O'Brien, Edna 1932–
The male-female relationship and the condition of women, especially their sexual repression, in her native Ireland are principal themes in Ms O'Brien's novels and short stories. Because of her outspoken but sensitive treatments of controversial subjects, her books, such as The Lonely Girl and A Pagan Place, have been banned in Ireland. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Inside every short story is a bigger story—which ought not to be trying to get out. Inside each of Edna O'Brien's stories is a full-length novel: quiescent, let it be said. The converse is also true; each story could be part of one and the same novel. They integrate: [A Scandalous Woman] is a collection, not a gallimaufry. Scandalous Eily, of the title, is the victim of the God-like rage for respectability. More than an eye for an eye: for a tumble in the lime-kiln—marriage for life. There are glimpses of her after her shotgun wedding, growing odd, her lovely hair falling out, and then growing wild, a figure of fun and terror in the street; finally, her hair permed, her spark gone, serving in her husband's grocery store. In a 'land of shame, a land of murder' and sacrificial women, she has paid the price.
'Over' is the lament of a left-off woman. The absurd shifts and fantasies of misery define her as the betrayed, the unliberated, hanging on grimmer than death. She knows what she has lost and she exposes her lover more mercilessly than she does herself. 'King Lear says women must be kind, or something to that effect.' The effect will have to do.
'The Favourite' dead-pan but piercingly tells of the decline and fall of a little empire. Tess, a third child, was born on the Sabbath day. She is not strong on imagination and lives by virtue of the facts. With her luck, facts are a virtue. They are also means and an end. She swans through life. But even she, when her turn comes, does not know if she has been happy, and asks: 'Is this how it is when one begins to be unhappy?'
'Honeymoon' is a classic case of disappointment. Not that the honeymoon itself is classic—these two have been living together for months. Nor are they a classic couple: he is twice her age and has had 'two other wives of different nationalities'. Nevertheless, she 'obeyed him in everything, even in the type of shoes she was to wear—completely flat shoes which as it happened gave her a pain in her instep'. They meet a hunchback who curses them when they decline to rent her steaming wet cottage. They disappoint the hunchback, and a lonely couple longing for company, and he disappoints her. "Marry in haste, repent in leisure,' she thinks. But how much and how often will she disappoint him? And thus be the third wife not to come up to his quite reasonable expectations?
In 'A Journey' there is an attempt to sound the man's emotions, but only as surmise. Suppositions are all the woman can have. In 'Love-Child', Hickey, the workman, desperately tries to cope, but he is unequipped: brings too many cabbages, shoots the uneatable wild goose and wastes himself. He dies, leaving a ridiculous memory and his dreadful 'love-child'. This man had love but did not know what to do with it.
The Creature's deformity is her soft heart. It is not human to be kind, nor even womanly—whatever King Lear said—and only the beasts of the field have cause for humility. So she is always referred to as 'The Creature'. However, she is not without hope. For twenty years she has lived on a 'last high tightrope', which is twitched from under her, to release a 'gigantic and useless sorrow'. Appropiately, it is all done by kindness.
The last story, 'The House of My Dreams', describes a mental breakdown. With this subject, it is so easy to pile the agony on the joy, splendours on miseries. With a writer like Edna O'Brien the result is still worth reading for the juxtapositions. (On the other hand, a writer whose technique is based on surprise might do well to remember that the trouble with punchlines is that eventually the mind tends to duck.) When the last crumbling woman is taken away to the place where 'she and others would be under supervision' these Kathleens have learned their bitter lesson. There can be no liberation from love—it was, after all, Adam's rib. (p. 316-17)
A. L. Barker, "Bondmaidens," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of A. L. Barker), September 5, 1974, pp. 316-17.
[A Scandalous Woman And Other Stories] offer the pleasures [Edna O'Brien's] readers have come to expect: the brisk and deadly pleasures of fairy tale. She is adept at evoking gardens of Eden: a rural Irish childhood-Eden and the Eden of sexual delight. Snakes abound. Penalties threaten. The dangling apple is too bright to be wholesome, but the girl approaching cannot gain this grim knowledge without risk. As though exhausted by this primal dilemma, Miss O'Brien's heroines seem, once fallen, unable to rise. Their Fall is always sexual. If they do totter to their feet, it is to fall again….
Despite feminist efforts on behalf of their kind, Miss O'Brien's sex-dazzled heroines continue to race like lemmings toward unhappiness. Biology, for them, is still inflexible destiny and, with the possible exception of a quick, free abortion on the National Health, no social advantage is going to change things for creatures whose passivity rivals that of Sade's Justine….
A highly successful writer, she nurtures her fiction on the compost of defeat. Doom, as in a Totentanz, is visibly present at the happiest moments…. [The] legitimate woman, a constant though faceless figure in the O'Brien triangle, is the foil and antithesis of the scandalous heroine. The legitimate woman has the social virtues. She keeps her man in the end because she calculates, choosing happiness—a long-term affair—over ecstasy, a much dicier value. Miss O'Brien does not care for the social virtues….
