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SOURCE: "Girl Meets Men," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,319, October 7, 1965, p. 893.
[The following is a mixed assessment of August Is a Wicked Month.]
A great deal of nonsense has been written in gossip columns and glossy magazines about Miss O'Brien as a militant spokesman of her sex, voicing in her new novel all the perplexity and private savagery said to be felt by women today. August is a Wicked Month seems, for this if no other reason, all set for a succès de scandale; and it would be foolish to pretend that the author's personality, or the topical titillation of her subject-matter, ought not to influence any so-called literary judgment of the book. Miss O'Brien is a naturally subjective writer, and the fact that her sense of the ridiculous, which in previous novels she allowed to prick the bubble of sentimentalism and soften the bitterness, is this time subdued almost out of sight, means that many readers—probably men more than women—will find the uninhibited exposure of sexual emotion and guilt quite uncomfortable, if not shocking. Ellen, who is an older and sadder Kate, may not be the kind of woman any stable society could content or cushion against the turmoil of her emotions, but her pragmatic honesty and vulnerability do make her peculiarly characteristic of her sex today.
Here, however, the trend comment must stop. To see this novel as part of the sex-war, with Miss O'Brien waving some kind of feminist banner inscribed "Men may be necessary but let us humiliate them", or to regard Ellen as a determined scalp-collector enjoying sexual emancipation even when it leaves her feeling leprous and hard of heart, is to misjudge Miss O'Brien's intention, which was surely not to add fuel to the fire of fake social problems or salacious arguments on sex and marriage.
A year convalescing from a broken marriage has been for Ellen an effortful, lonely but reassuring experience. When her child goes off camping with his father, and a skilled and tender lover appears for one night, the spell breaks—to be in love again, anxious and apprehensive and purposeful, is to see the "spacious calm" so carefully acquired simply as time wasted. Now, to be alone in stifling London becomes unbearable, and Ellen heads blindly for the South of France, to be dazzled by bright colours and charming decadent strangers. Her solitude and hunger for excitement provoke a disastrous escapade with the hotel violinist and she is picked up by a collection of immensely rich and fast-living theatrical layabouts staying in a luxurious villa. Everything about them, from the tough drink-sodden women with their beautifully manicured hands, to the elegant ageing men grateful for a little understanding in bed, disgusts and fascinates her. When the unthinkable horror of guilt about what is happening at home, in the real world, actually takes shape, Ellen cannot leave, can only cling numbly to the pity of these dreadful new friends and allow Bobby, the well-known philandering actor with his bloodshot eyes and fierce, bullying kindness, to coax her back to laughter. It seems a triumph to have surprised even him with the intensity of her love-making, but her hatred, when she finds he has left her with a venereal infection, is as much for herself as for him and the whole nightmarish place. Alone again, the autumn beginning in London, Ellen wonders whether the purging has been, perhaps, a way of learning to live at peace—"if the days were never to be quite so lustrous-bright again, equally so the nights would not be as black. Or so she liked to think".
The irony of Ellen's predicament is poignantly exposed—Miss O'Brien has never been more self-critical or paradoxical, while admitting much more openly than in her former novels that the predicament is in fact what makes the majority of women feel they are alive and necessary to others—because the more love is needed and the more sacrificial it becomes the more quickly and hurtfully others retreat. The special guilt, so noticeably felt by all Miss O'Brien's heroines, because there seems no way of sharing it, is part of the Irish Catholic environment she is determined to reject, but the kind of hell—here terrifyingly typified in the glittering despair of the Riviera world—into which Ellen blunders is not very different from that threatened from the pulpit in the bog. To make it as glaringly wicked and loveless as she had to, Miss O'Brien has perhaps overdone the squalor of riches—Mammon does not need to be obviously maggot-ridden for us to recognize him.
There is also an over-insistence on actual physical atonement for guilt; one suspects an almost masochistic self-indulgence in forcing Ellen to be quite so completely bereft and degraded, because retribution in a world as real in detail as hers does not follow so swiftly on such comparatively heedless sin.
The danger for Miss O'Brien, as with all writers whose tremendous natural talent has been exposed to the spotlight of success, is that spontaneity and openness become an end in themselves; if the subject imposes no limits, then the writer himself must begin to select and withdraw, or there may seem to be nothing left in reserve. August is a Wicked Month does not, as some extraneous publicity has suggested, mark a new departure for Miss O'Brien; it is a sadder and wiser exploration of happiness and guilt, but one which comes dangerously near exploiting emotion without the professional discipline which sees that life, in fiction, cannot be entirely subjectively presented.
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Edna O'Brien 1936–
Irish novelist, short story writer, playwright, nonfiction writer, poet, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of O'Brien's career through 1997. See also Edna O'Brien Short Story Criticism, Edna O'Brien Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 5, 8, 13.
O'Brien's works focus on the lives of women, portraying their yearning for love and acceptance and their inevitable disappointment. O'Brien, who was born and raised in western Ireland, has spent most of her adult life in London. Both Irish village life during the 1940s and 1950s and contemporary urban settings are depicted in O'Brien's fiction. The influence of her Catholic upbringing is apparent in much of her work, even when it is furthest removed from the Irish Catholic milieu of her youth. The pleasure that O'Brien's heroines find in sex, for instance, is often mixed with guilt and shame. Her frank portrayal of female sexuality has drawn both praise and criticism and has caused her books to be banned in her native country. O'Brien's women are often presented as martyrs whose dependence on men leads to unhappiness and tragedy; her male characters are typically drunken, callous, and irresponsible.
O'Brien was born December 15, 1936, 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. In 1952, she eloped with Czech-Irish writer Ernest Gebler, with whom she had two sons. They divorced after twelve years of marriage. O'Brien currently lives in London.
O'Brien's first novel, The Country Girls (I960), was an immediate success and begins a trilogy that continues with The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). These books follow two young girls from a convent school in rural Ireland to Dublin and finally to married life in London. Like many of O'Brien's heroines, the girls are thwarted in their search for love, and the last novel ends on a bitter note. August Is a Wicked Month (1965) is similarly desolate. It concerns a vacationing divorced woman who seeks meaning and union with a variety of sexual partners. At the end of the novel, her young son dies during a camping trip, and she is further than ever from finding fulfillment. In Casualties of Peace (1966) O'Brien introduces an element of violence, as the protagonist is killed by her best friend's husband. O'Brien returned to a rural Irish setting for A Pagan Place (1970), and wrote directly about her own youth and Ireland's continuing influence on her in Mother Ireland (1976). The High Road (1988) concerns Anna, a middle-aged, successful Irish writer who is recovering from the ending of a romantic relationship; she travels to a Spanish island, seeking solitude and time for introspection and healing. However, instead of remaining isolated, Anna becomes involved with others on the island, ultimately becoming romantically involved with another woman who then dies. In House of Splendid Isolation (1994), O'Brien departs from her usual subject matter and presents the story of an IRA terrorist who takes as his hostage an elderly woman; the narrative is driven both by the actions of the terrorist and by the personal remembrances of the hostage. O'Brien's short story collections present many of the same settings and themes as her novels. Her stories located in the Irish countryside are narrated by young girls observing their mothers, fathers, and neighbors. The narrators are often confused by the ties and conflicting passions that connect these people. As Lorna Sage observed in a review of Returning (1982): "The tales belong to an era of austerity, intensified by Irish puritanism." O'Brien has also written stories which, like her urban-centered novels, involve older, sophisticated women whose experiences with love and sex have left them disappointed. Praised for their sensitivity and universality, the short stories in Lantern Slides (1990) focus on O'Brien's familiar theme of victimized women who grieve for lost love or struggle to overcome their pasts. Her story "Storm" is frequently cited for its poignant depiction of the quiet suffering experienced by a middle-aged woman recently abandoned by her lover. While vacationing with her son and his girlfriend, the woman grows resentful of the young couple's exclusivity, but only further alienates herself when she vents her anger.
When assessing O'Brien's work, most critics focus on her female characters. Her portrayal of women struggling to escape the role society has assigned them has drawn praise for evoking a full range of emotion in the reader. Due perhaps to her convincing portrayal of rural Ireland in so many of her works, O'Brien has been faulted by critics when she moves away from the influence of her upbringing. Oliver Conant noted: "When O'Brien turns from constrained, personalist Western Ireland to an urban culture of drifting hedonists, in which no one is known to anyone else …, something of her sureness of touch is lost." Many critics have maintained that her writing is most effective when it recreates the Ireland of her childhood. During her prolific literary career, O'Brien has been widely regarded as an artist dedicated to evoking emotions, rather than one who experiments with fictional form. Nevertheless, numerous critics have contended that the distinct style of Lantern Slides is influenced by the Irish Gothic tradition of fable, as well as O'Brien's own childhood in rural Ireland. Thomas Cahill asserted: "[O'Brien] is a storyteller, an Irish storyteller, one of an ancient tradition of storytellers, people who tell the truth. In old Ireland, the words of a truthful poet were both sought and feared: They could kill. Her best work has the sound of something prehistoric—palpable, thrilling, incantatory—about it. It should be read aloud, like poetry. It is, indeed, not prose, at least not in any modern manner."
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SOURCE: "Deadly Chain of Events," in New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1967, pp. 24-5.
[In the following review of Casualties of Peace, Dienstag asserts that O'Brien's "old-fashioned" and clichéd structuring of her novel destroys the effectiveness of her "extraordinary style."]
Willa McCord is dreaming. She is walking down a dark street toward her house when a car with two men in it stops flush beside her. One of the men asks the way to a theater. She gives a quick answer, a lie. They drive off. She rushes to her door, but can't find it. The men return. It is now daylight, and there are witnesses, but it doesn't seem to matter. The men get out of the car, closing in for the kill.
So begins Casualties of Peace, a novel about the violence of ordinary life and the victims of that violence, sometimes innocent strangers, sometimes not. Willa McCord is one of those victims—yet this is not a murder story in the conventional sense. It is about two women, Willa and her resident housekeeper Patsy, their love affairs, disparate lives and desires, and the chance crossing of their paths which leads to the kind of bizarre tragedy one reads about in the tabloids.
Though Patsy and Willa experience extremes of brutality and sex, in other respects they are exact opposites. Willa, a sculptor of glass figures, is neurotic, frail, and fleeing from the after effects of marriage to an impotent Svengali. A virgin, "though tampered with," she is terrified by sex. Patsy, on the other hand, is a Molly Bloom—simple, sensual, unhappily wed but thigh-high in a torrid affair. She has, in fact, determined to leave her husband—and, when we first meet her, she is packing her things and writing her crude goodby note.
Inexplicably, while doing a few last-minute chores, she blurts out her plans to Willa, who persuades her to put off her departure and inform her unsuspecting husband of what is about to happen. Willa's meddling sets off a deadly chain of events it would be unfair to reveal here. When Patsy finally escapes, it is too late.
Though Casualties of Peace is a grim tale, the book itself is anything but depressing. Edna O'Brien has an extraordinary style. The novel pulsates with her racy, exuberant, nervous prose, a prose that often achieves the intensity of a unique shorthand. Her robust humor dependably infringes upon an acute Catholic sense of sin; and along with the best female writers of our age, she is unblushingly candid about her own sex. Why, then, doesn't it all add up?
What is most contradictory in Miss O'Brien's fiction is her utterly modern voice echoing in an old-fashioned house. In the present book, this conflict between style and structure, between what she is saying and the techniques she uses to convey it, is especially damaging. As in an earlier novel, August Is a Wicked Month, one is puzzled to find an uninhibited view of life coupled with the tidy and somewhat unreal form of the well-made novel, with all the small details falling into place, working up to tragic inevitabilities the way they might in a detective story.
In Casualties of Peace, for example, the opening scene of a dream of murder neatly mirrors the closing one (in terms of plot) of an actual murder. This is an irritatingly clichéd device for framing a novel, the slick stuff of which melodrama is made. It has nothing to do with the noncommittal tone of the rest of the book, or with the disorder and unresolved quality of modern life of which the author is very much aware. Such a device (and others sprinkled throughout the story) only diminishes the novel's impact.
One feels a large and important work is within Miss O'Brien's grasp. Casualties of Peace, unfortunately, is not that work.
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The Country Girls (novel) 1960
A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers (drama) 1962
The Lonely Girl (novel)1962; also published as The Girl with Green Eyes, 1964
Girls in Their Married Bliss (novel) 1964
August Is a Wicked Month (novel) 1965
Casualties of Peace (novel) 1966
The Love Object (novel) 1968
Three into Two Won't Go (screenplay) 1969
A Pagan Place (novel) 1970
Zee and Company (novel) 1971
Night (novel) 1972
A Pagan Place (drama) 1972
The Gathering (drama) 1974
A Scandalous Woman, and Other Stories (short stories) 1974
Mother Ireland (nonfiction) 1976
Arabian Days (nonfiction) 1977
Johnny I Hardly Knew You (novel) 1977; also published as I Hardly Knew You, 1978
Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories (short stories) 1978
Seven Novels and Other Short Stories (novels and short stories) 1978
I Was Happy Here (screenplay) 1979
A Rose in the Heart (short stories) 1979
The Wicked Lady (screenplay) 1979
A Woman at the Seaside (screenplay) 1979
The Dazzle (juvenilia) 1981
James and Nora: A Portrait of Joyce's Marriage (nonfiction) 1981
Virginia (drama) 1981
A Christmas Treat (juvenilia) 1982
The Expedition (juvenilia) 1982
Returning: Tales (short stories) 1982
The Country Girls (screenplay) 1983
The Rescue (juvenilia) 1983
A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories of Edna O'Brien (short stories) 1984
The Keys of the Cafe (drama) 1984
Stories of Joan of Arc (short stories) 1984
Vanishing Ireland (nonfiction) 1986
Madame Bovary [adaptor; based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert] (drama) 1987
Flesh and Blood (drama) 1987
The High Road (novel) 1988
On the Bone (poetry) 1989
Lantern Slides (short stories) 1990
Time and Tide (novel) 1992
House of Splendid Isolation (novel) 1994
Down by the River (novel) 1996
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SOURCE: A review of A Pagan Place, in New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1970, pp. 5, 31.
[In the following review, Donoghue maintains that A Pagan Place is an "interesting" and "pleasant" novel, but does not "go deep" enough to merit consideration as a significant work of literature.]
[A Pagan Place] is a novel in the guise of a memoir. An Irish girl, now a nun in Brussels, recalls her childhood, her family, the neighbors, holy and pagan Ireland officially neutral in the years of World War II, a trip to Dublin in search of an erring sister. No occasion is too trivial to be invoked, a nun's dedication to God being apparently compatible with the exercise of an emigrant's total recall. The degree of accuracy is presumably high, though Portarlington is remembered as Port Darlington, and Kinnegad as Kenigad. The heroine is a country girl, but not a peasant. Her parents have some of the marks of decayed gentry, notably an internal lavatory, a social point somewhat confused, however, by the fact that the father relieves himself in the open air. The mother earns some money by selling eggs, but on the other hand the father owns a few horses in training. There are 30 pubs in the village, if a nun's recollections are to be taken literally. As for the plot: the erring sister Emma gets pregnant, the father gets drunk and the intending nun gets seduced.
These events are represented as happening in a village in the West of Ireland. The characters are rudimentary, and the only form of development is given as a network of rural customs and analogies. These are charmingly intricate, and they denote a life of forms and rituals, local superstition, lore, the rhymes and reasons of place. The book begins with a rhyme and ends with a howl, the first a village notation, the last a cry of parting. From first to last the girl sees her young life in terms of anniversaries, but she does not claim that the social and religious forms define a vivid life of personal feeling. Indeed, the novel implies that the forms and customs have lost nearly all the feeling that gave them their original substance. Substance persists only as a remembered shadow. Except for the heroine's mother, the figures in this landscape are shadows too, names affixed to few characteristics. The consumptive Delia is torn between her lovers, Clark Gable and Robert Donat. Miss Davitt, the crazy teacher, composes her own epitaph: "Hail life, sweetness and hope and the sooner the better, to thee do we cry poor banished children of Lir." The heroine, no Proust, recalls each moment in a short sentence, the feeling congealed in the reported facts, the points of intersection between routine and romance.
The method is associative. The nun communes with herself, taking herself as the second person, now more substantial than the first: "The sun looked to be near. The sun was gold. The moon was silver. Silver and gold you had none. Gold was being dug for in the mountains, and on the isle of Capri a man beheld a woman with a plain golden ring on her finger. Al Jolson had two wives, and still sang to his Mammy, sang Mammy, Mammy. The songs exploded in your head."
The whole book explodes in her head, facts and events become agents in alchemical reactions, village constriction transformed by song, Hollywood a child's Heaven. One thing leads to another, the dearest associations are loose, and the quality of desire is not strained. One of the merits of the book is that the nun, while seeing everything through the veil of memory, does not ask the reader to connive with her sentiment.
But the novel is one of Miss O'Brien's minor pieces, after all. It is interesting, a pleasant thing to read, but it dawdles upon the surface, it does not go deep. Near the end, Miss O'Brien tries for something grand, but it is too late for profundity, so she settles for a seduction. To put some heat into the occasion, she arranges to have the heroine seduced by a priest. But it is nothing, merely an emigrant Irish novelist taking a swipe at Holy Ireland; it should not be taken too seriously. As a social image, it should not be taken at all. The best parts of the book are paragraphs of a child's sensory life, the lyric evocation crossed by fact and time. There is some evidence that Miss O'Brien has been reading her Joyce again, especially the singing schools, Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Several pages sound like Stephen Dedalus's idiom translated into rural terms, the novelist on a trip from Dublin to Clare. But a serious critical comparison is not intended. I assume that Miss O'Brien's book is offered as an agreeable diversion, good while the reading lasts.
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SOURCE: "Hooligan's Wake," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,683, October 6, 1972, p. 1184.
[In the following review, the critic provides a largely negative assessment of Night, in which O'Brien is faulted for failing to sustain and build on the "strength and honesty" in her writing.]
A grievance and an exasperation to critics they are, those writers who are as bad as possible and yet never let us quite out of their pockets. (Their style is so catching too.) By about page 10 of Night a series of useful phrases were already beginning to line themselves up: … self-indulgent whimsy … formless preciosity … mixture of narcissism and Irishry as before, but with stylistic knobs (or balls) on … gift-wrapped porn for NW1 people … earlier books better … sense of feeling and fun lost … one long act of public literary masturbation.
And yet. "The silences are unnerving. I can hear my own hair splitting." "There is a substance called glutamate added, which casts aspersions on the whole thing." "The artificial tea roses were still there, thick with dust, it was as if they had been plunged in molten dust and were coated in it rather than in some silver or golden dip." In hell "I could see the poor souls rotomating like chickens, as I've seen and watched them in the take-away 'Nosh' place". And in particular whenever Mary Hooligan, the "I" who ruminates through the night over her life and non-loves, goes back in thought to Ireland, feyness and self-regard drop away with the smell of damp, the hawthorn, the clothes flapping on the line. Where the growing of rhubarb, the drying out of cowpats, the lighting of a primus are concerned, the writing gets some strength and honesty in it.
Edna O'Brien must have heard all this before. But why is it that she can draw sustenance only from that one scene? Away from it, the rest is a drift of streaming memory that more often tends towards pretentious prose than to those bright verbal flashes. One has only to compare Virginia Woolf's handling of the drifting of time and thought to see the difference when apparent formlessness has strong roots; but perhaps the comparison is unfair.
And there is the semi-pornographic element. As in pornography, the central character Mary is incessantly and indiscriminately randy, but never was less joy conveyed by the description of sex. One of the author's novels is called Casualties of Peace. Might a future historian of twentieth-century literature see her as herself a casualty of current literary permissiveness, like those gifted Victorian painters now seen to be victims of their period's demand for detail at the expense of form and restraint? Licensed by profitable current fashion, a writer may be deluded into thinking that personal sexual kinks are substantiating rather than detracting from literary value.
The Hooligan (hooligan, literally) side of the book is weak: to look back on a series of joyous, mad encounters, of life really lived, is obviously part of the intention, but it sounds more like a scream of postcoital horror. Pseuds Corner crops up most often when things are being ever so larky and gay; the real feeling is all for darkness and loss and disgust. The sad, Mary, side of the book is therefore the realest; the most moving passage is the nursing of her mother through a final illness.
In short: a writer who can play with words like coloured marbles, who sometimes looks out at what was lost and true, but who prefers, far too often, to pose in fascination before the mirror, tempted by insidious dishonesty.
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Craig, Patricia. Review of Tales for the Telling, by Edna O'Brien. Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,371 (9 January 1987): 46.
Provides a synopsis of the stories in Tales for the Telling, which Craig calls "a lively collection."
Jaffee, Annette Williams. Review of The High Road, by Edna O'Brien. Ms. XVII, No. 5 (November 1988): 76-8.
Highly laudatory assessment of The High Road
Osborne, Linda Barrett. "Two Hostages to An Ancient Feud." Washington Post Book World XXIV, No. 34 (21 August 1994): 3.
Positive review of House of Splendid Isolation, which Osborne characterizes as "a moving portrait of the continuing drama that is Ireland."
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SOURCE: A review of Mother Ireland, in The Critic, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Winter, 1976, pp. 72-3.
[In the following review, Broderick offers a highly unfavorable assessment of Mother Ireland.]
It is surely no coincidence that most of the Irish writers who have lived out of the country have felt the urge to write about their relationship with the land of their birth. One thinks of Lady Morgan, a trashy novelist and the Edna O'Brien of her day; Thomas Moore, whose Memoirs in the form of letters and correspondence were edited by Lord John Russell; Sean O'Casey, George Moore, Kate O'Brien, Mary Colum and Oliver Gogarty. I seem to remember that Shaw wrote some pages of autobiography in extreme old age; while Elizabeth Bowen published a history of the Shelbourne Hotel, which was part of her youth. Yeats, who spent a far greater amount of time in England than he liked to admit, reconstructed his childhood and youth in Autobiographies, published in 1926. Joyce was the exception to this rule, as he was to so many others. But then he used everything that happened to him in his books, which are all self-portraits.
One would think that Miss Edna O'Brien would be content with telling her experience in childhood and youth over and over again in her novels. But no such luck. Here she comes again with her version of Ireland, and the effect it had on her development. She tells us in the last paragraph that she wants to retrace the same route again and again, "that trenchant childhood route" in the hope of finding some clue "that would make possible the leap that would restore one to one's original place and state of consciousness, to the radical innocence of the moment just before birth." This is an ominous threat. Not content with boring everybody with the very ordinary experience of poor little me, she is evidently now preparing to regale us with her pre-natal experiences also. She is a silly and sloppy writer, the darling of the semi-literates; but is it possible that even they are prepared to believe such a ridiculous statement?
Mother Ireland begins with a potted history of our unfortunate country which is obviously aimed at a foreign readership. To give her her due I don't think that even Miss O'Brien really believes the mad Kerry nun who in 1860 proved to her own satisfaction that we are all descended from a Jewish lady who was a niece of Noah. That should go down well in America, where the tradition of Abie's Irish Rose still lingers.
There is a hilarious passage about my own town of Athlone which got its name, according to Miss O'Brien, from a battle between a couple of bulls. One of them left his loins in the place: hence Ath Luaine, the ford of the loins. Naturally, she would pick on that particular fairytale. It never seems to have occurred to her that the original name of the place was Atha Mor, the big ford. And she describes Clonmacnoise as "a land of roses fair." "Fair" is not mentioned in Rolleston's poem. In many ways this is a sad book. It is obviously a potboiler; and even on that level it is not good.
After knocking off the history of Ireland in her not-too-elegant prose, Miss O'Brien goes on to repeat all she has told us before about the village in Clare where she was born and brought up. It sounds a pretty dreadful place. And will we ever hear the end of the man who was in the habit of opening his trousers as the little girls passed by and inviting them to "come here till I do Pooley in you"? Apparently not.
Then we get the boarding-school days in a convent. These were pretty awful too. And unconsciously, I imagine, Miss O'Brien presents herself as a thoroughly sly little girl. But that is already apparent in her other books. Never was such a television career made on so slender a talent.
After the convent comes Dublin, where she glimpses the great big world, or so she thinks. This includes walking out with a breadman from the firm of "Johnson, Kennedy and O'Brien": an unlikely combination. But perhaps this is deliberate. Even Miss O'Brien could not have such a defective ear as that. Or could she? It may be the reason why her writing is so execrable.
Eventually of course she escapes to England, with no regrets. Would to God that she had the ability to match her ambition. As it is, all one can say about this deplorable production is that the photographs are wonderful. It is a thousand pities that they are accompanied by such a text.
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SOURCE: "'That Trenchant Childhood Route'?: Quest in Edna O'Brien's Novels," in Éire-Ireland, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 74-83.
[In the following essay, Snow explores the "journey" O'Brien's heroines make "to reclaimed innocence" in her novels.]
At the close of Mother Ireland, Edna O'Brien defines her aim both as a writer and as a woman:
Ireland for me is moments of its history and geography, a few people who embody its strange quality, the features of a face, a holler, a line from a Synge play, the whiff of night air, but Ireland insubstantial like the goddesses poet dream of, who lead them down into strange circles. I live out of Ireland because something in me warns me that I might stop if I lived there, that I might cease to feel what it means to have such a heritage, might grow placid when in fact I want yet again and for indefinable reasons to trace that same route, that trenchant childhood route, in the hope of finding some clue that will, or would, or could, make possible the leap that would restore one to one's original place and state of consciousness, to the radical innocence of the moment just before birth.
Eleven years before the publication in 1976 of Mother Ireland, Miss O'Brien expressed the same desire—less poetically, it is true—in an interview with Nell Dunn [in Talking to Women]:
… the reason I think on the whole that women are more discontent than men is not just that they get old sooner or that they have the vote, or that they haven't the vote, or that they bleed, but that there is, there must be, in every man and every woman the desire, the deep primeval desire, to go back to the womb. Now physically and technically really … a man partly and symbolically achieves this when he goes into a woman. He goes in and becomes sunken and lost in her. A woman never, ever approaches that kind of security.
The journey back to the state of being before knowledge, to reclaimed innocence, is one Edna O'Brien's heroines have tried to make in each of her eight novels. That the journey is a perilous one, as earlier pilgrims attest. Christian struggles from the City of Destruction through the Slough of Despond, By-Path Meadow, Doubting Castle, and Vanity Fair to the Heavenly Gates of the Celestial City. Though the madness of his sinful love attends his knightly quest, Lancelot glimpses the Holy Grail. Faust experiences the heights and depths of life to discover in a vision of chanty the moment to which he can say, "Stay, thou art so fair." Henry James's Isabel Archers and William Faulkner's Ike McCaslins earn a lost innocence through suffering and endurance. But Miss O'Brien's heroines, pursuing an even course in the early novels, appear to have lost their way.
Reviewing the early novels in the pages of Éire-Ireland [Spring, 1967, pp. 79-80], Seán McMahon noted that the first novel, The Country Girls (1960), established Miss O'Brien "as an important new Irish writer with a fresh, unselfconscious charm, an acute observation of life, and a fine, ribald sense of humor"; the second novel, Girl with Green Eyes (1962), affirmed this reputation; and the third, Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964), proved startlingly disappointing. The trilogy, it is true, carries a pair of innocents, Caithleen Brady and Baba Brennan, from their school days in County Clare to divorce and adultery in London. Because the note of ironic disillusion first sounded in Girts in Their Married Bliss grows more strident with each succeeding novel, the reader asks why the journey, the quest for good love, so regularly fails for Miss O'Brien's heroines.
In the first novel of the trilogy, The Country Girls, Caithleen tells the poignant story of the drowning of her adored mother, the brutal rages of her alcoholic father, the stifling conventions of the convent school to which she and Baba are sent. As tender and vulnerable as Baba is malicious and full of swagger, Caithleen seeks the love her mother had provided in a neighbor, the elderly and married Mr. Gentleman, whose qualifications are his sad, chiseled face and his genteel manners. Once Baba has contrived their escape from the convent school to Dublin, Mr. Gentleman proposes a holiday in Vienna with Caithleen. But her first experience of romantic love, as well as The Country Girls, ends with his failure to resist the threats of his wife and Caithleen's father. Wounded but still game, Caithleen in Girl with Green Eyes becomes the mistress of Eugene Gaillard, a director of documentary film, who, like Mr. Gentleman, has a melancholy, sculptured face. Try as she does to be all-in-all to Eugene, she realizes that "Eugene and I were all right alone. But when anyone else came I lost him to them…. I had nothing to talk about really except things about my childhood, and he had heard all of that." The liaison ends less because of the bludgeoning attacks of her father than because of Eugene's contempt for her:
… even in loving him, I remembered … the separated, different worlds that each came from; he controlled, full of reasons and brain, knowing everyone, knowing everything about everything—me swayed or frightened by every wind, light-headed … bred in (as he said …) 'Stone Age ignorance and religious savagery.'
