Besides short stories, Edna O’Brien has written dramas (including screenplays and teleplays), poetry (On the Bone, 1989), children’s literature (The Dazzle, 1981), and novels such as A Pagan Place (1970), Night (1972), The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue (1986), House of Splendid Isolation (1994), Down by the River (1996), and Wild Decembers (1999). She has also published nonfiction, including autobiographical travel books such as Mother Ireland (1976), newspaper articles, and biographical and literary criticism such as James and Nora (1981), and James Joyce (1999). She has also edited the anthology Some Irish Loving (1979).
After a strong start in the early 1960’s with three splendid short novels in the Bildungsroman tradition of maturation and escape (The Country Girls, 1960, winner of the Kingsley Amis Award; The Lonely Girl, 1962, reprinted as Girl with Green Eyes, 1964; and Girls in Their Married Bliss, 1964), Edna O’Brien established herself publicly in a variety of television appearances. She became a most articulate spokeswoman for a not overly romantic view of Ireland, for women trapped in an eternal mother-daughter conflict, and for some feminists. The last-mentioned achievement is reached paradoxically in O’Brien’s fictions by her frequent exploration and exploitation of an unsympathetic woman in the leading role—the Caithleen (Kate) of the early novels. O’Brien has very few male leads or narrators. Her Kate-women often are whiners and losers who make poor choices in their liaisons with men (often already married), which inevitably bring grief. Her depiction of character, setting (particularly in Ireland—Philip Roth has praised her sense of place), and conflict is, however, so strong, so graphic, and often in such memorable language, appealing to all the senses, that the negative point is made: This is not how a woman, or indeed any person, seeking happiness should go about the search “for love or connection.”
At her best, O’Brien has another counterbalancing woman present as a foil, such as the ebullient Baba, the other heroine with Kate in her early novels; this confident voice is particularly strong in Girls in Their Married Bliss and Night, an extended “Baba” monologue in the fashion of Joyce’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses (1922). O’Brien’s achievement is to take her readers some distance along the road to realizing what it is to be an integrated, and therefore a happy, person. She is at her best when the setting of her fictions is rural Ireland, not the jet-setters’ London or Mediterranean. O’Brien is most popular in the United States, where she gives frequent readings of her work. She is a gifted re-creator of the sights, smells, tastes, and feel of Ireland—with a vivid way of capturing what people might say, at their colorful best.
In addition to her novels, Edna O’Brien has published short fiction, plays and screenplays, poetry, children’s books, and works of nonfiction. Her short stories have appeared regularly in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Cosmopolitan; collections of her stories include The Love Object (1968), A Scandalous Woman, and Other Stories (1974), and Lantern Slides (1990). Chief among O’Brien’s stage plays are A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers (pr. 1962), A Pagan Place (pr. 1972), Virginia (pr. 1980), Triptych (pr., pb. 2003), and Iphigenia (pr., pb. 2003). Her works for film and television include the screenplays Time Lost and Time Remembered (1966), Three into Two Won’t Go (1969), and X, Y, and Zee (1971) and the teleplays The Wedding Dress (1963), Mrs. Reinhardt (1981), and The Country Girls (1983). Among her works of nonfiction are the autobiographical Mother Ireland (1976); Arabian Days (1977), a travel book; Vanishing Ireland (1987), a pictorial; and James Joyce (1999), a biography.
After moving to London from Dublin, Ireland, in 1959, Edna O’Brien published at a furious pace, mining her early experiences in Ireland and then as a single parent with two sons to rear in England. There was something of a lull in her long fiction, however, from 1977 to 1986. Nearly always from a female narrator’s point of view, O’Brien has brilliantly transmuted her personal experiences into art. Her recall and selection of the tiny details that make up the texture of life, particularly in her Irish scenes (The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, A Pagan Place) are most dazzling. Impressive, too, is her evident love and savoring of words—sometimes clearly in a fashion reminiscent of James Joyce—for their own sake, and often in good dialogue. Perhaps because of the speed with which she works, the vivacity and brilliance of her prolific output is frequently marred by awkward grammar, punctuation, and syntax. Apparently, her editors have felt these stylistic lapses are all part of her Irish use of the language and have accordingly let them stand.
O’Brien was a feminist before the term became fashionable, but her works also affirm a wider humanistic sympathy for all people. Early, she took up the topics of women’s attitudes toward their bodies, their sexuality, and their roles as mothers and daughters. In Ireland, several of her books have been banned because of their negative commentary on the Roman Catholic Church, more common in her early work, and her frequent use of graphic sexual terms and scenes. Outside Ireland, O’Brien’s reputation as a writer of fiction seems assured, although reviewer Marianne Wiggins, writing in The Nation, observed that “to the English [she is] a minor self-promoting legend.” Despite conflicting critical responses to her work, O’Brien has received numerous awards, including the Kingsley Amis Award in 1962, the Yorkshire Post Award in 1970 for A Pagan Place, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990 for Lantern Slides and again in 1992 for Time and Tide, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s Prize for Fiction in 1993, and the European Prize for Literature in 1995; the last of these was presented to O’Brien in tribute to her entire oeuvre.
Critics often comment that Edna O’Brien’s work seems more effective when set in Ireland, rather than in other locales with which she is also familiar, such as England or the Mediterranean. Do you agree? Why or why not?
How does she appeal to the reader’s physical senses?
Find examples of different voices in which O’Brien writes, such as lyrical, ironic, humorous, and even bitter.
What effects does she create by using a child as her protagonist or narrator?
Discuss O’Brien’s treatment of her male characters as opposed to her female ones. Is there any noticeable shift in her later work?
Much has been said of O’Brien’s typically dysfunctional families, but does she depict any relationships that might be described as functional? Give examples.
Colletta, Lisa and Maureen O’Connor, eds. Wild Colonial Girl: Essays on Edna O’Brien. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. Collection of critical essays examining O’Brien’s works.
Dunn, Nell. “Edna.” In Talking to Women. London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1965. In this thirty-eight-page, wide-ranging talk with O’Brien, the topics discussed range from the difficulties facing a single-parent writer to aging. O’Brien in this revealing, autobiographical interview, shares her thoughts on family, love, and relationships. Contains no bibliography, index, or chronology.
Eckley, Grace. Edna O’Brien. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1974. This excellent, eighty-eight-page study is the first such on O’Brien. The themes perceptively discussed in O’Brien’s extremely personal work include preeminently love and loss.
Gillespie, Michael Patrick. “(S)he Was Too Scrupulous Always.” In The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers, edited by Theresa O’Connor. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. Discusses how O’Brien’s humor is distinguished from that of Irish male writers; shows the relationship between her humor and that of James Joyce, particularly the relationship between her short stories and those in Dubliners (1914).
Guppy, Shusha. “The Art of Fiction: Edna O’Brien.” The Paris Review 26 (Summer, 1984): 22-50. The topics discussed include how O’Brien got started on her writing career; the writers, such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Anton Chekhov, whom she admires; feminism, into which O’Brien fits uneasily; religion; Ireland; and other areas, such as...
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