Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2940
O'Brien, Edna 1932–
The male-female relationship and the condition of women, especially their sexual repression, in her native Ireland are principal themes in Ms O'Brien's novels and short stories. Because of her outspoken but sensitive treatments of controversial subjects, her books, such as The Lonely Girl and A Pagan Place, have been banned in Ireland. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Inside every short story is a bigger story—which ought not to be trying to get out. Inside each of Edna O'Brien's stories is a full-length novel: quiescent, let it be said. The converse is also true; each story could be part of one and the same novel. They integrate: [A Scandalous Woman] is a collection, not a gallimaufry. Scandalous Eily, of the title, is the victim of the God-like rage for respectability. More than an eye for an eye: for a tumble in the lime-kiln—marriage for life. There are glimpses of her after her shotgun wedding, growing odd, her lovely hair falling out, and then growing wild, a figure of fun and terror in the street; finally, her hair permed, her spark gone, serving in her husband's grocery store. In a 'land of shame, a land of murder' and sacrificial women, she has paid the price.
'Over' is the lament of a left-off woman. The absurd shifts and fantasies of misery define her as the betrayed, the unliberated, hanging on grimmer than death. She knows what she has lost and she exposes her lover more mercilessly than she does herself. 'King Lear says women must be kind, or something to that effect.' The effect will have to do.
'The Favourite' dead-pan but piercingly tells of the decline and fall of a little empire. Tess, a third child, was born on the Sabbath day. She is not strong on imagination and lives by virtue of the facts. With her luck, facts are a virtue. They are also means and an end. She swans through life. But even she, when her turn comes, does not know if she has been happy, and asks: 'Is this how it is when one begins to be unhappy?'
'Honeymoon' is a classic case of disappointment. Not that the honeymoon itself is classic—these two have been living together for months. Nor are they a classic couple: he is twice her age and has had 'two other wives of different nationalities'. Nevertheless, she 'obeyed him in everything, even in the type of shoes she was to wear—completely flat shoes which as it happened gave her a pain in her instep'. They meet a hunchback who curses them when they decline to rent her steaming wet cottage. They disappoint the hunchback, and a lonely couple longing for company, and he disappoints her. "Marry in haste, repent in leisure,' she thinks. But how much and how often will she disappoint him? And thus be the third wife not to come up to his quite reasonable expectations?
In 'A Journey' there is an attempt to sound the man's emotions, but only as surmise. Suppositions are all the woman can have. In 'Love-Child', Hickey, the workman, desperately tries to cope, but he is unequipped: brings too many cabbages, shoots the uneatable wild goose and wastes himself. He dies, leaving a ridiculous memory and his dreadful 'love-child'. This man had love but did not know what to do with it.
The Creature's deformity is her soft heart. It is not human to be kind, nor even womanly—whatever King Lear said—and only the beasts of the field have cause for humility. So she is always referred to as 'The Creature'. However, she is not without hope. For twenty years she has lived on a 'last high tightrope', which is twitched from under her, to release a 'gigantic and useless sorrow'. Appropiately, it is all done by kindness.
The last story, 'The House of My Dreams', describes a mental breakdown. With this subject, it is so easy to pile the agony on the joy, splendours on miseries. With a writer like Edna O'Brien the...
(The entire section contains 2940 words.)
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