Irvin Welshs A Soft Touch English Literature Essay


In this essay I will look at Irvine Welshs A Soft Touch from his anthology of short stories The Acid House. In A Soft Touch we get a glimpse husband and father, John’s life in Edinburgh. His ordinary, repetitive, working-class life in which we see him somewhat ‘bullied’ by the people in his life

The reason I chose to analyse this short story is because it holds a lot of the key aspects of modern short story writing.

In reading many of Welsh’s pieces, one might not fully understand all of the words or even some full sentences that Welsh incorporates into his characters’ dialogue and often, his narration, e.g., “Eywis”; “jist”; bairn”[1]

In the full anthology, The Acid House, Welsh experiments with various ways of incorporating and mixing the English language with the Scots language i.e., a collective term for all the southern Scottish dialects. In some pieces you’ll find that whilst Welsh has mixed his national dialect with the English language, he tends to keep a formal voice and structure when it comes to narration, and lets the Edinburgh dialect show through the voices of his characters – thus exposing his ideas on class and culture at the time through the use of a linguistic hierarchy of sorts (the English language being at the top of the hierarchy, representing upper class, and the Scots language being at the lower end of the hierarchy, representing the working class[2]).

In A Soft Touch however, there is no such hierarchy. The narrator is the protagonist, so narration as well as dialogue is a hybrid of the two languages (English and Scots) – an overlap which you could say blurs the lines of class and culture or simply gives more representation to one class.

Some might argue though, that Welsh’s choice to use this mixture of languages makes it difficult for the reader to connect with the characters due to a lapse in communication and coherence – you could say that because words such as “aboot”; “oaf”; poakits”[1] are used constantly throughout the story and that there is no break or shift in voice to give the reader a better perspective that it can be tough to understand the characters and where they are coming from – let alone empathise or sympathise with them – an attribute that you could say is highly important when creating a short story of great value.

I however, found that this choice to use one constant, somewhat incomprehensible, voice throughout the story is more of a strength (rather than a hindrance) that benefits the story in making it a strong piece of literature and, in particular, a valuable short story.

Firstly, the fact there is this constant, unchanging voice throughout creates a tedious, mundane tone – this might seem to be a negative, but in fact it actually creates the perfect tone to set the scene that Welsh is trying to portray. Like the works of one of the first modern short story writers, Anton Chekhov, Welsh’s literature often aims to illuminate the dull and dreary aspects that the average person finds themselves trapped in within quotidian life. This sort of tone and setting is archetypal in a short story – as Charles E. May explains, stories like that of Chekhov, Joyce, Mansfield etc. can be classed as modern short stories due to the fact that they often disregard the “traditional notion of plot” and instead focus on distinct moments in everyday life – often those dull, mundane moments are interrupted by something, a “crisis”, that brings a conflict into the story. [3]

[1] (1994). The Acid House. London: Vintage. pp46 – 53

[2] Massimiliano Morini (2006). Norms, Difference and the Translator: or, How to Reproduce Double Difference. Italy. pp123 – 140.

[3] Charles E. May (ed.) (1994). The New Short Story Theories. USA: ohio University Press. pp195 – 202

Welsh shares this aspect of the modern story writing with the great authors mentioned above. In his literature, and especially in A Soft Touch, Welsh draws upon ordinary life (in this case life may not seem that ordinary to the average British reader as it is set in 90’s working-class Edinburgh, but as the author comes from an environment exactly like the one he is writing about, it is in fact very ordinary to him and to the people that lived and probably live in that kind of area – his experience does come through in his writing, making the characters and situation believable; even though they may never have experienced anything like the situations that take place in the story) and ‘throws a spanner in the works’, if you will, with ‘small disasters’ that create conflict and friction in the story – a conflict or friction that the reader assumable hopes will be resolved. But unlike the traditional short story, and a lot like Chekhov, Welsh does not allow the readers this satisfaction.

A main aspect that you may look for when deciding whether or not something fits into the frame of a short story is whether or not the story holds a moral or a lesson. With A Soft Touch, there is evidently a lesson – and that is, amongst many underling messages and lessons, that life is unfair and often disappointing and unfinished. This is something that doesn’t usually happen in the traditional short story, but is very apparent in the writings of modern short story writers such as Chekhov, Joyce, and especially Welsh. In A Soft Touch, Welsh immediately sets the tone as dark, yet slightly comical one – we know that John has already had “wrong done by him” in the past by his wife Katriona[1] and as the story progresses John continues to “have wrong done by him” by Katriona and others. As readers who are used to the classical short story aspects we immediately expect Welsh to include a bigger conflict of the which the protagonist must overcome (this is included later when Katriona moves in with John’s next door neighbour, leaving their baby with him, but continues to use his money and resources and also when the next door neighbour beats John up) and we expect the protagonist to come through this conflict a better or changed person.

This, of course, does not happen with Welsh’s A Soft Touch. In the end, Katriona leaves John’s next door neighbour and attempts to come back to John – is implied that he takes her back even though she has crossed him so many times. This is a disappointing for a reader (especially one who hasn’t read any of Welsh’s other works and is unfamiliar with his dark, pessimistic tone) as we usually expect the best to happen. But what Welsh does, like many modern short story writers, is he practices a realistic approach when writing and bluntly gives the reader a lesson that explains that life does not work out like a fairy tale and that sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

Welsh’s works are extremely popular all over the world and you might wonder why his writing is so appealing if it has this dark, realist tone and approach to it when we know that people often read stories to escape real life.

You could say that the way in which Welsh writes his characters makes them so believable and relatable that most audiences immediately feel drawn to them and feel as if they can relate to them. Or you could say that Welsh says the stuff about life that we all think, but wouldn’t dare say out loud – all the while poking fun and laughing at these sad truths of life. Something we all wish we could do but don’t hold the sheer blunt realism that Welsh does.

Some might argue that this piece should have been translated into more of a formal English, but I feel that if this were done, it would take away the very essence of and brilliance of the piece. The reason the story is so believable and relatable is because the characters are believable an d relatable – the main reason they are like that is because Welsh chose to keep the Scottish dialect he knows so well as a strong part of the structure and tone of the story. If the story were translated, I don’t think that A Soft Touch would be as good a read as the very thing which make us as readers laugh and cry at the events in the story is the fact that it really feels like it is a real human being that these events happen to – giving up more motive to feel sympathetic or even empathetic. The very essence of o good short story is being able to relate to the characters, to understand them.

[1231 words]

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