Mary Lavin Lavin, Mary - Essay


Mary Lavin 1912–-1996

American-born Irish short story writer and novelist.

See also Mary Lavin Criticism (Volume 4) and Volumes 18, 99.

Considered one of the foremost Irish short story writers of the twentieth century, Lavin instilled her tales of the Irish middle class with insight into the dynamics of intimate relationships through her focus on the contrarieties of human emotions. Sometimes faulted for lacking plot in her stories, Lavin frequently fixed her attention on seemingly trivial occurrences, investing them with hidden meanings and revealing their emotional significance. Though she published works in several genres, Lavin's most important literary contributions have been in the short story form.

Biographical Information

Lavin was born in East Walpole, Massachusetts. When she was nine years old, she moved with her parents to Ireland and lived in Dublin, where she attended the Loreto convent school. In 1925 the family relocated to the Bective estate in County Meath, and Lavin subsequently attended University College, Dublin, receiving her M.A. in English in 1936. In 1938 Lavin wrote her first short story, “Miss Holland,” on the back of a typed draft of her Ph.D. dissertation on Virginia Woolf. After several rejections, the story was accepted by editor Seumas O'Sullivan and published in the Dublin Magazine in 1939. O'Sullivan's agreement to seriously consider any other submissions that Lavin sent prompted Lavin to abandon her dissertation and pursue a career as a writer. In 1940 the publication of Lavin's story “The Green Grave and the Black Grave” in the Atlantic Monthly introduced her fiction to an American audience and garnered high praise from such prominent Irish writers as Lord Dunsany and Frank O'Connor. In 1942, with the help of Dunsany, Lavin published Tales from the Bective Bridge, her first collection of short fiction, and secured her status as a prominent literary figure. She received several awards for her work, including the Guggenheim fellowship and the Katherine Mansfield Prize, and her short stories often appeared in such prestigious periodicals as the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the Kenyon Review. She died on March 24, 1996.

Major Works of Short Fiction

The central figures of Lavin's stories tend to be sensitive individuals from the Irish middle class who have repressed or abandoned their dreams and are ultimately forced to confront regrets over the uneasy compromises of their lives. These pieces explore the dynamics of personal relationships and focus on the emotional dilemmas of her characters. In “At Sallygap,” one of the most critically acclaimed stories in Tales from Bective Bridge, Manny Ryan's unrealized artistic dreams strain his relationship with his wife, Annie. Critics note that Manny is one of Lavin's more complex characters, and through his narration in “At Sallygap” readers witness his growing dissatisfaction with himself, his work, and his marriage. In her later collections, A Single Lady, and other Stories (1951) and The Patriot Son, and Other Stories (1956), Lavin evinced a new emphasis on plot. Her fiction during this period garnered mixed reviews, and such stories as “Posy,” “The Small Bequest,” and “The Long Ago” have generally been faulted for intrusive narration and unrealistic characterizations.

The tales collected in In the Middle of the Fields, and Other Stories (1967) and Happiness, and Other Stories (1969) reflect Lavin's interest in autobiographical fiction and mark a return to the impressionistic writing style that established her reputation. These collections include several pieces that center on the emotional challenges of widowhood through the character Vera Traske. Commentators agree that Lavin's “widow stories” are among her finest and note that Vera Traske is Lavin's most autobiographical character. The story “Happiness” is the last of the Vera Traske stories and has been referred to by critics as a representative capsule of Lavin's artistic and personal perspectives. In this story, Vera, like Lavin, endures the early death of her husband and is left to care for their three young children. Though Vera dies, this story reveals her enduring faith in the value of life.

Critical Reception

Lavin's early stories were noted for a lack of plot structure as well as intrusive narration; but critics contend that from her earliest attempts, Lavin has been successful in developing characters that reflect the essence of Irish culture as well as the boundless nature of human tragedies and triumphs. Commentators assert that she has maintained a strong commitment to writing richly colored tales that test the emotional endurance of her characters, and though often pervasively despairing in the treatment of the tragic elements of human existence, Lavin's stories are considered poignant for their unwavering compassion and hopefulness. Her short stories have been compared to those of Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, and Henry James.

Principal Works

Tales from Bective Bridge 1942

The Long Ago, and Other Stories 1944

The Becker Wives, and Other Stories 1946; also published as Sallygap, and Other Stories, 1947

A Single Lady, and Other Stories 1951

The Patriot Son, and Other Stories 1956

Selected Stories 1959

The Great Wave, and Other Stories 1961

The Stories of Mary Lavin. 2 vols. 1964, 1974

In the Middle of the Fields, and Other Stories 1967

Happiness, and Other Stories 1969

Collected Stories 1971

A Memory, and Other Stories 1972

The Shrine, and Other Stories 1977

Mary Lavin: Selected Stories 1981

A Family Likeness, and Other Stories 1985

In a Café 1995

The House on Clewe Street (novel) 1945

Mary O'Grady (novel) 1950

A Likely Story (juvenilia) 1957

Richard Burnham (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Burnham, Richard. “Mary Lavin's Short Stories in The Dublin Magazine.Cahiers du Centre d'Etudes Irlandaises 2 (1977): 103-10.

