A history of violence and lethargy

George Marinapolous, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In The Crofter and the Laird, John McPhee introduces his readers to the rural life, of both the past and the present, on the Scottish isle of Colonsay. By using a form of writing that removes the narrator from personal investment, McPhee creates elaborate parallels between the past and the present, himself and the locals and of course the crofter and the laird. The particular parallel that is drawn between the past and the present seems to hold a special significance since the book both begins and ends with these matches. Specifically, McPhee uses the macabre history of a land that has been plagued by death and barbarism as a backdrop for his own experiences on the island and most importantly as an factor in describing his own identity as a descendent of these historical figures. For example, the book begins with the following passage:

The Scottish clan I belong to -- or would belong to if it were now anything more than a sentimental myth -- was broken a great many generations ago by a party of McDonalds, who hunted down the last chief of my clan, captured him, refused him mercy, saying that a man who had never shown mercy should not ask for it, tied him to a standing stone, and shot him. [3]

The book ends in a very similar fashion as McPhee links the fate of his ancestors with his own in the last paragraph:

Swinging and thrusting, he killed sixteen McLeans, and he might have killed them all, but other McLeans went around to the other side of the wall and pushed out the stones at the base, making a hole through which they chopped at the MacMillan's legs until he fell. McPhee went on up the hill. One associates with one's ancestors at one's own risk. I will never again be able to look a McMillan in the eye.

Questions

1. By choosing to begin and end the book in such a fashion, the author creates a cyclical effect for the reader. What is the point of this beyond the obvious motivation of giving his reader some closure about his experience on Colonsay?

2. By referring to the extensive violence in the island's history while simultaneously describing the extreme tranquility of the island's present the author creates a somewhat awkward parallel. Why does McPhee choose this approach?

3. Considering the fact that the author makes sure to control the writing so that he does not betray any personal investment in the narrative, it is strange that he should include himself in both the beginning and end of the book. By doing so, is he expressing any personal involvement beyond that of a simple observer? If so, how does he do this?


Victorian Web Overview John McPhee Victorian courses

April 2002