Julia O'Faolain Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Julia O'Faolain 1932–

English-born Irish short novelist, short story writer, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of O'Faolain's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 19, and 47.

The daughter of Irish writers Eileen and Sean O'Faolain, Julia O'Faolain has had to carve out her own niche in the literary world. She has developed a unique style with an international scope which has garnered her a reputation as a powerful and intelligent writer. With satirical wit and dark humor, she explores cultural attitudes and themes related to sexuality, male-female relationships, Catholicism, and politics, particularly as these issues concern female characters attempting to establish their identities.

Biographical Information

O'Faolain was born on June 6, 1932, in London, England. Her parents were strong advocates of Irish nationalism. They spoke Gaelic in their house and adopted the Gaelic version of their surname. Eileen, a writer of children's stories, kept Julia home from school until the age of eight and used her as an audience for her children's stories. The stories were fantasy-filled tales which led O'Faolain to talk of leprechauns and fairies when she entered school. After being ridiculed for her fanciful imagination, Julia began to look incredulously at anything fantastic in nature, including religion. It was this analytical outlook that O'Faolain later brought to bear in her writing. O'Faolain attended University College in Dublin where she received both a bachelor and a masters degree in the Arts. She also did graduate study at Universita di Roma and the Sorbonne, University of Paris. The fact that she has lived all over the world helps her to set her fiction in various international locales and still evoke a sense of place. O'Faolain married Lauro Martines, a teacher and historian, with whom she edited Not in God's Image (1973).

Major Works

O'Faolain's collection, We Might See Sights! and Other Stories (1968) has stories set in Ireland and Italy. The stories explore such topics as hypocritical cultural attitudes and young females discovering their sexuality. Many of the pieces in her second collection, Man in the Cellar (1974), examine the power struggles between men and women, including the title story which depicts an English woman who chains her Italian husband in the cellar and attempts to convince him of the inequities in their marriage. The collection Daughters of Passion (1982) contains female protagonists whose identities are shaped by men and characters who adopt political views that suit their immediate purposes. O'Faolain's first novel, Godded and Codded (1971), is a story of sexual awakening. It centers on an Irish graduate student who travels to Paris to free herself from the stifling atmosphere of her family life. Related with bawdy humor, the novel details her sexual adventures and satirizes various character types among expatriates in Paris. In Women in the Wall (1975), O'Faolain builds her fictional tale around a historical figure, but O'Faolain takes artistic license with the details of the story. The novel, set in sixth-century Gaul, is based on Queen Radegunda, a Frankish saint. The main character of the novel, Radegunda, was forced to marry the king who slaughtered her family. She longed to enter a religious life without men and political turmoil. Her husband consented to let her leave and she founded the Convent of the Holy Cross. The story revolves around the reasons Radegunda and two other women have for entering the spiritual life of the convent and the role of women in medieval society. In No Country for Young Men (1980), O'Faolain addresses the issues of Irish nationalism to explicate the destructive, cyclical pattern of her country's history. She follows three generations of a family involved in Ireland's political troubles to develop several themes, including the influence of traditional myths and political tensions on how women are viewed in Ireland and the dubious values sometimes related to patriotism. The Obedient Wife (1982) is set in Los Angeles and centers on an unhappily married woman whose husband encourages her to see other men while he is away on business. O'Faolain explores the conflicts between Catholic values and personal needs through the woman's romantic relationship with a priest. O'Faolain once again switches locales in The Irish Signorina (1984). Set in an Italian villa, the novel concerns a young Irish woman who visits the Cavalcanti family, for whom her mother used to work as an au pair. Her mother, now dead, had never really let go of Italy or the Cavalcanti family. Ann explores her mother's past and develops her own relationship with the family. In this novel, O'Faolain develops a comparison between romanticism and rationalism and explores differing philosophies of life and love. The Judas Cloth (1992) focuses on Rome, the Catholic Church, and Pope Pius IX. It follows the lives of three young men as they struggle with their identities. Also significant in O'Faolain's career is her work on Not in God's Image. She co-edited the book which documents the place of women in Western civilization.

