The Wall-Reader


This study guide will help you analyze the short story “The Wall-Reader” by Fiona Barr. You can also find a summary of the text, as well as inspiration for interpreting it and putting it into perspective

Presentation of the text

Title: “The Wall-Reader” (1979)
Author: Fiona Barr 
Genre: Short story

Fiona Barr (b.1952) is a writer from Northern Ireland, whose works are usually set in the time of the Troubles. The short story "The Wall-Reader" appeared in 1979 in the collection The-Wall Reader and Other Stories


Below, you can read an excerpt from our study guide: 

The story also contains a flashback. Mary remembers how she felt while she was pregnant and the love and self-doubt she felt after her daughter was born, when she wondered if she could manage to be a worthy mother. These reflections motivate her when the time comes to escape from Belfast, as she wants her daughter to live somewhere she does not need to fear for her life.

After the discovery of Mary’s contact with the English soldier and the message written on Mary’s house, the story relies heavily on suspense. The situation becomes tenser and tenser as Mary’s husband, Sean, makes plans to leave and the couple are careful whenever they open their mail or answer the phone. The readers at this point might expect a confrontation, especially when the van arrives at night and the couple manages to escape from the house without being stopped.

The moment when they reach the bridge is one filled with tension, and it appears initially that events are heading towards a climax:

They felt more cheerful now, a little like refugees seeking safety and freedom not too far away. As they approached the motorway bridge, two figures with something clutched in their hands stood side by side in the darkness. She closed her eyes tightly, expecting bursts of gunfire. The van shot past.

Their unchallenged escape, as well as the fact that the figures turn out to be only graffiti writers turn the moment into an anticlimax. This is heightened by Mary’s disappointment, as they fail to live up to her romantic image of them.

The ending takes the reader back to Belfast and Mary’s house, which is now bought by another couple. The couple painting over the words written on the wall and the neighbors remarking on how “peculiar” Mary and Sean were heightens the anticlimactic feel.

The description of the couple who buys the house is quite telling: 

They too were ordinary people, living a self-contained life, worrying over finance and babies, promotion and local gossip. He too had an office job, but his wife was merely a housekeeper for him. She was sensible, down-to-earth, and not in the least inclined to wall-reading.

The similarities between the new owner of the house and Mary’s family, as well as the mention of wall-reading, give the story a circular structure.

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The Wall-Reader

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