Edna O'Brien 1932-
Irish novelist, short-story writer, dramatist, scriptwriter, poet, critic, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of O'Brien's short fiction works from 1995 through 2003. For criticism of O'Brien's short fiction published prior to 1995, see SSC, Volume 10.
Although best known for her novels, O'Brien is also the author of several volumes of well-regarded short stories. Critics praise her poignant explorations of the emotional lives of women who deal with complex and often contradictory aspects of family and love relationships. Her stories have often been compared to those of the renowned Irish author James Joyce.
O'Brien was born December 15, 1932, in Taumgraney, County Clare, a small, rural, devoutly Catholic village in western Ireland. O'Brien first attended a local national school before continuing her education in a convent. She escaped rural life by attending the Pharmaceutical College of Ireland in Dublin. Shortly after her novel The Country Girls was published in 1960, O'Brien moved to London to escape what she perceived as the oppressiveness of Irish culture. In fact, many of her stories are banned in her native Ireland because of the frankness with which O'Brien writes about women's sexuality. Much of her short fiction first appeared in the New Yorker; her first collection, The Love Object, was published in 1968. Subsequent collections include Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories (1978) and Lantern Slides (1990), which won the 1990 Los Angeles Times Book Award. O'Brien often draws on the scenes of her childhood—Irish village life during the 1940s and 1950s—as well as contemporary urban life in her short fiction. Although her stories depict characters from different social classes and backgrounds, her protagonists are usually women who are involved in problematic love and family relationships. O'Brien currently lives in London.
Major Works of Short Fiction
O'Brien's Irish stories are characterized by vivid descriptions of the Irish countryside and by her skillful evocation of the hidden turmoil that can be present beneath the seemingly placid surface of village life. They often depict young protagonists who yearn for love and attention or for a greater measure of freedom than the circumscribed nature of village life affords them. In “My Mother's Mother,” for example, a lonely girl craves her absent mother's affection while being raised by relatives. She constructs elaborate and, ultimately, futile plans to rejoin her mother. In many stories young women attempt to reconcile their sexual desires with the strictures of Catholicism. O'Brien's realistic and compassionate handling of her struggle has drawn much critical favor as well as controversy. As the title suggests, the 1982 collection Returning focuses on the Ireland of O'Brien's childhood and features women who either physically return to their homeland or who are immersed in childhood reminiscences. O'Brien's urban stories often involve more sophisticated women whose experiences with men and sex have left them disappointed. “Over” and “Forgetting,” from the collection The Love Object, present women trying to overcome the emotional consequences of broken love affairs. Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories continues the theme of feminine adversity, but it portrays women who attain some degree of peace and happiness in their lives. “Mrs. Reinhardt” focuses on the reunion of an estranged couple, and in “Ways” a woman forgoes a sexual encounter with a man to whom she is attracted out of respect for his wife.
O'Brien's portrayal of character has been the focus of much critical attention. Although she is generally commended for her insights into female psychology, some critics, noting that her women characters are concerned with sex and love relationships to the exclusion of other interests, accuse O'Brien of perpetuating stereotypes of women as emotional and subservient. In fact, a recent study has viewed the women in her stories as sacrificial martyrs based on Catholic notions of the Virgin Mary. Sexuality has emerged as another topical area of O'Brien criticism; commentators have investigated the issue of lesbian desire in stories like “Sister Imelda” and her novel The High Road (1988). Furthermore, with few exceptions, men in O'Brien's stories are portrayed as selfish, drunk, violent, libidinous, or incompetent. While acknowledging certain limitations in her characterizations, however, most critics agree that O'Brien's depiction of women responding to disappointment and betrayal are realistic and insightful. Reviewers have also located her within the Irish comic tradition, find parallels between her stories and the work of James Joyce and other contemporary Irish short-story writers, and investigate the dynamic of mother-daughter relationships in her work.