Although a feminist republic of free, responsible women might be tempted to ban Miss O'Brien's defeatist writings, they should rather, I think, be grateful to her. Her stories are bulletins from a front on which they will not care to engage, field reports on the feminine condition at its most acute. Only a woman fiction writer can safely and authentically explore feminine passivity to the full. She can experience it totally in her characters while protected from its virus by the fact that she is, qua writer, simultaneously active. Miss O'Brien explores with persuasive thoroughness. (pp. 3-4)
Miss O'Brien's range is narrow and obsessional. The larger world does not interest her. Her social settings are perfunctory. Like Racine's queens, her sex and self-absorbed women are undisturbed by the day-to-day. Nothing intervenes to prevent their passion reaching boiling point. Unlike Racinian passion, however, theirs never boils over. There is no explosion. No climax. The slice of life is chopped off more or less neatly and a few sentences of melancholy Stoicism tie it up.
Hers is the archetypal Romantic attitude: a yearning to cage the minute, arrest time at the childhood phase or the moment of sexual ecstasy or, all else failing, to recapture it through art. Her talents are for sensuous evocation, shimmering surface seduction. She can make us share her dreams, taste those cakes, feel, see and touch as she has done. What she does not seem to be able to do is to get experience into perspective. She cannot judge or structure it and so she seems forced—a variant of Santayana's sentence on those who forget history—to rework it. The story is forever the same.
As Miss O'Brien's fictional world is cyclic, it would be unreasonable to expect of her the explosive condensation sometimes aimed for in the short story. There is no moment of insight or understanding either, since the world is not to be understood. A quietistic and elegant shrug is her usual way of ending a story…. (p. 4)
Julia O'Faolian, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 22, 1974.
The premise that the happiest of lives will one day be deprived and that, for the most promising and the most beautiful, there is destined a time of madness and emptiness, is not a new one in literature. What is notable about Edna O'Brien is the gaiety, the genuine spirits, that lighten the life of [the] stories [in A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories] before the darkness sets in. Miss O'Brien's talent, as evident in the long title story, is to create characters in the full belief and the immediacy of the moment, characters whose lives may go this way or that, who exist innocent of their fate, and who somehow keep the reader innocent with them. The collection is not at its best in cluttered stories like "The House of My Dreams," a rambling work told from the point of view of a mind unhinged. But madness is Miss O'Brien's strong suit, particularly the sort of madness that is the product of loneliness and age, of the unexpected, unprepared-for vacancies that lie in wait for one. It is evident in "The Favorite," a stark, chilling story and one that is steadfastly ordinary, ordinary in its details and its assumptions in the way that most human life is ordinary. It is a steadfastness that distinguishes most of the stories here and that makes Edna O'Brien so enormously readable a writer. (p. 28)
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 5, 1974.
Miss O'Brien's women unhesitantly acknowledge sexual necessity while living independently of public concerns; her feminists rarely recognize that their cause is public. Instead their object is love, and their sorrow is its loss…. The fear of loss is an ever-present burden of living; moreover, it is a dominant attribute of love. (p. 10)
Still a second factor exposed by Miss O'Brien's literary stethoscope should cause more discomfort than this exclusive submergence in the love theme, and that is the thoroughness with which one's choice of someone to love defines the entire range of one's personality; it exposes a streak of masochism, describes one's pathetic ideals, or reflects conditions of loneliness. (pp. 10-11)
In the final analysis, loneliness and independence must be acknowledged as dominant themes in Edna O'Brien's fiction. Stresses, especially those of loneliness, most dramatically take the form of a quest for someone to love, and that person not only has a body but also reflects the protagonist's state of mind. (pp. 12-13)
[Sexual] failure, where it occurs in Edna O'Brien's works, is often the result of choice and of religious background and is countered by a staunch independence that all Miss O'Brien's heroines, though some are unaware of it, exhibit (Mary Hooligan of Night turns an array of sexual, and other, reminiscences into triumphant humor and rebounds from her last disappointment with admirable courage to face the future). Of the reader's retention of sexual stresses as the dominant impression of her books, Edna O'Brien remarked [that] in a story of 70,000 words 3000 at most might deal directly with sex [and] 'if these 3000 are pored over to the virtual exclusion of the other 67,000 whose fault is that?" (p. 14)
That Miss O'Brien has been called a feminist develops not so much from an ideal or from a philosophical cause but from a realistic appraisal of the female condition and of the male-female relationship. Asked what the Cinderella motif means to her, as it appears in August, where Ellen wants a certain kind of man who would "control and bewitch" her, Edna O'Brien said, "I mean the metamorphosis from being outcast to being queen, to being accepted." Of the Prince Charming in this role, seven years after August was published, Miss O'Brien said, "As for the man who would bewitch her, I think I would use a stronger word now, the man who would possess her. I have a very strong pull and obviously conflicting pull towards god and the devil." (p. 39)
In Miss O'Brien's hands the god who should mate with Cinderella and establish her in a new kingdom of happiness merges with the evil principle, so that, for example Dr. Flaggler [of Night], a veritable Mephistopheles, chortles "You are not going to escape me, not now, not ever, you are not going out of my sight, you poor zealous wretch"….
