Edna O'Brien Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Edna O’Brien has written short stories throughout her long career. “Come into the Drawing Room, Doris” (retitled “Irish Revel” in The Love Object collection) first appeared in The New Yorker, on October 6, 1962. “Cords,” published as “Which of Those Two Ladies Is He Married To?” in The New Yorker, on April 25, 1964, adumbrates many of the aspects of loss and missed connections, which are O’Brien’s constant themes. The missed connections are most frequently between mothers and daughters, and between women and men. O’Brien is at her most persuasively graphic when her protagonists are clearly Irish women, at home, in a vanished Ireland whose society as a whole she re-creates and often increasingly indicts most convincingly.


The question above, which forms the original title of “Cords,” is posed in the story by Claire’s scandalized, rural, Irish mother on a London visit to her sexually active, editor, lapsed Catholic, poet-daughter. The dinner guests are a husband, his pregnant wife Marigold, and his mistress Pauline—which grouping elicits the mother’s question. The newer title, “Cords,” more aptly focuses attention on the constrictive mother-daughter bond, which is at the center of this story. The conflict is effectively rendered; no final judgment is made on who is to blame. The Catholic, self-sacrificing mother, who masochistically sews without a thimble, is a spunky traveler. The rather precious daughter, with her “social appendages” but no friends, “no one she could produce for her mother [or herself] and feel happy about,” for her part means well. The two similarly looking women are deftly shown to be on a collision course, not just with their umbrellas or their differences over food. The detailed parts of the story all function smoothly. The mother looks at herself in a glass door; Claire sees herself reflected in a restaurant’s mirrors. Each woman is herself and an image projected elsewhere. The constraint between them is vividly rendered from their moment of meeting until they are at the airport again, where both “secretly feared the flight number would never be called.”

In the background here, in Claire’s thoughts, is the father, “emaciated, crazed and bankrupted by drink,” with whom the mother’s unhealthy, symbiotic relationship continues: “She was nettled because Claire had not asked how he was.” In “Cords,” then, are many of the perennial, rush-of-memory themes: the family feuding, the malevolent church influence, the searing, almost flawlessly detailed exposé of the tie that binds many mothers and daughters. All is rendered here with the saving grace of good humor, and even old jokes are recalled, such as those about good grazing on the Buckingham Palace lawns, about Irish planes being blessed and therefore never crashing, and about an overly heavy suitcase—“Have you stones in it?”Claire asks.

“A Scandalous Woman”

“A Scandalous Woman” sets the tone for O’Brien’s second collection, named after it, and reveals an increasingly gloomy view of the female predicament, whether in Ireland or elsewhere. The story, published in 1974, concludes, “I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, [to which is added in the stronger A Fanatic Heart version, ‘throttled’] women.” Here is an indictment of a family, its church, and society, very like that in A Pagan Place, and to be seen again in “Savages.” The anonymous narrator leads the reader through Eily’s life from early courtship days until the moment when the narrator, now no longer a young girl but a mother herself, seeks out her childhood friend, to find her much changed: “My first thought was that they must have drugged the feelings out of her taken her spark away.” “They” and their “strange brews” are part of the “scandalous” environment of this pagan place.

The anonymous narrator graphically describes how, as a young girl, she admired and sought the company of Eily, who was a few years older and had the “face of a madonna.” The narrator tells how she loved Eily and visited her home each Tuesday, even though this meant that she had to play, in the hospital game, the patient to Eily’s sister’s surgeon. Lying on the kitchen table, she saw “the dresser upside down” in a world whose values are far from upright either. It is Eily, however, who is hollowed out at the story’s end: Her playing Juliet to her Protestant Romeo, a bank clerk named Jack, ends in Eily’s sniveling at a shotgun wedding. The young narrator had acted as lookout and cover so Eily could meet her lover, “Sunday after Sunday, with one holy day, Ascension Thursday, thrown in.” When Jack attempts to throw Eily over, the narrator reveals in herself the same confusion of pagan and Christian values of the others:I said that instead of consulting a witch we ought first to resort to other things, such as novenas, putting wedding cake under our pillows, or gathering bottles of dew in the early morning and putting them in a certain fort to make a wish.

The combined forces of the family, church, and community, in a profusion of animal imagery, move events along to the marriage solution.

This is a dense, beautifully put together story, packed with details of the repressive effects of parents, school, and church on a lively girl, who is cowed into submission. From the symbolism of the upside-down world observed by the child on the kitchen table to the loaded “Matilda” term for the female genitalia (between “ma” and “da,” there “I” am), everything in this story contributes to the indictment and ironic redefinition of what is “scandalous.”

Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories

O’Brien’s pessimism about much of the female condition shows little alleviation in the Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories collection, heavily though...

(The entire section is 2460 words.)