Study Guide

A Pagan Place

by Edna O’Brien

A Pagan Place Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

A Pagan Place is written in the form of a monologue, delivered by a narrator who speaks only in the second person, as he or she recalls the childhood and family background of a girl from a small Irish farming community as she grows up in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The unusual point of view (“you” and “your” constantly occur, as in “Your father said he made a great cup of tea, your mother said it was like senna”) keeps the focus on the young girl, as if she is the center point around which all the events revolve.

The family lives in a small isolated village in Ireland, where it rains on two days out of every three, and in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. Occasionally, there are glimpses of events in the wider world, with references to Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler, and Winston Churchill, but in general the village is bound up in its own concerns. The small details of daily living and the colorful anecdotes about a gallery of eccentric village folk occupy a large part of the narrative. Everything is seen through the eyes of the child. In the house in which they live, for example, “The landing was big and cold. There was a sofa that never got sat on....” During a threatening visit from the bailiff, “He was so nice and kindly that you thought he was a priest. He smiled at that and so did your mother although she was crying just before and shaking holy water and saying Jesus and Mary.”

Underlying the narrative is the pervasive influence of Catholicism, especially as experienced by the child. At her first communion, for example, “The bits of paper soaked up all your saliva but it was not a sin when they grazed your teeth whereas it would be a sin if the Host were to.” There is always a strong sense of guilt, and the fear of the Devil is manifested in vivid images in the child’s mind. Catholicism...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

A Pagan Place Bibliography (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Donoghue, Denis. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXII (May 3, 1970), p. 5.

Eckley, Grace. Edna O’Brien, 1974.

MacManus, Patricia. Review in The Saturday Review. LXXX (April 25, 1970), p. 34.

O’Brien, Darcy. “Edna O’Brien: A Kind of Irish Childhood,” in Twentieth Century Women Novelists, 1982. Edited by Thomas F. Staley.

Paterno, Domenica. Review in Library Journal. XCV (May 15, 1970), p. 1861.