Psychological Perspectives In Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture

Every human being is comprised of physiological and psychological aspects. The circumstances of our life have the direct impact on the psyche. The characters of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture are some of the lifetime examples to prove that adverse situations alter our behaviour. The idea of psychological attributes is dealt here based on Freud’s theory of Psychoanalysis.

Psychological attributes seem to be the part and parcel of every one’s life. Every single moment has its impact in the psyche and as per the changes the person’s activities change accordingly. With regard to The Secret Scripture, psychoanalytical approach is essential. It is explicitly exploited in this novel. The very main concept with which this novel breathes is the psychoanalysis of the patient Roseanne by the psychiatrist Dr Grene.

Psychoanalytical Theory is the theory of personality organization and the dynamics of personality development that guides psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology. First, it has been laid out by Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth century. Psychoanalytic theory has undergone many refinements since his work. Psychoanalytic theory has come to full prominence in the last third of the twentieth century as part of the flow of critical discourse regarding psychological treatments after the 1960s, long after Freud’s death in 1939, and its validity is now widely disputed or rejected.

Freud has ceased his analysis of the brain and his physiological studies, and shifted his focus to the study of the mind and the related psychological attributes making up the mind and on treatment using free association and the phenomena of transference. His study emphasizes the of childhood events that can potentially influence the mental functioning of adults. His examinations of the genetic and then the development aspects provide the psychoanalytic theory its characteristics. Starting with his publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, his theories have begun to gain prominence. “Psychoanalytic criticism is a form of literary criticism which uses some of the techniques of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of literature”.

Psychoanalysis itself is a form of therapy which aims to cure mental disorders. It is a “method of treating some mental illness by looking at and discussing the effects of events in the patient’s life as possible causes”. The classic method of doing this is to get the patient to talk freely. This practice is based upon specific theories of how the mind, the instincts and sexuality work. These theories are developed by the Austrian, Sigmund Freud. The influence of instincts and impulses in human beings forms the basis of psychoanalysis. It is made clear through the words of Friedman and Shustack:

Through the scope of a psychoanalytic lens, humans are described as having sexual and aggressive drives. Psychoanalytic theorists believe that human behaviour is deterministic. It is governed by irrational forces, and the unconscious, as well instinctual and biological drives. Due to this deterministic nature, psychoanalytic theorists do not in free will.

The above lines are applicable in investigating The Secret Scripture on the basis of Psychoanalytic theory. The aptness of this theory to this novel is understood as the protagonist undergoes her treatment in the form of psychoanalysis which initiates her past trauma and instigates her to express it through her secret journal, ‘Roseanne’s Testimony of Herself’. The psychoanalytical approach is suitable in examining this novel because of the very core feature of the circumstance to which the protagonist belongs.

Barry gives the clear clue of Psychoanalytic advent of this novel even before beginning the ‘Part One’. He has remarked on the wordings of two great writers cum philosophers namely, Sir Thomas Browne and Marie Edgeworth to hint on the two main but opposite characters Fr Gaunt and Dr Grene. The former has eliminated the boonful life of Roseanne to a baneful living death whereas the latter has credited her as his mother by acknowledging and sanctioning her secret and mysterious past. These characters vary in their psychological perspectives in dealing with the life of a deserted woman. The philosophy of evilness represented by Sir Thomas Browne in Christian Morals is suitable to mirror the satanic inclination of Fr Gaunt as: ‘The greatest imperfection is in our inward sight, that is, to be ghosts unto our own eyes’. Similarly, in reflecting the insight of Dr Grene, Barry has tactfully presented the relevant phrases of Maria Edgeworth from Preface to Castle Rackrent as: ‘Of the numbers who study, or at least read history, how few derive any advantage from their labours! . . . Besides, there is much uncertainty even in the best authenticated ancient and modern histories; and that love of truth which in some minds is innate and immutable, necessarily leads to a love of secret memoirs and private anecdotes.’

Although Fr Gaunt is a religious man, he is prejudices at heart which is the deficiency that forces him to see others with a fault finding sight. So, the greatest imperfection is within him and not on the abandoned Roseanne. This kind of instincts intensifies his doubtful eye against Roseanne and her relationship with John Lavelle. Roseanne’s daughterly attachment to the fatherly Lavelle is misunderstood by him. In opposition to this, the psychiatrist earns a strange desire to discover the unknown history of the plightful protagonist Roseanne. This extraordinary interest draws him to the verge of psychological acceptance and approval of her, not only as his patient but also as his begetter. In the process of finding out the truth, he yields himself to his quest of ‘secret memoirs’ and ‘private anecdotes’ of Roseanne. At the end of this process, he is much more convinced in an emotional and instinctual way of knowing his own hidden past which lies unnoticed under the dust of Roseanne’s regretful past.

