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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

O’Brien’s fictions as a whole fit very uneasily into the history of positive images of women in literature. The trilogy is representative of the problem: Kate is an all-too-typical O’Brien, romantic heroine who defines her chances of life and happiness in relation to her capacity to find a man. She is not equipped with skills to make it on her own, however, and her choice in men inevitably dooms her to failure: If the men with whom Kate associates are not already married, they are otherwise users and abusers of women. As a counterbalance to this syndrome, and in large part the strength of this trilogy, O’Brien gives the reader Baba. She also has no particular job skills, but such is her vigor and iconoclastic approach to life that she is triumphant; it is a pleasure to be in her challenging, abrasive company, living as she does at the top of her voice.

A positive role such as Baba plays in the trilogy is best exemplified elsewhere in O’Brien’s work by the Molly Bloom-like Mary Hooligan of Night. Such healthy affirmation of female gusto, of joy in life and living, of seizing the day, is, however, the rare exception rather than the rule in O’Brien’s fiction. More typical is the whining, romantic loser of the Kate type rendered again, with no name at all, in A Pagan Place (1970)—O’Brien’s favorite among her works. This choice of a passive-reactive heroine, rather than the active Baba prototype who seizes her opportunities with some flair, continues to preoccupy O’Brien in Time and Tide (1992), in which the protagonist, Nell, is inconsolable, but is again able to do little more with life than “bear it.”

O’Brien’s convent-bred upbringing in the 1940’s and 1950’s in Ireland may well contribute to her doing better with negative portraits of her leading women. Against other forms of repression—whether in sexual, family, community, or religious forms—she is much more successful; witness the troubles that she had with the Irish censorship board.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

America. Review. CLV (October 18, 1986), pp. 212-213.

Broyard, Anatole. “The Rotten Luck of Kate and Baba.” The New York Times Book Review, May 11, 1986, 12. O’Brien is the subject of little scholarly attention; with the exception of Grace Eckley’s work (below), she is the subject of no book-length study. This one-page, hostile review of the trilogy finds both women antipathetic and in their “furious passivity” a “powerful [negative] argument for feminism.”

Eckley, Grace. Edna O’Brien. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1974. This work is an excellent, though brief, sympathetic study. It needs to be updated, however, in its primary and secondary materials.

O’Brien, Edna. “The Art of Fiction: Edna O’Brien.” Interview by Shusha Guppy. Paris Review 26 (Summer, 1984): 22-50. A lengthy and comprehensive interview including O’Brien’s views of women writers and her own place in the literary continuum.

O’Brien, Edna. “A Conversation with Edna O’Brien.” Interview by Philip Roth. The New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1984, 38-40. A lengthy, perceptive, restrained, and generally sympathetic interview. Elicits revealing personal avowals from O’Brien: “The man still has the greater authority and the greater autonomy.”

O’Brien, Edna. “Why Irish Heroines Don’t Have to Be Good Anymore.” The New York Times Book Review, May 11, 1986, 13. In a one-page article, O’Brien comments on her choice to let the “asperity” of Baba finish the trilogy—“lyricism had to go.”

Salter, Mary Jo. “Exiles from Romance.” The New Republic 194 (June 30, 1986): 36-38. Salter finds the first part of the trilogy best, but she comes away even from the final “soap opera” feeling “at least a little glad.”