiven for the act of betrayal, just as happened to Adam and Eve. We can speculate that he will try to put things right by being a decent, caring, honest and maybe even properly rather than nominally religious so that, by the end of his life, he can feel he has done the memory of his aunt due justice. For the boy, expiation is an ongoing process that maybe he will never fully achieve, just as we cannot ever fully purge our sins. However, whatever effort he might put in would be better than the failures of others to be good Catholics. Because we can see his feelings from his own perspective, albeit in a third person narrative form, we know his feelings are genuine and his contrition absolute.

        The boy therefore is the only one who does religion correctly because, although he knows he is undeserving of forgiveness and in any case the only one short of God who can offer him forgiveness is no longer around to do so, he acknowledges the full extent of his own sin.

        • Bernard MacLaverty’s background study reveals that his novels and short stories do indeed have themes such as Catholicism and guilt.

          I was much affected by the depth of your analysis. (I had failed to notice signing off as ‘Iggy’, or mentioning the horrors of war as ‘slips’-which indeed they were…)

          I agree that the boy is really the only one genuinely expiating.

          I really appreciate that you shared your insights. Thanks so much!

  • Is Mary the boy’s aunt or great aunt, I’ve only seen her referred to as an aunt in these threads but in the second sentence of the story they refer to her as his ‘Great Aunt Mary’ if you can clear up any confusion it would be much appreciated.

  • would u rather consider the secrets as in colonialism or does it have any incidents that relates to social class?

  • I thought so cause ive been looking for points that relates to colonialism but how does it fall under realism I know for a fact that the boy realised that what he did was wrong to read letters that are not meant for him so care to explain further your points on realism

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The story is fixed to what would happen in real life. The aunt getting angry over her letters and the boy being upset that his link to his aunt has been severed. This link will help you to further explore realism.

  • It was great the way you clarified the themes..tomorrow’s my exam and I am using your explanation of the themes to study..thank you.

  • Thanks. Is it true that the boy’s aunt was having an affair with a married man

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      No. John was a single man who entered a religious order after the war. He never married nor did the aunt.

  • Wow helped me alot. Nice work dude.

  • how was the theme of adolescence discuss?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’m not sure. Perhaps the guilt that the protagonist feels is similar to one that an adolescent might feel and be overwhelmed by.

  • How does maclaverty present secrets in this story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The aunt tells the nephew not to touch the letters and he does. The aunt has a secret she wants to keep.

    • Secrets are presented as something very personal and important. They may appear to be trivial to others but others can’t judge their importance – others should respect these secrets unquestionably. Secrets may be the ‘missing link’ in making a person who they are.

      Perhaps one could challenge this presentation. What did the aunt gain from keeping this secret – other than an untrue facade? On the contrary, she may have gained a deeper, more meaningful relationship with her nephew had she ‘opened up’ to him and forgiven him…opening up might have helped her ‘move on’ and thereby enjoy a richer life experience…

  • This was cool it actually really helped me with all these tests coming up.Thank You. But what is the climax to this story??

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I would think the climax is when Aunt Mary discovers that the nephew has read her letters.

  • That was really helpful, thank you very much.

  • Do you think Bernard MacLaverty´s perception of the human being is reflected on Aunt Mary´s character?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      It is a possibility. Mary is very human. Something we notice by her reaction to the nephew’s reading of her letters. She is an exceptionally private persona and does not like sharing her past. Which may mirror how many people feel about their issues in their life.

  • Hi ! Thank you so much for giving an understandable analysis , it is very helpful to me. thanks a lot. I had a hard time when I was reading the story , but now I am really happy that I can understand the story well by getting some information from the analysis.

  • Is was very helpful

  • Thx u vry useful.

  • you know what u could include more content for a better understand and making this very clear otherwise good job i would also like to suggest that u could do this for many more stories which would make your website very beneficial cause whilst i was hunting for content for other stories i was not able to do so which lead me to a severe misunderstanding.

  • Can I ask about an important question

  • I rlly liked ur analysis, it’s clear and easy to understand.
    For the techniques or literary devices i got (hyperbole, onomatopea, dialouge, personification, simile, symbolism, vivid description, imagery, idiom, paradox, metaphor), may u plz help me in finding the evidences for each? “at least 4 if possible”

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      imagery – Light of water from the inlet that ran to Ballisadare and was called the Calm Sea blinded him (first paragraph).

      metaphor – Miss McCabe’s dream was still in the womb of time (top of third page).

      vivid description – Description of stoat chasing rabbit (second paragraph).

      hyperbole – Apparently he’s just found someone. A school teacher in her forties. She’s no beauty but a shining light compared to the wrecks and battleaxes he’s been interviewing. (bottom of forth page).

  • Hi I really like your style of writing! I would just like to know how the author uses literary devices such as imagery and similes in order to bring out the theme of guilt specifically.

  • Why does the writer mentioned the boy’s girlfriend? What meaning that it adds to the story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      It could be a case that MacLaverty is suggesting that though things are bad for the protagonist. He does have another outlet. One that will help him forget what he has done to his aunt.

  • What were the protagonist’s feelings throughout the letters and his later conversations?

  • Hi there. I am confused. Is the boy’s name John too? Because the last few comments have suggested so.

  • can u give a short summary that helps me to understand

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      A young boy reads his aunt’s private letters and she finds out. This sours their relationship forever and the boy is never forgiven by his aunt. His aunt dies and the boy feels guilty about what he has done.

  • Hi, could you expand on the use of letters as a technique a little? Thanks. Great analysis BTW.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The letters act as a connection between the aunt and John. With both sharing their innermost secrets and love for one another.

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