Edna O'Brien 1932-
Irish novelist, short-story writer, dramatist, scriptwriter, poet, critic, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of O'Brien's short fiction works from 1995 through 2003. For criticism of O'Brien's short fiction published prior to 1995, see SSC, Volume 10.
Although best known for her novels, O'Brien is also the author of several volumes of well-regarded short stories. Critics praise her poignant explorations of the emotional lives of women who deal with complex and often contradictory aspects of family and love relationships. Her stories have often been compared to those of the renowned Irish author James Joyce.
O'Brien was born December 15, 1932, in Taumgraney, County Clare, a small, rural, devoutly Catholic village in western Ireland. O'Brien first attended a local national school before continuing her education in a convent. She escaped rural life by attending the Pharmaceutical College of Ireland in Dublin. Shortly after her novel The Country Girls was published in 1960, O'Brien moved to London to escape what she perceived as the oppressiveness of Irish culture. In fact, many of her stories are banned in her native Ireland because of the frankness with which O'Brien writes about women's sexuality. Much of her short fiction first appeared in the New Yorker; her first collection, The Love Object, was published in 1968. Subsequent collections include Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories (1978) and Lantern Slides (1990), which won the 1990 Los Angeles Times Book Award. O'Brien often draws on the scenes of her childhood—Irish village life during the 1940s and 1950s—as well as contemporary urban life in her short fiction. Although her stories depict characters from different social classes and backgrounds, her protagonists are usually women who are involved in problematic love and family relationships. O'Brien currently lives in London.
Major Works of Short Fiction
O'Brien's Irish stories are characterized by vivid descriptions of the Irish countryside and by her skillful evocation of the hidden turmoil that can be present beneath the seemingly placid surface of village life. They often depict young protagonists who yearn for love and attention or for a greater measure of freedom than the circumscribed nature of village life affords them. In “My Mother's Mother,” for example, a lonely girl craves her absent mother's affection while being raised by relatives. She constructs elaborate and, ultimately, futile plans to rejoin her mother. In many stories young women attempt to reconcile their sexual desires with the strictures of Catholicism. O'Brien's realistic and compassionate handling of her struggle has drawn much critical favor as well as controversy. As the title suggests, the 1982 collection Returning focuses on the Ireland of O'Brien's childhood and features women who either physically return to their homeland or who are immersed in childhood reminiscences. O'Brien's urban stories often involve more sophisticated women whose experiences with men and sex have left them disappointed. “Over” and “Forgetting,” from the collection The Love Object, present women trying to overcome the emotional consequences of broken love affairs. Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories continues the theme of feminine adversity, but it portrays women who attain some degree of peace and happiness in their lives. “Mrs. Reinhardt” focuses on the reunion of an estranged couple, and in “Ways” a woman forgoes a sexual encounter with a man to whom she is attracted out of respect for his wife.
O'Brien's portrayal of character has been the focus of much critical attention. Although she is generally commended for her insights into female psychology, some critics, noting that her women characters are concerned with sex and love relationships to the exclusion of other interests, accuse O'Brien of perpetuating stereotypes of women as emotional and subservient. In fact, a recent study has viewed the women in her stories as sacrificial martyrs based on Catholic notions of the Virgin Mary. Sexuality has emerged as another topical area of O'Brien criticism; commentators have investigated the issue of lesbian desire in stories like “Sister Imelda” and her novel The High Road (1988). Furthermore, with few exceptions, men in O'Brien's stories are portrayed as selfish, drunk, violent, libidinous, or incompetent. While acknowledging certain limitations in her characterizations, however, most critics agree that O'Brien's depiction of women responding to disappointment and betrayal are realistic and insightful. Reviewers have also located her within the Irish comic tradition, find parallels between her stories and the work of James Joyce and other contemporary Irish short-story writers, and investigate the dynamic of mother-daughter relationships in her work.