It is Baba, disillusioned with her bar-hopping conquests in Dublin, who engineers the country girls' flight to London.
With Girls in Their Married Bliss the reader, accustomed to Caithleen's lyrical innocence, is jarred to find Baba speaking in her slangy, obscene patois. Sourly she recounts that Caithleen has married the sadistic Eugene; had a son, Cash, whom she cherishes; and despairing of her inadequacy, is being divorced. Baba herself has married a wealthy businessman—stupid, crass, and impotent. The unhappy close to the country girls' siege of London is Baba's pregnancy by a faddist drummer and Caithleen's sterilization to prevent the conception of children with future lovers. "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone"; hereafter, Miss O'Brien's heroines will not look for fulfillment in marriage. As Peter Wolfe comments [in "Husbands and Lovers," Saturday Review, February 17, 1968], Miss O'Brien's subject has become "sex, its dynamics and ethics, and she treats it as a many-sided problem."
And "a jaunt into iniquity" is the phrase Ellen Sage uses to describe her sexual orgy on the French Riviera in August Is a Wicked Month (1965). She is separated from her husband, who, as in Caithleen's experience with Eugene, had taken her "into the fresh pastures of ideas and collective thought and flute music" and lost patience "when she hankered after the proverbs and accordion music and a statute of the virgin hewn from blackthorn wood." Again like Caithleen, she has an adored son of eight, Mark, whose holiday in Wales with his father enables Ellen to emplane for Cannes.
Here, however, the resemblance ends. As Grace Eckley observes in her highly sympathetic monograph Edna O'Brien, "August marks a transition between the heroine's earlier quest for self-development through marriage with a hero and the later knowledge that such is impossible. That dream was almost relinquished in Girls and was retained only in the ideal of a lover in August." A tone of self-pitying rancor replaces Caithleen's Irish rhythms as Ellen acts out her conflict between the Roman Catholic teachings of her youth and her rebellious libertinism. On the one hand, she is "a great believer in punishment"; "people," she says, "get what they deserve." On the other hand, she clings to her defiant conviction that "slipped in between the catechism advocating chastity for women was the secret message that a man and a man's body was the true and absolute propitiation." When, during her debauches, word comes from her husband that Mark has been killed by a speeding motorist, Ellen feels that she has killed her son. If she had not left her husband, she would have been holidaying with him and Mark and would have prevented the accident. Numb with guilt, bored and disappointed in her lovers, she finds she has contracted a venereal infection from Bobby, a Hollywood actor. Returning to London and nothing, she regards her "punishment" as just. "You know what I want," she tells an earlier lover, "To cease to be me … I want to love someone other than myself." "It is your Roman Catholicity," he responds.
Like August Is a Wicked Month, Casualties of Peace (1966) appears to be a transition between the artless candor of the early novels and the overt sensuality of the later ones. The most appealing of Miss O'Brien's heroines, Willa McCord is not only a disillusioned victim of male sadism, like Caithleen and Ellen, but also a terrified one. Twenty-six and virginal, she has escaped her husband, Herod—Herod of the "long-suffering icon face, his forehead high and pale, lineaments fixed in thought, an expression of pity that turned out to be merely self-pity." Her escape is dual. First, it is a profession, work in glass, for "glass is not human … does not endure," like her horror-ridden dreams and memories. Second, it is the peace of a home with a young Irish housekeeper, Patsy, whose speech and exploits are very like Baba's, and her husband, Tom, a factory-worker and handyman.
What Willa forgets, both in her studio and at home, is that she and Patsy are women and thus in need of love. She has permitted herself to love only a neighbor's nine-year-old son. Then Auro, a direct lineal descendant of Bobby in the previous novel, comes to purchase one of Willa's glass works for his wife. Patiently and tenderly he cracks her glass image of herself. At home, Patsy becomes pregnant by Ron, a fellow she met at a bar, and determines to leave Tom for him. The plot, as contrived as the symbolism of glass and color is clogged, centers about a white fur coat with irregular black patches. Auro, a Jamaican Negro, gives it to Willa, who lends it to Patsy as consolation for Ron's disappearance and Tom's murderous rage at his wife's infidelity. Agreeing to go to a hotel until Willa has dismissed Tom, Patsy returns the coat to Willa. Wearing it, Willa goes to her assignation with Auro. But Tom does not leave; instead, he plots Patsy's murder by strangulation. It is, of course, Willa who returns home at dusk in the coat and is strangled. Willa's recurrent nightmare of her murder and her belief that she is fit only for a coffin have been realized. At the close of the novel, Patsy gives Auro the letters Willa had written and not sent him. Reading Willa's account of Herod's impotence and masochism, Auro comes to understand how Willa saw herself as distorted, like the sheets of colored glass in which she worked.
Of her next novel, A Pagan Place (1970), Edna O'Brien told David Heycock [in "Edna O'Brien Talks to David Heycock about Her New Novel, A Pagan Place," The Listener, May 7, 1970]:
I wanted this time … to get into the kingdom of childhood. I wanted to get the minute-to-minute essence of what it is when you're very young, when you're both meticulously aware of everything that's going on around you and totally uncritical … And of course the only place I could set it is in Ireland where all my associations, all my dreams and all my experience is…. I was brought up very much on mythology and folk-tales, and on verse, and I wanted, as I always do, to write an extremely non-literary book.
A Pagan Place is told by an Irish child—called only "you"—who records the impressions of her youth and who tells the story of her parents' shame at her sister Emma's easy virtue and illegitimate pregnancy. Seen from a little sister's point of view, Emma becomes a dull wanton, lacking the touching bravado that redeemed Caithleen's Baba and Willa's Patsy. Since her plight fails to interest, except as it partially motivates the child narrator to elect the vocation of nun, the reader turns to the child's impressions and her sensibility. Here the novel is not "extremely non-literary," for it resembles an unstructured, diluted Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. There are the violent politics of the father, who "burnt the house rather than let the Black and Tans occupy it as a barracks"; the peace-making of the mother, whose suffering stabs the heart of the child; the quarrel on Christmas Day; the bewilderment of the child that a single word can mean more than one thing; the experience of sex; the vision of hell, "the tongues of flame touching every part of you"; and the mortification of all the senses as penance. With such Joycean echoes are the familiar O'Brien characters, anecdotes, and phrases. There are the father given to bouts of drinking; the dearly loved mother; the faithful hired hand, this time named "Ambie," not "Hickey," as in the trilogy; the adored young priest; the school mistress of flaming temper. There are the incidents of the horse the father bet on, which "stood up to shit and is shitting still," and the bus-driver who got out to "pay-pay, getting the word for pee-pee wrong." And there is the lyrical rhythm of the child narrator's yearning for home with the "crushed stone in a field, and the wind, and the way it touched you on the face and the cattle too, an accompaniment to everything," as well as the usual comment of the girl's seducer: "I could go through you like butter."
Like A Pagan Place, Night (1972) derives from Joyce: from the long soliloquy of Molly Bloom in the final pages of Ulysses. It is the repetitious and bawdy reminiscence of an aging Irish floozy, Mary Hooligan, hired as caretaker by a couple during their absence from London. During one long night in their fourposter, she reveals a personal history already familiar to O'Brien's reader. Only the names are new: the beloved mother and the deeply feared father, here Lil and Boss; the malicious best friend, here Madge rather than Baba or Patsy; the sadistic husband, here Dr. Flaggler, not Eugene or Herod; a son, Tutsie, about whom, as with Caithleen's Cash, Ellen's Mark, and Willa's nine-year-old, Miss O'Brien writes her most winningly; the Irish tinker woman who stole a pair of shoes; and the series of lovers whose sexual preferences are graphically described.
Consequently, critical opinion of Night and Mary Hooligan varies sharply. Stanley Kauffman remarks tolerantly [in "Women of Worlds Apart," World, January 30, 1973]:
There seems little reason to doubt that O'Brien is still producing (largely) confessional fiction, tricked out with a deliberately transparent persona. The style has changed from impudent charm and wide-eyed mischief to lyrics of the loins, laced with a warmly cherished sense of disillusion … It would have been false and precious for her heroines to have remained the Caithleen of the first book; that is not the argument. But it would have been tedious by now to follow her bed stands except that she has some humor and some insight … and she is subject to fits of really good writing.
Dr. Eckley also regards the seven novels as conveying a personal odyssey, but she finds in Mary Hooligan "the creation of a fully integrated personality." The clash between ego, represented by the sensitive and inadequate Caithleen-character, and alter ego, depicted in the extroverted and aggressive Baba-character, is resolved into a harmonious whole in Mary. "This," writes Dr. Eckley, "is the achievement of Mary Hooligan in Night, where the country past impinges on the city present, and religion, the ex-husband and the near friend converge through dramatic rumination." The O'Brien heroine, now mature, faces independence and the consequent loneliness with integrity. Conversely, Charles Lam Markmann takes a harsh view of Night [in "Nothing Above the Belt?," The Nation, May 14, 1973]:
If a lesser author had written Night, one would never have bothered to read it through. But Miss O'Brien is a novelist of many gifts, including poetry and comedy and compassion: that is why the reader keeps the presumption of innocence alive by forced feeding to the very end, and why he then feels so frustrated and cheated…. The reasons for the book's failure may be indeed more interesting than the book. Is it conceivable that the vein has been mined out? Is it possible that virtually nothing new can be thought or said about the emptiness of lives that are just plain empty? Is it thinkable that there are really subjects that not even the finest writer can bring to life because there is simply nothing there? Apparently, yes.
Conceivably, Miss O'Brien would say, "Apparently, no," for she sees her subjects as inherent in an Irish heritage, not peculiar to her individual experience:
Loneliness, the longing for adventure, the Roman Catholic Church, or the family tie that is more umbilical than among any other race on earth? The martyred Irish mother and the raving rollicking father is not peculiar to the works of exorcised writers but common in families throughout the land. The children inherit a trinity of guilt (a Shamrock): the guilt for Christ's Passion and Crucifixion, the guilt for the plundered land, and the furtive guilt for the mother frequently defiled by the insatiable father. [Mother Ireland]
Though she does not include the husband or lover of the pensive, delicately carved features, she does admit to attraction to a "Peter Abelard face." Reflecting upon the many descriptions in the novels and in Mother Ireland of the Christ of the Sacred Heart, the reader can but speculate that He is the physical archetype of the men with whom the O'Brien heroines relentlessly fall in love. Miss O'Brien's reply to Suzanne Lowry's question about the genesis of Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977) lends support to the conjecture. "The idea came," Miss Lowry reports [in "Edna We Hardly Knew You," Limerick Evening Press, July 20, 1977], "from seeing a friend of her son in a play who seemed the stuff from which saints are made." Nora, the narrator, likens Hart, who is a college friend of her son and her lover, to a saint, to St. John of the Cross, to Michelangelo's David, and to Christ.
In prison, awaiting sentence for the murder of Hart, Nora, the middle-aged monologist, ponders her motives for suffocating the boy when, during their lovemaking, he suffered an epileptic fit and cried wordlessly for help. One reason, she realizes, was to revenge herself on her mad, drunken father, "scion of all fathers, who soiled my mother's bed, tore her apart, crushed her and made her vassal" on the brutal husband who "had threatened that if I did leave I would find myself committed to an asylum"; on her son toward whom she feels "incest raising its little tonsured head"; and on her lovers, whose faithless promises were "the real villains of affection." It was also to avenge all "us Gerties, us Nancies, us Delias, us Kittys, us Kathleens" upon "men the stampeders of our dreams." These reasons are not inclusive for Nora. True, in Hart she killed the image of all men, but why Hart, mere surrogate for her son? Why had she not killed her father, her husband, her earlier lovers? The answer comes with her recall of the actual murder:
He begged for help, with the worst, the most humiliating, the most craven, the needful beg, and undoubtedly I saw my own begging famished self-reflected in him, and I took the pillow from under the bed cover, placed it across his contorted face, pressed with all my might, and held it there until he went quiet as a baby, whose breath is almost inaudible.
In Hart, then, she tried to murder her self-image: the image of a middle aged woman so lonely and so lacking in resources as to consider sensitive-looking boy half her age as her last chance at life.
Of Johnny I Hardly Knew You, Anatole Broyard wryly comments [in "One Critic's Fiction: I Hardly Knew You," New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1978]: "The title of the novel is intended as a rueful irony, addressed to the young man who is its love object; but I'm afraid that I hardly knew him either and I see no reason to regret his demise. I'm more perplexed by the fact that the heroine could get worked up enough to kill him." Nor is Hart's the only minimal characterization; the other persons about whom Nora soliloquizes—mother, father, husband, son, lover—are those of the previous novels thinly apostrophized. Equally disappointing is Nora's characteristic style of expression, even more slipshod than Mary Hooligan's, as in such errors as "pertaining to be" for "purporting to be," "origined" for "originated," "like" for "as if," and "but blood nor water carry no issue." Such flaws, however, are insignificant beside the despairing, and distorted, focus of the novel: the search for self-fulfillment ends in self-destruction.
The quest for "radical innocence" has taken a tortuous route for Miss O'Brien's heroines. Caithleen and Baba of the early trilogy looked for and failed to discover it in marriage. Disillusioned with marriage, Ellen of August Is a Wicked Month sought it in a festival of sex and found only boredom and despair. In Casualties of Peace, Willa's efforts to overcome her dread of sex, marital and extramarital, resulted in her death. And Mary Hooligan of Night, divorcée and many times mistress? Surely the murderess Nora of Johnny I Hardly Knew You, a novel written after Dr. Eckley published her monograph, dissipates the theory that, in Mary Hooligan, the O'Brien heroine attained to maturity. In undertaking the journey to earned innocence, Miss O'Brien's heroines select one route only: sex. They never consider the professions, social service, art and music, politics, travel. Willa, it is true, works in glass, but less as a craft or art than as a defense; and Nora, who restores paintings, does so only for a livelihood. A monomaniacal lot, these women reject all of life but sex. Indeed, in greedily defying an incest taboo, Nora rejects life. Unless a future heroine plots the journey afresh, she must continue to record not "that renchant childhood route … to one's original place," but a tedious sojourn in decadence and despair.
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SOURCE: "Irish Passions: Women Under the Spell," in The Wall Street Journal, Vol. 204, December 17, 1984, p. 32.
[In the following review, Peters surveys the stories in The Fanatic Heart.]
Reading Edna O'Brien's The Fanatic Heart, an anthology of nearly 20 years of short stories, one sees the same story born again and again, built up into new configurations although the root is the same.
Ms. O'Brien writes from the different turns her passion takes for her native Ireland, the innocence of her Catholic girlhood, and the deep magnetism of sex. They drive the artist back, in memory—force her to return to people and houses and voices she was once overjoyed to quit. Often in adulthood, the female character is an exile—wed to a Protestant, living in England, without custody of her children if divorced. And often she is alone; in the ruins of a love affair.
The stories of abandoned women who try to fend for themselves ("Mrs. Reinhardt" or the brilliantly queasy "Paradise") or who scavenge adulterously on the leavings of other women's marriages ("The Love Object") have the compulsive edge of a woman top much alone, with no purpose except to feel love returned. They are not perhaps the author's best stories; the ones of girlhood where everything is felt with such biting keenness and humor are more pleasing to read. And yet, the various portraits of the older, exiled women linger in the mind like warnings, with their emotional fatigue, their soreness, their hysteria.
Sometimes, the worlds come together, perfectly, as in the first story, "The Connor Girls," where an insatiably curious country girl is hypnotized by the love lives and oddities of two British sisters. The sisters held themselves apart from everyone in the village and, consequently, loomed large in the girl's childish imagination.
Years later, when she returns to the village with her own child and her husband, the pair of withered old ladies are ingratiating and less haughty. They are about to reward her ancient curiosity with an invitation to tea, when her English husband nastily preserves himself and their child from contact with their kindness. Cutting both ways, slashing against her husband and against the homecoming, she writes, "… at that moment I realized that by choosing his world I had said goodbye to my own and to those in it. By such choices we gradually become exiles, until at last we are quite alone."
In many stories, nevertheless, Ms. O'Brien is driven back, to her country and her family; driven back to see with an impassioned eye, still girlish in her dread, still Catholic in her sense of evil, and Irish in her piercing, flaying language.
In "A Rose in the Heart of New York" a self-made, sophisticated young woman takes her mother on holiday to see if they can share their secrets, as two grown women. The daughter is so hungry for mother love she tramples her mother's delicacy when the elderly woman timorously confesses to an old romance that could have led to a different life. Then, furious at having her own life called "unsettled" by her mother, she blames her parent, and the moment's intimacy is shattered. The daughter is left to endure her own choices, which seem no better than her mother's before her. Ms. O'Brien is especially fine at showing this yearning for the past by one who has broken with it, a yearning that coexists with revulsion at the power the past has to bind one.
In these stories, childhood in the country is bright with promise and joy and mystery. Horses stamp the ground, there is butter to churn and tinkers spark her with fear. And seeping into that clever girl's childhood are an unwanted suitor who drops to fees down her jumper ("The Bachelor"), and a young nun to whom she develops a forbidden attachment ("Sister Imelda").
In "Courtship," a girl years for the attention of a particular young man, and is invited to a dance with a clod instead. "His hands were the most revolting, being very white, and his fingers were like long white slugs."
Having endured the boy's flabby attempts on her, she returns home to a dreamlike encounter with the boy she loves: "There was nothing for it but to be glad; that wild and frightened gladness that comes from breaking out of one's lonely crust, and just as with the swimmer who first braves the depths, the fear is secondary to the sense of prodigal adventure."
Sex can move girls and women from their humdrum round of chores to some thing briefly sublime. The thwarting of it, too, can lead to horror, as in "Savages," where a woman named Mabel scandalizes everyone by flourishing a pregnancy that turns out to be false.
These stories are not so much in fashion now, when fatal attraction between men and women seems almost antiquated and the idea that marriage is a girl's best prospect has lost its force. It is not that Ms. O'Brien recommends either of these destinies, but she is gifted in describing girls and women who are in thrall to them, and have found the cup bitter. "… I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame." she writes in "A Scandalous Woman," "a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women."
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SOURCE: A review of Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories, in New York Times, March 1, 1987, p. 31.
[In the following review, Binchy offers a favorable assessment of Tales for the Telling.]
Edna O'Brien can tell a good story and she has a great ear for the way people talk.
Up to now the people who have talked in her books have been complicated women, anguished because their expectations were so ill fulfilled, or happy girls, carefree because they didn't yet know what disappointments lay ahead.
Now she has found a new voice, and a whole new range of characters, in the peopled tapestries of Irish folklore, a world where nothing stays the same and where the action is as fast as the waterfalls and rivers that cascade from the hills, and the quick thinking of heroes who are momentarily outsmarted is like mercury.
There are 12 stories in [Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories,] this children's collection. Some are of heroes already known to children even in the United States and to the adults who will read the tales aloud only too willingly. Some are about the famous Finn, leader of the Fianna. some are of beggars, pipers and tricksters not known by name but familiar in their antics. Some of them are moral tales where good is rewarded in a very satisfying way. Take, for example, "The Magic Apples," the story of Marteen, whose mother used to collect manna but got greedy and ate all that fell on the fields and so is reduced to begging at the church gates. Marteen, the son and heir, is a bit more ambitious and has heard of a lord in the city of Limerick "who had a beautiful house in its own grounds, who kept a capital table, served fine wines and victuals, had his carriage and equipage and a daughter that had no equal for sauciness." This is all music to Marteen's ears, so off he goes to find the lord near Limerick, and though he has only six pennies he kindly gives them away to three beggars he meets who seem in worse shape than he is.
But those beggars are not three separate beggars, oh no, they are the same beggar three times over, and he is testing Marteen. The lad comes out with an A in kindness and so he gets a magic ring that turns things into gold. Life looks up then and the lord's daughter thinks him a fine fellow, but there are setbacks—as when he falls asleep rather intoxicated and the ring is stolen and disgrace descends on him. But Marteen is still in favor, and is given magic apples that make people develop antlers on their heads and start to butt each other, so a great mayhem ensues in the lord's house in its own grounds near Limerick until Marteen gets his lovely magic ring back. Then he solves the antler problem and everyone except the bad stepsister who stole the ring is rewarded and they all live ecstatically ever after.
Some stories are less clear about right and wrong. In "Two Giants" Finn pretends to be a baby in order to fool a rival giant who has come over to do battle with him; Finn sits in a cradle and in between bellows claims to eat stones that are really cakes, and to squeeze water from rocks that are really curds, and psychs the other giant, who had played fair, completely out of the contest.
Michael Foreman, already an award-winning illustrator, has entered into the fey and whimsical spirit of the tales and the way they are told. His pictures are in a variety of styles, some of them simplistically comic, some mystical and others downright terrifying.
With the one reservation that some of them are ill-advisedly written in an Oirish-style dialect, I would warmly recommend these stories, told so well that they could become classics.
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SOURCE: "The Silly and the Serious: An Assessment of Edna O'Brien," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 474-88.
[In the following essay, Peggy O'Brien explores the psychology behind Edna O'Brien's literary choices and examines the negative critical commentary on her works.]
An intriguing fact about the past reception of Edna O'Brien's work is that American and Irish audiences have been largely at odds, her compatriots tending to be harsh while critics here have lavished praise. She is receiving a great deal of attention now in America, where two collections of her work have been published within the last three years. Her short stories came out in 1984 as The Fanatic Heart and last year the three early novels were gathered together under the title The Country Girls Trilogy, with an epilogue added to tell the fates of her continuous central characters, Kate and Baba. Even if these new editions hadn't prompted fresh attention, O'Brien would be due a retrospective assessment of her writing simply because it now amounts to so much: eight novels, four books of short stories, several plays and screenplays and a work of non-fiction. Much of the disapproval from home has been directed at O'Brien's persona, an outrageous concoction of what foreigners expect an Irish person to be—mellifluous, volatile, wanton, irrational. But more serious artistic reservations underlie this carping. The American criticism now emerging discloses many of the deep reasons why discerning readers of whatever nationality might find O'Brien flawed. Some American critics repeat the error of endorsing O'Brien's stage-Irishness, but many incisive observations about her art push the process of just evaluation further along. Using these readings as a starting point, I will explore the ways in which the inadequacies of her prose are bound to less visible strengths. My interest is double: to understand rather than judge an author's psychology that avoids certain opportunities and embraces others, and to broach those questions of literary evaluation which these choices raise.
Mary Gordon's review of A Fanatic Heart [in The New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1984] epitomizes the rapt response one has come to expect outside of Ireland. Gordon is seduced by O'Brien's voice, enthralled by the Irish writer's use of language: "All the words are fitting; none of them shocks…. It is the emblem of her genius: the genuinely surprising word, not in itself exotic but conjuring in the reader a response inexorably physical." This leads Gordon to praise O'Brien's undoubted descriptive powers, the way she evokes the physical world through sensuous language. Recalling O'Brien's description of a young woman, Gordon comments, "The physical detail burrows into the mind; how clearly one sees Eily." What limits Gordon's judgment is the way she elevates linguistic richness and vividness over other qualities of good prose, such as narrative control. Moreover, Gordon invites suspicion, if not derision, from Irish skeptics when she betrays that she views O'Brien through green-tinted glasses. She is beguiled quite simply by the author's Irishness. This, along with her gender, goes a long way toward establishing O'Brien's credentials with Gordon: "Edna O'Brien tells the Irish woman's inside story … she speaks with a voice identifiably and only hers. No voice could be less androgynous or more rooted in a land." It is worrying to the Irish, especially Irish women, that O'Brien is viewed as their representative and voice. But there is a contradiction in Gordon's statement that must be noted. Does O'Brien present herself as an individual, speaking "with a voice identifiably and only hers," or as a type of her sex and nationality? O'Brien herself is only too willing to exploit the potential for universal acceptance in such confusion.
Whereas sometimes she puts herself forward as the essential woman and other times as the voice of Ireland, in the short essay, "Why Irish Heroines Don't Have to be Good Anymore" [in The New York Times Hook Review, May 11, 1986], she conflates the two stereotypes to define Irish womanhood. In a transparent effort at pandering to transatlantic taste, she assumes a susceptibility on the part of Americans for Celtic charm and trades blatantly on her origins. So open and roguish is she in weaving her obvious spell, however, that it is not so much this manipulation which seems reprehensible as her misappropriation of a native tradition. Hers are sins of presumption and reduction. Sprinkling tidbits of Yeats and Synge and snippets from legend and history throughout the essay, unabashed, she aligns her own persona with the great women of Ireland's past. Her egoism robs other characters and events of their individuality and usually their stature. She transforms the searing story of Deirdre into a maudlin, melodramatic tale of woman's woe. No self-ironic tone indicates an authorial awareness of how her penny-romance summary robs a great tragedy of passion. Characteristically, she touts intensity but presents risible soap opera: "When Deirdre of the Sorrows saw her husband slain, she tore her golden hair out, became distraught, uttered the most rending lament and then fell down beside him and died." The busy syntax, piling verb upon verb, creates a flurry of excitement rather than a solemn procession toward death. An austere heroine becomes an hysterical exhibitionist.
The essay, however, contains a clue to the serious shortcoming of O'Brien's imagination and, ironically, its interest. After she gives a cursory and specious account of two types of Irish heroine, robust and meek, she places her own Baba and Kate in this double line: "Realizing that the earlier heroines were bawdy and the later ones lyrical I decided to have two, one who would conform to both my own and my country's view of what an Irish woman should be and one who would undermine every piece of protocol and religion and hypocrisy that there was." She places calculating Baba in line with heroines such as Deirdre and the Old Woman of Beare who have been justly celebrated for their passion and spontaneity. The telling and dangerous opinion divulged as the basis for her thinking is that being strong means having no emotion. Defending her decision to kill off vulnerable Kate in the epilogue and allow crass Baba to survive she explains, "lyricism had to go, just as emotion had to be purged." The equation of vigor and invulnerability is alarming, for this repudiation of emotion points to an evasion in O'Brien's work, which is nearly disguised by sexual and ethnic antics. It is the paradoxical birthplace of both the silly and the serious in her. More, it is the source from which her imagination springs and continues to be generated.
In an interview with her [in The New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1984], Philip Roth asks some penetrating questions which, overall, demonstrate an enviable balance between indicating the impressive and hinting at the defective in her. Paying tribute to her prodigious memory and the part it plays in her descriptive ability—"the ability to reconstruct with passionate exactness an Irish world"—he also wonders if a tenacious clinging to the past, especially an obsession with her mother and father, hasn't blocked O'Brien emotionally. He asks, "I wonder if you haven't chosen the way you live—living by yourself—to prevent anything emotionally too powerful from separating you from that past?" O'Brien answers, "I'm sure I have. I rail against my loneliness but it is as dear to me as the thought of unity with a man." In this same interview O'Brien speaks of a continuing battle with her father that has only abated slightly with his death but that still would make it intolerable to be reincarnated as his daughter. The dream of unity, therefore, is in direct proportion to the reality of alienation. A stalemate exists because the emotion which creates this tension hasn't been released. In the same interview she also speaks of loving her mother overmuch and having "a sense of her over my shoulder judging." Then, in another section she talks of what seems at first an unrelated subject, her need to leave Ireland: "I do not think I would have written anything if I had stayed. I feel I would have been watched, would have been judged (even more) and would have lost that priceless commodity called freedom." It seems that the need to recover Ireland imaginatively and from a distance is more deeply a need for union with her mother. The great poignancy and artistic success of a story like "A Rose in the Heart" is that it meets this estrangement head-on and records with unflinching honesty an emotional ambivalence that doesn't take recourse in any of the diverting extremes of sex or country which are so common in O'Brien and are nothing but red herrings for the critic.
In his interview Roth also makes the important connection between O'Brien's descriptive acumen and these unresolved emotions, seeing description as a strategy to contain what are otherwise anarchic feelings: "You seem to remember the shape, texture, color and dimension of every object your eye may have landed upon while you were growing up—not to mention the human significance of all you saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched. The result is prose like a fine piece of meshwork, a net of perfectly observed sensuous details that enables you to contain all the longing and pain and remorse that surge through the fiction." O'Brien's descriptive skill does, indeed, enable her to deal with emotional tumult, but it also encourages an avoidance of emotional honesty that places the value of her work in question. Her psychology as an author is revealed more by certain decisions she makes, especially with regard to how much she will indulge a narrator. There is a peril in using an interview, however, as evidence for this argument, since doing so can imply that my appeal is to certain biographical truths about Edna O'Brien, but, given her irrepressible, perverse humanity, the voice that we hear in her interviews is even more fictional than that of her fiction.
