(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Neither national nor international events find their way into Mary Lavin’s fiction, which is crammed with incidents from the lives of Dublin shopkeepers, country people, island fishermen and their families, nuns, priests, her parents, her children, and her husbands. Lavin’s characters, much more important than the plots, which are rather mundane, are usually autobiographical. They represent the author and her acquaintances at various stages in her lifetime: childhood, student life, marriage, motherhood, and widowhood.

Whereas James Joyce was haunted by a father-son conflict, Lavin was plagued by a mother-daughter conflict, resulting in what might be called an Electra complex. It partially accounts for the frequent revelations of unhappy marriages between mismatched couples although the differences were a source of attraction before the birth of children or the assumption of responsibilities. More often than not, the wife characters are domineering, unhappy, practical slaves to social mores. Some other women characters—nuns, spinsters, sisters, and widows—are vain, flighty, insecure, and emotionally labile. Husband characters, in contrast, no matter how beaten they are by their wives and circumstances, have a certain poetic vision, while the priests, bachelors, brothers, and widowers appear robust, in command of life and their emotions.

“Miss Holland”

“Miss Holland,” Lavin’s first short story, published in Dublin Magazine and reprinted in Tales from Bective Bridge, is the story of a typical spinster. Agnes Holland, lonely and ill prepared to face life, traveled for years with her father, who made all the decisions. At his death, Agnes must adjust to the world without anyone to help her. The story, set in England, begins with Agnes searching for a place to live; she finally decides to live at the guest house of Mrs. Lewis because of a playful cat.

Also living there are two men and three women with whom Agnes has nothing in common. She is not a conversationalist and cannot join in the spirited exchanges held during dining hours. Since the other boarders are younger, age is a further obstacle. Agnes feels trapped by her surroundings; there is nothing from the past that she can recollect which will bridge the gap between her and the boorish boarders. Agnes thinks she must try to enter this strange world and wants to discover something to share with the group, needing to be part of her environment.

The black cat affords the opportunity. Agnes sees him jumping in the sun after running through the flower bed where he plucked one red carnation; the image is like that of a Spanish dancer, and she can hardly wait to tell the group. At dinner she and a male guest begin to speak simultaneously, so Agnes waits to let him tell his story. To her horror, she learns that he has shot the cat. Amused, the other guests begin to laugh. Agnes is silent, withdrawing from the boisterous group; no longer can she associate with such people. Having no place else to go because she must live on the small amount of money left to her by her father, she determines to live on past memories of more genteel days. All the ugly characteristics of the uncultured men and women rush to her mind, separating her from them. Loneliness will become a fixed part of life, borne with dignity. Agnes’s emotional drama is the conflict of the story. Forever opposed to vulgarity, Agnes realizes she can no longer use her imagination to disguise poor taste and must protest “because my people before me went that way.”

“At Sallygap”

Annie Ryan in “At Sallygap” and Ella in “A Happy Death” are typical examples of the wife characters who pressure their husbands. Childless, Annie is a real terror. Artistic Manny Ryan, a fiddler who years earlier was heading to Paris with a band, jumped ship for Annie. He thought she was loving, fragile, and in need of him. Their marriage, however, symbolizes the paralysis and stagnation of Irish urban life. After years of labor, they have nothing more tangible than a tiny Dublin shop where they work and live. Manny knows that “All the Dublin people were good for was talking.” Annie was no exception. Her tongue lashes out at Manny usually because he is not aggressive enough in commercial dealings. Annie dominates him while wishing he would be the dominant spouse. Manny’s gentility, unfortunately, serves as a red flag for Annie’s temper.

By ordering him to go to Sallygap to set up a trade in fresh eggs, Annie gives him a brief escape from his hateful marriage. A lover of nature, Manny draws strength from the rural scenes. On missing the last bus, he walks home, free “at last from the sordidness of the life he led.” While Manny feels elated, however, Annie, accustomed to her husband’s regularity, goes through a variety of emotions awaiting his return. First, she plans to taunt him. Then thinking he is out drinking to get the courage to fight back, she relishes that prospect and prepares herself for a grand battle. Next, fear overcomes her: Perhaps Manny is dead. No, he would be brought home alive with a “latent mutinous instinct” activated, which she hopes will enliven their relationship. On hearing his footstep, however, Annie realizes nothing has changed. Manny is sober and servile, “imprisoned forever in her hatred.”

“A Happy Death”

In “A Happy Death,” Ella, with three daughters to rear, has to control her emotions in dealing with her dying husband Robert. To supplement their income, Ella rents rooms in their home, using some of the money to buy clothes for Robert so he can get a better job at the library. Outraged when he is demoted from clerk to porter because of his coughing, she demands that he quit, but he refuses and works as a porter. Ella cannot comprehend Robert’s need to work and bring her his wages, so she convinces herself that he works to spite her and lower the family’s social class. The emotional charges between Ella and Robert build up until his death and explode in Ella afterward.

Through a series of flashbacks, a device Lavin uses in most of her stories, the reader learns of Ella’s happy courtship with Robert, her admiration of his white skin and his interest in poetry, and their elopement against her parents’ wishes. Their happiness is fleeting. After they are married, she burns his poetry books, sees his white skin as a sign of weakness, and understands why her shopkeeping parents opposed her marriage to unemployed Robert. When Robert is hospitalized, with a flush of excitement, Ella insists on keeping up appearances. He must have the best ambulance, a private ward, a new nightshirt, and oranges which he cannot eat.

The daughters are embarrassed by their mother’s vain fussing over Robert; it is unnatural to send out for grapes, apples, and newspapers when they know he can neither eat not read. Ella, however, wants everyone to know Robert is a person of importance with people who care for him. More fruit, biscuits, and sweets are brought to him, making it difficult for the nurses to find space for the thermometer.

Eventually, Ella realizes that the unconscious Robert is dying and prays for his happy death; meanwhile, her prayers and behavior at the bedside are a continued source of distress to her daughters. Thrusting a crucifix in Robert’s face, Ella tries to get him to say an act of contrition; he does not. Then he regains his senses long enough to call out for Ella with the lovely golden hair. Misunderstanding her request for him to repeat “I am heartily sorry,” Robert thinks she is sorry for having offended him and says, “There’s nothing to be sorry about. You always made me happy, just by being near me.” Robert’s delirious mind recollects their...

(The entire section is 3194 words.)