The Love Object 1968
A Scandalous Woman, and Other Stories 1974
Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories 1978; also published as A Rose in the Heart, and Other Stories, 1979
A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories of Edna O'Brien 1984
Lantern Slides 1990
The Country Girls (novel) 1960
The Lonely Girl (novel) 1962; also published as The Girl with Green Eyes, 1970
Girl with Green Eyes (screenplay) 1964
Girls in Their Married Bliss (novel) 1964
August Is a Wicked Month (novel) 1965
Casualties of Peace (novel) 1966
Three into Two Won't Go (screenplay) 1969
Zee & Co. (novel) 1971
Night (novel) 1972
The Gathering (drama) 1974
Mother Ireland [with Fergus Bourke] (nonfiction) 1976
Arabian Days [with Gerard Klijn] (nonfiction) 1977
Johnny I Hardly Knew You (novel) 1977; also published as I Hardly Knew You, 1978
Virginia (drama) 1980
Vanishing Ireland (nonfiction) 1987
The High Road (novel) 1988
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SOURCE: Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts. “Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 185-97.
[In the following essay, Shumaker finds parallels in the treatment of women in stories by Mary Lavin and O'Brien, contending that “the disturbing martyrdoms of the heroines created by both writers stem, in part, from Catholic notions of the Madonna.”]
Edna O'Brien's “A Scandalous Woman” (1972) ends with the statement that Ireland is “a land of strange, sacrificial women” (33). Like O'Brien, Mary Lavin features sacrificial women in her short stories. The disturbing martyrdoms of the heroines created by both writers stem, in part, from Catholic notions of the Madonna. The two writers criticize their heroines' emulations of the suffering Virgin. Julia Kristeva's “Stabat Mater” (1977) and Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) scrutinize the impact of the Madonna myth on western European women. Their feminist scholarship illuminates short stories such as Lavin's “A Nun's Mother” (1944) and “Sarah” (1943), as well as O'Brien's “Sister Imelda” (1981) and “A Scandalous Woman.” In each story, female martyrdom (en)gendered by the Madonna myth takes different forms, from becoming a nun to becoming a wife, mother, or “fallen woman.”
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SOURCE: Malpezzi, Frances M. “Consuming Love: Edna O'Brien's ‘A Rose in the Heart of New York’.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 3 (summer 1996): 355-60.
[In the following essay, Malpezzi examines O'Brien's portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship in her story “A Rose in the Heart of New York.”]
Nearly 20 years ago, Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution lamented the paucity of material exploring the mother-daughter relationship:
This cathexis between mother and daughter—essential, distorted, misused—is the great unwritten story. Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.
Even the most cursory survey of the subject suggests the way in which interest in the mother-daughter relationship has accelerated since Rich's pronouncement. Five years after the publication of Rich's Of Woman Born, Marianne Hirsch, in a review essay, noted:
Since Rich demonstrated the absence of the mother-daughter relationship from theology, art,...
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SOURCE: Gillespie, Michael Patrick. “(S)he Was Too Scrupulous Always: Edna O'Brien and the Comic Tradition.” In The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers, edited by Theresa O'Connor, pp. 108-23. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1996.
[In the following essay, Gillespie views humor as an integral part of O'Brien's short fiction and situates her within the Irish literary comic tradition.]
Although a desolate, unforgiving atmosphere informs the narrative discourse in much of Edna O'Brien's writings, seeing her fiction as dour and pessimistic imposes a narrow, even reductive, view of her craft.1 One can, in fact, gain a great deal of interpretive insight into O'Brien's work by remaining attentive to the way that she incorporates into her narratives common features of Irish humor. Indeed, by using the guidelines articulated in Vivian Mercier's classic study The Irish Comic Tradition, one quickly finds that humor—albeit at times quite singular—stands as an integral part in O'Brien's fiction.
Mercier's approach presents the modest proposal that Irish humor draws particular strength from a legacy of sardonic, polemic critiques of society through a commentary that clarifies the complex forces that produce necessarily paradoxical views of Irish culture. His book clearly demonstrates—by tracing the formative influence of a heritage of acerbic chronicles...
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SOURCE: Pearce, Sandra Manoogian. “Snow through the Ages: Echoes of ‘The Dead’ in O'Brien, Lavin, and O'Faolain.” In Joyce through the Ages: A Nonlinear View, pp. 165-78. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1999.
