The Man Who Invented Sin by Sean O'Faolain, 1947
THE MAN WHO INVENTED SIN
by Sean O'Faolain, 1947
"The Man Who Invented Sin" is the title story of Sean O'Faolain's 1948 collection, first published as Teresa and Other Stories in 1947. In his own view it represented his first proper adjustment to the realities of Irish life after the comparative romanticism of his earlier collections. In the preface to the 1959 edition he outlined the dimensions of the problem, "By the time I had more or less adjusted myself to the life about me, it suddenly broke in on me that Ireland had not adjusted herself to the life about her in the least little bit." Irishmen, he said, were still thinking about themselves in romantic terms, while at the same time making good hard cash and carefully compiling another contradictory image composed of terms like "pious, holy prudent, sterling, gorsoons … ancestors, deeprooted, olden, venerable…." This "double-thinking or squint-thinking" mode was used as a means of dodging "more awkward social, moral and political problems than any country might … hope to solve in a century of ruthless thinking." O'Faolain's task, as he perceived it, was thenceforth to chart this ambivalence, though he was aware that to succeed he had to devise a totally new fictional approach. But he wanted to avoid both satire and anger. For all his wonder that he could bear to return to a country that he described in the spring 1976 O'Faolain issue of Irish University Review as "run by a cowardly, priest-bullied, ignorant, bigoted mob of bourgeois, gombeen-men," he was aware that he did not begin to write until he had suffered "enough mortal shocks to shatter those three refracting lenses, Family, Fatherland and Faith, that up to that moment of time prevented me from seeing with my own eyes at least some little bit of the nature of life as it is really lived." He admitted that he loved Ireland and its people too much for satire: "All any artist should ask of his country is his freedom, and all he should promise it in return is his disloyalty. If he achieves both, he will serve his country well."
O'Faolain can be seen, no matter what genre he is working in, to be the most balanced and intelligent of the analysts of the malaise of post-1922 Ireland. He has been described as working "all his life to bring a parochial, nationalistic and clerical Ireland into the mainstream of modern culture." Since this was his aim, he rarely adopted the narrative stance of the innocent and naive child but chose rather the mature, detached, knowledgeable, retrospective view. "The Man Who Invented Sin" is a story of innocence corrupted, of spontaneity perverted in the interests of clerical dominance and social conformity. The impact depends crucially on the tone of the narrator, on his ability both to re-create the lost Eden of innocence and to realize the significance of what has taken place. The note of nostalgic reminiscence is struck immediately, "in our youth" the young people of Ireland were in a mood of energetic idealism. A newly created state was reestablishing its own sense of identity, and thousands of people flocked to the Irish-speaking areas to learn to speak their own language and to debate pressing questions of national identity. The natural setting is beautiful, and the predominant mood is one of merriment, with a pagan under-tone. The story centers on two sets of monks and nuns, forced by overcrowding to lodge somewhat apart from the other summer visitors and drawn by proximity and shared interests and background into openness and communication with one anther. They are presented throughout mainly as children, their ludicrously inappropriate clerical names transformed into childish nicknames (Chrysostom to Chrissie, Majellan to Jelly), and they are often lonely and homesick. Their spontaneity, naturalness, and gentleness are emphasized. Brother Virgilius is "a countryman with a powerful frame and a powerful voice, round red cheeks, and no nerves." Brother Majellan is "a gentle, apple-cheeked man with big glasses, a complexion like a girl's, teeth as white as a hound's, and soft, beaming eyes." In sharp contrast is the local curate, who, by misinterpreting their behavior, invents sin and, by creating a sense of guilt, irremediably corrupts everyone. In keeping with the central irony of the story, he is presented throughout as satanic. He is physically violent, fat, pompous, and cocksure, with a "black barrel of a body," and is nicknamed Lispeen (frog). As he walks away at the end, surrounded by respectful salutes, the narrator sees "his elongated shadow (waving) behind him like a tail." Although the curate laughs off the effect of his actions, the narrator is aware that he has not only destroyed the natural, wholesome, and consola-tory interaction among the four young people, creating in them a puritan suspicion and concern for rigid social observance at the expense of personal growth, but has also corrupted the natural world, changing it from benign to threatening. He has ultimately negated the possibility of creating an Edenic world that can nurture idealism and creativity. As the story ends, the mountains are empty, and Majellan is stooped and gray, existing in a "smelly slum" and denying the truth of his own memories, while the curate, elevated in the church, self-satisfied and unchanged in appearance, is the inheritor of the earth.