[In the following essay, Burnham examines Lavin's stories published in The Dublin Magazine, including “Miss Holland,” “A Fable,” “Brigid,” and “An Akoulins of the Irish Midlands,” and discusses her relationship with editor Seumus O'Sullivan.]

Mary Lavin is among the most talented of Irish short story writers to appear in this century. As early as April 1939, when Mary Lavin was only twenty-seven years old, she published her first story, “Miss Holland,” in The Dublin Magazine. Seumas O'Sullivan, the editor of The Dublin Magazine, called it “a finished piece of work” and said that”its delicate restraint appealed greatly …” O'Sullivan, who was keen to encourage talented young Irish writers and provide them with a literary journal in which to publish their work, told Mary Lavin that he would be glad to consider anything that she submitted. However, he indicated that the space at his disposal for stories and sketches was very limited. Like all editors, he had a long waiting list of Irish writers.1 In “Miss Holland,” Mary Lavin developed her protagonist through interior monologue, rather than direct statement, “looking closer than normal into the human heart.”2 It was in her characterization of Miss Holland that Mary Lavin excelled. Although her story was not a tale of action so much as the development of a state of mind, it still used specific moments which helped to depict Miss Holland and made her into a credible character with whom it was easy to identify. When politics was the topic discussed at lunch, Miss Holland spent the rest of the day reading the newspaper, looking up politics in the Encyclopedia Britannica and even going to the British Museum to do some research. She then felt certain that she would be able to make a significant comment at supper:

All through supper she would sit in a tight, straight rigidity of nervousness, indifferent to the food, waiting for an opportunity to enter the conversation in a striking way. Those opportunities never came … She clung tightly to her little piece of potential conversation in case a chance would come to use it at the very last minute. Later she said it to herself, in the dark, in bed, with great success …

After the publication of “Miss Holland,” Mary Lavin continued to send her work to O'Sullivan. She apologized in June 1939 for sending him so much material, and hoped he would realize that it was “from under—and not over—confidence ….” Mary Lavin indicated that when she originally asked O'Sullivan to read ”Miss Holland” she had nothing to lose, but she might now forfeit his good opinion, if he did not enjoy her newly submitted work, and this made her terribly nervous.3 In September 1939 O'Sullivan indicated that he wanted to publish Mary Lavin's story “A Fable.”4 In “A Fable” (eventually published in the October 1940 Dublin Magazine) Mary Lavin attempted to elude and exploit the restrictions of length that were imposed upon her as a short story writer. In her use of the fable she telescoped a great deal of human experience into a situation in which she asked the reader to sacrifice his credulity. Although many short story writers before Mary Lavin, like Chekov in “The Bet” and Tolstoi in several of his shortest pieces, used the fable, it did not prove entirely sucessful as a literary device once realism began to dominate fiction in the second half of the nineteenth-century. The demand for verisimilitude seemed to deny its validity. “A Fable” developed a trite moral thesis—that too much beauty in a woman created jealousy—to which Mary Lavin also referred in subsequent short stories. In “The Inspector's Wife” (published in The Long Ago, [The Long Ago, and Other Stories] 1944) the realistic representation of envy and self-deception first advanced in “A Fable” was more elaborately and plausibly developed. And in “A Frail Vessel” (published in The Patriot Son, and Other Stories, 1956) the jealousy of one woman toward another, more beautiful, woman was more believably described. While some of the characters in “The Inspector's Wife” and “A Frail Vessel” assumed an identity of their own, in “A Fable” they remained flat and undeveloped: symbols of an attitude and nothing more.

In “A Fable” Mary Lavin, to some extent, reversed the situation found in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story “The Birthmark” in which a scientist attempted to make his already beautiful wife even more perfect by removing a birthmark from her cheek. While Hawthorne's scientist desired perfect beauty and tried to make his wife's birthmark disappear so “that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw,”, the townspeople in Mary Lavin's fable were only content when the beautiful woman whose face “was like a bough of apricot blossoms” has the flesh on her face torn by the thorns of a bramble. In “A Fable” the perversity of human nature was such that if the villagers had been unable to bear the beauty of the woman's unscarred face, they seemed to long for her once her beauty was less than perfect. A beautiful face for them, as for the young boy in Chekov's “Beautiful Women,” aroused a heavy sense of melancholy—even hatred.

