Study Guide

Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien Essay - O'Brien, Edna

O'Brien, Edna

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Returning 1982

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

On the Bone (poetry) 1989

Time and Tide (novel) 1992

House of Splendid Isolation (novel) 1994

Down by the River (novel) 1996

James Joyce (criticism) 1999

Wild Decembers (novel) 1999

In the Forest (novel) 2002

Criticism

Jeanette Roberts Shumaker (essay date spring 1995)

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.”

Kristeva comments upon the fluidity of the Madonna, who encompasses diverse female roles, as do the Irish female characters who emulate her. Discussing the dimensions of the Madonna—Virgin, mother, wife—Warner describes the primary effect of the Madonna myth: “By setting up an impossible ideal the cult of the Virgin does drive the adherent into a position of acknowledged and hopeless yearning and inferiority” (337). The heroines of Lavin's and O'Brien's stories fit the pattern of self-hatred that Warner describes. Their varieties of sacrifice stem from self-disgust fostered by failing to reach the standards of the Madonna myth.

In O'Brien's “Sister Imelda,” the teenage narrator falls in love with her teacher, the beautiful young nun of the title. The joys of their love are the Foucauldian pleasures of self-denial—a passion never to be realized but fanned by both teacher and student through notes, whispered confidences, devotional gifts, and an occasional hug or kiss. This story fits the pattern of O'Brien's novels that Thomas F. Staley calls confessional, “crying out for absolution” (188). Imelda's and the narrator's romance makes life in the cold nunnery tolerable, even enjoyable. The romance stands, in miniature, for the unrealizable passion that Sister Imelda holds for Christ. Thus it becomes an enlistment tool for the nunnery, as Sister Imelda lures the narrator into a permanent sisterhood of sublimated passion. The narrator abandons her plan to become a nun after she leaves the convent, instead taking up the worldly solaces of makeup and nylons to attract the attention of men. Her best friend, Baba, outdoes her at dressing like a mature woman, becoming the narrator's model as Imelda once was. Baba's name suggests trite babytalk among lovers, as well as the magic of the Arabian Nights—here the transformations of puberty that are supposed to lead to marital joy.

The narrator's struggle to sublimate her sexuality into a pure love for Sister Imelda may come from her wish to emulate the Virgin. Warner writes that “the foundations of the ethic of sexual chastity are laid in fear and loathing of the female body's functions in identification of evil with the flesh and flesh with woman” (77). The nuns' routine mortifications, which the schoolgirls are expected to imitate, reveal their sense that the female body is an inherently evil possession for which they must compensate. Sister Imelda gets a sty that suggests both her neglect of her body and her distorted view of it. Meanwhile, “Most girls had sore throats and were told to suffer this inconvenience to mortify themselves …” (2373). Sore throats are a metaphor for the voicelessness of the girls and the nuns under the convent's regimen. Both the nuns and the girls are often hungry because the convent habitually underfeeds them. Delicacies, such as the narrator's comically suggestive gift of bananas for Imelda, are saved for visiting bishops. The semi-starvation of both nuns and girls by a wealthy church forces their bodies into thin and spiritualized shapes that avoid the lush fecundity stereotypically associated with woman as sexual body. Weakened from hunger and other mortifications, the women are to look as undesirable and feel as undesiring as possible; however, the story shows that neither goal is actually met.

The narrator feels the loathing for her body that underlies the convent's ascetic practices when, at the end of the story, she wants to jump out of the bus window to escape the gaze of Sister Imelda after two years of living outside of the convent. The narrator now sees Imelda as a judge who might condemn her for adhering to her culture's vision of woman as a sexual commodity. To the narrator, Imelda stands for the virgin identity that the narrator has decided to shun despite its high status when held by nuns. As Warner writes, “Thus the nun's state is a typical Christian conundrum, oppressive and liberating at once, founded in contempt for, yet inspiring respect for, the female sex. … But the very conditions which make the Virgin sublime are beyond the powers of women to fulfill unless they deny their sex” (77). That denial of sexuality is not easy for Imelda is suggested by the narrator's describing the nun's lips as those of “a woman who might sing in a cabaret” (2372). When Sister Imelda reads Cardinal Newman to her class, “she looked almost profane” (2372). Imelda's sensuality surfaced during a fling with a boy on the night before she became a postulant; it reappears during her inappropriate friendship with the narrator. In the convent's context of preserving a nun's or a schoolgirl's virginity, a mental lesbian liaison is more acceptable than a consummated heterosexual relationship. Within the context of current sexual scandals within the Church, the reader may wonder if the narrator's and Imelda's liaison was ever consummated, and if that consummation was beyond representation when the story was written. For the story's purposes, however, the desire itself is what matters. As Kiera O'Hara writes of O'Brien's characters, it is “the possibility of union,” however unlikely, that obsesses the narrator of “Sister Imelda” (322). That transcendent union with Imelda would have both spiritual and physical dimensions.