Critical Reception

Critics first looked for comparisons between O'Faolain's work and that of her parents. However, she soon garnered a reputation on her own merits and for her own unique talents. J. R. Frakes asserts that "she does not write like her father. And maybe, if [Three Lovers] is a fair harbinger, she'll become the family member whose name is used for identification." Reviewers point out how her international background affects the scope of her work and sets her apart from other Irish writers. Complaints about O'Faolain's fiction include a sense of incompleteness, where story lines are left hanging, and an occasional sense of preachiness. Many reviewers laud her use of satire and the intelligence she brings to her writing. Alan Ross says, "Julia O'Faolain has all the essential gifts—a sense of high comedy, fastidiousness of language and feeling, intellectual control over widely-ranging scraps of knowledge—and she uses them with the lightest of touches." One of O'Faolain's strongest gifts is her ability to expose and bring things to their essential level. Ann Owens Weekes states, "When I first read her work, I was struck by the acid intelligence that strips away layers of tradition, affection, and affection, exposing an often grotesque core." Reviewers often point out the allusive nature of O'Faolain's work, which recalls images from ancient myth and history. Her work is often cited in feminist criticism for its honest portrayal of the role of women in society and women's struggle to define her identity. She is also praised for her deft handling of sensitive political issues, a topic usually considered the territory of male writers.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We Might See Sights! and Other Stories (short stories) 1968
Godded and Codded (novel) 1971; republished as Three Lovers, 1971
Not in God's Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians [editor with Lauro Martines] (essays) 1973
Man in the Cellar (short stories) 1974
Women in the Wall (novel) 1975
Melancholy Baby and Other Stories (short stories) 1978
No Country for Young Men (novel) 1980
Daughters of Passion (short stories) 1982
The Obedient Wife (novel) 1982
The Irish Signorina (novel) 1984
The Judas Cloth (novel) 1992

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Alan Ross (review date November 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Carry on Codding," in London Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 8, November, 1970, pp. 109-10.

[In the following excerpt, Ross praises O'Faolain's Godded and Codded.]

A dotty Irishman, holed up in the jungles of Paris, is one of the chief characters in Julia O'Faolain's first novel Godded and Codded…. [T]his is an immensely stylish and richly allusive performance…. Though not exactly original in its account of the wayward affair between a sexy Irish student from the bogs and a wily, Arab revolutionary, Godded and Codded has so many incidental pleasures that its fairly routine plot about sexual awakening scarcely matters. In a beautifully suggested Paris...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

J. R. Frakes (review date 13 June 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Judas-Hole Vision of Hell," in Book World, June 13, 1971, p. 2.

[In the following review, Frakes lauds O'Faolain's Three Lovers.]

It's reassuring to know that the coming-of-age process still flourishes in Paris—it gives one a sense of continuity and tradition. At twenty-two, Sally Tyndal flies from drowsy Dublin to the seedy banks of the Seine, equipped with a scholarship, a suppurating Catholic conscience, and a determination to lose her Gaelic identity as a "late virgin" and "a mental amorist." And she does indeed lose it—over and over again. Thus the dreary title of this fast, funny, and cruel novel, [Three Lovers]. Lover #1 is Mesli, an Algerian...

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Lalage Pulvertaft (review date 4 April 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Under Orders," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3813, April 4, 1975, p. 353.

[In the following review, Pulvertaft praises "the clear, tough style" of O'Faolain's Women in the Wall, but complains that the author imposes modern prejudices on the story.]

The Queen Radegund of history, patron saint of prisoners and captives, was born in 518, and as a young girl captured by, and forced to marry, the Frankish king Clotair. She later escaped to God, and founded the monastery of the Holy Cross, where she became famous for her visions, tended the sick, and lived as an ordinary nun, handing the running of the place over to St Agnes.

In Women...

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Margaret Ferrari (review date 30 August 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Women in the Wall, in America, Vol. 133, No. 5, August 30, 1975, pp. 99-100.

[In the following review, Ferrari lauds O'Faolain's Women in the Wall as "engrossing for its historical detail, its present relevance and its strikingly powerful style."]

Julia O'Faolain's Women in the Wall is an impressive, exciting historical novel. Reading this taut story from beginning to end, the reader is left with a feeling that a fragment of history, the sixth century, the very beginning of the dark ages, has been illuminated brilliantly.

The title refers to a group of women, royal and otherwise, who leave the world to...

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Ann Weekes (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Diarmuid and Gráinne Again: Julia O'Faolain's No Country for Old Men," in Eire-Ireland, Spring, 1986, pp. 89-102.

