Colm Toibin (2014) – Nora Webster

nora websterI wanted to write about this book, because it is a gentle and caring description of loss.  However, I became stuck at my first attempt, because the purpose of this blog is to make links between artistic interpretations of the world and social policy and social work.   I remember, when I first started lecturing, hearing from a much more experienced and rather excellent academic that Loss should be the basis of all social work training.  Loss is the primary reason social workers are involved in people’s lives, whether this is bereavement, loss of sobriety, loss of reason, loss of physical capacity, etc. Loss can be found in crisis. Loss is present in any change, no matter how welcome the change may be. Loss is a part of life and development.  However, here I was reading a book about the pervasive nature of loss and could find little that social policy could add.

The changes that bereavement bring are articulated throughout:

Nora did not sleep; she glanced at the newspaper she had bought in the station, and put it down, and watched the two boys slumped back in their seats sleeping.  She would love to have known just then what they were dreaming of. In these months, she realised, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, and perhaps for them, between each other.  She felt that she would never be sure about them again.

This is just one example of how loss shifts relationships and leaves us less secure.  Nora loses her husband.  Her children lose their father. A school loses a teacher.  Friends lose a friend. A community mourns. The book does not spare the readers that pain.  From its opening page, it lets us know that this loss leaves Nora vulnerable to people’s pity and perceptions.  Yet we are also aware of Nora’ strength, resistance and resilience (a new favourite word in the social policy lexicon).

The political world impinges on the grief.  The novel is set in Ireland during the 1960s and the Troubles and the shifting nature of power is allowed to creep in.  Nora shows insight around power in a memory of her husband at a party in the presence of a politician:

As they stood by the Minister in all his considered grace in the hallway they became less than themselves

And as her life post-widowhood progresses, she embraces the solidarity of the union movement in a resistance to the perceptions of her as a working woman and a ‘deserving’ widow.  There is even some acknowledgement of the role that politics and policy can play in alleviating hardship by recounting the importance of a widow’s pension.  However, these are all asides and it would be a misinterpretation of the novel to dwell on these aspects to make a case for a blog here.

So, what becomes more important is to consider why the state has so small a role in Nora’s grief?  Why are there some cases where state involvement is considered necessary and can be significant – and why in Nora’s case she reaches the ability to live fully after loss, without state care.

Social work academics have made the point that social work came into existence at a particular historical point, where the rapid industrialisation of the 19th century was shaping social relationships:

“The urbanisation that characterised the emergence of capitalism in the modern world had created a social gulf between classes in the major cities.  It was believed that the traditional hierarchies and social bonds of rural life had been fundamentally undermined, creating a social crisis.”  (Powell, 2001: 26)

industrial revolutionJordan (2007) also emphasises the relevance of industrialisation to the role of social work.  In arguing that social work is primarily aimed at replacing kin relationships and local support, he states that this became relevant when the traditional systems of relationships were disrupted through “the advent of commercial economic systems and the growth of industrial and urban social organisations” (Jordan, 2007: 31)

So, one argument for Nora’s lack of reliance on the state, could be that for her, traditional relationships, family and friends, were still in abundance.  There is definitely evidence within the novel that there is a network of support, which can be both necessary and occasionally cloying. So, whilst she can muse on loneliness, she is rarely alone:

So, this is what being alone was like, she thought.  It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.”

Last year, I included for the first time, a session on loneliness in my social policy teaching.  There was no ignoring the trends.  Statistics tell us that 7.6 million citizens in the UK are living alone compared with 1 million in 1996.  The Mental Health Foundation (2010) also point out that because of careers, job opportunities or education more of us live further from our families and the communities we grew up in in.  (We can also see this being engineered through the lack of affordable social housing for many communities).  We also know that that a higher percentage of women than men report feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013).  And that levels of loneliness among ethnic minority elders are generally higher than for the rest of the population (Bolton, 2012).

Social theorists cast light on why this is so prevalent at the moment, with critiques of neo-liberalism, liquid modernity (Bauman) and inequality.  As Judt (2010: 1) rightly comments:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth

bread and rosesHowever, what Nora Webster offers is a chance to think through what resources people bring to bear on lonely existences.  That Nora can finally burn the letters from her husband and tend to other relationships is due in no small part to her re-invigorated interest in music.  Her son Donal also finds his outlet for his grief through art, in his case, photography.  This is a real example of “Bread and Roses” (Bread and Roses from Pride). To help people through whatever form of destitution, we need not only to attend to their material needs (important though this is).  We need to stop berating people for spending on luxury and see what comfort that may bring.


Beaumont, J. (2013) Measuring National Well-Being – Older People and Loneliness London: ONS

Bolton, M. (2012) Loneliness – The State We’re In Oxfordshire Age UK

Jordan, B. (2007) Social Work and Well Being Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing

Judt, T. (2010) Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on our Present Discontents London: Penguin

Mental Health Foundation (2010) The Lonely Society?

Powell, F. (2001) The Politics of Social Work London: Sage

Toibin, C. (2014) Nora Webster London: Penguin

2 thoughts on “Colm Toibin (2014) – Nora Webster

  1. I too have read Nora Webster, and wrote about it on my books blog the other day. Another Irish novel I read recently happens to touch on bereavement. ‘The Thing About December’ by Donal Ryan revolves around an awkward young guy (maybe borderline ‘special needs’) who gets bullied by town yobs and lives on alone in his parents’ house after their sudden deaths. It’s not as bleak as it sounds.

    Liked by 1 person

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