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.

Down by the River

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Down by the River is loosely based on an incident that occurred in 1992 involving a fourteen-year-old girl, pregnant, it was thought, as the result of rape. Yet Edna O’Brien’s novel is much more than merely a topical novel. For almost four decades, O’Brien has been writing fiction set in her native Ireland in an effort to voice the desperation of women she sees as repressed by their church and by a church-dominated state. Because the author insisted that, instead of merely acting as incubators, Irish women should be free to express their own sexuality, her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), was banned in Ireland and burned in her own village, and later books met with similar hostility. Nevertheless, O’Brien has continued her efforts to call attention to the plight of the women of Ireland and, by extension, of all women who suffer because of their gender.

Like the protagonist of the title story in O’Brien’s collection A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories (1974), most of O’Brien’s heroines are trapped between their own appetites and the strictures of society. Thus they do have at least a minimal choice concerning the direction of their lives. However, the protagonist of Down by the River, Mary MacNamara, does not make a conscious decision concerning her future. When her father, James MacNamara, begins to fondle her, Mary tries desperately to pull away from him and then, when he forces himself upon her, she escapes by making a pathetic attempt to dissociate herself from her own body. Even after the rape, Mary hardly comprehends the meaning of sex. She seems less well informed than her friend Tara Minogue, whose knowledge is gained from the magazines she keeps under her mattress. Mary is interested in the magazines; confronted with the ugly reality, however, she wishes only to flee.

The narrative pattern of Down by the River, then, is established in the first chapter as one of confinement and flight. It has an almost mythical force, with the helpless but virtuous young girl imprisoned by her evil persecutor, unable to signal to the outside world. Mary’s inability to confide in anyone, even in her mother, is familiar in stories of familial abuse. Periodically, Mary does manage to escape. She takes refuge in her bed, then at a convent boarding school. Instead of going home for Christmas, she spends the holidays with a schoolmate. When her mother, Bridget MacNamara, dies of cancer, Mary is called home to keep house for her father.

As soon as she can manage it, Mary flees to Galway, hoping that in the city she will be able to disappear from sight. There she is taken in by Luke, a musician who has a habit of helping the helpless and who is willing to support her during her pregnancy. Yet there is to be no sanctuary for Mary. Alerted by the distraught father, the authorities have mounted a massive search for her, and soon she finds herself back at home. Hoping to deter him from bothering her, Mary tells James that she is pregnant, but he denies being the father of the child and then, wild with fury, uses a broomstick in a vain attempt to produce an abortion.

Death seems to be the only escape route left. Slipping out of the house in the middle of the night, Mary throws herself into the river, but she is pulled out by a neighbor, Betty Crowe. This childless widow takes Mary home with her, guesses that she is pregnant, and eventually finds out that James is at fault. Now the secret is out, and, one assumes, with James powerless, Mary is no longer threatened. Surely all the forces of the establishment, medical, clerical, and judicial, will combine to protect her. Unfortunately, that is not how the system works in Ireland. In the second half of her novel, O’Brien shows how Mary is now pursued by society as once she was pursued by her father, how again she is captured and confined, how she is violated and reduced to the level of an object whose sole function is to fulfill the needs of others, and how once again she comes to think of death as her only escape.

Thus, while the narrative pattern continues to involve confinement and flight, the scope of the novel is broadened. Now instead of pitting two individuals against each other, it will deal with the conflict between the individual and society. O’Brien prepares for this change in direction when, at the end of the first chapter, she suddenly shifts from her rural setting to the city to show the law at work, emphasizing how secure these men are in their power, how certain they are of their communal wisdom. On her way home after the rape, Mary tells herself that no one will ever know, but the author contradicts her. At the end of the city passage, O’Brien restates this prediction: Some day, she says, these men will have to know Mary’s secret and sit in judgment upon her.

The author does not explicitly predict the future in her fourth chapter, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but it, too, foreshadows the later conflict. In...

(The entire section is 2040 words.)