Colonsay: the Obscure Ending

Rachel Aviv '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

More or less implicit in Mcphee's descriptions of Colonsay is an understanding that the central figures in his narrative -- Donald and Margaret Gibbie -- are representative samples of the island population. Mcphee makes a fair assumption which is that in getting to know the Gibbies, we are also getting to know the McNeills, the Garvards, the Oronsays, the Kilchattans, the Machrins, et al. In a particularly rich passage, Mcphee describes the after-dinner rituals which Margaret Gibbie performs and suggests that they, too, should serve as a representative model for others:

The manner in which an evening ends here is a model for the world to follow. When the Colonsay hostess feels that the day is over and there has been enough of talking, she heats the teakettle and opens the tin of pancakes she has prepared earlier in the day. She spreads butter on the pancakes and steeps the tea, then sets all before her guests, and when it has been consumed the visit is over: "Good night and sleep well" -- no obscurities about when things should end. [97]

In the first sentence in this passage, the "here" has no clear antecedent -- it seems to be referring to the Gibbies just as much as it is referring to the island. What is to be gained from a conflation of the Gibbies with the other islanders? Which part or aspect of this after-dinner ritual convinces Mcphee that "the way an evening ends here is a model for the world to follow?"

Mcphee's final statement in the passage -- that on Colonsay there are "no obscurities about when things should end" -- seems ironic in light of the fact that Colonsay, itself, seems to embody its own sort of obscurity of "ending." In the last hundred years its population and job market have crashed. The 138 remaining citizens are living in an age and world that no longer exists outside of the island. How then should Mcphee's final statement be read?

Immediately following this passage is a description of New York City in all its "unintelligibly large" glory. Mcphee figures that merely around his elevator shaft -- twelve floors, eight apartments per floor -- lived three times the population of Colonsay. If Colonsay is a place of proper endings, what is Mcphee implying about New York, with its never-ending growth?

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Last modified 11 November 2003