Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

There is a meagerness in the lives of Kate and Baba that Kate attempts to relieve through the imagination and Baba through sheer selfish vitality. They gain much from each other’s company and find men to be representative of the larger world that opposes them. Kate never really frees herself from her father, while Baba takes her punishment from the men with whom she chooses to associate. Baba’s view, however, is satiric, not romantic. She lives not by illusions about the other sex but by what she can get out of the men with whom she consorts. The ultimate effect of these opposing attitudes is, nevertheless, an isolation neither woman can surmount. Baba has the last word as survivor, but it is the word of the cynic, unable to embrace the different kinds of love of which Kate is capable.

As Grace Eckley points out, “for several kinds of love, The Country Girls offers the widest range of possibilities at the same time that it reveals the transience of any single love or interpretation of another’s love.” Kate loves Hickey, the hired man, but he has green teeth, rarely washes, and urinates every night in a peach-tin. Secure in her mother’s love but also the victim of her mother’s desire to be loved wholly by a man, Kate devotes herself to a series of men whose lives are committed elsewhere. In between, she is treated kindly and tenderly by Baba’s father, a veterinarian, who defends her against the violence of her own father.

O’Brien has stated that she created two heroines for her trilogy in order to reflect a kind of dualism in herself: While Kate embodies all that is compliant and conformist, Baba represents anarchic forces which challenge the traditional female traits of passivity and romanticism. These countervailing personalities also represent aspects of contemporary society and, in particular, of contemporary womankind. Recognizing in Baba a prototypically modern voice—one that follows a long line of fictional Irish heroines—O’Brien fittingly gives this raucous, angry, but healthy character the final word.