One could be forgiven for seeing O'Brien's work as autobiographical, for she is a writer who sounds most affected speaking in ordinary life and most candid narrating prose fiction. It is understandable why Anatole Broyard, in a quite contemptuous review of The Country Girls Trilogy [in The New York Times Book Review, May 11, 1986], identifies the author with her chief character: "Like Kate, Miss O'Brien too sees the world through 'wronged eyes' and the success of her career suggests that, in literature at least, two wrongs may make a right." For most of the review Broyard's complaint is the futile one that O'Brien doesn't succeed at being someone else, the sort of woman he would like. His comments, however, lead in a more useful direction when he points to a collusion between author and character which his "two wrongs" implies. "Like Kate's, Baba's extramarital choices are conspicuously odd, and if Miss O'Brien means these men to stand for women's fate, she has certainly stacked the deck … The women in the later books are attractive, intelligent, witty—surely they could do better if the author let them." Stacking the deck and permitting characters particular destinies are authorial choices, matters for artistic control.
The abiding problem for critics of O'Brien's work is to explain the constant blend of powerful and weak writing in her. So often she creates chilling evocations of confused and chaotic existence by means of an art which fails to distance itself from this cogent material. More often than not it enacts the same confusions. Her practice as a fiction writer raises proverbial questions about the craft, such as whether authorial detachment and objectivity are necessary virtues or whether to demand them is to be outmoded and unfair. A perfect example of this dilemma is raised by the story "Paradise," a terrifying representation of a needy woman's insecurity and self-loathing in a loveless relationship. The prose itself is brittle with the anxiety and panic felt by the protagonist; however, she is also a relentlessly whining, self-pitying person who is never thrown into ironic relief by authorial interpositions. The author seems complicitous in the self-destructive behavior, and this can prompt reader disapproval as much as intense reader identification. If we disapprove, the problem arises of whether we reject the personality of the author, that of the character or some elusive entity that we call the art itself. The fact remains, however, that the story leaves an indelible impression as the recreation of an extreme mental state.
Mary Jo Salter reviews The Country Girls [in The New Republic, June 30, 1986] in a more probing, engaged manner than Broyard. Her response, puzzled rather than disdainful, seems more appropriate, given the genuinely mixed quality of O'Brien's work. Salter's position also may reflect how the women's movement has played a role in prompting American critics to question O'Brien's representation of women just as the Irish question her portrayal of them. Salter, in relation to Kate, refers to "all that dreaming of men, and no thinking about her own plans regardless of them." She speaks too in a concerned tone of the catastrophic consequences of such an attitude: "In time the alternatives for such a woman reduce to death—either her own, as in Kate's probably suicidal drowning, or her lover's, as occurs in O'Brien's 1977 novel, I Hardly Knew You." But Salter makes a statement which suggests her own suspicions of a complicity between author and material, thereby calling O'Brien's detachment into question. Commenting on the dramatic transformation of a husband-figure from one book to the next, Salter observes, "It seems at least as much O'Brien's failure as Eugene's that he has changed from a complex man—charming, but with some serious faults—into a villain." This is a problem of accuracy and restraint, of lapsing from proportionate representation into stereotyping. Salter sees this degeneration occurring over time, with later books and stories more prone to generalized, blurred portraits than the lucid, extremely life-like Country Girls. Salter puts this difference down to the artist's special skill in portraying adolescence, which, she says, is the same for most people, as opposed to middle-age where more telling, individual distinctions surface. It could just as easily be, however, that the authorial identity is arrested in its development and has difficulty imagining mature adults with clarity. O'Brien's characters, projections of a turbulent authorial psyche, participate in a dialectical relationship with that center, and the dynamic created promotes personal development. Aiding the discovery of authorial identity, these fictions serve a serious purpose.
If a characteristic of the late authorial persona and characters is that they chronically seek affirmation from others, the refreshing and reassuring attribute of Kate, as she first appears, is a radiant self-containment. We trust her precisely because she doesn't ask us to. Perhaps the adolescent tendency toward self-absorption makes her refer to no other tribunal than herself; but, because she has no interest in manipulation, she is utterly reliable as a narrator. As a result, the author disappears as a mediating presence. Salter rightly isolates the opening to Country Girls as an example of this transparency, but also, ironically, as an announcement of a major authorial obsession, her father: "I wakened quickly and sat up in bed abruptly. It is only when I am anxious that I waken easily and for a minute I did not know why my heart was beating faster than usual. Then I remembered. The old reason. He had not come home." As the passage unfolds, what distinguishes it from later, similar moments is the narrator's refusal to disguise or displace feeling. For instance, Kate laments, "There was a smell of frying bacon in the kitchen, but it didn't cheer me." The temptation for indulging her senses doesn't divert her from the main feeling; she doesn't pretend that vapors from the kitchen fill the hole of dread in her stomach.
At the same time, immediate sensations save her from being sucked under by another whirlpool of feeling, associated with her mother:
Getting out, I rested for a moment on the edge of the bed, smoothing the green satin bedspread with my hand. We had forgotten to fold it the previous night, Mama and me. Slowly I slid on to the floor and the linoleum was cold on the soles of my feet. My toes curled up instinctively. I owned slippers but Mama made me save them for when I was visiting my aunts and cousins; and we had rugs but they were rolled up and kept in drawers until visitors came in the summer-time from Dublin.
The prose lets us know that the mother has been internalized as a repressive force dictating every movement within her domain, where the gratification of simple pleasures is delayed and there are rules for the smallest operations. The reader senses clearly the mother's controlling personality and its toll on the child but is not enlisted to be on the daughter's side or to blame the mother, for there is nothing wheedling in the tone. Kate's healthy sensuality naturally and without defiance asserts itself against the rectitude of the mother. Smoothing the "green satin bedspread," she soaks in color and texture as psychic sustenance. It is as though the instinctive curling of her toes from the cold of the linoleum is a metaphor for the recoiling of her sturdy young nature from the pathology of her parents. Kate's autonomy guarantees our own, so we don't require an implied author to save us from fusion with a narrator's subjectivity.
This opening passage, O'Brien's first published words, is prophetic in many respects, not just for the considerations about narration which it raises, but for the place description occupies within it. It contains one of the best illustrations of O'Brien's capacity to observe nature minutely, with a painter's eye, and reproduce what she sees in language. She provides Kate with an exquisite evocation of early morning, as much a projection of a fanciful, feminine spirit as a description of mist and verdure:
The sun was not yet up, and the lawn was speckled with daisies that were fast asleep. There was dew everywhere. The grass below my window, the hedge around it, the rust and paling wire beyond that, and the big outer field were each touched with a delicate, wandering mist. And the leaves and the trees were bathed in the mist, and the trees looked unreal, like trees in a dream. Around the forget-me-nots that sprouted out of the side of the hedge were haloes of water. Water that glistened like silver. It was quiet, it was perfectly still. There was smoke rising from the blue mountain in the distance. It would be a hot day.
This is an ingenuous deflection of feeling onto the outside world. There is honesty too in not confusing the subjective descriptive process with objective reality: the romantic passage comes to the empirical conclusion, "It would be a hot day." The child feels free to project onto nature innate and valid longings for peace and perfection, the utter stasis of the scene showing her need to escape family turmoil. Through the personification of the "daisies that were fast asleep" she expresses a desire for an undisturbed innocence belied in real life by her waking abruptly in an anxious state. The dew as it touches and bathes the landscape becomes an ethereal medium which transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. "Haloes" alerts us to the transcendent aim of this imagination. All this evanescence, however, is in balance with concrete fact: "The sun was not yet up." We don't feel that the narrator mistakes her hopes and needs for their actual fulfillment. The act of projecting feeling onto nature and describing the composite scene which results serves a healthier purpose than escape. It affirms a human vitality manifested by this creative power.
The exact place where the narrator is launched into this fantasy is important. It doesn't follow a further stab of anxiety about the father, but rather another subliminal reminder of the mother's censorious ubiquity. The window blind has shot up and the cord tangled itself when the girl reflects, "It was lucky that Mama had gone downstairs, as she was always lecturing me on how to let up the blinds properly, gently." These last two words succinctly communicate the ambiguous impression the mother makes, as forbidding and attractive. By describing a beautiful world which is entirely her own, the daughter creates both a defense against maternal control and a means of imitating the mother's winning romanticism, which insists that even mundane tasks be imbued with grace. Both of these functions for the descriptive act, self-affirmation and emulation of another, come out in a key passage from Johnny, I Hardly Knew You. At this late stage, however, there is an enormous split between unbearable feeling and the solace of the physical world. During a session with a psychiatrist the narrator experiences a gothic, fantasized reentry of the womb followed by an escape into apparent ordinariness.
I was hurtled down, down down into the denizens of horror, with the devils to direct and make mock of my flight. The walls purred with blood and the spheres through which I had to pass were lit by flame. There were no doors or no way out. Yet I had to get out, or die, or choke, and out I did get only to be dragged back again, back into the swirling sphere, and again and again, with no respite…. As helpless as spermatozoa … the world that I came back to was indeed unswerving, almost exquisite. I was glad to feel the tableness of a table, to trot down a little path towards a garden seat and know that I wouldn't be swept away.
The inanimate object world is identified as an anchor for a psyche otherwise driven mad by vertiginous feelings. The author wants us to believe that the salvation found is objective reality, but the narrator's oasis, in its quiddity, is even less material than the wonderland Kate conjured from her window. A platonic table is less than material, and "to trot down a little garden path towards a garden seat" is to romanticize the landscape. There is a definite push from within to idealize. It is as though the acceptable face of the mother, her gentle, romantic side, is projected outward, leaving the controlling, punitive part inside, repressed.
The balanced creature in Country Girls, who preserves a paradoxical response to her mother and knows the difference between raw nature and her transmutation of it, is replaced by someone who splits and polarizes emotion. Moreover, her emotional life is encased in fantasy and the physical world is rendered abstract, an insidious inversion which is caused by sustained stress. Country Girls, with its unembellished frankness, contains this important disclosure by Kate: "Always on the brink of trouble I look at something, like a tree or a flower or an old shoe, to keep me from palpitating." Much of O'Brien's descriptive writing is not the product of deliberate looking at something but distracted movement away from one thing, usually an acute feeling, toward another, an object, a transition essentially from emotion to sensation. A moment in the story "Paradise" demonstrates this involuntary response. When a conversation among people she fears comes to a subject that provokes anxiety in the protagonist, the dialogue abruptly stops and the next words are, "The sun, filtered by the green needles, fell and made play on the dense clusters of brown nuts. They never ridicule nature, she thought, they never dare." This is more than description and a more radical outcome is intended than finding self-affirmation through recreating nature imaginatively. Here we witness an empathic flow into the object itself. Invulnerability from excruciating pain comes from a Keatsian entry into an object which the senses have intensely perceived. This particular imaginative act blurs the boundaries of genre and we enter the territory of lyric poetry. We also come to the crux where strength and weakness combine in O'Brien, for at such moments she fails to distance herself from the narrator to enable us to see the gesture of escape for what it is. We fail to receive an emotional profile of the character, achieved through irony, gaining instead, through our own unaided extrapolations, a profile of the author, who participates in both the romanticism and escapism.
O'Brien's penchant and capacity for descriptive writing does more for her prose than lend it texture and warmth. Even Roth's image of containment, the fine meshwork through which feeling surges, doesn't do justice to the subtle interaction of emotion and description that takes place. A passage from Johnny illustrates the psychological complexity such instances involve when the descriptive strategy is a paradoxical effort to control and avoid reality. When rape is imminent the speaker tells us, "I knew for certain there would be a scuffle within minutes. It was nearly dark. Strange to say I was able to notice the countryside." She then constructs a stylized view of the scene which is more like a description of a Sienese painting than an actual landscape. Our suspicions are confirmed when she casually remarks, "I thought down there [Sienal] were the paintings I had seen." This literary moment is similar to the famous scene in The Ambassadors when Strether is on the brink of discovering the truth about a sexual liaison he has regarded as innocent, as much a crisis for James' fastidious hero as rape is for O'Brien's worldly heroine. In his crisis Strether frames the French country side where the truth will be imminently revealed in the terms of a painting he previously saw in Boston. Both figures project an ideal, static image from memory onto an inanimate object world in order to control a dynamic, threatening human situation. They manage by the tactic to place themselves at least two removes from the source of their anxiety. James' particular genius is that he interjects just enough irony for us to perceive Strether's evasion, to know that his picturesque projections differ wildly from the facts. O'Brien's prose does not generate irony because the narrator's tactic for survival is shared by the author. A benefit for the reader, however, is that the absence of mediating cerebration brings the unsettling mixture of fear and rationalization immediately before us.
The preeminent attraction of descriptive writing for O'Brien is that its overt focus is the non-human world, one safely outside the emotional melee of human relationships. The descriptive act becomes anodyne when it mingles the unbearable feelings produced by intimacy with the innocence and inertness of objects. If one reads O'Brien for the extreme effect those first intimates, mother and father, have had on her authorial psyche, then various aspects of her fictional practice become comprehensible, indeed seems necessary in the light of these psychological exigencies. The collusion between author and character is essentially a blurring of the boundaries between individual and parental identities; and the unresolved nature of these primary relationships accounts for O'Brien's overall obsessiveness. It is this quality of her imagination which provides the energy both to explore unfamiliar psychological recesses and to repeat the same hackneyed experiences over and over again, without apparent control. The former makes reading her works exciting, the latter makes it wearying. The reader is torn between interest and impatience.
O'Brien admits baldly to Roth, "I am obsessive, also I am industrious. Besides, the time when you are most alive and most aware is in childhood and one is trying to recapture that heightened awareness." A telescopic look down the length of her works reveals this quality of obsessiveness in a simple, direct way: the repetition of the same characters in only slightly different guises. Kate and Baba appear in the three early novels, then become Willa and Patsy in Casualties of Peace, Stella and Zee in Zee & Co., Emma and Caithleen in A Pagan Place. The procession of pairs within the stories is too long to relate. The passive-aggressive husband figure enjoys minor mutations in the different fictional embodiments of Eugene in the trilogy, Robert in Zee, a malevolent presence in August is a Wicked Month, Dr. Flaggler in Night, Herod in Casualties. The recurrence of stock characters and incidents articulates the psychological law that early crises dictate the content, in the form of psychological projection, of later experience. No wonder adult life seems tepid compared to childhood, when the only immediate experiences, if they are not subsequently relinquished, take place. It is intriguing to ask why evidence of obsessiveness mounts in the works directly after Country Girls.
The answer may be that sex comes into her fiction after this point and physical intimacy unleashes primitive feelings that induce a regression back into the triangle of the parent-child relationship. Kate in Country Girls gains steadily in autonomy because she is constantly affirming parts of herself that lie beyond parental control. Sex and the atavistic emotions it uncovers disturbs this progress and leaves identity in fragments. In the preface to the Collins selection O'Brien describes herself as a "searching, somewhat fractured adult." The creation of fictions is part of an effort to redeem herself, become whole.
The Kate/Baba division is fundamentally one between the sides of the author's character dictated by mother and by father. All the morbid Kates yearn for romantic fulfillment and transcendent, sublime experience; the Babas are hard realists—sensual, opportunistic but decent. The father's roistering fecklessness affects the author's psychology and artistic development by informing all the Baba characters who prod the introspective, meek Kates into adventure and fun. It is crucial that the personality traits of Baba's fictional parents reverse those of Kate's: Mr. Brennan is the sober, nurturing parent, while Martha is the alcoholic extrovert. It is important to see this reversal as meeting an authorial need.
The reversal expresses the fantasy, with its own inner logic, that if her father were more feminine, then she and her mother might be less so, might enjoy more crude Baba-buoyancy. As matters stand, the father with his patent, relentless flaws forces a realism on the author so extreme that it can mean the extinction of finer feelings in the face of brute physical force. The result can be a self-conscious toughness which seeks to eliminate feeling rather than express it with exuberance. This defensive imitation of the father's indifference to feeling results in a personal loss of the resilience which emotional fluency provides. The positive face of the anti-romantic author is that endearing rogue who endorses in her characters a rude capacity for survival. Its darker face is the adolescent who persistently generates in her plots an acting-out rather than a considered judgment, superficial busyness rather than purposeful activity, endless stimulation rather than emotional satisfaction. The glacial nihilism of these middle novels, heavy with casual sex and philistinism, in contrast to the ebullient Country Girls, is caused largely by suppression of a sensitive Kate (modelled on her martyred mother but with a generous leavening of the father) in favor of a more radical split between Kate and Baba types, with a preference for the latter. The sensualist manqué of August thinks she can expunge painful feeling through merely desperate acts, chiefly sexual. The appropriation of first-person narrating space to Baba in Married Bliss (where Kate anomalously receives third-person handling) heralds this phase of emulating paternal callousness rather than exquisite maternal suffering.
O'Brien also told Roth, "I am a creature of conflicts…. I am often rather at odds with myself and others." While the dialectic set up between narrators and author stimulates growth, one shouldn't underestimate the value in the creative conflict of Kate and Baba as opposing but interacting projections. The father, perceived as sexually rapacious and perpetually absent, is also the model who urges a breaking away from the mother's stranglehold into the autonomy of sex and the outside world. If the mother's influence on the author's descriptive ability is to promote romantic projections onto landscape, the father bends those powers toward realism, sometimes with a very hard edge.
The story "Forgetting," a chronicle of the bland, recuperative days after the end of an affair, contains instances of an extreme, in fact bogus, realism prevalent in the later works, where Baba's cynicism eclipses Kate's naïveté. The truth is more that the two converge but with the hard, protective armor of Baba on the surface. The realism is only apparent. A soft center lies within the stark perimeters a jaded eye perceives. It is apt, therefore, that the scene is a Mediterranean resort where a glaring sun gives objects their clinical outline and the heavy scent of holiday sex provides the required, lurid aura. The opening words contain an unsettling blend of apparent naturalism and obvious metaphor. It begins with a studied neutrality—"Then the foliage is wet, the sun shining on it, while all the umbrellas and parasols are already dry and people hurrying down on their pop-pop bicycles or on foot, down to the sea"—but quickly abandons this antiseptic vision to observe, "By evening the yellow flower of the marrow tops will have wilted to an unrecognizable shred, holiday couples will have quarrelled, will have made love and half-built castles will be like forlorn forts on the vistas of dark sands." Once the metaphorical intention has been made explicit, we endow retrospectively what has come before with an implicit content. The initial coldness is seen with hindsight as a pitiable denial of feelings that seem crushed by circumstance. The flat surface of images is a barrier to keep down a pain derived through sexual involvement with men. O'Brien gives us no pointers by which to perceive this irony.
The feelings associated with the father are so engulfing they make distancing impossible. It is his introjected image which makes O'Brien ceaselessly portray sexually insatiable women, like the father, in disastrous relationships with hurtful men, also like the father. When one of her protagonists complains that "one man is the same as another," we read a profound truth beneath the cliché: when each man is a projection of an original father figure and each romance a replaying of an original trauma, sameness is the result. The promiscuity which has become a hall-mark of O'Brien's writing is the result of a serious authorial need to realize the full content of the intense feelings associated with a father figure. As though still relying on an unreliable father to validate their relationship as an intimate one, she seeks one male spectre after another in futile quest of this elusive conclusion to years of waiting. The sexual partners become more apparitional and allegorical as her fiction evolves because they become mere representatives of an inherently remote figure from the past. However painful and inaccessible the father has been, however, he is idealized in direct proportion to the degree he has removed himself and caused hurt.
Mother Ireland, which may with justification be read as a series of psychological projections onto Irish history and landscape, contains a tendentious account of patriarchal culture which reveals a relishing of the violence associated with her father. Referring to ancient warriors she exclaims, "Their chess pieces could pierce a man's brain and often did. Warriors sat down with their opponents' slain heads under their belts and guts falling about their feet." Mary Hooligan in Night luxuriates in such gore and the author offers not a single caveat to the blood-lust. This is the author who propels the Kate of Lonely Girls to derive more sexual excitement from a brawl between country rowdies than from sex with her civilized partner. This same Kate endures an inordinately protracted term of imprisonment with a drunken, distracted father, from whom escape would be easy. It appears that if Kate's sights were not obscured by idealization she would see her father's limits and bolt, but it is her author's bondage to a paternal image that determines Kate's paralysis.
This powerlessness, which expresses itself most in a fixation with rape, could only be reduced by an objective distancing from the explosive emotions associated with the father. The obstacle to achieving this self-control, however, is the introjected image of an excessively controlling mother. The quandary is that assuming responsibility for one's own feeling seems like acceding to her tyranny. If relationships with men for O'Brien's characters commonly culminate in the eruption of psychotic violence (the ending to Johnny, for example, where a young man is actually murdered), confrontation with the mother's influence leads to a much more insidious effect, an ineffable implosion of the psyche. Much of the tedium that comes with reading O'Brien is the result of the melodramas constructed around men, while the struggle with female identity produces a hidden content which is more subtle—so too the artistic rendering of it. If the lack of objectivity about the father results in a lack of ironic distance from her female characters; masochism in relation to men, the basic collusion between the author and these characters, the continuous nature of their composite identity, is the consequence of a failure in differentiation from the mother. An unhealthy fusion is responsible for that blurring of boundaries between author and protagonists which creates so many evaluative doubts. But the search for identity involved also creates an interaction between author and characters which is the essential but covert story O'Brien is telling. A dimension beyond conventionally defined content, this struggle for self-objectification gained through the process of narrating gives a psychological immediacy and urgency to the prose that compels our attention and respect.
Much of her best writing occurs when O'Brien confronts directly the implications of fusion with the mother. The sustained honesty of "A Rose in the Heart" stems from her finding the courage to admit and articulate a paradoxical truth, one half of which is alienation from the mother, the other half an intense fusion:
The food was what united them, eating off the same plate, using the same spoon, watching one another's chews, feeling the food as it went down the other's gullet … when it ate blancmange or junket it was eating part of the lovely substance of its mother…. Her mother's veins were her veins, her mother's lap was a second heaven … her mother's body was a recess that she would wander inside forever and ever … a sepulchre growing deeper and deeper…. She would not budge, would not be lured out.
O'Brien as an author remains embedded in the flesh of her female protagonists in order to avoid depicting, and perhaps experiencing, the terrors of separation, emergence and action on the surface of a world stripped of the mythological projections rampant in Mother Ireland.
In "Rose," the speaker refers to her mother as a "gigantic sponge, a habitation in which she longed to sink and disappear forever and ever." As O'Brien's fiction advances it becomes apparent how strong the impulse is to "sink," how increasingly reluctant she is to be "lured out." This spectacle of fusion may frighten and repel the reader, and it does hinder artistic qualities of detachment and control, but it also makes reading what might be considered the worst of O'Brien a powerful encounter with the messy and unresolved in human experience. More lifelike than any art of lapidary perfection, its impact on the reader is visceral and personal. This sort of art fails to mitigate pain and confusion just as the mind often fails to dispel the anxieties of actual living. Many of O'Brien's narrators become haunting figures for the reader precisely because no implied author has pinpointed and filed away their misconceptions. Their neuroses aren't magically corrected by an ulterior voice of psychological normality. For example, in "A Scandalous Woman" an unreliable narrator, disappointed in marriage and deeply repressed, follows with pathological doggedness the career of a sexually precocious childhood friend, who eventually suffers and recovers from a mental breakdown. The parasitic motives of the frustrated narrator are not exposed through irony, but, if they were, it might lessen the uncomfortable effect the prose has on us. This self-deluded narration possesses a resonance not unlike that created by Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, whose homo-erotic obsession with Jay Gatsby is also left throbbing under the surface of the text as an unconscious sexual drive.
O'Brien's most revealing disclosure in the Roth interview concerns a female compulsion to merge with the mother: "If you want to know what I regard as the principal crux of female despair, it is this: in the Greek myth of Oedipus and in Freud's exploration of it, the son's desire for his mother is admitted; the infant daughter also desires its mother but it is unthinkable either in myth, in fantasy or in fact, that the desire be consummated." O'Brien's most authentic writing centers around this secret wish, either demonstrating the catastrophic consequences of trying to realize the fusion, as in "A House of My Dreams," or in presenting the growth that separation from a fantasized fusion promotes, the subject of "Sister Imelda." It is no coincidence that this story of a schoolgirl's moving beyond a reciprocated crush on a repressed and febrile nun is one of O'Brien's most finely crafted works, artistic control working hand-in-hand with autonomy. So much is the primal unity a fugitive ideal, the more it's sought the more it disperses, and the ego that chases the phantom is fragmented in the process. The speaker of "House of My Dreams," who ends in mental breakdown, begins to caress another woman and says, "It was a strange sensation, as if touching gauze or some substance that was about to vanish into thin air." So too, those works in which the author fails to differentiate herself from her material, "Night" being the outstanding instance, tend to fragment for the reader and "vanish into thin air."
When the center of a work doesn't hold, we are presented with a troublesome problem of response. The rapidly disintegrating story seems to beg us for help to erect boundaries, and bestow integration. Or perhaps to be complicitous in the breakdown and suffer it too. Even the hint of such an invitation can leave some readers disgusted and cold, dismissing the work as an artistic failure. A detached but secure reader may regard even the manipulation as part of an appalling but convincing enactment of a real psychological condition. The prose unquestionably makes this powerful gesture of appeal to us, demanding reaction, either to affirm or reject the author. O'Brien's search for the innocence of recovered unity ends with this bid to merge with the reader which appears to replay some very old drama. We become the idealized other, pursued by a seductive rhetoric that intends to ensnare but may fly past us on the scent of more willing prey.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4257
SOURCE: "Tough Luck: The Unfortunate Birth of Edna O'Brien," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 216-23.
[In the following essay, Haule examines O'Brien's treatment of birth, infancy, childhood, and motherhood in her works.]
Edna O'Brien's Mother Ireland is a book filled with memories that move starkly between terror and pity as it explains, with the help of the haunting photographs of Fergus Bourke, why Ireland must be left and why Ireland can never be escaped. Her last statement is a remarkable admission of an entrapment at once willing and unwilling, a confession of both victory and defeat:
I live out of Ireland because something in me warns me that I might stop there, that I might cease to feel what it has meant to have such a heritage, might grow placid when in fact I want yet again and for indefinable reasons to trace the same route, the trenchant childhood route, in the hope of finding some clue that will, or would, or could, make the leap that would restore one to one's original place and state of consciousness, to the radical innocence of the moment just before birth.
The entire book, short as it is, clearly demonstrates the extent to which O'Brien's own life has been transformed into the early novels (especially The Country Girls Trilogy) and a number of her short stories (many collected recently in A Fanatic Heart). What makes this autobiographical statement so unusual is that it is an admission that the only escape from the oppressive heritage of moral obligation and social responsibility lies not in death or in unconsciousness, but in pre-consciousness: a state prior to knowledge that can only be lost at birth, befuddled by life, and fixed forever in death. Her work is an attempt to return to this condition of stasis, of innumerable possibilities unencumbered by the mothering that is their ruin.
This, of course, does not make O'Brien wholly unique. The stories of Elizabeth Bowen often center on children of profound moral and intellectual power who come to learn that life narrows rather than expands possibilities. "The Tommy Crans" and "Maria" are especially good examples of this. In a unique exploration of this same idea, Muriel Spark reveals in her story "The First Year of My Life" that all babies possess at birth a cosmic awareness that life is designed to destroy. At birth the child knows everything:
Babies, in their waking hours, know everything that is going on everywhere in the world; they can tune in to any conversation they choose, switch on to any scene. We have all experienced this power. It is only after that it is brainwashed out of us….
Because the narrator is as yet "unable … to raise my head from the pillow and as yet only twenty inches long," she must observe the activities of the adults without comment. The First World War is raging and even the most brilliant authors, she discovers with disgust, miss the mark: "'I only wish I were a fox or a bird,' D.H. Lawrence was writing to somebody. Dreary old creping Jesus. I fell asleep."
It soon becomes clear, however, that Spark's narrator does not lapse into unconsciousness just to gain the strength necessary to participate in the world. Her human inheritance, intact at birth, makes the world seem dull and vicious. Sleep is escape. Life will be long, and there is much to unlearn. She begins life in a condition of intellectual superiority and physical dependance. This is an encumbrance that cannot be maintained, since it would make life with humanity impossible.
It is an analogous condition that O'Brien describes in nearly all her published work. While the child for her is not the awfully empowered infant of Bowen or Spark, it is a morally and intellectually superior being nonetheless who begins, as it encounters the world, to construct fictions in an effort to ward off the terrible depravity of adults. While Spark's narrator describes a ridiculous nursery routine in an arid and satiric way, O'Brien's child finds in the dependancy of infancy and childhood a betrayal that is too dark to afford more than a slender moment of relief. The child instinctively desires what the adult, in Ireland or in exile, more fully understands to be a useless longing: the desire to be her own mother, at once to embrace and to betray the single compelling figure that represents the beginning and the end of life. It is mothering that will require Spark's infant to relinquish its intelligence, and it is mothering throughout O'Brien's work that condemns the women of Ireland to the support of a social and moral order that is hopelessly destructive.
