The Distant Past by William Trevor
In The Distant Past by William Trevor we have the theme of loyalty, identity, prejudice, conflict, fear and alienation. Taken from his Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Trevor may be exploring the theme of loyalty. Despite the War of Independence the Middleton’s remain loyal to Britain. This may be significant as they are the only people in town who have remained loyal to Queen and country. So loyal in fact that when Reverend Bradshaw removes the prayers for the Queen from his service they are somewhat annoyed. Which may be understandable considering how deeply rooted in the Empire the Middletons are. They have a picture of their father in uniform (Irish Guards), a cross of St. George and a Union Jack in their drawing room. All symbols which for someone living in the Republic of Ireland may seem to be inappropriate considering Ireland’s history with Britain.
There may also be a possibility that the Middletons are accepted by their neighbours because they are in a minority. They are no threat to the status quo. The predominately Catholic town can afford to ignore Mr Middleton’s whims of driving into town with a Union Jack in his car. It is after all the Irish who won the War of Independence and not the British. It may also be important that the Middletons from the period of the War of Independence to the start of the Troubles, though accepted by the town, where still somewhat on the outside. It is as though the Middletons lost their identity when Britain lost the War of Independence. No longer was the Queen Head of State and eventually Ireland would withdraw from the Commonwealth.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which might be important. Trevor mentions that the Middletons have four Hereford cows at the beginning of the story. At the end of the story, fifty years later, nothing has changed the Middletons continue to have four Hereford cows. This symbolically may suggest that the Middleton’s through the years have made no changes in their outlook on life or that they simply may not have adapted to the circumstances around them. There is a sense of paralysis. Old Turloch, the red Irish setter, plays a significant part in the story. The Middletons have had red setters all their lives and in many ways the red of the setter could be compared to the red of St. George’s Cross. The silent treatment that the Middletons get from others is also important as it mirrors how so many Protestant people were treated by Irish Catholics at the onset of the Troubles. No longer was there a tolerance or an acceptance among Irish Catholics for Irish Protestants. If anything the view of so many, particularly the Irish Catholic Church, was one of prejudice towards Irish Protestants.
The end of the story is also interesting as Mr Middleton appears to accept defeat and knows that things will be very different for him and his sister now that they are being alienated by those in the town. He plans on selling the Herefords and with nobody to inherit the house he knows that it will fall to ruin. This too may be symbolically important as Trevor may be highlighting the decline of Irish Protestants at the time. Miss Middleton also appears to accept the circumstances she finds herself in and is in agreement with her brother. Things have changed forever and there does not look like there will be a resolution to the conflict in their lifetime. Both the Middletons have lived their lives on the outside of society. Sometimes by choice but at the end of the story they have no choice in the matter. They are to be alienated because of their religious and political beliefs. Ireland at the time had still to understand the idea of inclusion of all its people. Leaving many like the Middletons forced to live on the outskirts of society because of prejudice.