In presenting a lesbian relationship from the point of view of the immature, enraptured narrator, O'Brien shows its appeal in a patriarchal world in which becoming like the hedonistic Baba seems more debased than becoming like the idealistic Imelda. Defying the restrictions of the nunnery, Imelda seems free and daring—“how peerless and how brave”—to the narrator (2376). The narrator is drawn not only to love Imelda, but to want to imitate her. As Imelda the nun emulates the Madonna, the narrator models herself upon her beautiful teacher, suggesting the erotic dimensions that female worship of the Madonna may take. Imelda's erotic dimension includes maternal self-sacrifice, for Imelda enjoys feeding the narrator jam tarts which she herself refuses to eat. The tarts stand for forbidden sexuality that is tied up with the maternal: “Had we been caught, she, no doubt, would have had to make a massive sacrifice” (2376). As a sexualized stand-in for both the narrator's mother and the Madonna, Imelda eroticizes stereotypical female selflessness while she models it for the narrator.

The appeal of Imelda's asceticism is its drama: “Each nun, even the Mother Superior—flung herself in total submission, saying prayers in Latin and offering up the moment to God. … It was not difficult to imagine Sister Imelda face downward, arms outstretched, prostrate on the tile floor” (2377). Imelda's gesture suggests Kristeva's jouissance of the mystic (181) and Foucault's notion that repression can be more fun than indulgence. The nuns' pleasure in prostration may come from ceasing to fight their awareness of their inferiority to the ideal wife and mother of God, the Madonna.

The irony is that the narrator does not know that a woman's life outside the convent may also require humiliating renunciations for her children or for a domineering husband; both sides of the Madonna ideal—Virgin and mother—are identically submissive. At the convent, the narrator does not try to grasp her mother's lot, although she visualizes her father darkly as “losing his temper perhaps and stamping on the kitchen floor with nailed boots” (2383). Certainly the narrator, like her mother, is a follower—first of Imelda and then of Baba, with the latter's makeup rites becoming so sacred that the narrator never removes her paint. Like Baba, Imelda prepares the narrator to be devoutly feminine; Imelda teaches the narrator a masochistic style of loving that the narrator will be able to use with men: “It was clear to me then that my version of pleasure was inextricable from pain” (2376). Kristeva might call this “A suffering lined with jubilation” (183) characteristic of the woman who lives suffused by the image of the sacrificial Madonna. Grace Eckley argues that O'Brien always defines love as sadomasochistic (11). That seems to be true. However, I believe that in “Sister Imelda” O'Brien is critical of sadomasochism as a feminine style of loving. The nuns' gestures of willing prostration are emblematic of the suffering Irish female condition in general. That the story ends with the narrator's pity for Imelda and her fellow nun suggests the narrator's coming awareness of the commonality of women's lot: “They [the two nuns] looked so cold and lost as they hurried along the pavement that I wanted to run after them” (2386). This commonality results from the sacrifices that the Madonna ideal requires of Irish women. It leaves O'Brien labeling herself, according to Eckley, as “only a guilt-ridden Irish woman” (66). The excessive humility of the “only” is what O'Brien challenges her readers to escape through avoiding the self-abnegation that restricts Imelda, the narrator, and herself.