In O'Brien's Ireland, this order is the product of a mediaeval repression that focuses on reproduction in general and motherhood in particular. Divorce, contraception and abortion are all proscribed, leaving women with no choice but to be "good." Thus Irish women fear men who will not care for them and whose dominance is supported by Church and State; they conceive new life long before they have even an elementary understanding of their own; they deliver children into a world that denies natural emotion and desire. The result is successive generations of women who associate the misery of life, not with the oppressor, but with the oppressed who support with resignation this obliteration of intelligence and identity. Mothers are, therefore, more feared and hated than loved by their daughters. The prospect of motherhood itself is so horrible to O'Brien's young women that it leads to emotional and physical deformity. Clearly, a woman's own birth and its replication in the birth of her daughter is, in Ireland, a tragedy of impossible proportions. This is the thematic center of O'Brien's stories and her novels.
"A Scandalous Woman" is a good example. The narrator claims that she participates in the events of the story only slightly. It is not her own, but "another's destiny that is … exciting." This other is Eily who had the "face of a madonna," but the energy and desires of "a colt." Much is made throughout the story of her similarity to an animal, and once her downfall is confirmed, she is treated like a wild and dangerous beast much in need of "breaking." The success of the conspiracy of church and family to reduce Eily to compliance with moral and social orthodoxy results, at the end of the story, in the narrator's realization that "ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women."
Innocence is reserved for childhood. Even then, however, the games most often played mimic adult situations. The most telling of these was "hospital." Eily's sister "Nuala was happiest when someone was upset" and it was then that she liked to play at being a surgeon:
Nuala liked to operate with a big black carving knife, and long before she commenced, she gloated over the method and over what tumors she was going to remove. She used to say that there would be nothing but a shell by the time she had finished, and that one wouldn't be able to have babies, or women's complaints ever. She had names for the female parts of one, Susies for the breasts, Florries for the stomach, and Matilda for the lower down.
Eily was the nurse. The narrator, invariably the patient, was disconcerted with the necessary preparations for surgery, since "Nuala would be sharpening the knife and humming 'Waltzing Matilda'…."
This "woeful event" is more than comic relief, since it prepares us for the reduction of Eily, and finally of the narrator herself, to a mere shell. Eily is betrayed by her own physical desires. This results in an unwanted pregnancy and a loveless marriage with a forbidden Protestant boy who wishes for nothing more than escape. Ironically his first name is "Romeo," but his middle name, "Jack," is also the name of Eily's father from whom, as a small child, she used to hide under the table in order to "escape … thrashings." Eily meets the boy at a dance organized for the "aid of the new mosaic altar" for the local church. It is her "debut," and it leads to a series of surreptitious meetings "Sunday after Sunday, with one holy day, Ascension Thursday, thrown in."
The narrator agrees to help, but is beset with guilt "over the number of commandments we were both breaking" and so gargles with salt water and refuses proper food as "forms of atonement to God." Eily was asking her to do "the two hardest things on earth—to disobey God and my own mother." When this Romeo seems to lose interest in Eily after she sacrifices moral conviction and family responsibility for his company, both girls consult a "witch" who reluctantly tells the truth: Eily will see a "J" return twice. The girls assume that this means that her lover will always be hers. The truth of the matter is, however, that her lover will become another "Jack" like her father, and that he has sired within her a child who, after the shotgun wedding that morality and decency require, will in turn be called "Jack." It is a bitter fate that reproduces the tragedy of domestic Ireland, making endless repetition unavoidable.
Once her condition is known, the narrator laments that Eily's "most precious thing was gone, her jewel. The inside of one was like a little watch, and once that jewel or jewels were gone, the outside was nothing but a sham." Ironically, Eily has been reduced by pregnancy to the hollow shell of the childhood operation. Her punishment is to be kept like an untrustworthy animal, "hemmed in by her mother and some other old women" at church, and locked up all day with the animal feed. The parents discussed her like "a beast that had had some ailment." When she is let out, she is seen trying "to dart into the back of the car, tried it more than once, just like an animal trying to get back to its lair." At one point Eily's father "wanted to put a halter around her, but my mother said it wasn't the Middle Ages."
Most telling of all is the fear that all this engenders in the young narrator. As she washes dishes, she finds that she is "unable to move because of a dreadful pain that gripped the lower part of my back and stomach. I was convinced that I, too, was having a baby and that if I were to move or part my legs, some freakish thing would come tumbling out." These fearful pains are not sympathetic but symptomatic. Mindless mothering offers only loneliness and rejection and is the cause of her grief. Her mother responds to the scandal, not with openness and love, but with the enjoinder "to go home in pairs, to speak Irish, and not to walk with any sense of provocation." The narrator is praised for her goodness, though she knows how much she has shared in Eily's sin. She is warned to cut her hair and look as unattractive as possible, since "'Fine feathers make fine birds.'" Like Eily, she too is treated like an animal worth watching with alarm. Internally, the narrator is consumed not just with her "pains" but with parasites. After the grim wedding, she reports, I "passed a big tapeworm, and that was a talking point for a week or so…." Both physically and emotionally, she is slowly being reduced to the lifeless shell demanded by conformity to moral and social requirements.
Eily gradually loses her hair and her sanity and cannot remember her best friend without effort. Her "recovery" is effected only when she accedes to the demands of parents and church, ignoring her wayward husband and the dreams of her youth. The "restored" Eily is a mother herself many times over when she is finally confronted by the narrator, who is herself pregnant for the second time. Neither of them can talk convincingly about themselves and center their attentions instead on a child. The narrator's "first thought" when she sees her old friend is that the enemy, "they," must have changed Eily by drugging "the feelings out of her, they must have given her strange brews, and along with quelling her madness, they had taken her spark away." As a final gesture, Eily anoints the narrator with "a little holy water on my forehead," a telling reminder of the curse that they both must bear for a lifetime.
The reduction of Eily and the narrator to moral and social stereotypes is clearly linked throughout the story to their mothers and their own mothering. They both become increasingly concerned with forgetfulness and order, yearning for a state of stasis associated mysteriously with womb and womankind. The powerful imagination of youth is lost as they desire to conform to a social conscience that allows them no individual moral or mental life. As O'Brien says in Mother Ireland, they gradually awaken to "a world where help and pity did not forthcome." It is their own birth that they desire, this second time without the mothering that was their ruin. O'Brien herself understands, but allows few of her characters to realize, that "to be on an island makes you realize that it is going to be harder to escape and that it will involve another birth, a further breach of waters." More awful still is the realization that to be born again, even at your own prompting, will ultimately make little difference. The "radical innocence of the moment just before birth" cannot ever be recovered.
This yearning for another birth outside the womb is even more powerfully dramatized in O'Brien's novels, most especially in The Country Girls Trilogy. The recent publication of a one-volume edition of these novels provided an opportunity to conclude the sad story of Kate and Baba. Twenty years after the events that concluded Girls in Their Married Bliss, Baba relates in her own voice the terrible fate that opened beneath them both.
O'Brien herself described the purpose of this unusual conclusion in a brief article published in The New York Times Book Review. Entitled "Why Irish Heroines Don't Have to Be Good Anymore," it approaches directly the center of Edna O'Brien's quarrel with the world—her warfare with the destructive role that Ireland demands of her women. She describes "the glorious tradition of fanatic Irish writing which flourished before sanctity and propriety took over" and admits that
it was with this jumble of association and dream and hope that I first sat down to write. Real zing that the earlier heroines were bawdy and the later ones lyrical I decided to have two, one who would conform to both my own and my country's view of what an Irish woman should be and one who would understand every piece of protocol and religion and hypocrisy that there was. As well as that, their rather meager lives would be made bearable by the company of each other. Kate was looking for love. Baba was looking for money. Kate was timid, yearning and elegiac. Baba took up the cudgel against life and married an Irish builder who was as likely to clout her as to do anything else. That was 20 years ago. The characters remained with me as ghosts, but without the catharsis of death. I had never finished their story, I had left them suspended, thinking perhaps that they could stay young indefinitely or that their mistakes might be canceled out or they would achieve that much touted fallacy—a rebirth.
Without youth or hope of rebirth, Kate and Baba face death and bewilderment. We learn in the "Epilogue" that Kate has "gashed her wrists, thinking daftly that someone might come to her rescue, a male Florence Nightingale might kneel and bandage and swoop her off to a life of certainty and bliss." Baba sees that Kate's desire for mothering has blinded her to life and led inevitably to death, for she could not realize that
we're lonely buggers, we need a bit of a romp so as not to feel that we're walking, talking skeletons. Kids don't do really; at least not when they grow up, and that was Kate's mistake, the old umbilical love. She wanted to twine fingers with her son, Cash, throughout eternity.
It was to avoid "the rupture" that Kate experienced that Baba isolates herself from tenderness and love. Sex is purely physical; it carries no spiritual significance or danger. She refuses to accept the responsibility of mothering most especially, perhaps, because her illegitimate child is female. Baba does not abort it, but instead severs all emotional connections. Thus, her daughter rejects her from birth, for the girl had
a will of her own and a mind of her own from the day she was born. Vomited the milk I gave her, rejected me, from day one, preferred cow's milk, solids, anything. She left home before she was thirteen, couldn't stand us…. I'm not a mother like Kate, drooling and holding out the old metaphorical breast, like a warm scone or griddle bread. She stood up to me, my little daughter, Tracy. At five years of age she walked into my bedroom and said, "You better love me or I'll be a mess."
Ironically, when her brutal husband Durack suffers a stroke, Baba must forego recreational sex on "one of those tropical islands" and come home to play nurse. His illness has turned him into an enormous child who insists on seeing A Thousand ami One Dalmatians and who writes pathetic little notes, like "I love you, do you hear. Answer me now.'" Baba is not moved: she would not mother a child, and she will not mother an afflicted husband. She is repelled by his desire to
to be with me all the time, nestling. He'd think that I had gone and he'd tell me that Baba had gone when I was there in the kitchen making fucking potato cakes and barley soup to remind him of his martyred mother and all that mavourneen mush. I was full up to the gills with guilt and pity and frustration.
Hardened to the demands of life, Baba is able to survive, however unhappily, because she recognizes no claims upon her. She sees no purpose, only survival. Because Kate cannot relinquish claims, she is doomed to as much unhappiness and, finally, to death by suffocation. Her drowning is ruled accidental, but Baba knows better: "Death is death, whether it's by accident or design." She knows Kate swam after dark on purpose. It was all a "blind really, so that no one would know, so that her son wouldn't know, self-emulation to the fucking end."
What most irritates Baba is that Kate's normal condition was, after all, much like Durack's final predicament. What's more, Kate chose to live in darkness and unreason. Baba is infuriated that her friend has died in a fit of irrational devotion to all that betrayed her, to motherhood and duty:
Why couldn't she see reason, why couldn't she see that people are brigands, what made her think that there was such a thing as twin-star perpetuity, when all around her people were scraping for bits of happiness and not getting anywhere?
During her last days, Kate writes and talks in a kind of code that not even Baba attempts to interpret, for "you'd need a brain transfusion to understand them." Everything she writes or speaks has, in one way or another, to do with the betrayal of desire and mother love. Kate's notebook records an almost Blakean aphorism worthy of "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "The flushes of youth are nothing to the flushes of age, the one is rose leaf, the other the hemorrhage of death." More telling still is Kate's inability to pray, a condition that leads to her "mumbled petitions to St. Anthony" (Patron of the Lost) and her questions about "infinity, if there was something more to life." What she dreads most is the fearful condition of the narrator of "A Scandalous Woman" who, by story's end, has become a shell. Kate fears "the emptiness … the void." She experiences strange physical pains and hallucinations, as does the teller of Eily's story. She sees herself, by turns, "stitched to the sky with daggers or pins," or feels that her teeth were too large for her head and "were crushing her."
The anguish of birth trauma haunts Kate's final weeks. The departure of her son is the "last breach" that proves too much for her. Kate knows that her heart is her great affliction and, along with the female organs that have betrayed her, she wants to "tear it out, stamp on it, squash it to death, her heart being her undoing." She has become a shell as surely as the conspirators of "A Scandalous Woman." Baba will not forgive her, because she cannot tolerate "people like her" who are "always looking for meaning." Baba knows there is no meaning, not at least where Kate would find it. She knows that Kate's first problem was with "father—the crux of her dilemma." Her second was an acceptance of the role she had learned from her mother—to suffer and to die. In Baba's view, this makes her worthy, finally, of compassion:
I don't blame her. I realize she was in the fucking wilderness. Born there. Hadn't the reins to haul herself out. Should have gone to night school, learned a few things, a few mottos such as "Put thy trust in no man."
Baba's monologue ends, unexpectedly, not in anger but in longing. She too, it seems, cannot completely deny that "much touted fallacy." She wants to be the true mother, the progenitor that Kate could not be for herself. She wants rebirth, this time without mother or father to bring it to a bad end:
Jesus, is there no end to what people expect? Even now I expect a courier to whiz in on a scooter to say it's been a mistake; I'm crazy, I'm even thinking of the Resurrection and the stone pushed away, I want to lift her up and see the life and the blood coming back into her cheeks, I want time to be put back, I want it to be yesterday, to undo the unwanted crime that has been done. Useless. Nothing for it but fucking hymns.
Baba's graphic language here is all the more poignant because she realizes its futility. She has demonstrated that she "understands every piece of protocol and religion and hypocrisy that there was." Yet, though she has taken "up the cudgel against life," she is still unable to dismiss entirely the hope of salvation from "a world where help and pity did not forthcome." Kate is no different. She knows all too well that it is mothering and motherhood that have betrayed her. Twenty years ago she sought a physical remedy to the problem, choosing to be sterilized rather than face mothering again. At the end of Girls in Their Married Bliss, an alarmed and confused Baba visits the hospital after the surgery. It is a grim tableau:
"Well," Baba said after some time, meaning, "What does it feel like?"
"Well," Kate said, "at least I've eliminated the risk of making the same mistake again," and for some reason the words sent a chill through Baba's heart.
"You've eliminated something," Baba said. Kate did not stir, not flinch; she was motionless as the white bedpost. What was she thinking? What words were going on in her head? For what had she prepared herself? Evidently she did not know, for at that moment she was quite content, without a qualm in the world. It was odd for Baba to see Kate like that, all the expected responses were missing, the guilt and doubt and sadnesses, she was looking at someone of whom too much had been cut away, some important region that they both knew nothing about.
In a violent act close to self-mutilation, Kate has attempted to cut away all resemblance to the great betrayer. Sadly, however, the "Epilogue" dramatically demonstrates that Kate has not "eliminated" any of the "risk." After twenty years more of life and after the most extraordinary efforts to release or deny the effects and obligations of mothering, neither she nor Baba are able to reject entirely the claims of Irish maternity. Kate's operation is a real-life version of the playful surgeries of "A Scandalous Woman," but the results are the same: "there would be nothing left but a shell … and one wouldn't be able to have babies or women's complaints ever."
O'Brien's complaint, then, is that Irish women cannot hope for life from their mothers, and they cannot hope to give life, in turn, to their daughters. Perhaps the solution to the problem of birth, to follow the author's own example, is exile—to seek "that further breach of waters" she discusses in Mother Ireland. But even this "rebirth" is not free from the ruinous effects of fathering and mothering. As Edna O'Brien admits, freedom is partial because the "leaving is conditional. The person you are, is anathema to the person you would like to be." Perhaps the truth, then, is that there is no safe place for women born to a country that offers no chance for health or happiness. If so, to be born in Ireland at all is the worst of luck.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1122
SOURCE: "A Colony of the Disgruntled," in New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1988, p. 11.
[In the following review, Robinson offers a mixed assessment of The High Road.]
Edna O'Brien is a prolific writer of short stories and novels, noted for the elegance of her prose. The High Road, her second novel in over a decade, is a series of more or less free-standing narratives, framed by opening and concluding scenes that declare certain large themes only developed by contrast or indirection in the intervening narratives.
The language here is often infused with an intense energy, but the form of the novel makes it difficult to know what these energies arise from or tend toward. Most of the stories concern expatriate and vacationing northern Europeans on a Spanish island, while the framing events invoke the earthy primitivity of the island itself, at least as the narrator perceives it.
The narrator, Anna, is a middle-aged, Anglicized Irishwoman, a writer or a scholar who has toured America lecturing on the sorrows of Irish history. She is the sort of person who finds the horses in Central Park more human than the people in the streets of New York. Emotionally destitute, she has sought out this island as a refuge. It is an artists' colony and resort, a place to which the civilized have brought their discontents for so long that the locals, while practiced at accommodating their expectations, are also a bit weary, a bit jaded, as any community colonized by the drunken, querulous and disgruntled of other nations must no doubt be. The nonconsecutive form of the novel puts usual notions of meaning in question, a strategy appropriate to disrupting conditioned responses to an entrenched convention. Anna is one among the legions who have for generations quartered themselves upon those they consider simple with the thought of being comforted and enlightened. The High Road describes how and why the consequences of this unarmed occupation are so notoriously sad.
Ms. O'Brien's rich prose is laid on the surface of her narrative like the flourishes of technical brilliance that fade last when the vision of an age begins to slide away. The emptiness at the core of this tale is not the Romantic isolation from which it borrows phrases and gestures, but a circumscribed, thoroughly contemporary malaise preoccupied with the muted deaths of minor and guarded hopes, comfortably endured in a landscape which, however beautiful, is not visionary but decorative.
Early in the novel Anna meets an Irish painter, in his cups, who gossips, expostulates, alliterates and alludes, until the character of the island and of the fiction itself is established. He mentions the name of the young island woman on whom the story will finally turn, Catalina, in religious and legendary contexts. He tells Anna that the church is built on the site where an Iberian moon goddess once had her shrine. He establishes the significance of the narrative's beginning on Easter morning by reciting a phrase from the Mass, "Resurrexi, et adhuc tecum sum." The story will be about regeneration through death.
He tells us, too, about members of the expatriate community—an American would-be Hemingway, seduced by his own powers of seduction and unable to set aside time to write, painters who produce landscapes of "untortured banality" to sell to American matrons. He himself paints an imitation Van Gogh, and copies his imitation. The level of aspiration is notably depressed among these artists. Their situation recalls the Romantics in Italy, Hemingway in Spain, Gauguin in Tahiti. Yet for these latter-day artists the properties of the creative life bear the same relation to real productivity that Miss Havisham's wedding cake bears to the joys of married life. Self-exile is a solution that has lost its marrow of problem, and has grown small and brittle.
Anna's interactions with other expatriates establish the narrator as one who transforms the honorable role of perceiver into intrusion or violation. For a while she shares a house with Charlotte, a morbidly private woman who nevertheless gives Anna a place to stay on the condition that her privacy should be respected. Anna thinks she recognizes in Charlotte a girl once prominent in London society, who suffered two disastrous marriages. She breaks into Charlotte's locked room, finds proof, is caught and sent packing. Staying at the home of an acquaintance, she accidentally starts a tape made by the woman's son as he committed suicide. She hears it out. Once again she is confronted and sent packing. Anna goes to the home of Catalina, the peasant girl by whom she has become fascinated, and finds her exposed in the embarrassments of her poverty, disheveled and fighting raucously with her father. Catalina forgives her failure of tact, more gracious than the others.
To Anna, Moorish Catalina suggests abandon and release. But she, it turns out, is modern, too, with a broken marriage, a dismal affair and a child whose paternity has been established by blood tests. She has read enough to have discovered an earth goddess, Gaia, and with her perhaps a willingness to be seduced by Anna, to be "eclipsed inside the womb of the world." It is characteristic of urban Western culture to consider its newest tolerance a recovery of the primordial, appropriately acted out among the earthy folk at the cultural margins. But their tryst causes outrage in her village, as Anna had reason to expect it would. The lavish respect accorded to the pretty gravity of peasant life vanishes when it is found to be severe at its heart. The Irish Van Gogh defaces village walls with the word "lesbos," in retaliation for its being painted on Catalina's family house. So much for unspoiled beauty.
Disaster comes of Anna's inability to let things be. While she rummages through experience for a salve to cure her own hurt soul, she never thinks what injuries she might inflict. The fetish, or trophy she carries away at the end is Catalina's bloody hair, "so vibrant, so alive it was as if her face still adhered to it." Her gloss on the text "resurrexi" would seem to be that her own angst is ended by the death of a young, generous, interesting woman. The concept of rebirth is as diminished as the concepts of art and of self-discovery.
There is a glancing allusion to the effect of Chernobyl on the island. The book suggests a profound erosion under the flowery appearances of things, a more sinister intrusion into the world we profess to love. The old woman who makes Anna the gift of the bloody hair tells her, "to love one must learn to part with everything." The book suggests this is a lesson we may have learned too willingly and too well.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2528
SOURCE: "Edna O'Brien's 'The Doll': A Narrative of Abjection," in Notes on Modern Irish Literature, Vol. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 6-11.
[In the following essay, Carriker analyzes O'Brien's "The Doll," in terms of the author's use of the doll as a means of communicating the abjection of the narrator of the story.]
In Edna O'Brien's short story "The Doll," the narrator and the doll stand in an uneasy juxtaposition which is exemplary of Freud's notion of "The Uncanny." The conflict of "The Doll" is centered in the question of the doll's subjectivity, and the story contains what Freud has called "a particularly favorable condition for awakening uncanny feelings." He discusses dolls as a significant element of childhood life, describing how children—like O'Brien's narrator—frequently maintain that their dolls are alive or that they themselves can make the inanimate dolls come to life. In conjunction with Freud's "Uncanny," [Julia] Kristeva's concepts of abjection, dejection, and displacement illuminate the narrator's crisis in "The Doll."
The narrator of "The Doll" is a woman who as a child received a doll each year for Christmas. The behavior of this unnamed child is like that of the children observed by Freud in "The Uncanny" who treat their dolls as living people, making no distinction between the living and the inanimate. For example not only do her dolls have names and living quarters but each has "special conversations … endearments, and … chastisements" as well. Her favorite is "the living representation of a princess … a sizable one," and her description of it as "uncanny" is consistent in every detail with the characteristics named by Freud as specific to the sensation of uncanniness: "She was uncanny. We all agreed that she was almost lifelike and that with coaxing she might speak … the gaze in her eyes [was] so fetching that we often thought she was not an inanimate creature, that she had a soul and a sense of us. Conversations with her were the most intense and the most incriminating of all."
After several of her classmates see the splendid doll, lying in state in its silver box, it becomes "the cynosure of all," and the children beg that it may be used to represent the Virgin Mary in the Nativity scene which is being assembled for the school's Christmas pageant. The child has mixed feelings about volunteering her doll for the event, yet she is pleased by the doll's popularity and success. At the program, the doll outshines the faltering pupils; they are subject to the human failing of forgetting their lines while the inanimate doll is protected by the composure of the ideal.
Representing the Virgin Mary, the lovely doll is like the ornate and finely finished figures described by Susan Stewart in her comparison of the modern dollhouse to the créche of the Middle Ages [in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984]. She explains the tradition of "locating the sacred within the secular landscape. At the heart of such crèches are the abstract mythologized figures of the Nativity, but as one moves out from that location, the landscape becomes more familiar." The doll in O'Brien's story is unusual in her sacred role because she was initially created to be a child's toy or an object of decorative display—not to represent one of the mythologized Nativity figures. Her placement at "the heart" of the Nativity provides an interesting example of the juxtaposition of secular and sacred, an inversion of the movement described by Stewart. Here the secular is located within the sacred landscape.
In "The Doll," this inversion signifies the displacement of abjection. The doll, the secular representative standing in for the sacred, exemplifies what Kristeva calls [in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, 1982] the purified abject. She says that the history of religious catharsis is likewise a history of purifying the abject and that the artistic experience is rooted in the abject. Posing as the Virgin Mary, the finely crafted doll is both an art object and a religious symbol. In exchange for the doll's privileged treatment, however, the girl is "dejected" and separated. She is the one who "strays instead of getting [her] bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing." She suffers loss and displacement at every level. In her family, for example, she is the only one of her sisters to receive these "miraculous" dolls each year from an eccentric friend of the family who has whimsically chosen the narrator as her favorite. The child is victimized by her own good fortune; for her older sisters "of course, were jealous and riled against the unfairness."
At school, too, the girl is outcast. She remembers that the teacher "harbored a dislike for me" and, rather inexplicably, "referred to me as 'It.'" Perversely, the teacher, who like everyone else is enamored of the doll, objectifies the child. The doll and the child change places—the doll becoming a subject, the child an object. After the Christmas pageant, the strangely tyrannical teacher refuses to return the child's doll, a loss which makes the girl feel "berserk." After requesting the doll's return several times to no avail, the child must resign herself to the teacher's unkindness. When she finally leaves the narrow life of the village for boarding school in the city, she hopes to forget the schoolteacher, to "be free of her forever … forget the doll, forget most of what happened, or at least remember it without a quiver." She believes that she can leave behind her anguish over her stolen doppelganger, the lost doll. Having decided to leave home and develop a new identity, she is once more separated from her environment, the third level at which she is displaced. She says to herself, "I am on the run from them. I have fled. I live in a city. I am cosmopolitan."
Feeling "far from those I am with, and far from those I have left," the narrator is the stray, the figure without bearings. She is without a sense of belonging in her new situation as much as she was in the old. Yet she is, to use Kristeva's description of the abject, "not without laughter—since laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection." The dinners and parties hosted by the narrator of O'Brien's story are filled with this sort of laughter. Musing on the wary detachment of her new friends, she observes that their talk takes the form of pleasant, drifting wandering hallucinations. She does not share with these new acquaintances the intense and special conversations which she once shared with her doll. Instead, their desultory chatter resembles the distracted and detached speech of what Kristeva calls the blank subject, the non-object, "he through whom the abject exists." This subject moves about in a daze of fear that "permeates all words of the language with nonexistence, and with a hallucinatory ghostly glimmer." The language of abjection does not retain the property of naming and describing experience. If language itself has been permeated by nonexistence, then it is no surprise that the subjects who utter such a language stray in their search for significance and meaningful existence. This eerie mode of communication is missing one crucial factor, the capacity to "ceaselessly confront that otherness, a burden both repellent and repelled, a deep well of memory that is unapproachable and intimate: the abject."
The narrator realizes that her discourse and that of her friends does not address the self and does not confront otherness. Issues of identity and personal history have no place in their lively meandering conversations but remain submerged in the "deep well of memory," camouflaged by the laughter that conceals abjection: "None of us ever says where we come from or what haunts us. Perhaps we are bewildered or ashamed." She herself, for example, is still haunted and bewildered by the unforgotten princess doll, which is for her the repelled and neglected other, the absent body that now maintains an existence entirely separate from hers, stuck away somewhere among the schoolteacher's belongings. She is ashamed of the jealousy which this miniature representation of her own fate evoked in her childhood acquaintances, and she has consigned this emotion to the unapproachable regions of her consciousness.
When she returns home for a relative's funeral, she is forced to confront her own intimate history. The familial responsibility of making the funeral arrangements falls to her; and she must visit the village undertaker, named Denis, who is the son of the once hated teacher. When she goes to pay her aunt's final debt, the dead body that she sees in Denis' care is not that of her aunt—it is her own. She encounters the metaphorical interment of a small part of herself, her own abandoned double, with whom she comes face to face at last; and what is "fixed up," paid off, fully dealt with at this final reckoning is her lingering emotional aversion to its existence. When she spies the confiscated doll in the overstuffed china cabinet, she is shocked to see that it has defied the immutability of its idealized body by aging. It now resembles that most extreme and abhorrent form of the abject, the corpse: "… if dolls can age. it certainly had. Gray and moldy, the dress and cloak are as a shroud, and I thought, If I was to pick her up she would disintegrate." The doll has retained her distinctive status for old times' sake but lost her initial luster and all the stimulating attributes which had made her seem like a living subject.
When Denis sees that she has noticed the artifact, he tells her how much his mother, who has since died, admired the doll; and he boasts that he does not let his children play with it ("thereby implying that she was a sacred object, a treasured souvenir"). But the very thought of how both she and her doll were misused by the older woman gives the narrator a chill. Even from an adult perspective, she feels certain that the woman "kept the doll out of perversity, out of pique and jealousy. In some ways she had divined that I would have a life far away from them and adventures such as she herself would never taste." This envy informs the son's behavior toward her as well as the mother's. She senses that Denis is filled with curious notions of what her life is now like, and she knows that the reality of her experiences must differ widely from his expectations. Their encounter ends awkwardly because she is not what "he imagined me to be."
After her visit to the undertaker's, she feels reduced to "wretchedness." The sight of the captive, shrouded, corpse-like doll gives her the sudden "conviction of not having yet lived," of dying the same slow death that the doll has. Stewart says that, as a mirror of the world, the miniature "is the antithesis of the 'self-reflecting' mirror, for the mirror's image exists only at the moment the subject projects it." The miniature, on the other hand, "projects an eternalized future-past" and "consoles in its status as an 'always there.'" For O'Brien's narrator, however, the image of the doll fails to give any consolation. Instead of projecting the past and the future as "always there," it represents the narrator's past and future—times that are never there. It has responded to the passage of time and has existed in the reality of the present. Rather than feeling consoled by her miniature self-image, the narrator recognizes the doll's loss of vibrancy and fears that such early potential may be forever unrealized in her own life as well.
