Down by the River

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In her first novel, THE COUNTRY GIRLS (1960), Edna O’Brien attacked the way Irish women are treated in a male-dominated society. In DOWN BY THE RIVER, however, O’Brien makes it clear that women can be just as vicious as men when other women defy the rules.

Mary MacNamara, the young protagonist of DOWN BY THE RIVER, is not a born rebel. After her father James rapes her, she wants only to get away from him. Unfortunately, when her mother Bridget dies, Mary has to leave the convent boarding school where she found sanctuary. Unable to remain at home, Mary flees to Galway and is taken in by a kind-hearted musician, Luke. However, the law recognizes her father’s authority over her, locates her, and sends her back home. When she tells James that she is pregnant, he attacks her brutally, and she decides to drown herself.

Mary is rescued by a neighbor, Betty Crowe, and taken to England, where the pregnancy can legally be terminated. However, a local anti-abortionist finds out, and Mary is hurried back to Ireland, where she is placed in a mental institution, then turned over to a set of cold-hearted fanatics, led by the famous Roisin, who are determined to save the unborn child.

Meanwhile, despite private misgivings, politicians and judges join in the crusade. The liberals aid Mary, but James avoids prosecution for his crime by cooperating with the authorities. While Mary is awaiting the verdict in her case, she infuriates her captors by miscarrying.

DOWN BY THE RIVER shows Ireland as a country ruled by males but filled with women who cooperate in the subjugation of their gender. Only in the final chapter is there a ray of hope. When Mary lifts her voice in song, her pub audience listens. So, too, O’Brien evidently hopes, her own voice will eventually be heard in her native land.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXVII, October 4, 1997, p. 35.

Boston Globe. May 25, 1997, p. N13.

Library Journal. CXXII, April 1, 1997, p. 130.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 8, 1997, p. 6.

National Catholic Reporter. XXXIII, May 23, 1997, p. 28.

New Statesman. CXXIV, August 30, 1996, p. 46.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, May 25, 1997, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXIII, August 25, 1997, p. 160.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 3, 1997, p. 62.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 27, 1996, p. 22.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, June 13, 1997, p. 2.

Women’s Review of Books. XIV, July, 1997, p. 30.