The Day Was the Same Day: Finality and Personhood in Anna Burns’ Milkman

by Ethan Resek

mentor: John Lurz, English; funding source: Provost’s Office


I wanted to use this blog post to expound a little bit on my usage of “finality.” In the poster, I mainly use it to discuss the Troubles, but I think it has a more general application, both for the novel and for the world at large. Milkman dissents against the idea that events have strict beginnings and ends, especially the traumatic sorts of events that the novel focuses on. For a text-based example, the use of the first-person narration expresses the lingering effects of Milkman’s abuse on Middle Sister. Throughout the novel, she is retelling the story of her abuse, and, in a way, is reclaiming it by telling it in her own language. Furthermore, she is refuting the idea that you “get over” abuse or trauma. Instead, is it a constant revisionary process that goes on far after the traumatic event occurs. The last sentence of the novel expresses this idea in an optimistic way. It states that she “almost smiled,” which indicates the potential for a smile, for happiness, for comfort, etc., but not the smile itself (348). Thus, it is the process leading towards the smile that the novel focuses on rather than the smile itself.

Similarly, the beginning of her abuse is, while more abrupt than the end, given an insecure start time. During many of their conversations, Milkman seems to slip out of nowhere and begin talking as if they had always been talking. This reference to them always talking is one to the structural issues that lead to this abuse; that, even before his specific abuse of her began, the structure of the abuse existed in their society.

This too holds for the Troubles, as I stated in my poster. And this intertwined relationship between self and environment carries throughout the novel as well, as shown in the poster’s first quote.

The concept of “middleness” that I mention in the poster’s concluding remarks is my term to describe this phenomenon in the novel. The longer paper compares a number of conversations she has with people about her habit of reading-while-walking (which, as is probably obvious, is when she reads while she walks to and from places). This habit makes her a social outcast, though the reason why it’s outcasted her remains unclear throughout the novel: people she talks to just say it’s an oddity. My argument hinges on conversations with two people specifically: her supportive, women-deifying brother-in-law and her childhood friend turned renouncer-of-the-state republican paramilitary. When Middle Sister brings up Milkman’s abuse, her childhood friend refuses to accept it as the main problem with her life. Instead, she suggests that she is pushing society away with walking-while-reading, and no other trumps that which goes against the society’s values. The framework of their conversation does not allow dissent or growth; instead, it is either for or against the renouncer-of-the-state society. The brother-in-law also thinks that the reading-while-walking habit is bad for her, but, unlike her childhood friend, he does not reject her statements about her abuse from Milkman and Somebody McSomebody. Instead, he argues that reading-while-walking is strange, while also saying that these men’s actions are unacceptable. Their conversations, while not totally in agreement, allow for continual disagreement and debate towards agreement. Thus, just like the book’s view on dealing with trauma, social and political argument should not be built with a framework that deals in black-and-white, beginning-and-end like her childhood friend. Instead, it should be a continual, dialectic process that is constantly producing new synthetic evolutions of past disagreements.

5 thoughts on “The Day Was the Same Day: Finality and Personhood in Anna Burns’ Milkman

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:35 pm

    Hi Ethan, this project also made me want to buy this book!! I’m particularly interested in your discussion of finality here, because I think it is very relevant to my own work, especially my thesis work. As you know, the ending of Villette, the book I’m concentrating on for my thesis, is ambiguous and therefore there isn’t a real sense of finality. You also say that Middle Sister reclaims her trauma by retelling it, and that this retelling is a constant revisionary process. In Villette the narration functions in a similar way, and many feminist critics read the novel as an act of self-assertion and self-definition for the narrator, Lucy Snowe. It’s cool to be able to draw comparisons between a Victorian novel and a very recent one!

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:44 pm

    Great project! Though a someone who hasn’t read a full book since maybe high school I have to ask, how do you find these key quotes in the book? I get that the first sentence would probably call your attention, but how do you see a sentence mid-paragraph and say “aha! That’s the one!”?

  • October 23, 2020 at 6:07 pm

    Ethan, I’m very impressed with the analysis in your project! I love reading but have never really understood how to find meaning in grammatical structure. I found your analysis to be very clear and insightful.

  • October 23, 2020 at 7:58 pm

    I find the propositions you are drawing out of the grammar and structure of individual sentences especially compelling. Such close, close reading really pays off in your project.

  • October 23, 2020 at 9:21 pm

    Hey Ethan, this is amazing. Were it I reading the book, I definitely would have seen the quotes you discuss and passed their unusual nature off as just a way to give the narrator a unique voice, but obviously you show that they’re so much more. I feel inspired to look deeper into sentence structure when I read anything now, and to read this book in particular! Really great job.

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