The Ballroom of Romance by William Trevor, 1972

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by William Trevor, 1972

Although the main action of William Trevor's "The Ballroom of Romance" takes place in a single evening in 1971, the story's time span is much broader. The temporal range is obvious from the opening of the story, where the salient features of the life of Bridie, the 36-year-old protagonist, are economically recounted. Bridie, however, is not only the bearer of the "weight of circumstances" of her own existence and of her immediate environment and family situation. She is also an embodiment of a certain phase of Irish life, whose deep and melancholy shadow can be seen behind her.

Trevor unobtrusively sketches in the penumbra of repetition and limitation, indicated deftly by the bicycle that Bridie inherited from her mother, that gripped Irish rural society from the 1930s until the 1960s. The corrosive nature of these conditions is suggested by the gangrenous leg of Bridie's father, a symbolic deterioration into instability that is prevented from being too weightily explicit by the father's expression of remorse and concern for the overburdened state in which his daughter finds herself. And the life span of Bridie's bicycle corresponds to the prominence given by the prevailing political ideology of the period to rural Ireland as the source and locus of national and social identity. One result of the adaptation of this ideology by the Catholic clergy was to demonize the dance halls that were mushrooming throughout Ireland during the period, which may be one reason the owner of the Ballroom of Romance, Mr. Dwyer, is keen to maintain his premises as "a dignified place."

Nuances such as Mr. Dwyer's attitude, the effect of rural life on young people like Bridie's first partner and the recognition that the only conceivable response to it is emigration, and the image that Bridie has of Bowser Egan "sitting in the kitchen with the Irish Press " indicate ways in which Trevor (who holds a B.A. in history from Trinity College, Dublin) conveys his awareness of the story's larger context. Additional emphasis is tacitly placed on this context by making Bridie's hill-encircled community so remote that change, in the form of industrial development and a prospective drop in emigration, is arriving there some years later than it did in Ireland as a whole, while the symbol of change, the cement plant, is obviously in marked contrast to any cultural or social sense of the rural.

The historical background of "The Ballroom of Romance" gives the story additional impetus and resonance by providing an enlarged sense of missed steps, of marking time and putting the best foot forward. Bridie, as the protagonist, does the most to crystallize this sense, but the poignancy that results from her doing so is shared by the story's other female characters, all of whom are versions of the loneliness and lovelessness that Bridie embodies. What distinguishes Bridie, however, is not only the magnitude of the burden that her unique personal circumstances oblige her to bear. This burden includes her fidelity to her father and to a way of life that physically coarsens her, her age, which signifies that her biological clock has begun to tick more loudly, and her loss of Patrick Brady to emigration and Dano Ryan to a designing widow. Bridie is distinctive because she attempts to respond to the burden, as her decision to give up going to the Ballroom of Romance indicates. Yet if the decision suggests that Bridie is capable of confronting what has become of her, it also brings with it a still more painful awareness of what the future holds. Her tryst with Bowser Egan in the field is an indication that his is the only level left for her to live on, and in the story's closing lines she is able to admit even this unbearable development to herself. In a story in which eyes, mirrors, and looks contribute an intimate thematic thread, Bridie is the one character who manages to face a clear and unadorned vision of herself.

The community of regulars that comprises the Ballroom of Romance's clientele consolidates, rather than provides an alternative to, Bridie's situation. Boorish Bowser and his boozy companions function as the cloddish counterparts to the unrealistic hopes of romance of not only Bridie but even more so of Cat Bolger and Madge Dowding. Those for whom romance has no appeal or significance are partnered with those for whom it has too much. The romance promised by dancing, which Bridie's scarlet dress anticipates in a gesture of impossible hopefulness, is all the more out of reach for being evoked by the lights, music, and action that the ballroom offers for sale. Romance as a commodity may be had for the price of entry, but a more genuine and uplifting form is not available. In this way, too, Trevor shows his characters to be limited and undernourished by the only cultural outlet available to them. While the sale of minerals and biscuits, both made palatable by artificial sweeteners, may be read as a homely and accurate documentary detail of the kinds of occasions upon which the story is based, they also contribute to the elaborate sign system of hunger and deprivation in "The Ballroom of Romance."

A much more prominent contribution to this system is the music and the band. Mr. Dwyer's eschewal of jazz is of a piece with the culture within which his dance hall business functions. But the use of a resident band was atypical of the dance hall business, in which a large attendance was secured by the appearances of bands with national reputations for showmanship and excitement. Not only does the trio's constant presence throughout the 20 years that Bridie has been dancing at the Ballroom of Romance underline the sameness of life for the patrons, but it also suggests that these amateur musicians are in Mr. Dwyer's view good enough. It seems to be a case of either the Romantic Jazz Band or nothing. Moreover, the familiarity between the band members and clientele implies that they are all equally ensnared in a dynamic of escapist dreams and repetitive mundanity.

The band's repertoire is made up of numbers from a bygone era, broadly speaking the era in which Bridie was born. There is nothing necessarily objectionable in the repertoire itself, although after more than 30 years a change might be expected. Obviously the tunes performed, from "The Destiny Waltz" to "The Bells Are Ringing," are strategically chosen by Trevor. The latter, for instance, must have a particularly ironic tonality for an unmarried character named Bridie. The 1930s were not only the era of the Great Depression but also the period of the popular romantic ballad. The banality of the songs is at once the source of their appeal and the means whereby they articulate the unattainability of romance for the dancers. They seem to be the musical equivalent of the ersatz pink and blue in which the ballroom is decorated.

Comprehensive and incisive as Trevor's exposé of the dancers and the dance is in "The Ballroom of Romance," it is also carried out with great tact and evenness of tone. The author's purpose seems ultimately not to be to construct a critique but to carry out a dispassionate anatomy. And although it is arguably Trevor's best-known Irish story, "The Ballroom of Romance" differs in locale and personnel from many of his other Irish stories, a large number of which are set in and around the provincial towns in which the author spent his childhood and youth. Nonetheless, "The Ballroom of Romance" is related thematically to them. As in the other stories, here too the author's sympathy for the vestigial, the vanishing trace, the decline, the historical carryover, the untenable condition that must be endured is very much in evidence. This concern is harnessed to the formidable though unobtrusive technical skill that has gained Trevor the reputation of being one of the foremost practitioners of the contemporary short story.

—George O'Brien