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Lantern Slides Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The pages of Lantern Slides are bracketed by two stories that neatly illuminate the book’s title. The “lantern” is an old-fashioned magic lantern, an early kind of slide projector that throws images upon a screen, just as these stories are images of the lives that O’Brien displays. The first, “Oft in the Stilly Night,” takes its title from a song by Thomas Moore, the nineteenth century Irish poet whose lyrics mourn a romanticized past. The story is virtually plotless, a series of vignettes featuring the inhabitants of an Irish village: the music teacher who keeps hens in her house, a defrocked young priest who lives with his mother, a woman who believes she has been attacked by a lily. These sad eccentrics flicker on and off the screen.

Paying homage to James Joyce with unmistakable allusions to “The Dead” and Ulysses, the title story is the true jewel of this collection as it observes a cross section of Dublin society at an elaborate surprise party for Betty, who has been deserted by her husband. Mr. Conroy, a rather pompous fellow (like Gabriel Conroy of “The Dead”), fleetingly remembers a dead lover as he escorts Miss Lawless, who daydreams of her first seducer. Other guests include the crude Mr. Gogarty (recalling Oliver St. John Gogarty, once Joyce’s roommate and the model for Buck Mulligan in Ulysses), an argumentative young woman, and the requisite drunkards. These partygoers are updated, seemingly more successful and cosmopolitan than Joyce’s, yet they too are emotionally stunted—gossiping, dissatisfied people waiting for something to happen to change their lives. Like Joyce’s characters, they are passive, already “dead,” but the wicked humor is entirely O’Brien’s.

Between these two lie other stories, centered largely on dysfunctional families or unsatisfactory love affairs. One of the best is “A Demon,” the tale of a disaster waiting to happen. Young Meg, the narrator, travels with her parents to fetch her ill sister from her boarding...

(The entire section is 508 words.)