[In the following essay, Weekes traces how O'Faolain's No Country for Old Men portrays the relationship between women and the political situation in Ireland.]

Seeking a theoretical model for feminist criticism, Elaine Showalter proposes the Ardener model of intersecting circles representing male and female spheres, a crescent of each sphere free from the intersecting circle. The male crescent, though not experienced by women, is known, because male culture dominates and represents itself. The female or "wild" crescent, the area...

(The entire section is 5074 words.)

T. Patrick Hill (review date 2 May 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Irish Signorina, in America, Vol. 156, No. 17, May 2, 1987, p. 371.

[In the following excerpt, Hill states that "In The Irish Signorina, Julia O'Faolain has written a novel of beginnings and no endings so that a pervasive incompleteness to both character and plot takes a heavy toll on the reader, but especially on the work itself."]

As usual, the news from Ireland is both good and bad. First the bad news. In The Irish Signorina, Julia O'Faolain has written a novel of beginnings and no endings so that a pervasive incompleteness to both character and plot takes a heavy toll on the reader, but especially on the work itself....

(The entire section is 334 words.)

Ann Owens Weekes (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Julia O'Faolain: The Imaginative Crucible," in Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition, University Press of Kentucky, 1991, pp. 174-90.

[In the following essay, Owens Weekes discusses O'Faolain's deconstruction of ancient Irish myths and tradition.]

Probably all parents influence their children more than the children care to admit. Some of their values are imbibed like milk; others sour mind and heart and are rejected. Occasionally we are mature enough to examine our opinions apart altogether from the emotional moss they have gathered through parental association. Writers, more than other people, mine the source of their own reactions, or maybe they just...

(The entire section is 6387 words.)

Thomas R. Moore (essay date March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Triangles and Entrapment: Julia O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men, in Colby Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 9-16.

[In the following essay, Moore analyzes the triangular relationships at work in O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men.]

An exploration of the triangular relationships among the characters in Julia O'Faolain's 1980 novel No Country for Young Men reveals a paradigm of control and entrapment of women throughout Irish history. O'Faolain, who has published several other novels and short stories, also co-edited with her husband in 1973 a collection of readings concerned with the historical position of women, Not in God's...

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Laura B. Vandale (essay date March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Woman Across Time: Sister Judith Remembers," in Colby Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 17-26.

[In the following essay, Vandale traces how "Through Judith [in O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men] we see how the lives of women in Ireland have been, are, and no doubt will continue to be affected by war, politics, men, and the Church."]

No Country for Young Men by Julia O'Faolain, "one of the most accomplished Irish writers of her generation" is, as Jay Halio has described, "a darkly comic stor[y] concerned with the position of women." Dark in that it certainly has its share of death and mystery, the novel nevertheless retains a...

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David Gilmore (review date 25 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Question of Infallibility," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4669, September 25, 1992, p. 24.

[In the following review, Gilmore praises O'Faolain's The Judas Cloth as "[a] powerful, original and intelligent novel."]

As I began reading The Judas Cloth, I could not help recalling Lampedusa's remarks on the beginnings of Scott's novels: each was "veramente insopportabile", he declared, an endless parade of people and places too often and too meticulously described. But as I read on, I remembered his observation that, after page 100, "one realizes that the faces and places have remained imprinted on one's memory…. And the drama is described in...

(The entire section is 758 words.)

Antoinette M. Mastin (essay date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stephen Dedalus in Paris?: Joycean Elements in Julia O'Faolain's Three Lovers," in Colby Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 244-51.

[In the following essay, Mastin analyzes Fintan McCann from O'Faolain's Three Lovers as a refiguration of James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus.]

In his now famous vehement interchange with Davin in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus declares that "Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow." Fifty-some years later, in the world reflected in Julia O'Faolain's Three Lovers, Ireland continues to evoke the same criticism and be wrapped in the same strictures. When...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Hargreaves, Tamsin. "Women's Consciousness and Identity in Four Irish Women Novelists." In Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature, edited by Michael Kenneally, pp. 290-305. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, pp. 1988.

Analyzes the search for identity and existential meaning found in classic fairy tales and the work of Julia O'Faolain, Edna O'Brien, Molly Keane, and Jennifer Johnston.

"Subjection and Seclusion." The Economist 246, No. 6756 (17 February 1973): 107.

The review gives credit to the talents of O'Faolain and fellow editor...

(The entire section is 142 words.)