Far from the days when her favorite doll was "the cynosure of all," the narrator has become cynical and wary of the contradictions of life. More like a mortal than an idealized object, the doll comes to represent only her abjection.
She overcomes the sensation of nausea by admiring the "singular and wondrous" stars, which symbolize to her some hope against the "currently and stupidity" of the world. They seem to her "an enticement to the great heavens … one day I would reach them and be absorbed into their glory." The element of euphoria in her vision is analogous to the correlation between the sublime and the abject identified by Kristeva: the sublime "expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling." Kristeva's here/there formula of abjection/sublimation can be used to explain the narrator's dichotomous stance. Standing on the sidewalk (i.e., here), she is a deject, made nauseous and frustrated by her memories and by the world's abjection. Looking to the sky (i.e., there), the anguish caused by her brief distasteful reunion with the doll and the teacher (in the form of the undertaker) is alleviated. The unpalatable otherness of the doll is sublimated by the sparkling otherness of the stars.
Kristeva says that "The abject is edged with the sublime" and describes this relation in a descriptive passage which approaches the visionary. For her the abject, as a non-object, is closely related to the sublime: "For the sublime has no object either. When the starry sky, a vista of open seas or a stained glass window shedding purple beams fascinate me, there is a cluster of meaning, of colors, of words, of caresses, there are light touches, scents, sigh,. cadences that arise, shroud me, carry me away, and sweep me beyond the things that I see, hear, or think." She then finds herself removed from the location of the "I" to what she calls a "secondary universe." In this secondary universe, delight sublimates loss. It is appropriate that the subject of abjection turn to an experience of transport as an alternate to the complexity of lived reality, for Kristeva emphasizes that the deject is more concerned with questions of place than with questions of being: "'Where am I?' instead of 'Who am I?'" In accordance with this priority, the narrator, at the conclusion of "The Doll," thinks only of leaving the small oppressive town for somewhere else: "Tomorrow I shall be gone … I had not lost the desire to escape or the strenuous habit of hoping."
Having endured an unnerving confrontation with the abject, she seeks to escape from the "here" of her childhood home into the "secondary universe" of the stars or the "there" of the city. She expresses the need of the abject, the tireless straying "in order to be" by which she is saved. Even though she realizes her own lack of groundedness, she is still compelled, in the true mode of the deject, to "constantly question [her] solidity." A positive result of this questioning is that the abject may become the sublime; the "deep well of memory" which contains the shunned and hidden history of abjection may be transformed into the "raptures of bottomless memory" where the sublime object is finally dissolved. Thus O'Brien's narrator, having relinquished her hold over the abjected doll, is herself finally liberated from its uncanny power.
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SOURCE: A review of Lantern Slides, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 303-4.
[In the following review, Lanters provides an unfavorable assessment of Lantern Slides.]
Edna O'Brien's outspokenness on the subject of women and sexuality gained her a certain notoriety in Ireland in the early 1960s, when such matters were still considered taboo. Since then, Irish writing has come a long way, although one would hardly gather as much from O'Brien's latest collection of stories. The title Lantern Slides itself is suggestive of former times, although the stories are not overtly set in the past, and the themes are familiar from O'Brien's earlier work: loneliness, madness brought on by jealousy and sexual repression, guilt over strained relations between parents and children, women coping with ending love affairs. At least half the stories, mostly set in rural villages, seem positively nostalgic for the bad old repressive days out of which Irish writers used to get so much mileage, but even those set in modern Dublin have a whiff of mothballs about them, as if the characters in them had somehow mentally remained stuck in an earlier time.
The book's epigraph from Thomas Mann implies that it was O'Brien's intention to depict the human condition rather than specific people in specific places, something which is also suggested in the first story, "'Oft in the Stilly Night,'" which portrays what goes on behind the sleepy facades of an Irish backwater: "Perhaps your own village is much the same, perhaps everywhere is." Somehow, in relation to these stories, the generalization fails to be convincing.
In this light, some of the selections are even slightly embarrassing; they might almost be parodic, except that there is no hint that they are to be taken that way. The destructive gossip in "The Widow" is like something out of Brinsley MacNamara's Valley of the Squinting Windows; in "A Demon" the reader is asked to believe that both the nuns in a girl's convent school and the parents who take her home because she is "poorly" can ignore or deny a pregnancy which is so advanced that she goes into labor the same night; and if we are to be made to feel sympathy for the plight of a gay village shopkeeper, it is not clear why he should have to be quite such a pathetically stereotypical homosexual who cooks and sews, goes in for amateur dramatics ("He was very convincing when he acted the women or the girls"), and ends up getting drunk with a famous actor and his friend from Dublin, the three of them dressing up in pantomime drag before being arrested by the village police. For a variety of reasons, these stories do not quite ring true.
A few of the pieces are notable for their language, especially "Brother," a rambling monologue in which a woman reveals the sordid intimacy of her relationship with her brother and her murderous intentions toward his wife-to-be. Unfortunately, Lantern Slides provides all too few such memorable instances.
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SOURCE: "Bearing the Burden of Love," in Belles Lettres, Fall, 1992, pp. 2-3.
[In the following review, Harris offers a laudatory appraisal of Time and Tide.]
In the prologue of Time and Tide, we learn that the protagonist, Nell, has lost one son to a "watery" death and is terrified that her hastily spoken words have forced a permanent breach with her surviving son. Throughout the rest of Edna O'Brien's latest novel, Nell is dominated by her parents, husband, lovers, and children. She moves from a degrading marriage through a series of damaging love affairs, experiences a terrifying acid trip, suffers a nervous breakdown, loses her mother and her home, and watches her eldest son succumb to drug abuse. Although Nell struggles' through each of these situations, she is never prepared for the next catastrophe, which is all too likely to occur. In the hands of an ordinary writer, this scenario might produce nothing more than a depiction of yet another woman victimized by people, fate, and her own paralysis.
But Edna O'Brien is not an ordinary writer. She is as rare as the exquisite possessions that Nell, at one stage in her life, collects from market stalls and antique shops: "velvet cushions, goblets threaded with gold, cranberry glasses that seemed to have the essence of the fruits secreted within." O'Brien transforms what could have been a depressing or, at best, maudlin tale into a revelation. I have found no other writer who so precisely and sensitively describes the harrowing burden borne by people who need to love deeply.
For Nell, who craves more intimacy than her parents or husband would allow, love has become virtually synonymous with the fear of loss. She is afraid to ask her abusive husband what has gone wrong with their marriage. She is reluctant to take lovers after her divorce because she is "afraid of being inadequate to the situation, the room somehow too shabby and she herself too emotional." She is afraid to express her feelings to her mother, who might say something that Nell could never forget or bear without mortification. She is "dangerously enchanted" with her sons, and her greatest fears are of being separated from them.
O'Brien exposes the anxiety that underlies love and weighs tentative happiness with sorrow. She describes how it drives a person to live automatically without even tasting one's food or to walk the streets in hope that one can leave pain behind in a park or launderette. The power of that fear also can intensify moments when the imminent chasm of separation is temporarily avoided.
They laughed then, the pent-up laughter of anxiety, the laughter of people who have been estranged, and glad of this abandon, they laughed loudly, shrilly, exuberantly—eddies of laughter everywhere, issuing out like burps of water; laughter on the mirror's front, on the hairy underlay which needs cheering, along the bannister sheer from their sliding; laughter in the old fire grate and lurking in the corner where the new occupants, whoever they were, might catch some hint of it, like a whinny; laughter that was loud, oh yes, loud and feverish, but not quite friendly, laughter that said, "How bitter life is … how bitter life is"; but laughter all the same.
It requires courage to dissect a character's weaknesses thoroughly and a penetrating humanity to make us care about someone who becomes utterly appeasing in order to retain love. O'Brien succeeds because she allows us to discover with Nell the tenacious force with which human beings hold onto their lives, a force that can become something courageous and illuminating. Even as Nell stands on the brink of greater, unforseen tragedy, she faces her future with the hope of a survivor.
Far from being downcast at having lost everything, she felt elated, felt that these clouds and this [statue of a] rising woman were a sign to her, a challenge and a reminder that she was a woman, too, that her hopes had not died, had merely been put to sleep and were waiting to be ignited by some new, some magic intervention. Yes, a chapter had just begun.
O'Brien has the gift that Nell, as a successful editor for a publishing firm, seeks in the manuscripts that she reads, the "sacred breath of otherness that she believed to be essential." O'Brien has breathed an uncanny life into the story of one woman's struggles through the kind of intense creative process that Nell describes to a prospective novelist.
You have to be near to [your story] to tell it, and then you have to go very far away from it to give it that enchantment that distance bestows … take the little motif from under your pillow, or from under the linen that you keep in your oak chest, where the wood-lice scramble, and give it away, then sit with your story, your rich, raw, bleak, relentless story, the one you are so near to, too near to, and moisten it with every drop of pain and suppuration that you have, until in the end it glistens with the exquisite glow of a freshly dredged pearl.
It is not only O'Brien's acute depiction of Nell's inner life that burnishes the glow of this story. Rich portraits of Nell's outer world also grace page after page of the book. Her experiences are interwoven with descriptions of crammed market stalls in London, the fading golden light of Italian evenings, and the traffic of tugboats along the river Thames. Some passages add a fresh luster to familiar scenes of charmed domesticity, whereas others have a hallucinatory quality that reflects Nell's perilous emotional state. O'Brien's prose is full of images that affect one like the memory of chiming bells—bright, resonant echoes that veil even the most bitter pain with enchantment.
O'Brien compares certain words to a baptism, "a presence within absence, and, yes, within pain, within death." Through the power of her words in Time and Tide, we are privileged to see a life transformed, to witness a woman gathering the unbearable burden of love and carrying it to a sanctuary devoid of consolation. When I read the last lines of this book. I found myself raising a hand in an involuntary, wordless salute. It was a salute to Nell, to Edna O'Brien, and to all the women who guide us on this painful passage from birth to death, who consecrate the struggles that we meet along the way, and who teach us to cherish whatever reminds us that we are alive.
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SOURCE: "Against Ample Adversities." in Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 1992, p. 23.
[In the following review, Craig provides a mixed evaluation of Time and Tide.]
"Fear death by water." This injunction from The Waste Land must strike a chord with Edna O'Brien, whose earliest heroine—in The Country Girls—lost her mother in a boating accident; now, eleven novels on, it's the heroine's son who goes down with the Marchioness (as we read on the opening page of Time and Tide). This central disaster is prefaced by a lot of subsidiary disasters; the whole drift, of Time and Tide, is to show what a star-crossed Irishwoman can endure, without going under.
What is wrong with Nell, a one-time Irish country girl and mother-of-two? She has many resources, yet seems impelled to get the maximum poignancy out of life. She suffers to the full. Some kind of ancestral acrimony seems to have warped her prospects. At the start of Time and Tide, she is living on the outskirts of London, with two small sons and a terrible husband, the kind of spouse who specializes in mental cruelty, cold as any Casaubon and deeply unhinged. The family farm in Ireland isn't a refuge, containing as it does a virulent old couple—chickens' innards in the kitchen and a sour and restrictive Catholicism pervading the place. Presently Nell is separated from her husband, then divorced; the children stay with her, but only after a bitter struggle to gain custody of them. She goes to work for a publisher and rents a small Victorian house. The boys grow older and attend a boarding school. A holiday abroad proves unsatisfactory. Being far too tremulous and open-hearted for her own good. Nell is soon in the throes of an infatuation—once again, with a man as insufferable as her husband, though in a different way. This one says things like, "Transubstantiate, Sister", and leaves pretentious jottings about the place: "Life is a habit of walking and talking, I have a habit of walking towards death." Such pseudo-profundity has a period flavour, it's true, and it may be used to evoke a particular decade (the 1960s): however, in the hands of Edna O'Brien, these embarrassing utterances seem to come without a satiric, or indeed any kind of critical, undertone. One could wish to be sure that she understands their awfulness.
The problem with O'Brien's writing has always been one of excess baggage, all the heartfelt or sorrowful or fanciful trappings with which she sees fit to lumber herself. They are back again in Time and Tide. All of which obscures, but doesn't obliterate, the charm and robustness which marked her earliest novels; parts of Time and Tide are wonderfully clear-toned and powerfully imagined—for example, the section towards the end, when the pleasure-boat has sunk and relatives have been summoned, achieves a genuinely harrowing intensity. And the opening chapters, in which the wife's wrongs are recounted more or less dispassionately, recall the picturesque adversities articulated by another specialist in woman's vicissitudes, Barbara Comyns (though Comyns is more luminous, less fraught). But throughout the bulk of O'Brien's narrative, clarity gets lost in a fuzz of emotions.
Nell's story continues: in a moment of lust, she throws herself at a Russian named Boris, and shortly afterwards finds Boris and his girlfriend installed in her house, where they inadvertently cause a gas explosion which puts Nell in hospital with burns. Being in hospital renders her unable to earn money, and she loses the house when she can't pay the rent. So it goes on. No one comes to the aid of Nell. Bouts of madness, brushes with drugs, all kinds of guilt and agitation: these are among the troubles we find afflicting a heroine who isn't deficient in acumen or allure—just luckless. Her life falls into no particular shape—it merely continues, as most lives do. And, as a kind of back-up to the novelist's sense of things being asked, innumerable passers-by are allotted a single appearance in the book, to expose the bees in their bonnets and promptly fade out. Nell is constantly beset by strangers, or semi-strangers, all bent on disclosing fragments of their past. "How she gloated, how she warmed to it, pressing closer to Nell at each saucy admission…. Had smacked her. oh yes, made her black and blue …". It isn't a satisfactory means of eking out a rather meager storyline. You are irked by the abundance of arbitrary encounters. Less embellishment, or a more rigorous approach, wouldn't have gone amiss. At one point Nell, in her capacity as publishers' editor, is advising a would-be author on how to proceed, "sit with your story", she writes, "your rich, raw, bleak, relentless story … and moisten it with every drop of pain and suppuration that you have, until in the end it glistens with the exquisite glow of a freshly dredged pearl". You can see how Edna O'Brien, for all her undoubted gifts, perceptiveness, imagination, alertness and so forth, has been led astray; and you want to chime in with some contrary advice, such as: "Then tone it down."
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SOURCE: "Down & Out in Life," in Commonweal, October 23, 1992, pp. 25-6.
[In the following review, Hosmer offers a commendatory assessment of Time and Tide.]
Like Milton's elegy "Lycidas," Edna O'Brien's latest novel, Time and Tide, is a haunting water poem, a heartfelt elegy engendered by the two most powerful human emotions: love and loss. Only here the waters swirl not just in a mighty river but also within the human amnion, for this is a book about what is likely the most dangerous of human activities: mothering. O'Brien's achievement in Time and Tide is so extraordinary that this eleventh novel may well eclipse the previous ten, even her first, The Country Girls (1960).
Time and Tide is the story of Nell Steadman, a middle-aged woman from the west of Ireland, long resident in London. Nell first appears musing as she tries frantically to prevent her second son's departure from home: "What could she do now to retrieve things. She thought of rushing down the stairs to his bedroom with as normal a manner as artifice can manage and asking, 'Would you like a cup of tea?'" His departure, which she cannot forestall, is the last in a series of painful, unresolved separations. In the course of the narrative, which moves with effortless inferiority from past to present, we learn Nell's story: an early marriage to Walter, an older, tyrannical, and abusive man whose idea of a Christmas gift is a postcard inscribed "Happy Nothing"; her separation from him and the brutal battle for custody of their two sons, Paddy and Tristan; her chaotic life as a single mother caring for two children with no support from their father; and finally the story of her losing both sons, one to the Thames, the other to a young, pregnant woman.
Nell is a classically divided consciousness, torn between restraint and reckless abandon, between self-immolation and self-indulgence, between death and life. At her very center lies a most acute absence: Nell has never had the kind of vital, osmotic, and nurturing connection with her mother that characterizes the original, amniotic bonding between mother and child. Her dealings with her mother are bruising battles: with extraordinary aptness, Nell converts experience to resonant metaphor when she selects an egg, "shell-less, soft as any placenta, its bruisedness a resemblance of us," as emblematic of their relationship. The two women agree about nothing, and the level of their compact is mortal. When Nell finally summons the courage to tell her mother how she feels, the results are catastrophic for both.
Nell longs for a man to rescue her: she is ever vulnerable, sometimes ludicrously so, as when she falls for a man who inscribes "Let us see the Northern lights together" on a matchbook cover. One man—whether actor, director, greengrocer, shopkeeper, or son—will do it, must do it, she feels. She thinks "in secret of a man who would come and whisk her to altitudes of happiness." Yet, though men continually fail her, she clings to a sacral-romantic vision ("it was as if she had learned nothing and still believed in transubstantiation through another"), until she suffers a complete nervous collapse. That illness marks the beginning of a painful shift in consciousness as Nell begins to learn the lesson Anita Brookner has discerned in O'Brien's fiction, "no compensation for the loss of the mother is possible … all the men in the world could not replace the original closeness." Nell Steadman's pain is exacerbated by the absence of that original closeness: she seeks what she has never had, and the results, at least in the short term, are disastrous. Marriage fails. Lovers fail. Children fail. God fails. What's left?
Time and Tide is a fiction of female development. Nell Steadman comes to perceive more about her mother as she plumbs the depths of her own experience; her own lately held conclusion about the nature of motherhood shocks both Nell and the reader: "What pretty names we give to the carnivorousness that is called mother." Near the end of the novel, as Nell begins to pull things together, she articulates the great questions she now knows have preoccupied her: "What does one do with grief? What does one do with hate?" At the very end, Nell experiences a Joycean moment: "Everything radiant for a moment, as if she reached, or was reached, beyond the boundaries of herself." The pain and the pleasure of the text reside in our intimate access not only to Nell Steadman's suffering but to her final affirmation:
"'I can bear it,' she said, and looked around at the air so harmless, so flaccid, and so still, a stillness such as she had not known since it had happened, or maybe ever. In the stillness there was silence, but there was no word for that yet because it was so new; pale sanctuary devoid at last of all consolations.
"'You can bear it,' the silence said, because that is all there is, this now that then, this present that past, this life this death, and the involuntary shudder that keeps reminding us we are alive."
This novel could only have been written by a woman, and one feels that O'Brien has more than a speaking acquaintance with the surging forces that shape this story. After assuming custody of her children, Nell works for a publisher, often taking manuscripts home with her; one evening, as she plows through a pile she happens on one of particular interest. To the writer, Nell offers advice that O'Brien herself seems to have taken to heart: "You have to be near to it to tell it, and then you have to go very far away from it to give it that enchantment that distance bestows, the infallibility of the gods … no one else can do it but you … Think only of big things, Millie, big, sad, lonely, glorious, archetypal things."
James Joyce described his play Exiles as "an extravagant excursion into forbidden territory"; Edna O'Brien's latest novel is that and more. Read Time and Tide and know what it is to surrender to a courageous and honest writer of fiction.
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SOURCE: "Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories and Edna O'Brien," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 317-25.
[In the following essay, O'Hara surveys O'Brien's handling of obsessive love in her short stories.]
I am obsessed quite irrationally by the notion of love …," writes Edna O'Brien. "It's an obsession and I know it's very limiting. At the same time it's what I feel truest and most persistently about, and therefore it's the thing that I have to write about" [Patrick Rafroidi and Maurice Harmon, editors, The Irish Novel in Our Time, Publications de L'Université de Lille III, 1975–76]. And write about it she does—the obsession, that is, perhaps more than the love.
A reading of O'Brien's stories, beginning with the 1969 collection, The Love Object, reveals that several of her characters share their author's obsession with "the notion of love." Yet between these women and their love objects there is so little real connection, so little love. For them, obsession with love seems to stand in the way of its attainment.
That O'Brien's protagonists should find themselves in this bind is perhaps not surprising. Obsession—a "persistent or inescapable preoccupation with an idea or emotion"—seems to involve not only compulsion but insatiability. A person obsessed, whether with an idée fixe or a person, seems disinclined, or perhaps unable, to feed her obsession to the point of satiation. Obsession, like addiction, sets in motion a self-fueling and potentially endless cycle. Love and obsession are, in a sense, opposites. Obsession feeds on itself, is self-absorbed, while love reaches beyond the self toward authentic contact with another. In the stories considered here there are moments of genuine love and compassion. But these occur only as their protagonists free themselves, or are torn, from the grip of their obsession.
"Irish Revel," one of O'Brien's early stories from The Love Object, pictures what might be called the birth of the obsession. It opens with a young country girl, Mary, making her way by bicycle to town. She has been invited to a party at the home of Mrs. Rogers, one of her "betters," and welcomes the ride as an opportunity to entertain in solitude her treasured memories of John Roland, the young painter she met two years earlier, also while visiting Mrs. Rogers's house. Perhaps, magically, he will be there again.
Soon after her arrival at the party, she realizes not only that her dream of seeing John is a groundless fantasy, but also that she has only been invited to serve guests, clean up, and add color to the affair. She takes shelter in daydreaming again of John and remembers a ride she took with him on his bicycle: "They did not talk for miles; she had his stomach encased in the delicate and frantic grasp of a girl in love and no matter how far they rode they seemed always to be riding into a golden haze" [Love Objects]. She then recalls his calling her "Sweet Mary" and remembers his explanation that "he could not love her, because he already loved his wife and children…."
At the close of "Irish Revel," Mary returns home burdened with her fruitless hopes and crushed by the ordinariness and crudity of the party. She stops briefly for a view of the countryside from a hill above her home and surveys it in a way that clearly echoes Joyce's language in "The Dead" [Grace Eckley, Edna O'Brien, Bucknell University Press, 1974]. However, instead of the falling snow that Gabriel Conroy views from his hotel window, a snow that softens the harsh outlines of the physical world and suggests gentle acceptance, Mary witnesses an unforgiving frost:
The poor birds could get no food, as the ground was frozen hard. Frost was general all over Ireland; frost like a weird blossom on the branches, on the riverbank from which Long John Salmon leaped in his great, hairy nakedness, on the plough left out all winter; frost on the stony fields, and on all the slime and ugliness of the world. [Love Object]
Despair surrounds her on all sides, from the frozen, unyielding landscape to the equally grim vista of her family's cottage, evoking as it does the specter of a dead-end life: "She was at the top of the hill now, and could see her own house, like a little white box at the end of the world, waiting to receive her."
In her response to the despair of her situation, Mary prefigures numerous O'Brien protagonists: "If only I had a sweetheart, something to hold on to, she thought, as she cracked some ice with her high heel and watched the crazy splintered pattern it made." This clutching to a sweetheart as an escape from a desperate situation forms one strand of a "crazy splintered pattern" of obsessional dramas into which subsequent O'Brien protagonists weave themselves. Pia Mellody defines addiction, a condition that, like obsession, involves "a persistent or inescapable preoccupation," as "any process used to avoid or take away intolerable reality" [John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You, Health Communications, 1988]. In Mary's search for relief from intolerable pain, the addiction to a love object is born. And, as with other O'Brien women, the object chosen is one who is both bathed in "a golden haze" and beyond the protagonist's reach.
The title of O'Brien's story, "The Love Object," seems to suggest awareness on the part of its author that there is something inherently contradictory or at least problematic in the notion of a "love object"—perhaps an acknowledgment that love objects are more often the objects of obsession or addiction than of love. But the narrator evinces no irony in her account. She describes the man who wilt become her lover—"The love object. Elderly. Blue eyes. Khaki hair …"—and the progress of their affair, straightforwardly [Love Object].
There is little discernible love in the affair but a good deal of passionate sex. The narrator's obsessiveness comes into view when her lover ends the relationship with the explanation, "I adore you, but I'm not in love with you…." She relates a period following the breakup in which she drinks heavily, doesn't sleep, hatches plots of vengeance, and considers suicide. Then a change somehow occurs. She has, it seems, forgiven him: "I thought of him and my children in the same instant, their little foibles became his: my children telling me elaborate lies about their sporting feats, his slight puffing when we climbed steps and his trying to conceal it." Perhaps, thinks the reader, this signals the narrator's release of her love object. But her next words rule out this possibility: "It was then I think that I really fell in love with him … It rose like sap within me, it often made me cry, the fact that he could not benefit from it!"
When her former lover proposes meeting again from time to time as friends, the narrator says that she "neither welcomed nor dreaded the thought. It would not make any difference to how I felt." What becomes clear is that whatever change her feelings for the man have undergone, there has been no real letting go. The narrator describes lying in bed at night waiting for her lover to return: "I mean the real he, not the man who confronts me from time to time across a cafe table, but the man that dwells somewhere within me."
Like Mary in "Irish Revel," this woman seeks a prop against the void, against the threat of a life with no meaning and no future. Like Mary, she chooses a painful something over a more painful nothing. While Mary dwells in recollections of a long-departed visitor, the narrator of "The Love Object" clutches to her former lover through apparent forgiveness: "I suppose you wonder," she concludes,
why I torment myself like this with details of his presence but I need it, I cannot let go of him now, because if I did all our happiness and my subsequent pain—I cannot vouch for his—will all have been nothing, and a nothing is a dreadful thing to hold on to.
Eleanor, in "Baby Blue," a story from O'Brien's 1978 collection, The Fanatic Heart, is left with a nothing to hold on to when her anguished-over love object kills himself. The bulk of the story has Eleanor suspended in the tortuous and almost violent hope that Jay, her lover, will leave his wife, while he repeatedly promises to do so, and repeatedly falls into vacillation. Eleanor refuses to recognize that, in all probability, Jay's ambivalence will never be resolved and she gives her all to a ferocious competition with his wife. When she finally does realize that Jay will probably not end his marriage, she writes him a burning letter of condemnation. It is shortly after receiving the letter that he commits suicide.
As the story ends, Eleanor takes a walk near the graveyard where he is buried. A carnival is setting up its tents, and she tries to take in the scene and the life it holds. She notes how "schoolchildren with no thought of death" pursue their adventures at the edge of the death place where she will take her final parting from her deceased lover. Eleanor feels a moment of tenderness for the unknown people who occupy the tents, for the temporariness of their (and all) existence: "The caravans had arrived, the women were getting out their artificial flowers, their china plates, and their bits of net curtain, to set up yet again their temporary dwellings." This tenderness stays with her as she stands at Jay's grave site. It is not a grandiose feeling; in fact she barely recognizes that she is feeling it. Perhaps because the finality of death forces a more profound experience of absence, Eleanor's tenderness here does not cloak a deeper obsessional strategy for continued possession of a lover figure, as did that of the narrator in "The Love Object." She experiences a compassion that is not particular to him or to their involvement, but that encompasses him and his imperfections:
It will pass, she thought, going from grave to grave, and unconsciously and almost mundanely she prayed for the living, prayed for the dead, then prayed for the living again, went back to find the tomb where his name was, and prayed for all those who were in boxes alone or together above or below ground, all those unable to escape their afflicted selves.
Eleanor is one of those who dwell "in boxes alone" while Mary in "Irish Revel" shares her "little white box at the end of the world" with her family. Both contemplate the seeming inevitability of an afflicted life. Consolation, for Eleanor, comes as obsession gives way to compassion for the afflictions of others.
Concern for the well-being of another is also the means by which Nell, the protagonist of "Ways" (also from The Fanatic Heart) derails a familiar obsessive pattern. Nell is a touring poet from Ireland who stops in Vermont to do a reading. There she strikes up an immediate friendship with Jane, the woman at whose home she stays during her visit. Jane is attentive to Nell's needs—she keeps "a beautiful silence on the way to the reading, allowing Nell to do her deep breathing and memorize her poems"—and strikes Nell as a gentle, unassuming, and generous person.
The day after Nell's reading, as she and Jane take a walk. Jane shows Nell a picture of her husband, which she keeps in a locket around her neck. He is "gaunt and pensive, very much the type Nell is drawn toward. At once she feels in herself some premonition of a betrayal." When Jane tells Nell that she would like Dan, her husband, Nell becomes uneasy:
"Why would I like him?" Nell says, picturing the face of the man that started out of the locket. All of a sudden Nell has a longing not to leave as planned, at six o'clock, for New York, but to stay and meet him.
"Why don't I stay till tomorrow?" she says as casually as she can.
Nell has identified Dan as a love object—someone who can electrify the atmosphere of life with magic. After her conversation with Jane, Nell goes to a general store in town: "She goes inside and buys rashly. Yes, she is curious. Already she has decided on her wardrobe for tonight, and resolves to be timid, in her best sky-blue georgette dress." She leaves the store having purchased gifts for Dan and Jane's children.
