About halfway through Maeve Brennan’s novella The Visitor, the author comments on the two worlds that exist within the landscape of a city. She distinguishes these two worlds by describing them as, the one with walls around it, meaning the private interior world of the home, and the one with people around it, which is the public exterior world of the city. The exterior world of the city is rife with anxiety and isolation. Dominated by an intrusive, overbearing presence, referred to as ‘the crowd’, this world is always threatening to overwhelm the individuals within its borders:
“This world has a sightless malicious face, which is the face of the crowd. The face of the crowd is not immediately to be seen, it only becomes apparent after a while, when it shows itself in wondering side-long looks and sharp glances… One is bound to be sent scurrying back to the place one came from, which is the other world, the first world, the one with walls around it.” (63).
Described by Maeve’s biographer Angela Bourke as a “book that screams quietly” (150), The Visitor explores the intense anxiety and alienation experienced by an emigrant coming home. The Visitor follows the story of Anastasia King, a young woman returning to Dublin after years of living abroad. After the death of her mother, Anastasia returns to live with her estranged grandmother Mrs King, a cold and resentful woman who still nurses a grudge against her granddaughter, and her deceased daughter-in-law, for fleeing the family home years before. In the character of Anastasia, Brennan creates a portrait of a deeply troubled and lonely young woman. Feeling out of place in the city of her childhood, and deeply unsettled by her grandmother’s often cold indifference towards her, the already fragile Anastasia finds herself increasingly isolated as she tries to clings to any semblance of a home.
Having lived a mostly transient life since her adolescence, Anastasia views her return to Dublin, and her grandmother’s house, as a chance to establish a stable, permanent home. However, it is clear from the moment she arrives in Dublin that Anastasia is out of place in the city of her childhood. We first meet Anastasia when she is on-board a crowded mail-train heading for Dublin. We immediately get a sense of her uneasy relationship with the spaces that she inhabits. Her internal anxieties and sense of otherness cause her to feel disconnected from the people and places around her. Even in this crowded setting, Anastasia appears isolated and out of place. The windows of the train are clouded up with condensation and cigarette smoke, obscuring her view of the city outside. Her interaction with the unnamed man on the train betrays Anastasia’s anxieties about returning to Dublin. She appears awkward around him, unsure how to respond to his friendly chatter. Unlike him, Anastasia does not have “people to visit, places to see” (5). The Dublin she is returning to appears strange and unfamiliar to her. Later, as she travels through Dublin in a cab, the strangeness of the city and the dreary November weather fills her with a sense of uneasiness:
“In a moment the windows were blurred with running water and the streets slid by unnamed and unrecognised. The rain fell slantwise on rows and rows of blank-faced houses… Anastasia slumped lower into her seat, trying not to recognize the sudden melancholy that was on her” (6).
Anastasia returns to a Dublin that is filled with cold houses, cold weather and cold people. The exterior world of the city is a place of discomfort and fear for Anastasia. Her experience is made all the worse because she has no safe interior space to return to. Her grandmother’s house had never been a place of stability and warmth, even before the breakdown of her parents’ marriage. Anastasia memories of the house frequently revolve around her mother’s unhappiness, the influence that the domineering Mrs King had on her parents’ marriage, and the loneliness she experienced as a child. Still, the now orphaned Anastasia desperately clings to the idea of the house as a permanent home because she has no other connection to anywhere, or anyone, else. However, Mrs King is quick to remind Anastasia that her stay is only meant to be temporary and barely disguises that she views her granddaughter as an unwelcome intruder in her home. In Mrs King’s eyes, Anastasia and her mother destroyed the family by abandoning her and her only son. This has left her unwilling to fully accept Anastasia back into her home. Without a secure, comforting interior world, Anastasia is left more vulnerable to the harshness and alienation of the exterior world of the city.
The title of the story emphasises Anastasia’s status as an outsider. By being labelled a ‘visitor’, she is marked out as someone whose presence in a particular place is temporary. Several of the people she encounters presume that she is only in Ireland for a holiday. This greatly frustrates Anastasia as it makes her feel further detached from the city she is returning to. She envies the people of Dublin, who she sees as “ordinary people, not travelers” (6). She longs to find a sense of belonging in the city, but she feels “cut off from all the other people in the street around, and more isolated than they” (71). The overbearing presence she refers to as ‘the crowd’, represents the collective gaze of the people who surround her on the streets. Out and about in the city, she imagines that this presence is always watching and judging her. In one key passage, Brennan describes how the intrusive gaze of the crowd can leave an individual feeling unsettled within the city:
“One goes to stand alone on a city bridge, to look over at the water, and suddenly one’s eyes are sliding from right to left, to see if some person is watching, some stranger who thinks it odd to stand alone, looking over the bridge with nothing to do. One must be about one’s business” (63).
For somebody who fears being watched, Anastasia spends a lot of time observing others. During a Christmas-time shopping spree, Anastasia becomes preoccupied with watching the crowds of people on Grafton Street. She is particularly consumed with watching the mothers with their children but becomes embarrassed when other people notice her. Anastasia frequently finds herself being compelled to move from place to place. The city never allows her a chance to settle in one space for long. Often this need to move is fuelled by Anastasia’s unsettled mind. During her shopping spree, she sees a vision of her dead mother and frantically pursues her through the streets.
Sometimes it is other people who force Anastasia out of certain spaces. Anastasia is shown to have a particular affinity with churches, associating them with safety and solace. Anastasia’s pursuit of her mother’s image ends at a church, a space where Anastasia believes she can safely leave her. One of the only times in the story that she feels connected to the wider community is during her attendance at midnight mass; “She knelt alone and saw the people all around her, and her heart went out in tenderness to embrace them all” (30). This sense of peace and belonging is shattered when she is forced out of a church later on in the story. When she visits a church in a distressed state, she is accosted by a woman who believes that she is not suitable to be inside the church. Critical of Anastasia’s dishevelled appearance and believing her to be drunk, the woman harasses Anastasia. This attracts the attention of a nun standing nearby, who asks Anastasia to leave. This incident leaves Anastasia feeling dejected and has a devastating effect on her mental state.
Anastasia’s worst fears are realised at the end of the book when she feels compelled to flee her grandmother’s house. After leaving the house in a distressed state, Anastasia later returns and stands outside, almost mimicking the behaviour of someone destitute. In this scene, Anastasia actively invites the gaze of the city to be turned towards her. She begins to sing, which attracts the attention of the other people on the street, causing them to stop and stare at her. The reader is left unsure of whether Anastasia is experiencing a real mental breakdown, or if she is just vying for her grandmother’s attention. However, in this scene, she seems to have lost her anxiety about being watched by ‘the crowd’. Realising that she has been left with no home, Anastasia is forced out into the exterior world of the city and seems to embrace this. In her final act in the story, Anastasia compels the people of the city to see her by deliberately making a spectacle of herself.
Credit for cover photo to irishtimes.com.
Other photos to thejournal.ie, readingmattersblog.com.
Bourke, Angela. Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker (An Irish Writer in Exile). Counterpoint, 2004.
Brennan, Maeve. The Visitor. Counterpoint, 2000.