New College, University of Edinburgh

Tóibín Reviewed (PT. 2)

For context to this series, reference the first blog here.


The Persuasive Art of Colm Toíbín in The Testament of Mary

In a 2013 article in the Guardian, Paula Cocozza remarked that, “Jesus is having a moment in literary fiction.” A sudden spate of novels on Jesus had hit the shelves—The Liars Gospel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Lazarus is Dead, and The Testament of Mary. Cocozza wondered if the multiple voices of the four Gospels had left gaps for novelists to fill and in which to build new worlds. “After all,” she wrote, “each telling carries its own truths.”

Indeed, Colm Toíbín’s novel, The Testament of Mary, is a story about truth-telling. The title of the book suggests that Mary is passing on her final words and instructions to those who will take up and read. The story begins with Mary’s declaration that she “will not say anything that is not true” (p. 5). And it ends with her account of “what happened,” which she finally tells because it matters to her “that the truth should be spoken at least once in the world” (p. 87).

Yet The Testament of Mary does not as much carry its own truths (or Mary’s) as it carries author’s persuasive aims. We should not be surprised, however, because this is the way of all narrative fiction.

In his 1961 Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth argued that narrative fiction is not about pure self-expression or aesthetics but about communication and persuasion (Booth 1983 [1961]). In his view, every author makes use of rhetorical resources (narrator, characters, point of view, irony, repetition, and so on) in order to try “consciously or unconsciously, to impose his fictional world upon the reader” (Booth 1961, xiii, his emphasis). Key to Booth’s thesis is the notion that authors’ voices are always present in their texts and heard in their textual choices no matter how much they try to remove them. Booth believes that authors never assume a position of complete impartiality—whether they are aware of it or not—and that their values never fade from view (Booth 1961, 67-70; see also 77-83).

In this brief essay, I wish to look at how we can hear Toíbín’s voice in his textual choices. By these choices, he seeks to engage and influence the thinking, emotions, and values of his readers in order to persuade them that the canonical Gospels may be dealing in “alternative facts.”

Toíbín fills in gaps that the Gospels leave in their portrait of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The data they give about Mary is scant. Luke, in his birth narrative, paints a portrait of a humble and reflective woman. Yet Mark’s Mary, along with the rest of her family, attempts to collect Jesus, because they believe he has gone mad (Mark 3:21, 31, 35). John’s Mary receives an enigmatic reply from Jesus at the wedding at Cana, in which he verbally separates himself from her (John 2:4). In all the synoptics, Mary is absent from the crucifixion and Jesus’s burial. Only John places Mary by the cross and depicts the shared adoption of Mary and the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27). Toíbín appears to fill in the gaps of this fourfold portrayal of Mary, using events in John’s Gospel to form the plot—particularly the raising of Lazarus and the wedding at Cana. By filling in these gaps, Toíbín explores possibilities of untold confusion and pain of this mother. Yet he seeks not only to persuade his audience of something about Mary, but also of something about Jesus and the nature of the Gospels.

Toíbín accomplishes his persuasive task, in part, by making Mary both main character and narrator. He establishes Mary as a reliable narrator by making her a self-declared truth-teller in the opening pages. It is possible for narrators to claim to be truth-tellers but, in fact, be liars. We may detect such evasive unreliable narrators through textual cues that indicate faulty memory, a tendency to conceal information, or questionable motives. For instance, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert (Lolita) insists that he is a truth-teller, and a charming one at that. But as we readers begin to see signs of exaggeration, invention, omission, and manipulation, we have reason not to trust what he writes. Humbert Humbert claims to be a truth-teller, but isn’t.

Toíbín’s Mary also insists that she is a truth-teller. She says, “I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones” (p. 4). She speaks repeatedly about what she “saw” because it bears witness to her memory. Unlike with Humbert Humbert, we do not detect that Mary deceiving us, knowingly or unknowlingly. For instance, while she conceals information from the men who visit her, she does it because their motives are questionable. Mary’s aim all along is to reveal that concealed information in the end. She is confused about her son’s choices, but never about what she remembers. She is only afraid that her nighttime dreams that offer an alternative story will obscure her memory of what actually happened. Toíbín thus establishes Mary as a reliable narrator, and in so doing he establishes hers as the evaluative point of view by which the reader is invited to assess all other characters and events.

The setting of of the story is a house in Ephesus where Mary receives visits from her two guardians, evidently two of Jesus’s disciples. She is a troubled woman, tormented by the memory that when her life was in danger at the cross, she ran away instead of staying with her son and she left other people to bury him. The men come to collect Mary’s testimony and want her to corroborate a certain way of remembering the events surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion for their “book.” But she cannot give them what they want, because she remembers differently. Mary evaluates her guardians, and speaks of their “earnest need for foolish anecdotes and sharp simple patterns in the story of what happened to us.” She says about one of the men, “I know that he has written of things that neither he nor I saw” and describes the other as “impatient, bored, and in control of things” (p. 9). On one of their visits, she tells them about the “foolishness” she remembers when a group of “misfits” began following her son: “I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will also get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all—fearlessness, ambition, anything—and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now” (p. 10). Since Mary is a reliable narrator, we are invited to judge the disciples and particularly those who write this “book” as she does.

Finally, Mary tells the truth to the reader, a truth-telling event towards which she has been building all along. It is the truth about two dreams. At night she has a recurring dream that she stayed with her son and held his body in her arms. When she lets the dream into the day she is afraid that it will overtake what really happened. So she now tells the truth about what that was, that she ran away from the cross with one of her guardians and Mary of Bethany and did and saw terrible things along the way. But during the day she and Mary of Bethany shared a second dream during their flight and wandering that her son came back to life. Mary saw her son and touched him and held him. She told the dream to her guardian, who “began to smile and said that he had always known that this would happen” (p. 91).

In the end, Mary is bereft of those closest to her, especially her son. She concludes, “I…needed to make distinctions which were clear. From then on I wanted dreams to have their place, to let them belong to the night. And I wanted what happened, what I saw, what I did, to belong to the day. Until I died I hoped that I would live in full recognition of the difference between the two. I hope I have done that” (p. 93).

But Mary’s guardians want to keep the dream of Jesus’s coming back to life firmly in the day. They come to her and say, “he rose to be with his father” and “He was the son of God” and “he was sent by his father to redeem the world” and by his death, he gave us life.” Mary responds with her final words to them, “‘I was there,’ I said. ‘I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it” (p. 102).

So this is Mary’s (and Toíbín’s) death-bed instruction to those who will take up and read: Let dreams—faithfulness and new life—belong to the night and let what actually happened—treachery and death—belong to the day.

It would be difficult for Toíbín to come out and say “it didn’t happen like that” or “the disciples were losers who fabricated the story” or “it was all a mistake.” But by speaking through Mary’s voice, he can say what he otherwise could not. A similar sort of thing happened with the film Life of Brian, a parody that creates “Brian” and attributes to him critical and controversial views about Jesus that the creators couldn’t get a way with in another form.

The question is, does it work? Audiences bring experience, knowledge, and values that inform their reception of any work. In the case of The Testament of Mary, our reception of the book will have to do with views about Mary, Jesus, and the Gospels that we bring to our reading of it. For this reason, Toíbín’s persuasive art in The Testament of Mary will not only expose his stance, but also the stance of his readers. But that is the subject of another essay.


Written by Elizabeth Shively St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews


  • CSCO Team,
  • 5th November 2017

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