Freud is considered to be the pioneer of Psychoanalysis. Himself he wrote, “Psychoanalysis is my creation; I was for ten years the only person who concerned himself with it” (Ahmad 42). From a broader perspective, psychoanalysis has two fields of inquiry namely, ‘psychoanalysis as an investigating tool’ and ‘psychoanalysis as a therapy’. Freud is basically an investigator. But, later on he switches over to therapy and works over t so as to bring a revolution in the whole field of psychological treatment of human beings. His progress in this field is so extensive that, the term ‘Psychoanalysis’ is incomplete without referring his name.

The investigation of the psychiatrist, Dr Grene is in the form of psychoanalysis as the investigating tool. Dr Grene does not want to give any sort of psychoanalytical therapy to his patients. He is in-charge of the patients of Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital and so he needs to explore the possibility of allowing the patients to live freely in the society. In this analysis, the psychiatrist gains a sort of interest in analysing a particular patient, Roseanne McNulty. In the path of exploration, he finds out amazing secrets and lies related to her.

The mental depression created by her father’s death has been presented in the mourning voice of the protagonist. Roseanne’s whole life is based on her dependence towards her lovable and soul-like father, who is inseparable from her even by the inevitable death. The blood refuses to flow through her body and her lungs fail to pump air of life. But, it is the Will of God that she has to tolerate everything in her life all alone. The elegiac manner of her lamentation over her father’s death is:

“How I would like to say that I loved my father so much that I could not have lived without him, but such an avowel would be proved false in time. Those that we love, those essential beings, are removed from us at will of the Almighty, or the devils that usurp him. It is as if a huge lump of lead were lain over the soul, such deaths, and where that soul was previously weightless, now is a secret and ruinous burden at the very heart of us.”

Roseanne’s descriptions of her mental disturbance in various problematic circumstances involve the comparisons of rats. The use of rats and the movements of them in relation to the psychic attitude show the degree of distress that she has faced in her life time. For instance, when the cruel hands of fate crush her father’s life, she begins to fight against it in vain. At that time, she has been in a very confused state of mind which she depicts as the rapid movements of rats. The pain in her head seems to be a physical pain aflame with the deep dark pulse of the grief of the rat on fire. In another situation, she readily compares her fast movement in covering her written records from Dr Grene to the movement of those irritating mice. The repeated mentioning of rats, mice and their activities show the intensity of loss felt by her over her father’s death. Moreover, rat has played a vital role in his life as he serves as a “Rat- catcher” after being dismissed from the job of a superintendent of the graveyard. Further, the meanness of this job responsible in making her mother an insane and it is one of the reasons for her father’s death. So, the darkness behind these rats and mice is reflected in her mind also.

The effect of sorrow in affecting the principal character is discussed above. By moving from the state of sober to the source of solace, she tries to remember her mother’s worries in refining her ways. Then, she is reminded of her mother’s saying to her father about “the rare things that rises”. While mentioning this incident, she has been intoxicated to have been in the world of illusion whereas her parents’ time is the reality. This proves that there has been liveliness in her life when she lives with her parents and after that, grave darkness in her life.

All of Freud’s work depends upon the notion of the ‘Unconscious’, which is the part of the mind beyond ‘Consciousness’. Freud is not the discoverer of the ‘unconscious’; his uniqueness lies in his attribution to the ‘unconscious’ with such a decisive role in life. Linked with this is the idea of ‘repression’, which is the ‘forgetting’ or ignoring of unresolved conflicts, unadmitted desires, or traumatic past events. Such conflicting issues are forced out of conscious awareness and into the realm of the unconscious. A similar process is that of ‘sublimation’, whereby the repressed material is promoted into something grander or is disguised as something ‘noble’. For instance, sexual urges may be given sublimated expression in the form of intense religious experiences or longings.

In relation to the process of ‘sublimation’, we may quote the sentences where Roseanne expresses her sudden love instincts towards her brother-in-law, Eneas McNulty as,

“The dark story of their brother Eneas I never knew till long after, if I ever really knew it. Just a scrap of it, a few pages torn from his raggedy book. Can you love a man you only knew — in the Biblical sense — for a night? I do not know. But there was love there, gentle, fierce, proper love. God forgive me.”