When she meets Dan in person, Nell's intuition of possible electricity is confirmed. Jane introduces them and "he nods. There is something in that nod that is significant. It is too offhand. Nell sees him look at her with his lids lowered, and she sees him stiffen when his wife says that their guest will stay overnight…." Into this charged atmosphere Jane volunteers a simple story, delivered somewhat shyly, about taking a trip to London with a blind aunt, "and remarking to Nell how she saw everything so much more clearly simply by having had to describe it to her aunt." Nell suddenly excuses herself and hurries to her room where she confronts herself and her longstanding pattern in relation to her love objects:
"I can't," she says later as she lays coiled on her bed…. She foresees the evening, a replica of other evenings—a look, then ignoring him, then a longer look, a signal, an intuition, a hand maybe, pouring wine, brushing lightly against a wrist, the hair on his knuckles, her chaste cuffs, innocent chatter stoked with something else.
She decides to leave that night instead of waiting till morning.
On the way to the airport there is between her and Jane the weight of things unsaid: "Does Jane know? Nell wonders. Does Jane guess? Behind that lovely exterior is Jane a woman who knows all the ways, all the wiles, all the heart's crooked actions?" They talk briefly, Nell asking Jane about whether Dan has ever given her cause to be jealous. Jane answers directly, describing her response to Dan's first infidelity and to subsequent ones. "Nell knows then that Jane has perceived it all and has been willing to let the night and its drama occur. She feels such a tenderness, a current not unlike love, but she does not say a word." The women say an awkward goodbye, uncomfortable with the unspoken knowledge and intimacy between them. As she leaves, Nell "thanks the small voice of instinct that has sent her away without doing the slightest damage to one who meets life's little treacheries with a smile and dissembles them simply by pretending that they are not meant."
The closing of "Ways" offers a moment of what Mark Schorer calls moral revelation, an instance of love triumphing over obsession. Nell's real and present love for her friend proves stronger than her temptation to repeat an obsessive pattern of flirtation and brief liaison. O'Brien is very powerful in her capturing of that moment of allurement, of electric attraction, that so entices Nell. This was no small sacrifice for her.
O'Brien has spoken of her happiest moments in life as being those during which someone she is about to fall in love with is about to fall in love with her [Nell Dunn, Talking to Women, MacGibbon and Kee, 1965]. This seems also to be true of her characters. It is, in fact, this moment of allurement, the possibility of union, to which O'Brien's characters seem addicted. Perhaps it is a prolongation of that sense of exciting uncertainty that they attempt to duplicate by their attachments to lovers who can promise them nothing. Their search for the eternally pregnant moment seems to draw these women into what might be called a cycle of unattainability. One pole of the cycle—the "high" of contemplated but uncertain union—contrasts sharply with the other—the grinding uncertainty of pursuing an unwinnable love object. Two recent O'Brien stories reveal the two poles of this "unattainability cycle."
In "Lantern Slides," from O'Brien's 1990 collection of the same name, the author gives one of her most enticing evocations of the "up" phase of the cycle—a magical moment of mutual attraction raised to mythic proportions. Here we witness a large dinner party to which a gentleman named Mr. Conroy brings his old friend, Miss Lawless. Like Mary in "The Revel" (and like the wife of Joyce's Mr. Conroy in "The Dead"), Miss Lawless is reminiscing about a past love—a man she calls Abelard because she imagines him to resemble the medieval scholar and lover. As Mr. Conroy contemplates the possibility that the embers of his friendship with Miss Lawless might flame into passion, Miss Lawless notices a guest at the gathering who bears an uncanny resemblance to her Abelard.
Against the background of the Mr. Conroy/Miss Lawless/ Abelard triangle and of other reciprocated and spurned attractions among the various guests, the narrator introduces Betty, the woman in whose honor the party has been given. As the story swells toward its climax, Betty arrives from another event that she has attended with her husband, John, who, as all the guests know, is in the midst of an affair with another woman. Everyone's unspoken question is, will John appear at the party?
At this point Miss Lawless's hopes for a liaison with the new Abelard, along with the hopes of Betty and all the other guests for a reunion between Betty and John, are seen by the narrator as culminating in one deliciously charmed moment of possibility. When they hear someone enter the house, all wait in breathless expectation of an apotheosis:
… everyone hoped that it was John, the wandering Odysseus returned home in search of his Penelope. You could feel the longing in the room, you could touch it—a hundred lantern slides ran through their minds; their longing united them, each rendered innocent by this moment of supreme suspense. It seemed that if the wishes of one were granted, the wishes of others would be fulfilled in rapid succession. It was like a spell. Miss Lawless felt it, too—felt prey to a surge of happiness, with Abelard watching her with his lowered eyes, his long fawn eyelashes soft and sleek as a camel's. It was as if life were just beginning—tender, spectacular, all-embracing life—and she, like everyone, were jumping up to catch it. Catch it.
In another of O'Brien's recent stories, this one from the New Yorker, we plummet from this exquisite moment to the "down" pole in the cycle of unattainability. In "No Place," the narrator pursues a Moroccan tryst with a man who quite evidently has nothing to give her. Early in the story, Duncan, the narrator's lover, issues a warning familiar to readers of O'Brien's stories: "We mustn't fall in love…." Nonetheless, the lovers arrange a fairy tale meeting in Morocco: "Sand and silence and us." The narrator arrives first and waits for Duncan, who is supposed to arrive the next day. However, the following morning he telegrams that he won't be coming. She frantically packs her things and gets on a bus for the airport to return home. Like Eleanor in "Baby Blue," she tries to see her pain at the loss of her lover in the larger context of all human suffering. How can she be mourning a lost love, the narrator asks herself, when there are those whose fate is so much bleaker, like the women she views from her bus window—"women bent over their weeding as if they had dropped from their mothers' wombs onto the every parched stretches of land that all their lives they would be tied to." She also shows a high degree of awareness about her addiction to her love object, and about the connection between that addiction and her own long-standing pain: "She felt, and hated herself for feeling, a wound, a great childish gape within her; it was as if she had learned nothing and still believed in transubstantiation through another." O'Brien has described herself [in The Irish Novel in Our Time] as "very committed" to her "mythology, which is Roman Catholic …" Here the idea of transubstantiation—the transmutation of one substance into another (a term employed in Catholic doctrine to refer to Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist)—conveys the narrator's desperate desire to be transformed by her connection to her lover, to be made into someone else, someone without "a great childish gape within her."
When the protagonist of "No Place" arrives back in the city where she lives, she looks up Duncan: "'I was just passing,' she said, knowing she shouldn't have come." Her self-knowledge, her awareness about the probable outcome of her exchange with the lover who has abandoned her, are not sufficient to overcome her compulsion to see him again.
With the end of "No Place," we have come full circle, back to the close of "Irish Revel." The protagonists of both stories look with dread on the homes that await them; they feel that they have no place, no true home at all. Only the setting—from rural to urban—has changed: "She did not want to go back to her house. She did not know where she wanted to go, but it was not home. Cold city. Black city." And from the ecstasy that closes "Lantern Slides," we have moved to deep despair, the other pole of the cycle formed by obsession with the unattainable.
Critics have puzzled about why O'Brien's characters are obsessed with unattainable love objects. "Why haven't her women wised up?" asks Richard Woodward [in "Reveling in Heartbreak," The New York Times Magazine, March, 1989]. In an interview with Nell Dunn, O'Brien speaks of herself as having been "very wounded" in her life. Perhaps this is a reference to her childhood with an abusive alcoholic father. It seems likely that this is at least one of the wounds to which she refers. It is a sad fact that sometimes the unattainability of love in childhood causes a person to seek, in fact to eroticize, the same kind of unattainability in later life. The obsession of the adult is a haunted shadow of that which absorbed the child; that which is most unattainable is most sought.
Writers on addiction have pointed out that a behavior that turns addictive is initially established as a way to escape pain. The twist is that this behavior eventually becomes itself the source of pain. The original wound remains unhealed as frantic repetitions on the obsessive treadmill continue. The obsession of O'Brien's characters with "the notion of love" fits this pattern as clearly as does a substance addiction.
People in the grip of an obsession, an addiction, seldom simply "wise up." The road away from obsession (which is also the road home) is one on which the wounded child, rather than fleeing her wounds, begins to accept "the great childish gape within her." It is also a road on which the wounded soul comes to believe that infinite resources for her healing are available for the asking. O'Brien's characters seem unable to envision such a road; self-love and faith elude them. The cycle of obsession—endless repetitions of yearning and despair—seems bound to continue.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1807
SOURCE: "The Terror and the Pity," in The New Republic, June 13, 1994, pp. 52-3.
[In the following review, Lee offers a mixed evaluation of House of Splendid Isolation.]
"The Ireland you're chasing is a dream … doesn't exist anymore…. It's gone. It's with O'Leary in the grave." That's what we're told. The heroes have become terrorist, Queen Maeve is a battered wife, the big house is derelict. As Mary Hooligan says at the end of Edna O'Brien's novel Night (1972), "The harp that once through Tara's halls is silenced, mute." Baba, one of the original "country girls" from the fine Irish trilogy that made O'Brien's name in the 1960s, looks back on the past, twenty-five years later, in a bitter "Epilogue" written in 1987. She savages anything that will tear at her heartstrings as "pure slop": "Too fucking elegiac." Yet Baba ends her retrospect lamenting. "I want time to be put back, I want it to be yesterday." And even Mary Hooligan, long exiled from the "glorified bog" of her birth, calls out, "O Connemara, oh sweet mauve forgotten hills." In House of Splendid Isolation, too, "Romantic Ireland" is far from dead and gone. It's lurking all over the place. Cuchulain rides again, blue eyes blaze once more, legends and ghosts return to haunt us. The past is execrated, but the past is yearned for. The grim realities all have soft centers.
The plot itself makes you feel you have been here before. A notorious escaped terrorist from the North, McGreevy, known as "the Beast," breaks into a house in the west of Ireland. He's heard about it from an IRA sympathizer who used to work there, and it's well-placed for the job he has to do, the killing of a retired British judge (an echo of the assassination of Mountbatten in 1979) who takes his holidays boating on the lake nearby. (This is a return to O'Brienland, the boggy and mountainous country near Limerick, around the Shannon and Lough Derg, the part of Ireland, it is said, that holds "the powers of darkness in it.")
McGreevy first terrifies, then builds up a relationship with, the elderly widow, Josie, who is living in the house alone after a period in a nursing home. Their confrontation requires him to justify his life to her, and requires her to recall her past. Meanwhile a net closes around him. The local guard, Rory (who goes deer hunting in his spare time, laments his lost athletic youth and has a personal obsession with catching "the Beast"), is on his trail. He picks up the clues he needs from Josie, and from the girl who loves McGreevy and believes in his cause—her mother still calls the police the Black and Tans. Yes, thinks the mother, it is going to be "a fateful night on the mountain." And so it proves.
This strong but familiar story, revolving around the tense relationship between the terrorist and his unwilling host, is something like Brian Moore's Lies of Silence, but without his spare, driving pace; or like Cal, but without the sex. There is sex in the novel, of course, but it's in Josie's past, and all of it is bad. Her relationships follow the usual course of women's lives in O'Brien's fiction. Her kind of heroine is summed up by this sentence in Time and Tide (1992), which describes a woman victimized by a grotesquely hateful husband: "Her emotions were all tangled and she yearned now for a massive love." What an O'Brien heroine mostly gets instead is a massive martyrdom, especially if (as in one of her best stories, "A Scandalous Woman") she is living in Ireland, "a land of shame, a land of murder and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women."
Josie is no exception. Driven away from her home by a jealous mother into years of servitude as a maid in Brooklyn, she returned to Ireland as the bride of "a man she scarcely knew," to find herself captive to a sad, violent drunkard who abuses and rapes her (or in O'Brien-speak, "mounts her with a lingual gusto"), and who has always in his eyes "a vacancy, like a lost stunned animal, far from home." The local men are all the same, either loathing her, like her husband's brother, or lusting after her, like the doctor who thinks of her as "a woman asking to be broken in," or worshipping her from afar, like Paud, who has two simple passions, his mistress and a united Ireland. There's only one exception, the gorgeous cultured priest ("his eyes were dark," "his smile was utter") who drives her into a frenzy of fantasized romance. ("In a silence they will couple, their shadow selves going beyond the gates of propriety to the deeper hungers within…. They are meant, like tubers under winter bedding.") But he turns out to be as terrified of women as the rest of them. She aborts her child, the priest humiliates her, her husband is killed in a messy accident, she goes mad.
All this is laid on so thick because Josie has to stand in for Ireland's troubles. Her "isolation" in the old house is like the island's, claustrophobic and cut off from the rest of the world in its own bitter commitment to the past. Like those who long to unite the country, she longs to die "whole." Like her, Ireland has been abused and raped and has killed its own children. The child she has killed makes an appearance at the start and the end of the novel (like the ghost-child in Toni Morrison's Beloved), speaking of the deaths and the weeping and the blood of the country and the need for enemies to understand each other.
A feminist message intermittently makes itself heard through this analogy between the woman and the country. The cruelty of terrorism has its sources, it is suggested, in the way men treat women in this land of shame and murder. "If women ran your organization there would be no shooting," Josie tells McGreevy. (He is not convinced.) Stronger than any protest, though, is the sense of fatalism and helplessness, always present in O'Brien's treatment of women's lives, but here reaching outward from the domestic to the political. All are at the mercy of "something fateful that is to be," which will re-enact yet once more the fatefulness of the past. Like Josie, "soaked in the yeast" of her terrible memories, so Ireland is held to ransom by what are variously and predictably described as the chains, the grip and the dark threads of history.
To make this plain, Irish myth and legend, song and story, infiltrate the present-day story. The legends of Guaire and Diarmait, St. Caimin and St. Calum, Queen Maeve and Cuchulain, the story of the Colleen Bawn, the songs commemorating Michael Collins and Kevin Barry, fill the air. Everyone knows the stories and the songs. So the interesting question is raised of who can claim to be the more truly Irish, who is entitled to inherit these myths. Is it the terrorist from the North, spouting Gaelic to show that he is "a far better keeper of the country's soul and the country's heritage," or the young Catholic policemen who capture him, their heads also full of their country's history? "We're all Irish under the skin," says one of them. Who is the more Irish—politicians, men of violence, women? Mutual inheritance and mutual responsibility is argued—that no one, North or South, can escape this war; and that it is only the ordinary people (the argument, also, of Lies of Silence) who can bring it to an end.
But the novel's Celtic sentiment fatally softens and blurs its treatment of harsh realities. "The songs get to one," thinks one of the policemen, revealingly. Josie sings a song of the Fenian heroes and had an uncle who was killed by the Black and Tans. That was all different, we're repeatedly told. This is not 1916: "These guys are without conscience, without ideals and with only one proclamation, money and guns and murder, guns and money." McGreevy is one of "these guys." But, bound by an oath to the liberation of his country, amber-eyed, redheaded, famously cunning, he begins to look suspiciously like a reincarnation of Cuchulain. He's a somewhat shadowy, over-romanticized character, with "a sort of radiance" emanating from him, "something stubborn and young and alone and tender about him." Josie, too, with her blue eyes and deep passions and cruel past, has a riskily folkloric air. Certain mysterious events at the book's tragic end suggest that she may herself become a legend, another Queen Maeve.
And Irish stereotypes are as ubiquitous as Irish myths. There's the lecherous eccentric neighbor, there's Brid the servant-girl who dreams of meeting her lover "in the soft unruly underlay of bog and bogland, everything seeping into her, his instrument in tooraloora fettle," there's the lovely young girl devoted to her revolutionary hero. Only in the brief sightings of the local townspeople, peevish and gossipy, something sharper and funnier comes through. More of this satire, and less keening, would have been welcome.
And more pace, too. In spite of the drama of the plot, the writing feels ponderous and slow, even flabby. There is not enough self-editing: "He stands above McGreevy, possessed of a cold and furious determination to smash through that lashing radius of hate and fanaticism to get to him"; "There are moments in life when a great softness is coupled with a great hardness." One particular mannerism, of turning verbs and adjectives into nouns—meant perhaps to sound vaguely Irish—makes everything feel passive and inert: "There was a jealousy in her"; "A fecklessness had taken root in him"; "There was something animal within the stillness of him"; "An urgency in her limbs, a precognition of what was to be"; "A great lunatic fork of longing rose up in her"; "A loneliness in it, the ache of a man hoping"; "In every jawline, a setness, a gravity betokening this appointment with morality"; "a terrible gravity to him." No one sets his or her jaw or feels feckless, everyone endures the condition of jawsetness or fecklessness. It makes no difference if we are reading the child's voice, or the main narrative, or Josie's diary or the journal of Josie's uncle, an Irish Volunteer fighting against British rule: it all sounds the same, solemn, portentous and clichéd. It comes as no surprise to hear that the moans of an Irish cow in labor had "something primeval in them." After a while you begin to wait for someone to say that this was a beautiful and tragic land. And sure enough someone does: "What beautiful countryside, what serenity, what a beautiful tragic country to be born into," thinks the policeman. The policeman? In O'Brien's country, that's how policemen talk.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1398
SOURCE: "The Terrorist and the Lady," in New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1994, p. 7.
[The following is L'Heureux's generally laudatory review of House of Splendid Isolation, in which he notes some faults in the novel but asserts that O'Brien's "attempt nonetheless merits praise."]
This is a fascinating and disturbing novel—fascinating because it marks a dramatic departure for Edna O'Brien in both subject matter and in style, disturbing because for the first time we see her audacity fall and her elegant prose run badly out of control. Still, where she succeeds, she succeeds handsomely.
In House of Splendid Isolation Ms. O'Brien attempts to isolate and anatomize the human aspects of Irish history. She succeeds, poignantly, when she explores the relationship between an Irish Republican Army terrorist and the elderly Irish woman who is his hostage. They taunt each other, they fight and in time they achieve a tentative equilibrium. We come to know the mixed motives, the blind passions and the inability of terrorist and bystander alike to understand where these passions lead and how they can be controlled. As we observe their struggle, hear the old arguments that justify their positions, see them—in their new proximity—accommodate to each other for convenience's sake and then for charity, we feel that for the moment we are looking deep into the conflicted mind and heart of contemporary Ireland. This is the book's great strength.
After a brief invocatory prologue—in overwrought prose, a bad mistake—the novel opens like a political thriller. McGreevy, an I.R.A. terrorist known as the Beast, has leaped from a moving car, fled across an open field and is holed up in a hollow tree outside an Irish village. One of his own men has betrayed him and the chase is on. A police helicopter circles overhead, searchlights flood the field, there is "war in the sky and war on the ground and war in his heart." The formula works; we are caught up at once in the terror of the hunt. McGreevy escaped. He holds a rendezvous with a ragged gang of sympathizers. He hijacks a catering truck and heads for Limerick. His flight ends, finally, at the crumbling mansion of Josie O'Meara, an elderly, embittered Roman Catholic widow living out her last days in the house of splendid isolation. In Josie, McGreevy has found the perfect antagonist.
Ms. O'Brien does not write thrillers, and so what we expect now from the struggle of these two powerful and determined characters is a deepening of the novel, psychologically and philosophically. Instead, we are taken on a detour into old and familiar O'Brien territory: the life and lovers of Josie O'Meara up to the present moment. We see her damaged childhood, her three years as a maid in Brooklyn, her return to Limerick and her disastrous marriage to James O'Meara, a horse-breeding aristocrat who brings the house of O'Meara to ruin.
The author is comfortable here. She understands the blindness and desperation of these characters and she gets inside them with devastating effect. We see the hideous marriage up close, with drink as the necessary prelude to sex and sex itself as a weapon and a punishment. Josie's abortion confirms the sterility and hopelessness of their union. The story is engrossing, the prose highly charged, and the harsh emotions rise up from the page. Emboldened by her success, Ms. O'Brien takes us on a second detour: an account of Josie's passion for the local priest. Josie is obsessed with him, she pursues him, and though the affair comes to nothing, in the end she is disgraced, whipped to blood by her drunken husband, held in contempt by the surrounding villagers.
All this is interesting, but irrelevant. It has almost nothing to do with the principal story of an I.R.A. terrorist who moves into and takes over an aging widow's house. Ms. O'Brien attempts to bind the two stories together with a minor character. Paud, who for the most part exists offstage. He is the dramatic link between the past of the novel and its present.
Paud is a boy when Josie, newly married, hires him to do occasional work about the house. He is dazzled by her beauty and her style: "He could not look at the missus. He wanted to kneel down at her feet and adore." When she asks him about himself, if he can add and subtract, if he knows anything of his country's history, "at once he burst into a recitation of what Miss McCloud, his teacher, had dinned into him and others day after day: how their country, their beloved country, had been sacked, plundered and raped by the sister country." When he was very small, he says, he thought he would be a priest, but now in his teens he has taken an oath to save his country. "He had two loves, two women to die for, Ireland and the missus."
Paud, with his blind devotion to Ireland and the missus, is the cause of Josie's ruin and the mainspring of the novel's action. By accident, he exposes her to public disgrace and private whipping. By accident, he brings about her husband's death. By accident too, and out of his long devotion, "blathering about the house and the woman, like a lady on a coin with a leash of hounds, her husband and herself martyrs for Ireland," he sends McGreevy to her and quite literally completes the destruction of the house of splendid isolation. It is not by accident that Ms. O'Brien has made Paud a half-wit.
The house is symbolic, the priest is symbolic, Josie's marriage and her sex life and her abortion are symbolic. And so is Paud: a half-wit Fenian changeling who, with the best intentions, creates havoc and heartbreak wherever he goes. He is the child of history and of fanatic devotion. Like the Irish terrorist, he destroys what he worships. The symbolism is obvious and this, alas, is the novel's weakness.
The house is Ireland, Josie is Ireland, Paud in his innocently destructive way is Ireland. Uncomfortable with her story of the terrorist and the lady, Ms. O'Brien seeks refuge in easy symbolism, and her art is swallowed up in rhetoric. There is an inflation of prose, of character, of incident, even of dialogue. Josie demands that McGreevy explain himself. "Why did you come here … why here?" she asks. And he replies, without irony or sarcasm. "The anvil of circumstances." This is Edna O'Brien speaking, not the character. Nor does it help that she describes a murdered I.R.A. soldier lying in a ditch, "his outsides at least being washed clean in an extreme unction of rain." The prose is overblown in a needless attempt to lend importance and drama to a story that by its nature has both. But she does not trust the power of her story to work its own spell.
Ms. O'Brien begins and ends the novel with sections called "The Child." "History is everywhere," she writes "It seeps into the soil, the subsoil. Like rain, or hall or snow, or blood. A house remembers." And she concludes, "It weeps, the land does, and small wonder. But the land cannot be taken. History has proved that. The land will never be taken. It is there." Symbolically, this may be effective, but as rhetoric it is less than effective, and as fiction writing it is not only ineffective, it is downright bad.
In the end, however, what the novel does accomplish is both impressive and worthy. House of Splendid Isolation leaves us with a vivid image of Ireland today. Here is a study of the nature of war: the sorry operations of love and hate that unite husband and wife, the police and protester, the civilian and the I.R.A. And behind the story, in the lives of minor characters, we glimpse the Republic's ambivalent attitude to Ulster, the south's memory of its own bloody revolution, the unremitting horror and injustice of British occupation. Ms. O'Brien has gone behind the newspaper headlines of bombings, atrocities and midnight murders and finds there only good intentions, blind devotions, stalemate and ruin. All of it unnecessary, all of it sadly human.
This is a brave book, and if it does not altogether succeed, the attempt nonetheless merits praise. Edna O'Brien has shown that all wars begin at home.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844
SOURCE: "The Widow and the Terrorist," in The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 1994, p. A 11.
[In the following review, Bawer offers a largely positive assessment of House of Splendid Isolation, but notes some stylistic weaknesses.]
Since the appearance of her first novel, The Country Girls, in I960. Edna O'Brien has won fame as a passionate, lyrical prose stylist and a sensitive observer of long-suffering Irishwomen and their barbaric husbands. Her 13th novel, House of Splendid Isolation, centers on a paradigmatic O'Brien heroine a reclusive old widow named Josie O'Meara who lives among "listless fields" on the outskirts of a village.
Yet this book marks a departure for Ms. O'Brien. For she's taken this "women's novel" protagonist and placed her in a story right out of a high-concept male-targeted movie thriller. McGreevy, an Irish Republican Army terrorist who's wanted for murders and bombings and tagged by police as a "madman," moves in on Josie, using her house as a hideout.
Yes, it's that old Hollywood gimmick, the plot about the stressful relationship between a fugitive and the person or persons whose home he's invaded. If you were pitching the story to a studio executive, you'd describe it as The Desperate Hours meets The Crying Game—or maybe The Petrified Forest meets In the Name of the Father.
At first McGreevy not only repels but baffles Josie. What difference, she asks, would it make if the British were driven from Northern Ireland? She muses about "the words he had used—Justice … Identity … Community. What did these words mean? What value had they against the horrors of a crime?" She's a pragmatist, more attuned to real-world particulars than to high-flown abstractions. For his part, of course, McGreevy is a throwback to the "romantic Ireland" that Yeats pronounced "dead and gone" in his poem "September 1913."
But in fact romantic Ireland isn't dead and gone. The novel's two epigraphs quote illustrious English officials—Sir John Davies in the 17th century and Lloyd George in the early 20th—both predicting the imminent end of the Irish Troubles. If the Troubles persist, Ms. O'Brien implies, it's because Ireland is a land haunted by deathless memories and irrational dreams. "History is everywhere," reads the novel's opening sentence. "It seeps into the soil, the subsoil. Like rain, or hail, or snow, or blood. A house remembers. An outhouse remembers. A people ruminate."
Heir to this oppressive legacy of heroism; McGreevy is a dangerous man driven by ideals. And, one might add, by grievances, patriotic as well as personal—for, we learn, both his wife and child are dead, the former murdered. As it turns out, moreover, Josie has much in common with him: Long ago, her uncle was killed while engaged in an IRA operation. Though her yearning to avenge that death has long since abated, McGreevy's entrance into her life causes her memory of that almost for gotten passion for vengeance to resurface and turns her relationship with him into something far more complex and troubling.
The book's strongest moments, indeed, are those in which Ms. O'Brien delineates the difficult, nuanced, highly credible bond between Josie and her captor. There's something impressive, too, about the elegant way in which Ms. O'Brien turns Josie's remote cottage, a house divided, into a metaphor for Ireland itself.
Despite these merits, however, House of Splendid Isolation suffers from some serious stylistic handicaps. There are scenes here that you'd swear you've seen in a hundred bad crime movies and TV cop shows, complete with all the hackneyed melodramatic dialogue. In one familiar scene, the hostage taker is accused by one of his tougher cohorts of going soft and getting too chummy with the hostage. "A journeyman like you." McGreevy's accomplice threatens him heavyhandedly, "wouldn't like to be lost to the under taker." Then there's the arresting officer's high minded speech to the felon: "You could have done a lot for your cause and your country. McGreevy … but all you done was death upon death upon death." To read this book is to be aghast at its corny B-movie dialogue.
Nearly as irksome is the languid, self-consciously poetic narrative style. Though well-suited to the torpid pace of Josie's pre-McGreevy widowhood, it misses the mark in the book's more intensely dramatic moments. Even when (in one of many flash-back scenes) Josie's husband learns she's been unfaithful and flies into a brutal rage. Ms. O'Brien's prose remains maddeningly lugubrious.
Then there are the overwrought symbolic passages. Harking back to Josie's brief fling with a priest named Father John. Ms. O'Brien writes: "Spring. Thaw. The wildest impulses that befell one, the almost irrepressible longing to run back and grasp his arm and convey something—gentian stars wrung from a wintery cusp." It's all quite numbing.
Yet even with its failings. House of Splendid Isolation demonstrates that Ms. O'Brien—an Irishwoman who has lived in London for many years—has not entirely lost her impressive gift for offering up sympathetic and illuminating glimpses beneath the surface of Irish life. One hopes that in future novels she will return to what she does best.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5889
SOURCE: "Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 185-97.
[In the following essay, Shumaker explores O'Brien's and Mary Lavin's use of martyred. Madonna-inspired women characters in their stories.]
Edna O'Brien's "A Scandalous Woman" (1972) ends with the statement that Ireland is "a land of strange, sacrificial women." Like O'Brien, Mary Lavin features sacrificial women in her short stories. The disturbing martyrdoms of the heroines created by both writers stem, in part, from Catholic notions of the Madonna. The two writers criticize their heroines' emulations of the suffering Virgin. Julia Kristeva's "Stabat Mater" (1977) and Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) scrutinize the impact of the Madonna myth on western European women. Their feminist scholarship illuminates short stories such as Lavin's "A Nun's Mother" (1944) and "Sarah" (1943), as well as O'Brien's "Sister Imelda" (1981) and "A Scandalous Woman." In each story, female martyrdom (en)gendered by the Madonna myth takes different forms, from becoming a nun to becoming a wife, mother, or "fallen woman."
