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.


  • Helped me bro

  • Good job M8 it helped me study for my exams

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Myzs. It’s great knowing that the post was of some benefit to you.

      • what techniques does maclaverty use in his story to tell us about aunt mary’s character?

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          The main technique that MacLaverty uses comes by way of the letters. It is through them that the reader realises that Mary was in love with John.

  • 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?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Adrian. I’m not sure about the cameo ring. Perhaps Mary wore it as a sign of her commitment to John.

  • 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.

        • 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?

  • 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.

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