“Sister Imelda” suggests that girls want to become nuns to experience the high drama of religious renunciation rather than the low comedy of becoming a sexual commodity. Lavin's “The Nun's Mother” presents a related explanation for why girls want to become nuns—to avoid male predation.1 More painfully than O'Brien, Lavin exposes the inescapability of patriarchal power, whether in the home or the convent. The story concerns a nun's mother's meditations after leaving her daughter, Angela, at a convent. Angela's mother, Mrs. Latimer, never dared to ask Angela why she chose such a career, when all of Angela's life she appeared to dislike going to mass. The girl's father, Luke, is horrified that his daughter is renouncing the physical joys of marriage without realizing what they mean. Like Mrs. Latimer he does not dare to question Angela. Mrs. Latimer reflects on her happiness in marriage, noting its rarity. She is both glad that her daughter will not have to risk a marriage failure, and sorry that she won't know intimate love. Although the parents do not realize it, a reason for Angela's choice is given at the end of the story, when the father notices a flasher who has been operating near their home for months.

Angela apparently wishes to escape a world of invasive male sexuality for a sexless world in which wearing a swimsuit into the bathtub will safeguard her. The daughter's acceptance of such prudish defenses can be explained by “the terrible reticence about the body between mothers and daughters, a reticence based on revulsion, and not, as with mothers and sons, upon respect and mystery” (344). Shame over their bodies keeps Angela and Mrs. Latimer emotionally distant.2 Hence, Mrs. Latimer cannot ask Angela why she is becoming a nun: “She [Mrs. Latimer] was conscious of this revulsion [about the body] every time she was alone with her daughter during the last month” (344). As a result, Mrs. Latimer says nothing to Angela about her decision. Mrs. Latimer pretends to her husband that she has spoken to Angela, for Mrs. Latimer feels humiliated by her inability to be as intimate with her daughter as Luke expects. Mrs. Latimer knows that if Luke had a son, Luke would talk to him easily, since men lack women's shame about sexuality. At the story's end, Mrs. Latimer can't even imagine Angela being disturbed by the flasher near their home, because she never thinks of Angela as a sexual being capable of noticing a nude man. Mrs. Latimer's and Angela's revulsion against their bodies comes from the self-hatred engendered by a religion that regards female sexuality as evil. It is the same self-disgust that causes the narrator of “Sister Imelda” to hide from her once-beloved nun, and that perhaps caused Imelda to join her order. Only by denying her body as a nun can a woman preserve it from becoming that of a temptress.

Angela's fear of violation by the flasher or other men can be linked, through Warner, to the Church's “historical fear of contamination by outside influences, and its repugnance to change” that is symbolized by the Virgin's (and nun's) chastity (102). It is a fear of contamination that Angela's mother shares. Mrs. Latimer believes that the appeal of becoming a nun is gaining sexual independence from men. “And so, for most women, when they heard that a young girl was entering a convent, there was a strange triumph in their hearts … they felt a temporary hostility to their husbands” (340). However, Mrs. Latimer denies that she herself ever felt the allure of sexual emancipation. She would not give up her memories of passion with Luke for anything. Luke is gentle; both Angela and her mother seem to see him as an exception to typical male aggressiveness. Despite the presence of Luke, the story countenances Angela's fear of men in that the flasher epitomizes all the varieties of perverts who do in fact hurt women; that flashers themselves usually don't rape women physically, however, suggests Angela's naïveté about men. Angela's other naïve belief is that nuns are immune from sexual attacks.

The story ends with Mrs. Latimer's fantasy of Angela as a water lily about to be picked by the flasher. That Mrs. Latimer associates Angela with water lilies shows that Mrs. Latimer sees the female experience as a conflict between beautiful nature and a degraded civilization that endangers it. Mrs. Latimer's essentialism appears in her aligning of woman with nature. The danger for the female flower is not just one of being picked, but of withering in a self-protective, ossifying ideology of asceticism that the Irish Catholic Church endorses for women. Angela avoids the physical threat of rape but not the mental one of ossification, choosing her own form of sacrifice. Angela will be a water lily in a bowl on the convent's altar, her life a slow withering. With Angela's sexual independence from...

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Frances M. Malpezzi (essay date summer 1996)

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...

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Michael Patrick Gillespie (essay date 1996)

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...

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Sandra Manoogian Pearce (essay date 1999)

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...

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Jeanette Roberts Shumaker (essay date winter 2001)

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...

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Helen Thompson (essay date January-February 2003)

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...

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