Kristeva comments upon the fluidity of the Madonna, who encompasses diverse female roles, as do the Irish female characters who emulate her. Discussing the dimensions of the Madonna—Virgin, mother, wife—Warner describes the primary effect of the Madonna myth: "By setting up an impossible ideal the cult of the Virgin does drive the adherent into a position of acknowledged and hopeless yearning and inferiority." The heroines of Lavin's and O'Brien's stories fit the pattern of self-hatred that Warner describes. Their varieties of sacrifice stem from self-disgust fostered by failing to reach the standards of the Madonna myth.
In O'Brien's "Sister Imelda," the teenage narrator falls in love with her teacher, the beautiful young nun of the title. The joys of their love are the Foucauldian pleasures of self-denial—a passion never to be realized but fanned by both teacher and student through notes, whispered confidences, devotional gifts, and an occasional hug or kiss. This story fits the pattern of O'Brien's novels that Thomas F. Staley calls [in his book Twentieth-Century Women Novelists, 1982] confessional, "crying out for absolution." Imelda's and the narrator's romance makes life in the cold nunnery tolerable, even enjoyable. The romance stands, in miniature, for the unrealizable passion that Sister Imelda holds for Christ. Thus it becomes an enlistment tool for the nunnery, as Sister Imelda lures the narrator into a permanent sisterhood of sublimated passion. The narrator abandons her plan to become a nun after she leaves the convent, instead taking up the worldly solaces of makeup and nylons to attract the attention of men. Her best friend, Baba, outdoes her at dressing like a mature woman, becoming the narrator's model as Imelda once was. Baba's name suggests trite babytalk among lovers, as well as the magic of the Arabian Nights—here the transformations of puberty that are supposed to lead to marital joy.
The narrator's struggle to sublimate her sexuality into a pure love for Sister Imelda may come from her wish to emulate the Virgin. Warner writes that "the foundations of the ethic of sexual chastity are laid in fear and loathing of the female body's functions in identification of evil with the flesh and flesh with woman." The nuns' routine mortifications, which the schoolgirls are expected to imitate, reveal their sense that the female body is an inherently evil possession for which they must compensate. Sister Imelda gets a sty that suggests both her neglect of her body and her distorted view of it. Meanwhile, "Most girls had sore throats and were told to suffer this inconvenience to mortify themselves…." Sore throats are a metaphor for the voicelessness of the girls and the nuns under the convent's regimen. Both the nuns and the girls are often hungry because the convent habitually underfeeds them. Delicacies, such as the narrator's comically suggestive gift of bananas for Imelda, are saved for visiting bishops. The semi-starvation of both nuns and girls by a wealthy church forces their bodies into thin and spiritualized shapes that avoid the lush fecundity stereotypically associated with woman as sexual body. Weakened from hunger and other mortifications, the women are to look as undesirable and feel as undesiring as possible; however, the story shows that neither goal is actually met.
The narrator feels the loathing for her body that underlies the convent's ascetic practices when, at the end of the story, she wants to jump out of the bus window to escape the gaze of Sister Imelda after two years of living outside of the convent. The narrator now sees Imelda as a judge who might condemn her for adhering to her culture's vision of woman as a sexual commodity. To the narrator, Imelda stands for the virgin identity that the narrator has decided to shun despite its high status when held by nuns. As Warner writes, "Thus the nun's state is a typical Christian conundrum, oppressive and liberating at once, founded in contempt for, yet inspiring respect for, the female sex … But the very conditions which make the Virgin sublime are beyond the powers of women to fulfill unless they deny their sex." That denial of sexuality is not easy for Imelda is suggested by the narrator's describing the nun's lips as those of "a woman who might sing in a cabaret." When Sister Imelda reads Cardinal Newman to her class, "she looked almost profane." Imelda's sensuality surfaced during a fling with a boy on the night before she became a postulant; it reappears during her inappropriate friendship with the narrator. In the convent's context of preserving a nun's or a schoolgirl's virginity, a mental lesbian liaison is more acceptable than a consummated heterosexual relationship. Within the context of current sexual scandals within the Church, the reader may wonder if the narrator's and Imelda's liaison was ever consummated, and if that consummation was beyond representation when the story was written. For the story's purposes, however, the desire itself is what matters. As Kiera O'Hara writes [in "Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories of Edna O'Brien," Studies in Short Fiction, Summer, 1993] of O'Brien's characters, it is "the possibility of union." however unlikely, that obsesses the narrator of "Sister Imelda." That transcendent union with Imelda would have both spiritual and physical dimensions.
In presenting a lesbian relationship from the point of view of the immature, enraptured narrator, O'Brien shows its appeal in a patriarchal world in which becoming like the hedonistic Baba seems more debased than becoming like the idealistic Imelda. Defying the restrictions of the nunnery, Imelda seems free and daring—"how peerless and how brave"—to the narrator. The narrator is drawn not only to love Imelda, but to want to imitate her. As Imelda the nun emulates the Madonna, the narrator models herself upon her beautiful teacher, suggesting the erotic dimensions that female worship of the Madonna may take. Imelda's erotic dimension includes maternal self-sacrifice, for Imelda enjoys feeding the narrator jam tarts which she herself refuses to eat. The tarts stand for forbidden sexuality that is tied up with the maternal: "Had we been caught, she, no doubt, would have had to make a massive sacrifice." As a sexualized stand-in for both the narrator's mother and the Madonna, Imelda eroticizes stereotypical female selflessness while she models it for the narrator.
The appeal of Imelda's asceticism is its drama: "Each nun, even the Mother Superior—flung herself in total submission, saying prayers in Latin and offering up the moment to God … It was not difficult to imagine Sister Imelda face downward, arms outstretched, prostrate on the tile floor." Imelda's gesture suggests [Julia] Kristeva's jouissance of the mystic and Foucault's notion that repression can be more fun than indulgence. The nuns' pleasure in prostration may come from ceasing to fight their awareness of their inferiority to the ideal wife and mother of God, the Madonna.
The irony is that the narrator does not know that a woman's life outside the convent may also require humiliating renunciations for her children or for a domineering husband; both sides of the Madonna ideal—Virgin and mother—are identically submissive. At the convent, the narrator does not try to grasp her mother's lot, although she visualizes her father darkly as "losing his temper perhaps and stamping on the kitchen floor with nailed boots." Certainly the narrator, like her mother, is a follower—first of Imelda and then of Baba, with the latter's makeup rites becoming so sacred that the narrator never removes her paint. Like Baba, Imelda prepares the narrator to be devoutly feminine; Imelda teaches the narrator a masochistic style of loving that the narrator will be able to use with men: "It was clear to me then that my version of pleasure was inextricable from pain." Kristeva [in "Stabat mater," The Kristeva Reader, 1986] might call this "A suffering lined with jubilation" characteristic of the woman who lives suffused by the image of the sacrificial Madonna. Grace Eckley argues [in Edna O'Brien, 1974] that O'Brien always defines love as sadomasochistic. That seems to be true. However, I believe that in "Sister Imelda" O'Brien is critical of sadomasochism as a feminine style of loving. The nuns' gestures of willing prostration are emblematic of the suffering Irish female condition in general. That the story ends with the narrator's pity for Imelda and her fellow nun suggests the narrator's coming awareness of the commonality of women's lot: "They [the two nuns] looked so cold and lost as they hurried along the pavement that I wanted to run after them." This commonality results from the sacrifices that the Madonna ideal requires of Irish women. It leaves O'Brien labeling herself, according to Eckley, as "only a guilt-ridden Irish woman." The excessive humility of the "only" is what O'Brien challenges her readers to escape through avoiding the self-abnegation that restricts Imelda, the narrator, and herself.
"Sister Imelda" suggests that girls want to become nuns to experience the high drama of religious renunciation rather than the low comedy of becoming a sexual commodity. Lavin's "The Nun's Mother" presents a related explanation for why girls want to become nuns—to avoid male predation. More painfully than O'Brien, Lavin exposes the inescapability of patriarchal power, whether in the home or the convent. The story concerns a nun's mother's meditations after leaving her daughter, Angela, at a convent. Angela's mother, Mrs. Latimer, never dared to ask Angela why she chose such a career, when all of Angela's life she appeared to dislike going to mass. The girl's father, Luke, is horrified that his daughter is renouncing the physical joys of marriage without realizing what they mean. Like Mrs. Latimer he does not dare to question Angela. Mrs. Latimer reflects on her happiness in marriage, noting its rarity. She is both glad that her daughter will not have to risk a marriage failure, and sorry that she won't know intimate love. Although the parents do not realize it, a reason for Angela's choice is given at the end of the story, when the father notices a flasher who has been operating near their home for months.
Angela apparently wishes to escape a world of invasive male sexuality for a sexless world in which wearing a swimsuit into the bathtub will safeguard her. The daughter's acceptance of such prudish defenses can be explained by "the terrible reticence about the body between mothers and daushters, a reticence based on revulsion, and not, as with mothers and sons, upon respect and mystery." Shame over their bodies keeps Angela and Mrs. Latimer emotionally distant. Hence, Mrs. Latimer cannot ask Angela why she is becoming a nun: "She [Mrs. Latimer] was conscious of this revulsion [about the body] every time she was alone with her daughter during the last month." As a result, Mrs. Latimer says nothing to Angela about her decision. Mrs. Latimer pretends to her husband that she has spoken to Angela, for Mrs. Latimer feels humiliated by her inability to be as intimate with her daughter as Luke expects. Mrs. Latimer knows that if Luke had a son, Luke would talk to him easily, since men lack women's shame about sexuality. At the story's end, Mrs. Latimer can't even imagine Angela being disturbed by the flasher near their home, because she never thinks of Angela as a sexual being capable of noticing a nude man. Mrs. Latimer's and Angela's revulsion against their bodies comes from the self-hatred engendered by a religion that regards female sexuality as evil. It is the same self-disgust that causes the narrator of "Sister Imelda" to hide from her once-beloved nun, and that perhaps caused Imelda to join her order. Only by denying her body as a nun can a woman preserve it from becoming that of a temptress.
Angela's fear of violation by the flasher or other men can be linked, through Warner, to the Church's "historical fear of contamination by outside influences, and its repugnance to change" that is symbolized by the Virgin's (and nun's) chastity. It is a fear of contamination that Angela's mother shares. Mrs. Latimer believes that the appeal of becoming a nun is gaining sexual independence from men. "And so, for most women, when they heard that a young girl was entering a convent, there was a strange triumph in their hearts … they felt a temporary hostility to their husbands." However, Mrs. Latimer denies that she herself ever felt the allure of sexual emancipation. She would not give up her memories of passion with Luke for anything. Luke is gentle; both Angela and her mother seem to see him as an exception to typical male aggressiveness. Despite the presence of Luke, the story countenances Angela's fear of men in that the flasher epitomizes all the varieties of perverts who do in fact hurt women; that flashers themselves usually don't rape women physically, however, suggests Angela's naïveté about men. Angela's other naive belief is that nuns are immune from sexual attacks.
The story ends with Mrs. Latimer's fantasy of Angela as a water lily about to be picked by the flasher. That Mrs. Latimer associates Angela with water lilies shows that Mrs. Latimer sees the female experience as a conflict between beautiful nature and a degraded civilization that endangers it. Mrs. Latimer's essentialism appears in her aligning of woman with nature. The danger for the female flower is not just one of being picked, but of withering in a self-protective, ossifying ideology of asceticism that the Irish Catholic Church endorses for women. Angela avoids the physical threat of rape but not the mental one of ossification, choosing her own form of sacrifice. Angela will be a water lily in a bowl on the convent's altar, her life a slow withering. With Angela's sexual independence from men comes intellectual dependence on the male-dominated Church. Angela's payoff will be the high status which Warner and Kristeva agree that emulating the Virgin earns.
Angela's mother will get that high status too. Mrs. Latimer realizes this upon arriving home, when her housekeeper treats her with a new deference. Yet this status is seen satirically by Mrs. Latimer, who abhors the pretentious acts of piety she may be expected to perform now that she is the mother of a nun. Mrs. Latimer fantasizes, "'Meet Mrs. Latimer, who has a daughter in the convent.' She would be quite an exhibit at church bazaars and charity whist drives. She might even have to assume an attitude." The pathetic requests for prayers that Angela receives from her dressmaker, plus the stereotypical gifts of rosary beads, quartz angels, and holy pictures, fill, Mrs. Latimer with dismay. By association, Angela's mother is supposed to be aligned with the Madonna as a holy mother of a sacrificial child. But because the circumstances of Angela entering a convent in twentieth-century Ireland are portrayed with mundane humor, they contradict any glorified image of nuns and their mothers. Such images of transcendence are sold to girls by bestsellers like The White Sister, according to Mrs. Latimer. Transcendence of what? Of being a Mrs. Latimer—the reader knows her only by her married name, as though marriage had consumed her identity. Yet the story portrays Mrs. Latimer's marriage as a happy one in which the husband is the subordinate party if anyone is, whereas Angela's nunnery is seen not as a refuge from male dominance but as a museum.
For any mother, the ultimate price of bearing a nun might be knowing that her line ends with her daughter, as Christ ended Mary's. Mrs. Latimer will not have the pleasure of having grandchildren to love. In her odd relief at this apparent misfortune, her likeness to her daughter appears: both fear contamination above all else. At the birth of Angela, Mrs. Latimer had imagined her descendants falling into lurid varieties of wickedness that she can only observe, but not interrupt. "For the lives they led had suddenly seemed evil in every case. Some were prising open drawers and looking over their shoulders. Some were stealthily crossing the 'ts' of letters that were forged." Mrs. Latimer's relief comes from knowing that her daughter's pure choice will eliminate any responsibility for future generations. Her relief at Angela's chastity vows outweighs her regret that she will no longer need to stay young for Angela.
The story's initial image of Mrs. Latimer is telling: her eyes are closed as she leaves Angela at the nunnery, as though Mrs. Latimer is afraid to face reality. This image reveals Mrs. Latimer's compulsion to control what she knows and experiences, as well as the actions of her descendants. Perhaps Mrs. Latimer chooses not to see the pathetic reason for Angela's vocation, as that vocation allays Mrs. Latimer's anxieties about her posterity. Mrs. Latimer would have been a good mother but for her fear of the future that she unconsciously passed onto her daughter. Mrs. Latimer's obsessive desire to control the future contradicts the healthy side of the Madonna myth that Kristeva describes as its connectedness to past and future through "a flow of unending germinations, an eternal cosmos." Fertility is lost to the paranoid nun and her mother, as the virginal side of the Madonna excludes the maternal side. Whereas Angela imagines herself a victim of male predators, Mrs. Latimer dreams of being their ancestor. This is a dark turn to the story that makes Angela's desire to become a nun seem a result of her mother's pathology, not of an actual vocation.
As if to validate Angela's fear of sexual predation in "A Nun's Mother," O'Brien's "A Scandalous Woman" shows that childbirth may doom a mother rather than being Kristeva's mystic experience. In O'Brien's story, female imprisonment and madness are caused by the fertility that nuns renounce, perhaps wisely given the story's context. Eily—unmarried, pregnant and Catholic—is locked up by her parents after being caught sleeping with a Protestant bank clerk. The clerk is forced to marry Eily, with the enticement of a substantial dowry and with the threat of being murdered by her father if he refuses. Of course the clerk is not a loving husband, and Eily goes mad after bearing several children. Later, her recovery into a mindless contentment despite her husband's affairs is portrayed as even more disturbing than her madness. The story is told by a girlfriend of Eily's who is a few years younger than Eily. The narrator begins by describing events from their childhood and proceeds chronologically.
What is most pertinent to the Madonna myth is Eily's and the female narrator's ambivalence about their pubescent bodies. Their distrust of their womanhood is learned from Eily's elder sister, Nuala. Lavin's Angela learns a similar fear of becoming a nature woman from her mother. When Eily and the narrator are little girls, Nuala pretends that she is a doctor. Every Tuesday Nuala plays that she is cutting out the young narrator's female parts, gesticulating above the narrator's body. As Nuala sharpens the knife with Eily assisting as nurse, Nuata sings "Waltzing Matilda"—Matilda being their code word for female reproductive organs. This ritual operation is accompanied by the narrator's confession, since the "elastic marks [of her underpants are] a sign of debauchery." James M. Haule writes [in "Tough Luck: The Unfortunate Birth of Edna O'Brien," Colby Library Quarterly, December, 1987] that the surgery game "prepares us for the reduction of Eily, and finally of the narrator herself, to a mere shell." The self-hatred of these little girls is already profound; they have been taught, perhaps through proscriptions against masturbation, that woman as a sexual being is a monster needing maiming to correct her inborn flaws. The narrator's guilt over helping Eily conceal her affair leads the narrator to gargle with salt and water, and to reject food: "These were forms of atonement to God." The narrator feels not only her guilt as Eily's accomplice, but anticipatory guilt over her coming womanhood. The child narrator is put in the position of a latent werewolf dreading the full moon that must come no matter whether or not she wants the transformation into womanhood. The hell that descends upon Eily after her romps with the clerk shows a further significance to Nuala's Gothic operation. If only Eily's female parts had never developed, her life would have remained tolerable.
Warner argues that the Magdalen myth suggests that sexual crimes are the only significant ones a woman can commit. Eily's so-called "fall" thus makes her a criminal; whereas if she had stolen something or gambled her savings away, her family might have forgiven her more readily. The mistrust of female sexuality that Warner links to the Madonna myth is seen when Eily's parents jail Eily in their oat room. On the day of her wedding, Eily "kept whitening and re-whitening her buckskin shoes," as though hoping her marriage might restore the virgin purity her parents prize. Eily's relief from pain comes not through wifehood, but through a madness that allows her to express her rage towards the family and friends who were supposed to protect her, not reject her. Finally, her relief comes through a supposed cure, possibly a lobotomy, a numbed sanity that represents oblivion.
Several of Eily's actions pitifully enact the impoverished vision of romance that leads to her liaison. Eily gives the narrator a bottle of cheap perfume in appreciation for her help with hiding Eily's affair. Like Baba's makeup rites, Eily's perfume symbolizes the young woman's obsession with making herself attractive to men; through her gift of perfume, Eily tries to pass on her obsession to the narrator. Eily's passion for her fickle clerk takes her and the narrator to a witch's pub to have Eily's fortune told. The narrator acts as a guard while Eily and her lover make love furtively, outdoors. This is not the sublimated lesbian romance of "Sister Imelda," but a consummated heterosexual affair that the naïve narrator describes in humorous detail. Instead of reading The White Sister mentioned in Lavin's story, Eily seems never to read at all, but merely to gather tabloid notions about romance from her friends. Hence, Eily believes that "the god Cupid was on our side." Eily has replaced Kristeva's jouissance of the mystic who loves God with the passion of heterosexual romance. The pathos of Eily's affair is that it is not worth the price that Eily's family and friends force her to pay for it.
The narrator suggests that the sane Eily at the end of the story has "half-dead eyes," because "along with removing her cares they [her psychiatrists] had taken her spirit away." That Eily has lost her memories alarms the narrator. Yet Eily is apparently content without the past that had driven her mad in the first place. The narrator writes that not only is Ireland "a land of strange, sacrificial women," but it is also "a land of murder." To be happy as an unloved wife, Eily must have her thoughts, memories, and dreams killed. That the narrator may soon share Eily's fate is implied when she meets Eily while pregnant "under not very happy circumstances," and in the company of her mother. When the narrator again meets Eily years later, a husband as resentful as Eily's waits impatiently for the narrator and her son. Is it the narrator who is really the scandalous woman of the story's title? If so, the narrator exorcises her memories not through a nervous breakdown but by transforming her memories into fiction. Was the narrator, like Eily, sacrificed to the Irish ideal of virginity? Through not answering that question, O'Brien suggests that numerous women can be labeled by her story's title. Generation after generation, scandalous women are made to pay for their rebelliousness with a lifetime of submission to their husbands and parents.
As in nineteenth-century British fiction, the "fallen" twentieth-century Irish mother can only redeem herself through dedication to her children. Eily, the modern Magdalen, sacrifices herself for her parents' reputation, as well. As Lavin's Angela and O'Brien's Imelda die one kind of slow death in the convent, Eily dies another kind of slow death as a wife and mother. Eily is so numbed after her lobotomy that she cannot act affectionate toward her children. Each living death represents a different, murdering facet of the Madonna myth—the Virgin and the Magdalen mother.
Whereas a spiritually dead woman is the heroine of O'Brien's "A Scandalous Woman," an actual murder victim is the heroine of Lavin's "Sarah." As a widow who struggled to raise her children and eventually remarried a man who left the priesthood for her, Lavin can confront the paralyzing Irish middle-class conformity that Joyce critiqued. But Lavin presents a female point of view. As Zack Bowen writes, "Given Mary Lavin's lifelong concern with practicalities, money problems, responsibilities, and the effects of death, her vision of reality is harsh and closely circumscribed by an acute awareness of social class, and society's sanctions and rules." "Sarah" is one of Lavin's most hard-hitting pieces of social criticism. In her village, unmarried Sarah is respected for her piety and for her diligence as a cleaning lady. Yet Sarah dies from exposure while bearing her baby in a ditch during a rainstorm. The baby also dies. Sarah's angry brothers had kicked her out of their home, after depending on her cleverly efficient housekeeping for years. Although Sarah was already raising three sons whom she bore out of wedlock, this is apparently the first time Sarah had informed the father of his paternity. Sarah is no longer willing to claim sole responsibility for her children, or to pretend that she was honored by virgin births. As a result, Sarah's brothers can no longer hide behind their previous myth that the men who slept with Sarah were "blackguards" who took advantage of her. Her "fall" thus becomes a public shame that her brothers must acknowledge.
Sarah's brothers' violence is only a step beyond that of Eily's family. Since Sarah's paramour is a married man, her brothers cannot force a marriage as Eily's did. Sarah inflames her eldest brother by reminding him that her lovers are none of his business. What bothers him more than Sarah's affair is her defiance of his authority. But he hides his irritation at not being able to control his sister behind worry over their family's honor that is more socially acceptable. He regards Sarah's adultery as much more dishonorable than her previous affairs with single men, as he tells his younger brother: "No one is going to say I put up with that kind of thing." Concern for their reputation motivates the cruelty of Sarah's brothers and Eily's family. O'Brien and Lavin suggest that Irish families punish scandalous women without compunction. Eily's and Sarah's scandalousness comes from their insubordination to their families as much as from the premarital sex that is the proof of their defiance.
The wife of the man Sarah slept with, Mrs. Kedrigan, writes to Sarah's brothers to protest Sarah's letter to Mr. Kedrigan informing him of her pregnancy. Mrs. Kedrigan is angry in part because her neighbors had warned her not to hire Sarah, but Mrs. Kedrigan had wanted to show them that her husband was entirely trustworthy. Sharing a belief in the double standard with Sarah's brothers. Mrs. Kedrigan does not blame her husband for his affair; nor does she believe his denial of it, or she would have ignored Sarah's letter. The illusion that Sarah is the sole culprit lets Mrs. Kedrigan avoid fighting with her husband about his affair. As Mrs. Kedrigan relies on him for physical and psychological support, it is in her interest to keep the peace. Without a job to support their baby who will soon be born, Mrs. Kedrigan can't leave her husband. But she gets back at him indirectly by telling him the news of Sarah's death with vengeful relish, saying that the ditch is the place where Sarah belongs. Mrs. Kedrigan can be seen as a victim of patriarchal restrictions that are whitewashed by the Madonna myth, to the point that she becomes a caricature of the wronged wife. Warner notes that the Virgin myth's influence is greatest in countries where women are primarily wives and mothers; Ireland would certainly qualify. Janet Egleson Dunleavy says that Lavin's stories from the 1940s focus on "the universal truth of restricted vision"; petty, vindictive vision is clearly Mrs. Kedrigan's flaw, as much as it is Sarah's brothers'. Mrs. Kedrigan condemns Sarah because, as Warner writes of the Madonna myth, "There is no place in the conceptual architecture of Christian society for a single woman who is neither a virgin nor a whore."
Lavin questions the ideology that allows Mrs. Kedrigan and Sarah's brothers to label Sarah a whore, much as O'Brien does in "A Scandalous Woman." As Richard F. Peterson writes, Sarah's tragic death represents "the triumph of the unnatural over the natural." Oliver Kedrigan kindles Sarah's animal attraction to him by complimenting her red cheeks; he laughingly asks her whether she rubs them with sheep-raddle. At the end of the story, when Mrs. Kedrigan tells Oliver of Sarah's death, he yells at her to give him the sheep-raddle, cursing it. Oliver is cursing the instinctive lust which led him to cause Sarah's and his baby's death. He also curses the unnaturalness of those deaths, which were fostered by an unforgiving man-made morality that is supported by Mrs. Kedrigan's jealousy and Sarah's brothers' shame. And Oliver is cursing his cowardice for denying his natural family outside of wedlock. Lavin suggests that Sarah is destined by nature for motherhood by contrasting her healthy pregnancy with that of the sickly Mrs. Kedrigan. The village women had predicted that Mrs. Kedrigan could never become a mother, and had wondered why the earthy farmer had married her. Her hysterical illnesses during pregnancy cause her to rely on her husband's ministrations even though she calls him "a cruel brute" for making her pregnant, whereas Sarah cheerfully works as hard as usual during pregnancy, without the help of any man. Perhaps Sarah's natural fitness for motherhood explains why upright matrons had delivered all of her previous births, and why they continued to hire her to clean their houses. Yet when the protection of her brothers and lover is withdrawn, self-reliant Sarah and her baby die; unnatural patriarchy triumphs over the natural mother.
Trying to show their disgust with Sarah, her brothers exceed her sin of lust with one of violence. Mrs. Kedrigan also tries to prove that her value is beyond Sarah's, but fails for the same reasons that Sarah's brothers do. Lavin exposes how respectable women such as Mrs. Kedrigan reconcile themselves to the low status of their gender by seeing themselves as worthy like the Virgin, whereas "fallen women" are despicable. Kristeva might call this regarding oneself as unique among women like the Virgin herself. For Mrs. Kedrigan, it is a self-delusion of superiority with horrible consequences for Sarah, Sarah's baby, and herself.
Sarah's martyrdom draws attention to the malice and artifice latent within the virginity ideal. However unconsciously, the village priest acts in accord with the cruelty of that ideal by nagging Sarah and her brothers about her affairs. The priest tells Sarah's brothers that their sister should be put into a Home. This idea encourages them to view Sarah as less than human—as criminal trash that should be thrown away. The brothers exile Sarah from their home to prevent their priest from continuing to blame them for Sarah's behavior. The priest also helps to cause Sarah's death through having repeatedly chastised her for not revealing the names of the fathers of her older children. Like Sarah's brothers, the priest hates Sarah's lack of submissiveness as much as her so-called fallenness. For although Sarah is pious, she will not accept the repentant Magdalen role that the priest dictates. Instead, Sarah gets pregnant out of wedlock again and again. To the priest, Sarah is an embarrassment—a rebel against the notions of proper womanhood that the Madonna myth promotes. Writing Kedrigan about his upcoming fatherhood may be Sarah's half-compliant, half-defiant response to the priest's exhortations. The priest's role as an underlying cause of Sarah's death suggests that the Church teaches Irish families to murder their own "fallen women."
For Lavin and O'Brien, the demand for virginity enforces the punishment of the rebellious "fallen woman," whereas it restricts the life experience of the well-disciplined nun. Although critics have noted that the alternatives to marriage for women in Ireland rarely go beyond the brothel or the convent, nuns and "fallen women" in O'Brien's and Lavin's stories don't recognize the economic factors that shape their choices; instead, they act masochistically to pay for the evil they perceive as inherent to their female bodies. The high status of the nun is achieved through the low status of the "fallen woman," through contrasting the hard-bought virtue of one with the so-called sinfulness of the other. The nun's convent may seem imprisoning, but so may the home of the respectable wife or the ditch of the "fallen woman."
Whereas O'Brien's heroines are captivated by two forms of romance—the religious and the sexual—Lavin's heroines seem impervious to both. The Madonna myth may be regarded as a source for both the religious and the sexual romances critiqued by O'Brien's stories. As the central model for the Irish woman, the Virgin fosters the ideal of chastity to which the nun aspires and from which the "fallen woman" falls short. O'Brien's Eily is led to a lobotomy through sexual passion. Lacking Eily's heterosexual fantasies of romance, Imelda and her admirer mingle religious and sexual romance in ways that question the standard formulations of both. In contrast with O'Brien's yearning heroines, Lavin's Angela becomes a nun out of fear of the romantic side of men, Sarah has affairs without expecting courtship, and Mrs. Kedrigan places revenge above both love and religion. Whereas O'Brien deconstructs religious and sexual romance by merging the two, Lavin shows the paucity of experience that lacks any form of romance. Lavin focuses upon the least glamorous effects of the Madonna myth—killing rivalries between women and ossifying chastity. Lavin and O'Brien share an awareness of the unrealistic desires—whether for superiority or sacrifice—that the Madonna myth fosters in Irish women, along with the women's guilt at never reaching their ideal of purity and selflessness.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2709
SOURCE: "Edna O'Brien's 'Lantern Slides' and Joyce's 'The Dead': Shadows of a Bygone Era," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 437-46.
