Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1760
First published: 1943
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Naturalism
Time of work: 1939
Angele Maury, an actress
Hannah Kernahans, her aunt
Tom Kernahans, and
Martin Kernahans, Hannah’s sons
Norrie O’Byrne, Tom’s beloved
Angele Maury was an actress, half French, half Irish, who had taken her mother’s name as her stage name in preference to Kernahans, her Irish father’s name. Both her parents were dead. On an impulse, she stopped to visit her father’s people when her company toured Ireland. She found her aunt, Hannah Kernahans, strangely hostile to her and learned that Aunt Hannah had never told her three children of their uncle’s marriage or of his daughter.
It was obvious that Aunt Hannah was fiercely jealous of any intruders from the outside world. She loved all her children, but Tom, the oldest son, was tied to her by a silver cord so strong it seemed unlikely that the bond would ever be broken. Tom had long been loved by Norrie O’Byrne, but he was not sensitive to her love. Martin, the second son, had grown up quite independent. A student, he had traveled all over Europe on scholarships and had lived wildly at times. His mother either could not or did not care to tie him to her so closely.
What none of the children knew, and Angele did not learn, was that her father and their father had both loved Aunt Hannah. She had accepted Angele’s father; but before the wedding, he had discovered her steel will and had asked to be released from the engagement. She then married his brother, giving the impression that it was she who had changed her mind. She had never forgiven Angele’s father for embarrassing her, and she would never forgive Angele for being her father’s child. She sensed in Angele an enemy to the isolated life she lived with Tom.
Soon after her arrival, Martin told Angele that he wanted her and offered her anything but marriage; he was not yet ready for those ties. Angele did not take him seriously and thought that she was only someone new whom he would soon forget. The fact that they were first cousins also stood in the way of a serious proposal. Martin, however, brooded over her treatment of him and also worried about the impending war. Hitler took Czechoslovakia and stood on the threshold of Poland. Ireland was neutral, but Martin knew that he could not stand idly by while the world blew up under his feet. Only Martin and Angele took the war seriously. Knowing that her mother’s people would be deeply affected by the war, she was annoyed to see Aunt Hannah brush aside the whole affair with a shrug. Tom refused to see that no one could remain completely neutral when war finally came.
One day, Tom told Angele that he loved her. Unused to strong emotion, he had not recognized his feelings until they were too intense to ignore. Returning his love, Angele realized that Aunt Hannah would not like their engagement, lest Tom get away from her. Aunt Hannah was clever enough to make Tom believe she was delighted, but she subtly put obstacles in their way. Since they were first cousins, they would have to get special dispensations from Rome. Angele wanted to return to France on their honeymoon in spite of the dangers of war. Aunt Hannah used her weapons cleverly, fooling Tom but not deceiving Angele at all. She sensed that it would take more willpower than Tom had ever shown for him to overcome these obstacles and see his mother’s hold on him. Angele’s hope was that Tom would shake off his chains and be free and independent.
Martin brought matters to a head. It angered him to hear Angele talk of returning to France before war broke out, for he realized that Germany would soon march into Poland. If Angele wanted to see France, to act like a Frenchwoman, she should return to her people and help them in their time of crisis. Aunt Hannah encouraged the idea, all the time acting considerate and loving. She knew that if she could get Angele away from Tom, he would come back to the fold easily enough. Martin, of course, hoped for the separation so that he could have time to make Angele love him. He knew that she could never win against his mother, and he sincerely felt that she and Tom were not suited to each other.
When church officials failed to hurry dispensation proceedings, Angele fretted at the time lost. She even considered going by herself to France. Aunt Hannah tried to goad her into leaving alone, but she did not wish to hurt Tom just to please his mother. Tom kept promising Angele that he would find a way to hurry matters, but she took little hope; fast action was not in his nature.
