Whispering the Words that Matter: Colm Tóbín’s The Testament of Mary

Stained Glass. St. Mary in Castro, Dover

Stained Glass. St. Mary in Castro, Dover

Tóbín, Colm. The Testament of Mary. New York: Scribner, 2012.

Whether venerated as “the Blessed Virgin,” Mary Theotokos, or the Star of the Sea, seen as a recurring motif in art history, or understood as an accretion of various ideas of “the Lady,” the Mary of culture remains “alone of all her sex” (Caelius Sedulius, qtd. Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1976. Reissued OUP 2013). She remains an idea and an ideal far removed from any Miriam who lived in Galilee in the first century of the Common Era. Colm Tóbín looks beyond the ideal and endeavours to give humanity to Mary.

DSCN1177 - Version 2In this aim, he is successful and for some readers, I expect, disturbing. The book garnered a lot of attention when it was published a couple of years ago, and I meant to read it then, but other things intervened. At only eighty-one pages, it can hardly be classified as a novel. If we must classify it, then I suppose I might say it’s a prose dramatic monologue. Certainly, I was unsurprised when I discovered that the work had its genesis in Tóbín’s play Testament [Dublin 2011]. Given the speaker’s frustration, anger and regret, I might argue that Tóbín’s Mary has more in common with some of the speakers in Browning’s poems or even with Eliot’s Prufrock than she does with the writers of the works comprising the Christian new testament.

DSCN1177 - Version 2The word Testament, despite its biblical echoes, suggests the speaker is recording evidence rather than spreading the “good news” of a gospel. Tóbín’s Mary is no ancilla domini, no accepting handmaiden, no singer of “The Magnificat.” She is a woman in exile looking forward to her own death. She is a woman who no longer attends the Synagogue but instead prays to the “great goddess Artemis, bountiful with her arms outstretched and her many breasts waiting to nurture those who come towards her” (80).

DSCN1177 - Version 2Tóbín’s Mary resists the pressures of those who want to record her memories, who want to make something that she believes to be untrue. At the end of the work, she realises “the enormity of their ambition and the innocence of their belief” (78). She also sees that “they will thrive and prevail” (80).

The story that has prevailed is certainly not the one told in The Testament of Mary. The story that has prevailed is the story derived from Christian gospels both canonical and apocryphal and constructed through Christian dogma. The Mary of The Testament knows her memories of what really happened will be lost. The tale told to the future will not be the tale she tries to tell. One of the writers who come to interview her about the past will not read what he writes to her and she knows that “he has written of things that neither he nor . . . [she] saw” (2-3).

DSCN1177 - Version 2Mary’s truth is unacceptable, for Mary’s is a story of delusion, of politics, of fear and betrayal, of renunciation and manipulation. Tóbín gives voice perhaps to all parents who no longer recognize their child, the child who has grown up, become independent and something other than what the parent might have expected or hoped for. Mary is powerless in the face of the strength of shared delusion. She refers to her son’s followers as “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers, all of them hysterical. . . and almost out of breath with excitement” (51). Yet she has to rely on them for her own safety.

DSCN1177 - Version 2Even as she asserts, “I never saw his grave, I never washed his body,” his followers insist, “You held his body when it was taken down from the cross” (79). Mary’s truth is unacceptable.

Tóbín’s Mary is realistic, mundanely human. Even as she watches her son’s humiliation before Pilate, she notices that her shoes hurt (56). For Mary, the death of her son brings not a joyful epiphany of salvation but exile, fear, and above all a mother’s grief for a child brutally killed and her own guilt: guilt not only for having failed in preventing that brutality but also for having fled, for having put her own safety before her son’s. Perhaps, she wonders, she should have “moved towards him then no matter what the consequences would have been” (60). But she didn’t, knowing it would have been useless. She is also left with the frustration of knowing her version of events is unwanted. Her protectors do not want her memories “registered as confusion” (62). She cannot tell the truth; she is powerless in the face of the story-to-be.

DSCN1177 - Version 2How one responds to the Mary Tóbín creates will depend to a certain extent, I suspect, on one’s own cultural and religious background. I was somewhat surprised that he kept his focus so narrow. If I had expectations of what the book might do, they were that Tóbín might actually have taken a broader focus, drawn more on characters and events from the apocryphal gospels perhaps, or made more of the references in Matthew, Mark, and Galatians to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. That he didn’t do so keeps the work more tightly focused on his created Mary, his Mary in all her age, fragility, anger and frustration. This narrower vision also means that we focus on Mary’s telling of her own tale, the story that won’t prevail even though she assures us it’s the truth.

DSCN1177 - Version 2If I try to put aside all my own cultural impedimenta surrounding the idea of Mary, what I am left with at the end of The Testament of Mary is the sense of an implicit criticism of the story that prevailed, distrust of the words that were “listened to” for the past two millennia and the reiteration of the power of fiction: “words will matter . . . they will be listened to” (3).

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