By Chet Yarbrough
By: Anna Burns
Narrated by Brid Brennan
Anna Burns’ “Milkman” touches on Ireland’s conflict over independence. Though the story is set in Ireland’s period of conflict, the books fundamental message is “words matter”.
“Words matter” is a timely subject in the era of President Trump’s America.
Burns tells the story of an 18-year-old girl, a middle child of a presumably Catholic family, who is defined by other people. This is an old story; philosophically revealed by David Reisman in a 1950s book, “The Lonely Crowd”.
Contrary to the main character’s professed independence, this 18-year-old allows herself to be defined by what other people think of her. Reisman called this malady “other directedness” meaning humans being more concerned about what other’s think of them than what they think of themselves. This “other directedness” erodes independence. The development of a personal, moral inner compass is subverted by concern over what other’s think. We become what others want us to be rather than who we choose to be based on a personal moral code. In Reisman’s language we become “other directed” rather than “inner directed”.
There are two milkmen in Burns’ story. One is a 30ish leader of a violent Irish independence group; the other is a 30ish bachelor emotionally connected to the 18-year-old’s family. Rumor is spread that the independence leader, who is married, is sleeping with the young girl. The girl’s mother believes the rumor and berates her daughter for an affair that does not exist. The 30ish bachelor is generally viewed as a maverick in the town who likes no one and chooses to live alone. In fact, he is a caring human being that decries the violence of Ireland’s conflict and treats people with respect and kindness. In Reisman’s vernacular, he is “inner directed”. He lives his life in accordance with a personally developed inner moral compass.
Ironically, the young girl is intimately involved with a young man who she later finds is having an affair with another man. There are many ways to look at these characters’ circumstances but fundamentally it clarifies the truth that humans are more than what words make them to be.
Words can do great harm when used by a showman who has no inner moral compass.
Importantly, a showman’s words reinforce what other people think rather than what a singular person’s inner moral compass would dictate. Relationships become infected by what people think; more than by what they do. It is particularly confusing to a young person of 18, but it is a confusion that pervades all human relationships, regardless of age.
“Jane Eyre”, by Charlotte Bronte, is a story about a young woman who listens and follows her inner moral compass. She refuses to bow to what other people say she should do. She chooses her own path.
This is a crossroad that Burns’ 18-year-old is confronted with in “Milkman”. It is a crossroad that her gay boyfriend fails to negotiate. It is unclear that Burns’ main character is ready to come to grips with “other directedness” but leaves one with the impression that she is beginning to find her own way.
“Milkman” addresses a universal need for internalized morality. Words are weapons of mass destruction in the hands of “other-directed”, amoral leaders.