Struggle through Adolescence in John McGahern’s The Dark
Throughout adolescence, a person develops in various areas such as socially, emotionally, sexually. In John McGahern’s The Dark, the journey through adolescence challenges the narrator in ways that test all of those areas. Living with Mahoney, his abusive father, who not only physically and sexually abuses him, creates a trying barrier of feelings that obstruct their relationship. Young Mahoney must make significant decisions that could change his life in the process. His cousin, the local clergyman attempts to persuade the narrator into joining the priesthood, and his father puts constant pressure on him to stay to work on the farm.
During which he continues to work harder in school to attain a scholarship for college. He also struggles with insecurity regarding his sexuality, the separation from his home and father, and his constant feelings of uncertainty towards the decisions he must make. In this paper, I suggest that Young Mahoney’s coming of age defines a moment in his life that allows him to confront himself along with his fears, and which leads to making important decisions concerning his future. The narrator’s desire and need for freedom from his home manifests itself through his thoughts and actions.
His feelings lean towards escape many times, dreaming of alternative futures he wished he had. The fact that one of his options could develop into the narrator growing up at home as a farmer helping his father, somewhat angers and frustrates him to a point in which he would do what was necessary to escape from that life. Many of these behaviors are described by Edward A. Dreyfus in Youth by adolescents who “have observed parents who made decisions while young who are not satisfied or fulfilled in their present jobs [… ” (117), which reflects the narrators desires to want to choose an alternative path for his future. Young Mahoney’s cousin, a local clergyman, visits the home to help him decide on the possibilities for his future, and to ask what he thinks he may want to become in the world. The narrator takes this as an opportunity for escape possibly through the priesthood, as he would not have to worry about succeeding in school, or having to find a trade, and most importantly, he would not have to take the place of his father.
He thinks to himself during his cousin’s visit that “He’d not be like his father if he could. He’d be a priest if he got the chance [… ]” (25), and that “He’d walk that way through life towards the unnamable heaven of joy, not his father’s path. ” (25) Aside from the priesthood, the narrator also has the possibility of finishing school and eventually going to a university. Going to school becomes another choice of escape for the narrator. He works so hard that he earns the top grades of his class, and aspires to obtain a scholarship for the university.
The narrator struggles with these choices for his freedom from home, however, throughout his attempt to escape he also seeks to separate himself from his father emotionally. For the narrator, his connection with Mahoney struggles often, and he seeks to distance himself. Their relationship carries the awkwardness stemming from incidents of physical and sexual abuse. Although the abuse never reaches excessive levels, it influences the narrator’s feelings of anger, confusion, and contempt for his father. Out of these feelings for his father, he becomes hateful, and easily irritated by him in most situations.
He often finds flaws in Mahoney’s actions, and attacks them in his mind, letting the feelings of contempt build up without release. These feelings, which the narrator uses to distance himself as far away as possible from his father, are similarly related to one of the five stages outlined in Michael Bloom’s Adolescent-Parental Separation. Bloom states that during the stage of response towards a separation, adolescents and parents both shift towards effectual responses. During this period “there always appears to be some associated anger or guilt. The guilt is painful to the youth and the response is anger” (61).
During the times of their relationship, the narrator rarely shows feelings of guilt towards Mahoney as he has a deep hate for him, however when he does show his guilt it occurs in situations when he feels pressured to love Mahoney but at the same time his disgust overrides it. Early on, the narrator breaks down and lets his anger and hate explode when he comes home one day to find Mahoney arguing with one of the girls, which then leads to a violent beating. For the first time he was able to separate himself completely from his father and commands him to stop, “Hit and I’ll kill you” young Mahoney tells him (36).
During that moment, he felt as if “No blow could shake [him], only release years of stored hatred [… ]” (36), and in this rebellious moment, the narrator shows his true self through his actions. He had finally been able to take action, rather than merely brood in his insecurity over Mahoney’s abusiveness. The narrator’s feelings of insecurity and guilt develop throughout his adolescence in relation to his sexuality. Although he lives in a highly religious society, his morals do not stop him from continuing his habit of masturbation. Young Mahoney does not engage in relationships with girls.
Instead, he creates non-existent fantasies to temporarily escape in a moment of lust and fantasy with a torn out magazine ad, or a dream girl. As his only method of immediate escape and relief from the tensions surrounding him, the narrator masturbates constantly. Alexander A. Schneiders states that in relation to the sexual maturing of adolescents, masturbation becomes a “maladjustive response [… ] and it tends to impair the young person’s image of himself” (96). During his first night at the priest’s home, the narrator confesses to him about his problem with masturbation.
Searching for an answer or guidance in relation to his worthiness of becoming a priest himself, he tells his sins to the priest who confronts young Mahoney in asking if this was the reason, he did not believe he was good enough. At that moment the narrator “felt a nothing and broken, cheap as dirt” (73), and reveals his ‘impaired’ self-image, during the priests interrogation. Moreover, in the case of the narrator it displays his lack of ability to engage in a relationship, because he does not have the strength or courage to try, and this trend of insecurity not only relates to his sexuality, but also to his future.
Young Mahoney’s perception of his future fills him with thoughts of doubt, and insecure feelings, which lead him to make decisions that will dictate his life. During his stay with his cousin the clergyman, he struggles with thoughts of not being worthy for the priesthood, and then realizes that he only chose to give the church a chance as a possibility to attempt an easy escape from his home and father. Not only does he realize that, but he believes that if he were to continue on in the priesthood, he would be denying himself what he thinks of as a real life.
At this point, he knows that his only other option would be to continue his schooling, and earn a scholarship for the university. The desire to escape from home encompasses the narrator’s drive to accomplish earning a scholarship. This behavior also described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Barbara Schneider relates directly to the narrator in their book Becoming Adult. They state that the personal strengths that facilitate productive involvement in the world consist of variables, either dependent or independent “caused by enabling social conditions” (215).
These ‘dependent’ variables, which relate to his home situation, are also described in an example as “a child who is assiduous in his or her studies might be so because of an academically demanding family” (215). Although Mahoney does not demand academic success from the narrator, he demands quite often that the narrator make a decision concerning his future. These pressures, along with the narrator’s own feelings of pressure to accomplish something, drive him to eventually earn the scholarship and get to the university. The journey through adolescence allows young Mahoney to develop significantly.
He finally realizes that no matter what he does, he will never be truly defeated in anything, and that his father will always be there with him. He had been able to identify with himself and his father for this first time, and he was pleased by it, he knew that he could “laugh purely, without bitterness, for the first time, and it was a kind of happiness, at its heart the terror of an unclear recognition of the reality that set [him] free [… ]” (188). He had completed a part of his journey, through reaching independence. He had succeeded and failed in many things through his journey.
Although many of the narrator’s choices were concerning his future, he ultimately displayed that when encountering options such as failure and success, or security and insecurity, he chose what would give him immediate success, or security. As his world opens up, he breaks free from the mode of thought that constricts many of his decisions, and he completes another part of his journey. Young Mahoney’s transition into adulthood was not complete, but had still progressed significantly, yet, despite the many conflicts that young Mahoney struggled through, he was able to emerge as an understanding and mature adult.
Get access to
Guarantee No Hidden