The Fur Coat, written by Sean O’Faolain and published in 1947 in his collection of short stories, is a short story written in third-person by an unnamed narrator. It centers around a married couple living in Ireland. The husband has just received a promotion, and the wife is eager to buy a fur coat- yet, the more she thinks about it, she cannot bring herself to make the purchase.
The Fur Coat | Summary
The Fur Coat by Sean O’Faolain revolves around an older married Irish couple, Paddy and Molly Maguire. When Paddy received an important promotion, it pushed his social ranking up a level, and also increased his earnings– they were more well off than they had ever been. With this in mind, his wife, Molly- who has never owned anything particularly nice- asks him for a fur coat, to which he agrees immediately. Molly realizes that Paddy may not know its expense. She tells him some fur coats cost thousands, which startles him into apprehension. Satisfied that she has reduced his bravado, she promises that she only wants a cheaper one- fifty quid at maximum.
Molly also wants her husband to know that she does not want a fur coat for the glamour of it. She insists that it is out of practicality- not only will it keep her warm, but with Paddy’s promotion, they will have to mingle with a new social circle of a higher class. Molly does not have time to dress well, as a busy housewife, and with a fur coat that problem is solved- she can simply throw it on over anything and look polished. Paddy does not completely understand her, and is also less enthusiastic when he realizes the coat is not a show of bravado, but simply a necessity. But he says that if she wants to, then of course she may buy the fur coat of her choice.
One day, as Molly is mending her children’s pajamas, she tells Paddy suddenly that fur coats are extremely vulgar, and she hopes he doesn’t think of her that way. When she starts listing out different types of fur and their method of procurement, Paddy notices that she seems to know a lot about the topic, despite finding it vulgar. He is once again confused by Molly’s back-and-forth attitude, and says there must be thousands of women who don’t own fur coats, but Molly quickly reminds him that they have decent dresses to wear. And though a dress itself is not very expensive, one must buy all the matching accessories. Her husband says that the matter is settled- Molly knows the reason she cannot buy a dress, and she knows the reason why she needs a fur coat: warmth and having something nice to wear for the parties. But this upsets Molly greatly. She cries out that she never wanted a fur coat, she’ll wear a macintosh to the garden party, and that Paddy is mean- the last of which absolutely shocks him.
They do not speak for three days. But one morning, Molly finds a cheque on her table, and her moment of excitement is eaten away by guilt. She tears the cheque up and hugs Paddy, apologizing and saying that it is not him that is mean, but her, which he refutes. She explains that though she isn’t mean, she simply doesn’t have the heart anymore. Neither Paddy nor Molly herself fully understand what she is getting at, so Paddy asks her frankly whether she wants the fur coat. She admits to him that she does, but when he tells her to go out and buy it, she says “I couldn’t.” The reason why is unbeknownst to both of them, for when Paddy asks, Molly shakily replies with “I don’t know.”
The Fur Coat | Analysis
Sean O’Faolain was an Irish writer. His work often contains insight into the history, culture and society of Ireland, letting it subtly underline the larger plot. The focusses of his work evolved with time and the changing Irish situation and society. The Fur Coat is one of his first pieces to deal with social classism and internal conflict- this story revolves around characterization and thought rather than direct action, and all the interaction of the story happens only between two people– Paddy and Molly Maguire. The themes of this story are desire, change, social class, and the internal struggle with identity. The story is told in third-person by an unnamed narrator, but focuses heavily on Molly’s thought process and confusions. O’Faolain employs detailed descriptions and short but impactful dialogue. The conversations between the husband and wife– the wife who tries in vain to explain herself when she can hardly understand what she wants, and the husband who remains confused- act as a verbal depiction of what Molly feels, which is torn and befuddled. Molly’s contradictory thoughts and her husband’s reactions are, though complicated, very realistic. It paints a picture of climbing up the social ladder, realizing they will have to fit in with a new crowd whom they know they do not inherently belong to, and the difficulty which comes with moving forward while holding onto one’s identity– especially when they are moving into a class whose elements Molly is not fond of.
The fur coat as an item symbolizes success, desire and social class. Paddy is now able to afford such a garment due to his new promotion, which establishes that their financial earnings are greater than before. Being in such an office position also puts him in a new circle of people of similar earning lifestyle- more lavish and well-off than what the Maguires had experienced before. When Molly asks for a fur coat, it shows that they have now come to a point where it is affordable to them, which represents Paddy’s professional success. Molly’s reasoning as to why she wants it :
We’ll be getting asked out to parties and receptions and so forth. And – well – I haven’t a rag to wear! ‘I want to be able to throw it on and go off and be as well-dressed as anybody. You see, you can wear any old thing under a fur coat.