[In the following essay, Pearce explores the influence of Joyce's seminal short story “The Dead” on O'Brien, Mary Lavin, and Sean O'Faolain, maintaining that these three authors “build upon imagery of snow or fire in their short stories to present unrelievedly pessimistic world visions, far more bitter than Joyce's that demonstrate their permanent loss of hope in a postlapsarian world.”]
“[Gabriel's] soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (D, 224). These final lines of the last short story in Dubliners, forming what is arguably one of the most lyrical passages in prose fiction, have established themselves as Joyce's signature piece. Their evocative power has resonated throughout the century, culminating in John Huston's visually stunning 1987 cinematic version. There Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy is poised by the Gresham Hotel window, watching the snow drift down while Anjelica Huston as Gretta sleeps on the bed. In the words of film director Huston, “Joyce's 1907 story of a comic Christmas dinner party ending in a...
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SOURCE: Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts. “Mother-Daughter Rivalries in Stories by Irish Women: Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O'Brien, Mary Beckett, and Helen Lucy Burke.” North Dakota Quarterly 68, no. 1 (winter 2001): 70-85.
[In the following essay, Shumaker applies theorist Julia Kristeva's “myth of the superior woman” to explicate the troubled mother-daughter relationships in several stories by Irish women writers, including O'Brien's “A Rose in the Heart of New York.”]
Traditionally, Irish women have been regarded primarily as mothers, according to Jenny Beale (50). Being defined through motherhood creates problems of identity for long-suffering mothers in short stories by modern Irish women. These stories also dramatize the burden of being a “good” daughter to a self-sacrificing mother. Strained relationships between mothers and daughters reflect the changing gender roles, economic limitations, and, sometimes, the troubled politics of Ireland and Northern Ireland.1 Feminist theory is pertinent for examining the struggles between modern Irish mothers and daughters, since such thinking grapples with the gender issues that affect each story's protagonists. Julia Kristeva's ideas about female rivalries illuminate mother/daughter relationships in Elizabeth Bowen's “Coming Home” (1923), Edna O'Brien's “A Rose in the Heart of New York” (1978), Mary Beckett's “Failing Years”...
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SOURCE: Thompson, Helen. “Uncanny and Undomesticated: Lesbian Desire in Edna O'Brien's ‘Sister Imelda’ and The High Road.” Women's Studies 32, no. 1 (January-February 2003): 21-44.
[In the following essay, Thompson provides an interpretation of “Sister Imelda” and O'Brien's novel The High Road in terms of lesbian desire and female sexuality.]
In an anonymous review of a different version of this article, a critic wrote that lesbian readings of Edna O'Brien's fiction are nothing new. I was and still am troubled by this assessment of O'Brien criticism because within this limited critical canon—one book and roughly fifteen articles—there is only one published study, by Jeanette Schumaker, that acknowledges lesbian sexuality in O'Brien's writing. Schumaker focuses on one short story and only mentions the possibility of reading “Sister Imelda” in lesbian terms. No critical work exists on The High Road, unless we consider book reviews, and even then, reviewers decentralize the importance of the lesbianism to the novel. The only references I can cite of critics suggesting that The High Road is lesbian come from a parenthetical comment by Amanda Greenwood during a session on O'Brien at the Celebrating Irish Women Writers conference (University College, Dublin, May 1999) and before that a footnote in Terry Castle's The Apparitional Lesbian where she includes...
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Doughty, Louise. “Restless Dreaming Souls.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4549 (August 6 1990): 616.
Favorable review of Lantern Slides.
Gordon, Mary. “Edna O'Brien: A Fanatic Heart.” In Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays, pp. 84-88. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 1991.
Views The Fanatic Heart to be a collection of short stories that explores love from a female perspective.
Lanters, Jose. Review of Lantern Slides. World Literature Today 65, no. 2 (spring 1991): 303-04.
Negative assessment of Lantern Slides.
O'Hara, Kiera. “Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories of Edna O'Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (summer 1993): 317-25.
Identifies the female obsession with love as a central theme in O'Brien's stories.
Pearce, Sandra Manoogian. “Edna O'Brien's ‘Lantern Slides’ and Joyce's ‘The Dead’: Shadows of a Bygone Era.” Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 3 (summer 1995): 437-46.
Finds parallels between “Lantern Slides” and James Joyce's “The Dead.”
Additional coverage of O'Brien's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 5;...
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