Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The principal themes of the novel are all bound up in the complex character of its first-person narrator, Mary Hooligan. At her best, which is often, she is a joy. Iconoclastic and frank, her sense of humor rarely fails to elicit sympathy for her blundering search for an enduring love relationship with a decent man—a rare enough commodity in O’Brien’s fiction. Her words and syntax similarly rush along. At her worst, and that side of her personality is but hinted at in her exchange with Madge, she, or any woman, or any person, can become depressed and depressing.

Another flaw in Mary’s positive image is her doomed dreaming of impossibly high goals, which in itself invites failure. When Mary reveals her obsession with her domineering mother and her antipathy to her harsh father, a negative aspect of her personality is suggested. Such a complex surfaces in her pessimistic friend, Madge, who seems unable to make lasting connections with others. “Everyone has a grubby fantasy when you get past the bullshit,” Madge says. Such a person, more often than not, is a loser, who settles for the possible.

For Mary, “the puny possible has always belonged to others.” Hers is the philosophy of excess. She is of William Blake’s party without knowing it, subscribing to his maxim: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” It is this super vitality which O’Brien celebrates in Night: “I wouldn’t have it any other way. The raptures make up for everything, even the doldrums.” In her eclectic religion, free of the Irish Catholic guilt of so many of O’Brien’s heroines, she is relatively at peace with herself, her self-image intact.