This highlights the norm of that social class, how they dress and what they are expected to wear. Thus, the coat is also a material symbolism of the higher rung of society where the Maguires are now expected to mingle.
However, Molly also constantly reminds her husband that the coat is practical, and she by no means wants to be vulgar or extravagant. “‘The last thing that I want anybody to start thinking is that I, by any possible chance, could be getting grand notions.’” she says, which emphasizes that she spent many years disliking the prudent showing-off of the higher class while her family struggled. It was aforementioned that Paddy had even been to jail, and they did not have much money. At that time, seeing the wealthy families with their extravagant clothes while she was finding it difficult to make ends meet may have angered her greatly. Now, when her own family is in the position to afford such luxury, she realizes that she needs to dress and behave a certain way to fit in with the new people of her lifestyle. What starts here is the internal struggle of identity– she wishes to buy a fur coat, and in doing so, she, too will own a ‘vulgar’ garment. She is becoming what she despises. It is almost as though she is trying to convince herself to keep the guilt at bay.
Her husband remains confused about her words and desires. He cannot be blamed, for she is confused as well. The husband’s role in the story may also represent the thoughts of the readers. While reading this piece and taking in Molly’s emotions, we have several questions for her- why do you not want to buy the coat? Do you want to buy it? What is the problem in having it? Paddy’s presence is an opportunity to relay all those questions to Molly, to close any loopholes that readers may have and to fully highlight the extent of Molly’s internal conflict.
No matter how many questions and suggestions and reassurances are presented by Paddy, his wife remains indecisive. This also shows how deep the pull of identity is- one cannot forgo it easily, even with the gain of money. While Molly is mending her son’s pajamas, she has a moment of realization– the times she has suffered, the people who were lost in war, what it takes to make one fur coat. As someone who has gone through hard times, and is aware of these things through direct experience, she cannot bring herself to purchase lavishly. To those who were born into luxury, a fur coat is nothing. But Molly, who has gone through difficulty, knows its value, and cannot bring herself to buy it with that knowledge.
The conversation between Paddy and Molly is a verbal representation of Molly’s self-conflict and bewilderment. She almost talks in circles, even when her husband tries to help her organize her thoughts. This is symbolic of one’s mind– when being pulled by two sides, especially an old and new self, it is natural to take one step forward and then two steps back, to repeat oneself and try to justify one’s desires. This is exactly what Molly does with Paddy. Paddy, though several times tells her to buy the coat to keep her warm, never outright tells her that she deserves to spend the money on it, though it is lavish, which may be what she wants to hear.
In the end, when she explodes and calls him “mean,” she is projecting her anger and emotion towards herself onto her husband. This can be see in what she has to say:
“On the fourth morning she found a cheque for a hundred and fifty pounds on her dressing-table. For a moment her heart leaped. The next moment it died in her.
These lines show the guilt that is residing within her. She was aware that her words were uncalled for, and could not even feel happy about a cheque- she felt guilty that he was giving in though it was her mistake.
Interestingly, many readers may expect an explanation at the end. When Paddy asks Molly if she wants the coat, she admits that she absolutely does. When he tells her to buy it, she says that cannot. So, the common expectation is that she will reveal why she cannot buy it. However, “She looked straight at him, and shaking her head sadly, she said in a little sobbing voice, ‘I don’t know.’” This is symbolic of two things: one is the fact that Paddy’s inability to understand her was not fully his fault– she did not understand herself. Two, an identity crisis is not easily explained. By failing to put her thoughts and feelings into words, O’Faolain depicts in just a short line that internal conflict stems from deep within– the years spent to establish a mindset and identity, the suddenness that comes with change, the discomfort of wealth when one has never known it before, and the fear of losing oneself to a new lifestyle.
The action of buying a fur coat may seem simple, but to Molly it represents a wealth which she finds it hard to accept, knowing the struggle behind it and having experienced it herself. It represents a class of society which she feels she does not belong in. This feeling of putting on a mask, of doing something she disliked seeing others do, and most importantly, the fact that truly does desire it, puts her in a difficult position. In the end, despite having a valid reason to buy the coat, and the money to do so, she is not able to do it and cannot explain why.