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."