New Hibernia Review 5.3 (2001) 101-113
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Brian Moore's The Feast of Lupercal and the Constriction of Masculinity
Springing from an unpublished 1956 short story titled "Render Unto Caesar," The Feast of Lupercal (1958) is a searing indictment against the sociological forces that shaped Brian Moore's adolescence in Northern Ireland. Although it is tempting to liken this novel to Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Moore's novel, in addition to exploring the educational milieu of Moore's youth, also discusses the retardation of masculine identity. Catholicism plays a crucial role in both narratives: to be a rebelling Catholic in Dublin was far less subversive than being a rebelling Catholic in Belfast because a dissenter in the latter community quickly acquired two sets of enemies: Protestant and Catholic alike. Although The Feast of Lupercal questions the Catholic educational system of Northern Ireland, it is also "a direct assault on Belfast's religious apartheid, with pride of place given to the absurdities of Catholic narrowness and inflexibility." 1 For Moore, writing The Feast of Lupercal was a cathartic experience because, in many ways, it allowed him to purge himself of the stringent social proclivities of Catholic Belfast. Of the eighteen novels he would write after its publication, only two--The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965) and Lies of Silence (1990)--would take place in Belfast, and the respective protagonists of these two narratives jettison their belief in Catholicism while displaying scant allegiance to their imagined communities.
Before we examine how Moore's alma mater of St. Malachy's College, Belfast shaped the representation of masculinity and deviance in The Feast of Lupercal, we should first provide a framework that clarifies the importance of the novel to Moore's oeuvre and how, in writing this narrative, he was able to concentrate upon a more internationalist approach in his later writing. In composing the novel Moore interrogated the educational system that taught him a version of masculinity that he found unacceptable. By deviating from the social mores he was expected to embrace, he was therefore able to open himself as a writer and become, arguably, one of the first contemporary male novelists with an overtly feminist agenda, best exhibited in his emotionally generous construction of a [End Page 101] liberated woman in I am Mary Dunne (1968). The Feast of Lupercal is Moore's last novel to portray a sexually prudish protagonist; by writing this novel about the way that he was taught masculinity, Moore was able to explore sexual liberation in such later novels as The Doctor's Wife (1976), The Mangan Inheritance (1979), Cold Heaven (1983) and Black Robe (1985). This is not to suggest that the 1958 novel purged Moore of his bitter feelings toward St. Malachy's, or of his resentment of the way that he was taught how to be a man, because he did revisit the institution in his later novels. In An Answer from Limbo (1962), Brendan Tierney recalls that, as a youth, he was held under the courtyard drinking fountain of his boarding school as punishment for writing a subversive and deviant essay. 2 Likewise, the protagonist of Fergus (1970) beats the Very Reverend Daniel Keogh--president of Saint Michan's College for Boys, Belfast--with a rattan cane in much the same way that Keogh had beaten him as a youth. 3 Even though the corporal punishment Moore experienced at St. Malachy's is examined in these two later narratives, these novels sound a note of triumph over such brutality--a stark contrast to the feckless acceptance of the masculine paradigms portrayed in The Feast of Lupercal.
The Feast of Lupercal represents a bridge between Moore's youth and the mature writer that he would become. By crafting this novel to register the masculinity that he was expected to embrace, Moore was able to justify his own deviance from an educational system that he found lacking. After writing The Feast of Lupercal, Moore's subsequent work became disparate and global...