Light as metaphor in Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth

Toews, Miriam: Irma Voth
Part II: Light as metaphor
Part I

by: Kerry Riley

Photo by Kerry Riley, 2010

But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine on all deservers

In the opening pages of Miriam Toews’ new novel Irma Voth, our protagonist Irma recounts her recent abandonment by her young Mexican husband, Jorge. He’s leaving, he says, because she does not know how to be a good enough wife, although he also tells her that people always lie about reasons for leaving. For Irma, this critical moment holds more than the usual anguish, as she has already been abandoned by her Mennonite community for marrying Jorge in the first place, and forced by family circumstance to abandon her country of birth to live as an expatriate Canadian in Mexico. Thus, Irma’s story begins in confusion, uncertainty, rejection, isolation, ignorance and despair – in other words, in darkness. In her own succinct assessment, Jorge had left her in “a very dark, pitch-black part of the world.” Irma’s quest, then, is to find the light – the light with which to illuminate the rest of her life story.

In a manner often reminiscent of Shakespeare’s use of light and dark in Macbeth, light in Irma Voth functions as a sort of inner grace that comes from a confidence about how to be in the world. In order to live an authentic life, in an impossibly uncertain world, one must take control of one’s own story, and discover and be guided by one’s inner light. Conversely, darkness threatens to overwhelm the characters in moments of uncertainty, or when decisions are made for the wrong reasons.

Images of light infuse the story from the beginning, as Irma recounts lovely evenings spent with Jorge, lying on their backs, gazing at the stars, wondering at the beauty, number and uniqueness of each, and remembers how they dreamed of living in a lighthouse. When Jorge compares the night sky with a “star museum” however, and suggests that Irma should be its curator, a dark shadow from Irma’s past prompts her to react negatively and the blackness wells up again. In what seems at the time to be a prickly over-reaction, Irma insists that she is not fit to curate anything because she was not good at keeping things safe. By the end of her journey, however, Irma becomes, in her own way, the curator of her own collection of radiant beings, and does, indeed, manage to keep them safe.

Shortly after these few idyllic scenes, Jorge abandons a bewildered Irma, but leaves her a small gift of a flashlight – a little pinprick of light and therefore hope and evidence that at least moments of love and connection are possible. Alone in a dark house without electric power, having lost Jorge’s flashlight, shunned by her family and community, and facing imminent eviction by her father in any case, Irma is as isolated and uncertain as it is possible to imagine a human to be. Engulfed in blackness, she is attracted to the glow of a nearby house that has been recently rented by a film crew, headed by the movie’s director Diego. This instinctual move towards light on Irma’s part represents her first tentative step into the world as an autonomous being.

That Diego will function as a guide and helper is immediately signaled by his request, on their first meeting, that Irma move from the shadows into the light so that they can better see their faces. Irma also notices that he has a red dot in the sclera of his left eye that she compares to “a tiny pilot light.” Later, Diego is described as having “sparks flying off him in every direction.” Diego, besides providing Irma with means to escape her father and the town, adds a critical question to the list that Irma has already composed for herself. Before Irma passes from Diego’s sphere of influence, he asks her if she feels that it is possible to rebel against an oppressor (i.e. her father) “without losing our love, our tolerance, our ability to forgive?” He also provides her with a significant gift: a pen that doubles as a flashlight with which she can begin to tell her own story, thus linking light with the word — a topic for another discussion. With the mention of quests, guides and helpers, the discussion has taken a decidely Jungian turn, and, indeed, Jung makes a cameo appearance in the story as an enthusiasm of one of the film crew whom Irma befriends.

Characters such as Irma’s sister Aggie and the German actress Marijke, who help to illuminate Irma’s path to enlightenment, are often described in radiant terms, with coronas of white blonde hair, like a fire, around their heads. Others are also occasionally incandescent, and sparks often fly. Marijke, as well, introduces Irma to her “third eye,” a source of “internal light and cosmic energy. “

Irma’s interaction with Diego and the film crew allows for development of the light metaphor with the introduction of the idea of the camera. This instrument, like the human eye (another significant motif in the story) records the effects of light on the world, and in doing so, creates a story, which must be again illuminated by light to be told or known. Diego is obsessed with capturing the precise quality of light to express the truth of his message. A movie, then, becomes evidence of a story which has successfully captured the light and thus a metaphor for a life lived with inner truth and integrity. Long after they have parted company with Diego, Irma and her sister have a serendipitous chance to see his finished movie premier in Mexico City. “It was like watching my own life,” Irma comments, and then suggests that, “Maybe seeing a movie is like dying, but in a beautiful way.”

The reach of this idea extends when one considers that to be in front of the camera is to be directly in the eye of the movie’s creator. Marijke is instructed never to look directly at the camera while filming is taking place, with one exception – the scene just prior to her death scene, a scene in which she and her movie husband deal truthfully with each other about their relationship. For this scene only, she is to look directly at the camera, at a point that would correspond to its “third eye.” To be truthful, this seems to suggest, is to connect directly with the creative energy of the cosmos.

Interestingly, Toews has connections to the film world, having majored in film studies at the University of Manitoba.  As well, after a series of real life strange coincidences which silence all criticisms about the feasability of Irma’s occasionally miraculous luck in the story, Toews found herself starring in a film featuring Mennonites which was shot in Mexico, called Silent Light. The movie, directed by Carlos Reygadas, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and has travelled the film festival circuit since.  Irma Voth, the novel was clearly influenced by these experiences, and Diego a fictionalized version of Reygadas. For an account of how Toews’ acting adventures came about, see the Quill & Quire author profile in Further Resources.  A review of the movie Silent Light, can be found there as well.

A story that began in starlight, comes full circle and ends in starlight, as Irma, now confidently in control of her own story, stands outside her old home in Mexico, underneath a blanket of stars, preparing to re-establish contact with her family, and perhaps, to answer Diego’s final question.

Further Resources

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3 Responses to Light as metaphor in Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth

  1. Pingback: Irma Voth - Hurricane Irma

  2. Pingback: Toews, Miriam: Irma Voth Part III: Existentialism Redux | Kerry On Can Lit

  3. Pingback: Toews, Miriam: Irma Voth | Kerry On Can Lit

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