Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

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.

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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.

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