Martin was too Irish to sign up with the British and prepared to leave to join the French army. Angele even wished that she were a man so that she would have to go back to France. Then the issue would be clear, not muddled in emotional reactions. Before he left, Martin told Angele again that he loved her. He told her too that she did not really love his brother, that she was too strong a person to love anyone as weak as Tom. He warned her that Hannah would win and that she would never let Tom go. Martin begged her to return to France with him the next day. Although she rejected the plan, Angele thanked Martin for his honesty and allowed him to kiss her good-bye.
In the meantime, Hannah made her final play for Tom. Pretending to feel sorry for Angele because she was so torn between Tom and France, she told him that Angele and Martin were the same kind, that Martin was desperately in love with his cousin. She also said that Angele had fallen in love with Tom because he was attractive and because she thought that he and Martin were much alike. Hannah declared that although it hurt her to tell him, she knew that Angele would never be happy with Tom in Ireland, and it was only the girl’s sense of obligation that made her stick to her promise. Hannah, knowing that she could handle that problem when she got to it, also played on the suitability of Norrie O’Byrne.
Shortly after his talk with his mother, Tom saw Martin and Angele kissing good-bye. He thought then that his mother had been right as usual. He went to Angele, released her from her betrothal to him, and apologized for being a selfish fool in taking her love. Angele knew then that she was beaten. She told Tom that she really loved him but that she realized their marriage would never work out. It was futile to try to make him see his mother as she really was.
Angele also told Aunt Hannah why she was leaving—that she did love Tom but knew she could never fight the bond or restore Tom’s confidence in himself. She went away with Martin, to return for good to France, and left Tom lost forever, the silver cord unbroken.
Kate O’Brien was born and reared in Ireland. She worked for years in Spain and France, however, and was thus exposed to European culture to an extent rare for a graduate of Dublin’s University College at the time. Her novels reveal her blended French-Irish cultural background, and she became one of the few cosmopolitan novelists able to treat the delicate question of Irish isolationism fairly and perceptively. Her works reflect a deep understanding of Ireland’s human qualities and the beauty of its culture.
THE LAST OF SUMMER is more than the story of an intense love triangle on an isolated estate in Ireland. It is also the story of a much-criticized man, Tom, who refuses to be a fool, and of his mother, Hannah, who believes in Ireland’s right to isolationism and in her own right to live among her loved ones on Kernahans Estate as she sees fit. The novel’s action occurs during the three brooding weeks just before World War II explodes late in the summer of 1939. The wild love of Tom and Martin for Angele is poignantly told. Angele is beautiful “in a queer sort of way,” and her oddly angelic, yet adult, innocence mesmerizes the Kernahans clan. The cross-cultural theme of the story fades in importance before the brusque rupturing of the Kernahans’ pleasant isolation on the black eve of war.
Character delineation is subtle. Allegedly spineless, Tom had suffered childhood losses when he was too young to grasp them; as a child, for example, he had seen his father taken into the living room to die from hunting wounds. Tom bore the scars ensuing from such incidents without complaint and lived happily on Kernahans’ Estate, the place that he loved best on earth. His apparent submission to the legendarily steel-willed Hannah was partially a deliberate coalescence of his will with hers. Tom loved Angele but saw that his duty was on the estate and that, unlike Martin, he was not free. He also knew that Angele could not be permanently happy with him on the estate, for her heart was in threatened France. Tom thus resisted war’s false glamor and mummery, along with anti-German hate propaganda, choosing to rebuild Ireland instead of meddling in Continental wars.
O’Brien’s novel raises the question of a human’s right to live as he sees fit, fulfilling home and family obligations rather than bowing to allegedly inevitable changes. The true tragedy of the Kernahanses, however, is that they have dwelt on an idyllic estate, untested by affliction, and thus have not developed their personal potential. Aunt Hannah, for example, while loving her family and blindly defending its right to be itself, is smugly callous because a geographic accident immunizes her from war’s horrors. Some critics thus consider THE LAST OF SUMMER a study of mediocrity. Other critics praise O’Brien for not answering the issue of isolationism and self-determination that her novel raises; for the river’s sound courses through the entire novel, broodingly noncommittal, just as it had in all the Irish stories that Angele’s father had told her as a child in France.