This archaic instinct in Miss O'Brien's work becomes a trenchant elucidation of the physical processes of maturation and age. As a result of self-development her characters realize that they must free themselves from the evil force, and generally they gather courage and walk away, as in the short story "How to Grow a Wisteria." (p. 40)
In a sense Miss O'Brien's work may be viewed as a process of change from romance to realism—from the innocent view that an alignment with a male means happiness ever after to the stark realization that such is not possible. Actually, the popular Cinderella story is fraught with marital suicide in that Cinderella has lost the connection with abstract Wisdom or cultural benefits. In Edna O'Brien's work, Prince Charming is Eugene Gaillard, attracted to Caithleen Brady for her naïveté, but later finding her repulsive for the same quality.
Rather than representing Wisdom, which was originally a combination of Love and Knowledge, today's Cinderella must acquire Wisdom. (p. 41)
August marks a transition between the heroine's earlier quest for self-development through marriage with a hero and the later knowledge that such is impossible. That dream was almost relinquished in Girls and was retained only in the ideal of a lover in August. Thereafter the Edna O'Brien heroine keeps the dream as a shadow of reality but alliance with a rare desirable male always, for some reason, proves impossible. The woman builds her future in direct strife with a male, as does Zee [of Zee & Co.], or independently with an added burden of revenge for the damage caused by a man in the past. (pp. 47-8)
The style during these years has developed from the simple and barren naïveté of the young Caithleen with her revealing touches of ingenuousness ("I felt badly about being the cause of sending them solicitors' letters but Eugene said that it had to be") to the discursive ruminations of Mary Hooligan who reels off exhaustive lists like those of Samuel Beckett's Watt and converses with herself in a stream-of-consciousness-with-plot technique somewhat like that of Molly Bloom. Most of the fiction is written in the first person, which enhances both its verisimilitude and, one suspects, the critical tendency to treat it as autobiography. The best passages of the early novels are those scenes which reveal contrasting personalitities—in The Lonely Girl, when Gaillard comes to tea with Joanna, when the deputation of virtuous god-fearing farmers calls upon the agnostic Gaillard to retrieve Caithleen's honor, when the locals in the pub insult Gaillard and Caithleen—and these point to a successful career in drama. Girls in Their Married Bliss, the most discomforting of the novels, is blunt and direct in diction. The same attitudes on love, or the female condition, or religious friction may be phrased more subtly in the later works. The progression in style has permitted experimentation in technique, notably in A Pagan Place, which is written in the second person with the child-heroine identified only as "you," the father as "he," and the mother as "she." The two kinds of ficiton—the Irish and the urbane—are produced from two life styles in Ireland and in England. Caithleen from County Clare is … a "right looking eejit" (a Clare expression), and a heroine may appear "streelish" in Ireland and "wanton" in England. The last novel, Night, marks a maturity not only in style and content but also in perception about the home land. Using real Irish names, Miss O'Brien has now created a territory as Faulkner did with Yoknapatawpha. (pp. 77-8)
This mergence of Irish geography with artistic vision develops naturally from Miss O'Brien's concern with memory. The technique of A Pagan Place and of Night is the use of memory through contrasting personalities; but the similarity between the "you," who makes a "mind and soul trip" into childhood, and the mature Mary Hooligan is the Irish background. (p. 79)
In the short story collection, three stories—"The Rug," "An Outing," and "Irish Revel"—evoke the atmosphere of Joyce's Dubliners. (p. 80)
"Irish Revel," the best story in the collection, offers a West of Ireland version of Joyce's classic, "The Dead," although, as the title indicates, the living here are mostly concerned with living. (p. 81)
The influence of Joyce, and especially of "The Dead" [can be noted] in The Country Girls. Also the style of A Pagan Place echoes the early pages of Joyce's Portrait…. Night features a rural stripling, "a fellow with unmatching eyes," who recalls the blind stripling of Ulysses; and Mary's "winding effluvias" evokes a flickering gleam of Anna Livia Plurabelle. Night's greatest resemblance of Joyce is in its indebtedness to the soliloquy of Molly Bloom with the particular Edna O'Brien touch of attachment to the Irish past. (pp. 82-3)
The evolution of Edna O'Brien as a writer, however, bears as its closest resemblance to James Joyce her regard for authenticity. (p. 83)
Yet, if Edna O'Brien has learned from Joyce, in particular in the rich prose of Mary Hooligan, she remains her own woman. (pp. 83-4)
Grace Eckley, in her Edna O'Brien (© 1974 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1974.