Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

From the beginning of her writing career with The Country Girls, Edna O’Brien served notice there was a new voice, and a woman’s voice at that, on the literary scene. In a 1984 interview in the Paris Review, O’Brien claimed that women are “fundamentally, biologically, and therefore psychologically different” from men. Women writers are better at expressing emotions and “plumbing the depths,” she said, and admitted to not being “the darling of the feminists,” who consider her too preoccupied with “old fashioned themes like love and longing.” Love and the pursuit of love are certainly dominant themes in her work. That O’Brien’s almost exclusively female narrators define their chances of happiness in relation to finding a man, function in a political vacuum, and indeed are rarely equipped by any professional training to operate outside the traditional dependent Kinder, Kirche, Küche (children, church, kitchen) relationship is at the root of this antagonism felt by those speaking for women’s liberation.

Caithleen (Kate) Brady’s first-person narrative begins in a realistically detailed, evocative first page, with its shock to the senses of the cold linoleum on bare feet (her bedroom slippers are, on her mother’s orders, to be saved for visits from uncles and aunts). O’Brien quickly establishes what will be recurrent themes in her fiction—the dysfunctional family, with the drunken and brutal father and the long-suffering and overprotective mother, and the protagonist’s search for happiness—set against the splendidly realized world of Catholic Ireland in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It is a world divided into warring camps (male and female, church and laity, country and town) where the hopes of Kate, a romantic, are doomed to failure. Her alter ego is the ebullient realist and her lifelong friend, Baba. The girls spend their midteen years boarding at a strict convent school, with its lingering smell of boiled cabbage. Baba eventually stages their expulsion for writing a “dirty” note that she has composed.

In their late teens, joyously, the two of them come to Dublin. Baba takes a business course; Kate works as a grocer’s assistant until she can take the civil service examinations. Loneliness, however, follows them: Baba contracts tuberculosis; Kate’s male caller, “Mr. Gentleman” (Jacques de Maurier), whom she had first met in the west, disappoints her. He is the first in a long line of rotters whom O’Brien’s heroines encounter: the ugly father and Eugene Gaillard in this trilogy, Herod in Casualties of Peace (1966), Dr. Flaggler in Night (1972), and many others. In O’Brien’s fiction, such unsavory types...

(The entire section is 1112 words.)