[In the following essay, Pearce examines similarities between the works of O'Brien and James Joyce, in particular focusing upon O'Brien's "Lantern Slides," which Pearce characterizes as a "feminist rewriting" of Joyce's "The Dead."]
In 1974, Grace Eckley noted [in her Edna O'Brien] the similarities between James Joyce and then-emerging Irish talent, Edna O'Brien. Eckley specifically cites O'Brien's "Irish Revel" as "a West of Ireland version of Joyce's classic, 'The Dead,'" comparing the blanketing snow of Joyce's meta-phoric ending to the frost that comes "like the descent of winter on Mary's heart" at the end of the O'Brien story. O'Brien's diction and rhythm clearly bestow homage on Joyce: "Frost was general all over Ireland: frost like a weird blossom on the branches, on the river-bank from which Long John Salmon leaped in his great, hairy nakedness, on the ploughs left out all winter; frost on the stony fields, on all the slime and ugliness of the world" (in The Love Object). The title story of O'Brien's latest collection Lantern Slides places O'Brien even more securely within the Joycean sphere, for now setting has moved east to Dublin. Gone is the lush Irish countryside; gone are the proper Connor girls; gone are Cait and Baba. Gone, too, are the erotic but innocent prelapsarian longings of those protagonists reminiscent of Joyce's two West country women, Gretta and Bertha. In their stead is a dazzling display of Dublin's dinner "nobs." While richly resonant of Joyce's "The Dead," this party is not consumed with talk of politics, music, or lost loves, but rather with Gucci ties, tacky poetry, and lost lusts. O'Brien's feminist rewriting of "The Dead" is delightfully, searingly ironic, but the subtext is even more so, revealing a satiric pen that blots male and female alike with the same scathing ink, delivering an indictment that goes far beyond Joyce's.
From the opening paragraph of "Lantern Slides," O'Brien's extension of Joyce's story is glaringly apparent. Gabriel Conroy has become Mr. Conroy, hotel worker, whatever that means. Mr. Conroy's stories suggest that he is working in a brothel rather than a hotel. While "The Dead" evokes lyrical images of faintly falling snow, "Lantern Slides" opens with imagery more reminiscent of "Circe," in a "big hall" where in "a big limestone grate, a turf fire blazes." The next few sentences confirm the story's setting: "The surround was a bit lugubrious, like a grotto, but this impression was forgotten as the flames spread and swagged into brazen orange banners. In the sitting room, a further galaxy of people…. Here too was a fire…." We are in Hell, the hell of Dante's Inferno, where not only flames assail the body, but also noise (remember the din of Satan flapping his wings?). Waiters move "like altar boys among the panting throngs," while people ask "from time to time how this racket could be quelled, because quelled it would have to be when the moment came, when the summons for silence came." But no silence comes, unlike the beautifully haunting silence that ends "The Dead". Here, openly flirtatious Dr. Fitz will not shut up; outrageously sexist Mr. Gogarty keeps on joking. Even the chandeliers "seem[ed] to be chattering, so dense and busy and clustered were the shining pendants of glass." These "chattering" chandeliers set the tone of the story: we will judge and be judged by gossip, rumor, innuendo, and association.
O'Brien replaces Gretta's impassioned weeping for a lost Michael Furey with Miss Lawless's lustful desires for the newly resurrected appearance of a second Peter Abelard, her lost lover of 25 years earlier (and of course, invoking the original Abelard—twelfth century scholar, monk, and lover of Heloise). The Dantesque vision of Gretta/Beatrice enshrouded in the "dusty fanlight" (evoked more fully in John Huston's movie version, in which Gretta stands earlier in the stained-glass stairwell) gives way in O'Brien's story to "patches of sea like diagonals of stained glass," reminding us that the lantern slides are not infused with Dantean light, but clouded with mists of the sea, or shrouded in distant and disjointed memories. Instead of this vision conjuring up Gretta's heart-rending story of the young, rain-soaked Furey's stand beneath her window and its fatal consequences, O'Brien treats us to a panoply of twentieth-century soap operas. Miss Lawless's lost love is married, an adulterous bastard (a highly ironic allusion, considering the medieval Abelard's castration) who would "embrace her but did not want to know anything about her." who would "introduce her to his wife at some party," who would even allow his wife to invite her to their home, where O'Brien gives us a glimpse of his garden, complete with "tiny shrunken apples that looked as if they had some sort of disease, some blight." Whatever prelapsarian longings Joyce evokes with his story, O'Brien totally undercuts with hers. Indeed, even the Edenic moment of Ulysses—Molly and Bloom on Howth—is undermined in O'Brien's story. Mr. Conroy fantasizes stealing a kiss from Miss Lawless on the "Hill of Howth, with its rhododendrons about to burgeon," thinking she would not go "the whole hog," while she fantasizes about the old Abelard and how this new stranger is "enough for her," brilliantly exposing the totally separate lives of these two protagonists.
This interesting overlay of the Molly/Leopold relationship with the Gretta/Gabriel and Lawless/Conroy (and likewise Heloise/Abelard) one is reinforced by two earlier vignettes. The first, Mr. Conroy's public retelling of their early morning's "glorious walk," is undermined by his private recollection of his need to slop for breath and to speak of his varicose veins. The second, Miss Lawless's private reverie of first meeting Abelard in a newspaper office where she delivered a paper for competition, winning first prize but having her name misspelled, recalls the misspelling of Bloom's name at Paddy Dignam's funeral in the "Hades" chapter, reminding us once more where we are—in hell. Perhaps, the most telling remark of the evening is Miss Lawless's comparison of the sand on Dollymount Strand "being white as saltpetre," identifying clearly the sterility of this couple (of this whole dinner party) when compared to the fertility (and conventionality by these new standards) of Molly and Bloom and to the potential for renewed understanding with Gretta and Gabriel.
O'Brien's story explodes the moment of silence in "The Dead," destroying any notion of the epiphany. While Gabriel Conroy's feelings transform from sexual desire to self-pity, to, perhaps, understanding and empathy, Mr. Conroy's feelings remain rooted in a haze of unstated, but nonetheless lurid sexuality. He thinks not only of Miss Lawless, but also of his other "pinup," Nicola. His sexist musings allow him this dubious insight about himself—that his unhappy marriage had had "an excess of emotions … at the root of it. 'Too much love'…." Mr. Conroy "knew that emotions often blur pleasure, especially for a man." And what manly pleasure is Mr. Conroy seeking? A ludicrously adolescent revelation that his "lifelong dream" has been to kiss Miss Lawless. Not only is the Joycean epiphanic moment missing, but so, too, the biscuits and tea, the shortcakes and wine of Joyce's multilayered eucharistic imagery. Here, the bread of communion is replaced by "plates of sugared biscuits that were shaped like thumbs and caramelized at the edges"—a mutilated, paralyzed image more darkly evocative of the other stories of Dubliners.
This twisted/perverted eucharistic image is introduced earlier in one of Miss Lawlessness's "flood of childhood evocations," another potentially powerful image lacking epiphanic significance:
… A painted-cardboard doll's house with a little swivelled insert for a front door, which could be flicked open with a thumbnail; a biscuit barrel impregnated with the smell of ratafia essence; and a spoon with an enamelled picture of the Pope.
To us, her memory is foolish and inappropriate, foreshadowing not only the carmelized thumbs, but the ending image of the lantern slides. Instead of a cozy birthday gathering of friends, reviewing mutual memories, we have an odd assortment of transparently empty people with disconnected private musings—spoiled, rich people—"coiffured and bejewelled" nobs waiting to be seen. All the images are disturbing. Even the name Miss Lawless is hardly reminiscent of gracious, graceful Gretta or law-abiding, careful, dutiful Gabriel. The instances of O'Brien's scathing irony abound on every page.
O'Brien's story presents the natural extension of Joyce's, a Dublin party of the latter half of the twentieth century rather than the first half, a Dublin party of the "new generation." Gabriel Conroy, in his yearly address at his aunts' Christmas dinner, remarks on the "hospitable roof" under which they are gathered around the "hospitable board," recipients of the "hospitality of certain good ladies." Lest we miss the irony. Joyce has his verbose/modest speaker ("I am afraid my poor powers as a speaker are all too inadequate"), mention hospitality twice more, reminding the guests that Ireland "has no tradition which does it so much honor and which it should guard so jealously as that of its hospitality" and reminding the three hostesses of "the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality." These five references to "hospitality" are succeeded by a sixth:
A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles … and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day.
While others have discussed Gabriel's character, particularly its epiphanic nature, my concern is with O'Brien's story where Gabriel's prophecy comes to fruition in the inhospitable behavior of O'Brien's dinner "nobs."
Say what we will about the drunken antics of Freddy, the sudden departure of Miss Ivors, or the cosmopolitan snobbery of Gabriel's dismissal of the Irish West, there is a genuine warmth of human camaraderie at Gabriel's aunts' house. The "new generation" (or two or three) celebrating Betty's birthday in O'Brien's story display an alarming paucity of humanity, hospitality, and kindly humor. Humanity is utterly lacking in this room charged with blatantly sexist remarks. O'Brien is writing no feminist defense of Irish womanhood, however; she condemns both her male and female characters. Not a single character elicits her sympathy, nor ours. Sinead's nearly hysterical description of her abusive husband hardly prompts a compassionate response from anyone in the story. And when we learn of her secret pregnancy as a ploy to trap Dr. Fitz in marriage, we, too, feel no compassion for her. Yet we feel little pity for Dr. Fitz either. His sexist views and those of all the male characters are constantly annoying, especially his winks at Miss Lawless about his good friend the "widda," identified knowingly by Mr. Conroy as "the floozie with the Jacuzzi." The female characters fare no better. Dot the Florist in a tightly-fitting, pink cat suit schemes to find a man to pay her bills before the bank's foreclosure, willing to dance with any man who "didn't have his wife with him." Sinead points to the "blown-up snapshots of Betty in a bathing suit and a choker" plastered all over the walls and wonders aloud how Betty's husband could leave her, "Why would any man leave a beautiful woman like that for a slut!" "Why indeed?" queries O'Brien's ironic narrator.
To return to the concerns of Gabriel's speech, there is no humanity and very little hospitality. Certainly, little hospitality exists for the "strange girl" who enters the party, prompting Dot the Florist's outburst, "Jesus, there's the queer one." Miss Lawless's "pity" and Mr. Conroy's lack of "worry" are the closest sentiments to hospitality. More vocal though is Dr. Fitz's castigation of those "who had let her in"; his angry, ugly retort, "It's a damn shame" is hardly indicative of the hospitality of Gabriel's bygone era. The only hospitable action toward the girl is the waiter's gift of a balloon, but any kindness seems undercut by the strange description of the balloon—"big silver kidney-shaped" and "clutched … as if it were a baby." Even the "hospitable board" of Gabriel's aunts is replaced by a ridiculous argument over whether the fish is trout or salmon.
And humor? Humor permeates nearly every line of O'Brien's dinner party. But of "kindly humor," again, there is none. While Joyce's story sparkles with multiple examples, the humor of O'Brien's "nobs" degenerates into coarse, sexist jokes by Mr. Gogarty (another Joycean allusion—the Dublin physician and writer who served as a model for Buck Mulligan):
With a glint in his eye, Mr. Gogarty brought it to the attention of the two other men that the city they lived in was a very dirty city indeed. They did not blanch, knowing this was a preamble to some joke.
"Haven't we Ballsbridge?" he said, waiting for the gleam on their faces. "And haven't we Dolly-mount?" he said, with further relish, hesitating before throwing in Sandymount and Stillorgan.
"Now, what is the difference between Northside girls and Southside girls?" Mr. Gogarty asked with pride.
Answers were proffered, but in the end Mr. Gogarty was pleased to tell them they were all dullards. "Northside girls have real jewellery and fake orgasms," he said, and laughed loudly, while Eileen Vaughan repeatedly blessed herself and, as if it were a maggot, lifted the streamer that joined her to Mr. Gogarty.
Self-righteous, puritanical Eileen Vaughan "thump[ing] her husband" as she wages her one-woman fight against smut is hilariously funny, but we laugh at her, never with her. Dot's mention of her "half" a florist shop nudges a laugh, but her intentions are hardly kindly. Perhaps, the funniest instance in the story is Mrs Vaughan's copying and distributing of the letter Mr. Vaughan's English mistress sends, detailing his sexual exploits, neatly paralleled by Sinead's flourishing of Dr. Fitz's love letter among the crowd of the party. Funny? Definitely. Kindly? Clearly not. The single kindness O'Brien allows her creations is demonstrated in Bill the Barrow Boy, whose innocence, whose cliches, whose malapropisms amuse us: "'Ah, it's the hors d'oeuvres that's at her,' Bill the Barrow Boy said, meaning the nerves." Of course, simply his name is humorous. But again, as kind as he may be, even he has his marital problems. He wants children; his wife does not—it will ruin her figure.
At the story's end, O'Brien takes the dinner nobs' collective longings for fulfillment and likens them to the "rapid succession" of lantern slides. As they all wait in mocked suspense to discover who is coming, suspecting that it is John, Betty's "vagrant husband, "hoping that it is John, "the wandering Odysseus returned home in search of his Penelope" (while Betty stands poised with knife in hand—to cut the birthday cake), a spell floods the room:
You could feel the longing in the room, you could touch it—a hundred lantern slides ran through their minds: their longing united them, each rendered innocent by this moment of supreme suspense. It seemed that if the wishes of one were granted, then the wishes of others would be fulfilled in rapid succession.
These two-dimensional people, transparent as glass in their mundane, selfish wishes, project no mythic connective, only a distant, diffused, disjointed collection of meaningless slides, evoking no pleasant nostalgic moments, no warm family or friendly portraits, no poignantly human memories, emitting no light of any real sort, only shadows of a bygone era, of another Dublin dinner party.
As the "spell" circles the room, O'Brien's ironic pen darkens, blackens the scene. Life is not "just beginning," is not "tender, spectacular, all embracing." These nobs cannot jump up to "catch it"; they are incapable of catching life; they have denied life. The story ends, the projector dims, and this dinner party is left in darkness.
Ironically enough, while winter talk abounds—"a turf fire blazing" and "a nippy evening"—it is nearly spring in O'Brien's story: "Yet by looking through the window Miss Lawless could see that lilac was just beginning to sprout, and small white eggcups of blossom shivered on jet-black magnolia branches." It may be the commencement of spring, but O'Brien's Dublin is more dead than the snow-covered, winter-world of Joyce's Dublin.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1285
SOURCE: "Saved from Drowning," in New York Times Book Review, May 25. 1997, p. 11.
[In the following review, Mantel offers a favorable assessment of Down by the River, but faults O'Brien for what she perceives as overly pedantic, elaborate prose and a tendency to exhaustively reiterate issues.]
Out in the country things get very murky," says Mary, the protagonist of Down by the River, Edna O'Brien's forlorn, unsparing and consciously exquisite novel of rural despair. Ireland is Ms. O'Brien's mother country, and mothers, as we know, are often capricious, often rejecting, often unwilling to mother at all. Mary is about to be a mother and unwilling to be so: because she is not quite 14 years old, and because the baby is the product of incest with her father.
Mary's own mother has died a premature and painful death; the child has nowhere to turn. She is unable to tell anyone of her plight, though she tries to signal it. She also tries to drown herself, but is prevented by a neighbor out walking her dog. The neighbor, Betty, arranges for them to travel to England, where she can obtain a legal abortion. Before it can take place, Mary is pressured into returning to Ireland. There she is passed from hand to hand. Opponents of abortion offer compassion for the child but little for the mother. She receives the conscience-dogged sympathy of quivering liberals, the quizzical and qualified aid of lawyers who fight for her right to travel freely. The weeks go by, the little prisoner inside her flourishes. Then nature solves her problem, in its own ghastly fashion.
The novel's clearest link to real life is to the 1992 case of a 14-year-old Irish girl, said to have been a rape victim, whose struggles with the legal system wrung hearts on both sides of the Irish Sea and caused in Ireland itself a nation wide examination of conscience. But behind the story lies a significant swath of women's history: years of winking and connivance, of deceit and fear and pain—concealment of pregnancy, unattended births, infant corpses. The retired midwife of Mary's district recalls "the silenced creatures she had found in drawers and wardrobes and in bolster cases, like sleeping dolls: a little baby boy in a lavatory bowl, twins with binding twine around their necks."
This is powerful material, and Ms. O'Brien has apparently decided her prose must rise to it. The reader may feel some initial queasiness. "O sun O brazen egg-yolk albatross." Unripe blackberries are "little excrescenses purposing to come forth in a pained fruition." In this novel, all fruition is pained. There is a harrowing description of a mare struggling to give birth to a foal presenting feet first. The mare's life is saved, and the foal safely delivered—by Mary's father. It is one of Ms. O'Brien's subtleties that he is not a brute, through his actions are often brutal. Witnessing his tenderness to the creatures, Mary thinks "that if she could be a child, maybe if she can be truly a child and make her needs known, he can feel as a father."
There is no lack of human sympathy in Down by the River, and a powerful perception of loneliness runs through it. Mary is surrounded by people who want to control her and own her, rather than people who want to help her. In her own district, she attracts odium merely for existing, merely because controversy has soiled "our beautiful, wholesome happy parish." For a short time it is believed that the father of her baby is a street musician she met in Galway, and when the police talk about this kindly, hapless man, Ms. O'Brien captures all the scorn and rage of people who believe they have never put a foot wrong: "I work my butt off, seven days a week. I work overtime to buy shoes for my kids…. I grow my own vegetables…. I don't permit myself a drink, I don't go to the dogs. I don't go to the bookmakers while he and his ilk sponge off the nation, beget children…. Holy Christ, I'd send the lot of them down the mine and dynamite it."
The wider community won't help Mary either. A radio phone-in program is choked with evil banalities; some callers abuse Mary and some assert her right to travel to England, but the show's host assures them. "You're all one hundred and ten percent right." And God is of no use, no matter how many times He is invoked. Before her pregnancy, desperate to escape from the abuse, Mary visits a shrine, but she can do no more than leave a coded message: "Please cure my father's epilepsy." Later, she finds a statue of the Sacred Heart with its head detached. She becomes, with reason, "ashamed of the habit of hoping."
Ms. O'Brien's best moments are a heady blend of insight, intellect and poetry. Four vases of flowers in a hospital ward are "carnations lined along the windowsills in opaque hospital vases, a little flourish of white gypsophila over each one, like nurses' caps." Mary watches her cousin Veronica—one of her unofficial warders, one of the suicide watch—work with a crochet needle "so that a piece of straight thread was converted into a tight and unrippable little conundrum."
That is what encloses Mary: a tight and unrippable conundrum, legal, moral physical. Why, then, despite the sensuous, violent prose, is the reader able to detach from her and think so hard about the problems of the novel itself? Perhaps because Mary as a three-dimensional human being is hardly present in her own story. She is featureless, like some scarred, depopulated battleground. Our anxiety on her behalf remains impersonal; our outrage is aimed at her society rather than her circumstances. She is as innocent as Mary, Mother of God; she passes from Virgin to Mother, her physical condition an interesting one, but her moral travail hidden from us.
Then again, Ms. O'Brien writes orgy prose, dripping and rich and fantastic. Her ironies are crushing, not piercing, and the seriousness and dignity of her undertaking is marred by a solemnity that sometimes trips her. Mary's mother, besotted with her farmyard flocks of fowl, will die of ovarian cancer, images are stretched, themes are beaten. When Mary escapes briefly to a convent boarding school, the first night's supper is "egg salad and single slices of cheese." A paragraph later, Mary's mother writes to her to say they miss her: "Your father is not hard-boiled." Ms. O'Brien also suffers from a lack of flexibility in tone. A report in a "rag of a newspaper" sounds more like Edna O'Brien. Mary's diary sounds like her too.
How should Mary sound? What is the best manner for her story? That the problems of the poor, the powerless and the deprived have their own moral grandeur, no one denies. But in what manner to address them—in the grand manner? That is what Ms. O'Brien has chosen. "Nearly everything reminded her of blood. Her father's, her mother's, her ancestors', her own." When poetry and polemic mix, the sublime may happen; what results here is a kind of rococo indignation, clean lines obscured by language that is often ornate and sometimes florid. A novel, of course, is not a how-to book for legislators or a manual of moral etiquette. Yet Ms. O'Brien, whose early books were censored, has no doubt played her own part in changing the climate of her native country. Earlier in her career, she wrote with a wit and ferocity that were enhanced by the sweetness and simplicity of her style. Her old weapons were sharp and effective; perhaps she comes too late to this particular fight.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1647
SOURCE: "Obsession," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 8, 1997, p. 6.
[In the following review, Innes offers a positive appraisal of Down by the River.]
When I was asked to review Edna O'Brien's latest novel, Down by the River, I called my sister in London. I wanted to know if she was still reading this prolific and seminal Irish writer who was so important to us 20 years ago. Newly arrived in London from a small town, we related heavily to Kate and Baba, the mismatched Irish friends of The Country Girls trilogy, O'Brien's first fictional work, for whom England's capital represented freedom from the bigotry of rural Irish life. Now, my sister confessed, she's come to reject O'Brien's deep fatalism about intimacy as "unbelievably depressing." And she hates the way O'Brien's women see themselves: "They're always victims."
Some things never change: The women in Down by the River are still victims. But I'm going to have to tell my sister that our old favorite is venturing into new literary territory—realist fiction rooted in contemporary Irish affairs.
Ireland's troubles are not totally absent from O'Brien's work. House of Splendid Isolation features an Irish Republican Army terrorist hiding out in a widow's house. But in most of her work, political strife tends to be more the background music to her characters' personal musings. In Down by the River, which is based on the famous "X" case of 1992 involving a 14-year-old girl made pregnant by her best-friend's father, politics is inescapable.
O'Brien sticks closely to the main facts of the case. When the girl was prevented by the Irish High Court from going to England for an abortion (illegal in Ireland), the ensuing international outcry led to a reversal by the Irish Supreme Court of the lower court decision, forcing a public referendum in which the Irish people voted overwhelmingly for girls in her situation to be allowed to go abroad for abortions. The girl had a miscarriage before she could take advantage of the court decision. Her abuser was jailed for 14 years.
If this had been an earlier work, O'Brien might have explored the inner life of her pregnant 14-year-old heroine, Mary. Instead, she is more interested in the politics of abortion and all its public players—abortion rights foes and advocates, lawyers, doctors—until Mary seems almost to have no voice at all.
And yet, astute readers will catch the familiar images and themes that weave through all of O'Brien's 20 books and innumerable short stories (many of which have been published in the New Yorker), which have prompted some critics to remark that O'Brien has only one story to tell. (Although what author doesn't braid and rebraid the same obsession in an effort to pin down some perpetually elusive personal demon?)
Down by the River is in some ways yet another reframing of O'Brien's continuing obsession with not simply Ireland but, the Ireland she left as a young woman. Though she has lived in London for 30 years, O'Brien can never leave the Ireland of her imagination behind.
In Down by the River, as in all her works, the Irish countryside, soaked in bloodshed and myth, is inevitably a dreary symbol of death, cruelty and stagnation, epitomized by an image repeated here from earlier fiction, the image of a dark copse where a donkey died and decayed.
There are also the abusive father and self-sacrificing mother. Even the details reflect earlier works. The father likes horses, the mother raises hens, while the perennial dog lingers at the gate, needing caresses and hoping, like previous O'Brien dogs and many of her characters, that despite continual kicks, he will be loved.
Mary is the typical O'Brien overly sensitive girl: She has a Kate-like convent crush on a nun and a Baba-like friend. And like all O'Brien's heroines, however far they might be from their rural origins and however sophisticated their current milieu, Mary is haunted by the oppressive, joy-denying, guilt-laden religious dogma of her childhood, the superstitious bigotry of village life forever an evil stamp upon her soul. (Not surprisingly, until 1972, O'Brien's first seven works of fiction were banned in Ireland and were even publicly burned by the priest in her native village.)
If O'Brien's older stories also dwell on Ireland's awesome beauty as a symbol of purity and simplicity for those mired in urban life—if they emphasize the double-edged nature of life, swinging between death and beauty, between joyous, steamy sex and despair (for taking one solitary vacation, the heroine in August Is a Wicked Month pays with the death of her child)—there is little of that joy here. Country scenes in Down by the River pulse with a sinister sexuality, from the stark coupling of a stallion and mare to the suggestive "dark coils" of the river where Mary considers drowning herself.
A number of British reviewers (always hard on O'Brien) have criticized her for the uneasy mix of old images with current affairs. And it's true that a kind of authorial documentary voice occasionally bumps up against the novel's overall lyric tone. There's an awkward chapter in which the daughter of a judge makes feminist speeches at her father. This novel also lacks the assured, richly textured language that makes The Country Girls trilogy and her short stories so remarkable. And yet it works.
The key is to see Down by the River not as realistic fiction (despite having the outrage of an old-fashioned protest novel) but as the Irish equivalent of a Faulkner novel, a re-imagined, more deeply colored, symbolic version of the real thing. (Faulkner, Joyce and Chekhov are O'Brien's acknowledged literary idols.)
For example, O'Brien makes some significant changes to the reality of the "X" case. The fictional sexual abuser is Mary's own father, James, a wonderful portrait of self-pitying self-absorption, who pursues Mary with increasing violence after her mother, his wife, dies of cancer. In an especially shocking scene, James tries to abort Mary's pregnancy with a broomstick. What happens to the father in the final pages of the novel is more dramatic, more appalling, than the fate of his real-life counterpart and pushes the drama almost to the point of gothic melodrama, certainly to a level of overwrought, emotional excess.
O'Brien has always enjoyed playing with different styles in an effort to pull new insights out of familiar material. Casualties of Peace has parallel stories with heroines from different classes. A Pagan Place is told in the second-person singular. Night is the monologue of a woman lying in bed. The narrative in Down by the River is quite different from, say, the measured, seamless prose of O'Brien's New Yorker stories. Tugging the reader along at suspense thriller speed, it bounces among short scenes, flashing the story at the reader in jagged glimpses of horror comparable to the shifting photography of television news, even as the fervent language transforms each scene into a small story or lyric poem.
Out of these broken, over-wrought, pared-down pieces, out of the tension between documentary and poem, O'Brien surely intended an archetypal story, a sort of Irish epic, that takes all her old themes and intensifies them to the point of impersonal tragedy, distilling the grief of all traumatized women who don't make news headlines. From the first chapter, Mary (and surely the choice of name is deliberate, the Virgin impregnated willy-nilly by the God-like father) is every woman who has ever been hurt by a man. The road she and her father are walking along seems to speak of history, "of the old mutinies and a fresh crime mounting in the blood." When he molests her for the first time, "she thought she had always known that it would happen, or that it had happened, this, a reenactment of a petrified time."
Thus, Down by the River is more than O'Brien's typical reiteration of male-female torment and offers instead a greater story about power—the power wielded by fathers, states, institutions, anyone with an agenda (there are a couple of terrifying scenes featuring abortion foes)—the kind of power that crushes individual happiness. On the run from her father, saved from drowning by a neighbor who later tries to get her an abortion in England, Mary looks at her face in the neighbor's mirror and sees not the terror of a little girl but of "an animal, animal eyes staring out from the prongs of an iron trap." It's a viscerally terrifying moment.
What's also new here is O'Brien's attitude toward victim-hood. Like other O'Brien heroines who haul themselves up from the depths, Mary has a fine thread of resilience at her core that wears but never snaps. But she is also boosted throughout her terrible journey by individuals who offer her genuine kindness without an ulterior motive. There's Luke, the gentle musician, a kind of fairytale prince who gives her shelter, and Mona, another pregnant girl, who offers lively female companionship. If, in other works, O'Brien was concerned with the essential loneliness of the human state, here she offers a glimpse of community.
And with all the gloom in this dark and desperate book, there are hints of O'Brien's old life-affirming humor. Her voice has always been double-edged, as if she herself were split down the middle. On the one hand, she is a passive, dreamy Kate, but she is also a wise-cracking Baba who shrugs and says, "Yeah, life sucks, but I'm going to get the most I can out of it." In Down by the River, a disc jockey's patter is both disgusting and delightfully absurd, an upbeat note of presentation at odds with the downbeat of the subject matter.
Yes, I must definitely call my sister. For in this moving addition to O'Brien's impressive body of work, fatalism is edged with genuine glimmers of hope, and the reader discovers, despite evidence to the contrary, that there is goodness in the world.