The above mentioned lines stand as a proof to reflect her psychology that she herself has a doubt whether a stranger-like man can be loved at the very first sight. Moreover, this phrase can also be interpreted with the view that Roseanne might have used the gap in order to disguise her misleading with Eneas. Further, it is common to all isolated persons who have suffered the thorns of life just like the protagonist, Roseanne who has been wrongly condemned of having nymphomania. Indeed, it is the plot drawn against her by the ill-witted priest, Fr Gaunt. This may be the reason that haunts her mind and heart. When she meets Eneas, this might be the cause to make her act as if she has nymphomania.

There are several processes and mechanisms in the field of psychoanalysis like ‘transference’ where the patient undergoing analysis redirects the emotions recalled in analysis towards the psychoanalyst. Whenever there is a talk with Dr Grene, Roseanne feels at heart some sort of solace which reminds her memories of her father. It is notable that she is attached to her father so much because of his motherly and fatherly care in addition to his sharing of his own life experiences to her. The idea of ‘transference’ works out in case of Roseanne by retracing her father’s picture in the form of Dr Grene. So, she consoles and convinces Dr Grene while he sheds tears of sorrow over the loss of his wife.

A well-known example of these mechanisms is the ‘Freudian Slip’, which Freud himself called the ‘parapraxis’, whereby repressed material in the unconscious finds an outlet through such everyday phenomena as slips of the tongue, slips of the pen or unintended actions.

Roseanne’s repressed past often slips out in the form of her writings. It is expressed through her unintended actions when John Kane talks to her of the ‘ancient dust’ in her room which cannot be cleared completely. It is sure that the repressed or depressed people are prone to be so sensitive to everything. It may be words, actions or gestures that may tease their unconscious mind and reduce them to the level of small infants crying for some silly things. In this way the term ‘ancient dust’ kindles her unconscious mind. In such a disturbed condition, she cries pathetically as John Kane enquires her of her name. Even though she knows her name she replies, “I don’t know.” The effect of the phrase “ancient dust” has reflected her ‘ancient miseries’ that is dumped in her memory. She explains her condition as, “I started to cry, not like a child, but like the old old woman I am, slow, slight tears that no one sees, no one dries”. Here, the word ‘old’ is referred twice to give emphasis upon her miserable past. It is obvious that she cries not of the innocent nature of infants or of the common fear of the child for the fear of problematic old woman whose past was so mysterious and painful.

There is another instance where Roseanne reacts unintentionally. It is an unbearable situation to her when Fr Gaunt and Jack McNulty reveal their intentions of giving ‘freedom’ to Tom from her through divorce in a legal way. Even, she is not able to digest the very word ‘divorce’ as she does not like to give up her marriage life. So, her reaction mirrors her mentality which is expressed as:

“I loved my husband; I said, so suddenly it nearly made me jump, why I said it to those two emissaries of the future puzzles me even now. Two men less likely to say it to, with ant good result, I could not think of. It was like shaking the hands of the two poor soldiers requisitioned to attend to my execution. That was it felt as soon as the words were out.”

So far the psychical changes of the central figure of this novel are observed. There is yet another character, Dr Grene who is also the same in the scope of time. Every human being has an ordinary mentality of not accepting the fact of aging. Even the philosophy of getting grey hair, wrinkles or our own mistakes in our young age may torment and haunt our senses often. This is common to all. Despite his service in the field of Psychiatry, Dr Grene has also become a prey to this type of fears and frustrations of old age. His conscience is pinched for not paying proper care for his soul-mate for the past ten years. So, he opines: “Little sins of omission that loom large now. You could go mad”. The worry of waning and fermenting creeps on him as soon as his wife’s death. It is then, that he starts paying attention to the physical changes in him which discloses his deteriorating physic. Dr Grene attempts to escape this sting of fear by shaving his beard.

Indeed, Psychoanalysis serves an enormous purpose to reflect the intriguing activities of human brain. It is amazing to discover the strange realities hidden under the mysterious master of the human body, which is the brain. Here is a vivid purpose to enlighten the tint of instinctual and insightful concerns for the living beings. It is essential to pay proper regard for the emotional attitudes of human beings without curtailing or harming other’s psychological expectations. Thus, the worth of merging and fulfilling the psychical and physical needs of all living souls has become an inevitable notion of the mankind.

Works Cited

  1. Barry, Sebastian. The Secret Scripture. London: Faber and Faber, 2008.
  2. Ahmad, Sheik Mustaq. Existential Aesthetics: A Study of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Theory of Art and Literature. New Delhi: Mehra, 1991.
  3. Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction To Literary And Cultural Theory. 2nd ed. Chennai: T.R, 2006.
  4. “Psychoanalysis.” Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.
  5. “Psychoanalytic Theory.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 12 May 2019,
09 March 2021
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