On the 7th of May 1941 O'Sullivan asked Mary Lavin if he might publish her short story “Say Could That Lad Be I,” instead of “Grief.” O'Sullivan had a space problem during the war years because of the paper shortage, and “Say Could That Lad Be I” was very much shorter than “Grief.” He also wanted to include in his July 1941 issue of the magazine “something cheerful—like your gay white prince episode, to cheer up the readers.”5 The issue already contained a melancholy short story. “A Woman from Leam Lara,” by Margaret O'Leary and a memorial notice to F. R. Higgins.6 In “Say Could That Lad Be I” Mary Lavin's white prince, a cross between a wire-haired terrier and a blood hound, was a rambunctious and fighting dog who continually got himself and his owner into difficulty. Mary Lavin's amusing tale was told in simple language and with evocative images. She captured the spirit of a past era while her narrator, an old man looking back on his boyhood, spoke with fond recollections. The reader was able to visualize the village shop with its plates of dried fruit on one side and yards of lace and ladies' bonnets on the other. Mary Lavin provided just enough detail to create an impression when she referred to “… the shopboys kneeling into the window spaces in every shop, trimming up the wick and striking matches and putting down the globes over the flame.” After they were lit, the lights swung back and forth on the ceiling and for a short time sent big unnatural shadows of the shopboys and items in the window out over the footpath.

In “Brigid,” published in the January 1944 issue of The Dublin Magazine, Mary Lavin made the attitudes of the characters in her short story dramatically justifiable. The irritable way Owen's wife spoke to him, her belittling and reprimanding tone, reflected the tension in their home:

“‘Listen to that rain’ said the woman to her buband, ‘will it never stop?’”

“‘What harm is a sup of rain?’ said the man.

“‘That's you all over again,’ she said. ‘What harm is there in anything, as long as it doesn't affect yourself’”

Owen's wife was annoyed not so much by the rain or her husband's attitude toward it as by his insistent desire to care for and keep his dim-witted sister on their property:

I won't let it be said that I had a hand or part in letting my own sister be put away … I won't give in. Poor Brigid. Didn't my mother make me promise her that I'd never have hand or part in putting the poor creature away.

According to Owen's wife, Brigid's presence made her daughters less marriageable. “Is any man going to marry a girl when he hears her own aunt is a poor, half-witted creature, soft in the head …” Owen's wife was jealous of the attention her husband devoted to his sister, and it was this, Mary Lavin suggested, which accounted for her ill nature. Owen, on the other hand, was perturbed by his wife's lack of tolerance, and this made him bitter:

I suppose one of our fine daughters would think it the end of the world if she was asked to go for a bit of a message? Let...

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Janet Egleson Dunleavy (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Dunleavy, Janet Egleson. “The Making of Mary Lavin's ‘A Memory’.” Eire-Ireland 12, no. 3 (1977): 90-9.

[In the following essay, Dunleavy investigates the origins and development of Lavin's short story “A Memory.”]

Now in her early sixties with many awards behind her, including two Guggenheims and the prestigious Lady Gregory medal, Mary Lavin, best known to Americans through her short stories in The New Yorker, served her literary apprenticeship in Dublin in the days when Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain, and Lord Dunsany were the major figures of a circle that helped develop the short story in English from mere tale to art form.1...

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Richard F. Peterson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Peterson, Richard F. “The Circle of Truth: The Stories of Katherine Mansfield and Mary Lavin.” Modern Fiction Studies 24, no. 3 (1978): 383-94.

[In the following essay, Peterson elucidates the influence of Katherine Mansfield's short stories on Lavin's short fiction.]

Katherine Mansfield wrote in her journal that honesty “is the only thing one seems to prize beyond life, love, death, everything. It alone remaineth. O you who come after me, will you believe it? At the end truth is the only thing worth having: it's more thrilling than love, more joyful and more passionate. It simply can not fail.”1 Mary Lavin, one of the...

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Catherine A. Murphy (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Murphy, Catherine A. “The Ironic Vision of Mary Lavin.” Mosaic 12, no. 3 (1979): 69-79.

[In the following essay, Murphy discusses Lavin's use of “intuitive imagination” in her short fiction.]

Frequently in Mary Lavin's stories the normal world view of an individual is suddenly transfigured by the awareness of an extended dimension of reality. This extended dimension, Miss Lavin implies, is a larger cosmos enveloping and consistently influencing the normal world, though its existence is not consistently perceived.

Other writers have suggested their awareness of a dimension of reality which exists beyond ordinary consciousness and which...

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Janet Egleson Dunleavy (essay date autumn 1979)

SOURCE: Dunleavy, Janet Egleson. “The Making of Mary Lavin's ‘Happiness’.” Irish University Review 9, no. 2 (autumn 1979): 225-31.

[In the following essay, Dunleavy traces the origins and development of Lavin's story “Happiness.”]

Mysterious and fascinating to those who study the craft of fiction, the creative process is equally mysterious and fascinating to those who practice it.

When, for example, did the seeds of “Happiness”, first published in The New Yorker of 14 December 1968, begin to germinate?1 No one knows, not even the author of the story, for Mary Lavin's method of composition is to allow such seeds to...

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Marianne Koenig (essay date autumn 1979)

SOURCE: Koenig, Marianne. “Mary Lavin: The Novels and the Stories.” Irish University Review 9, no. 2 (autumn 1979): 244-61.

[In the following essay, Koenig compares Lavin's novels The House in Clewe Street and Mary O'Grady to Lavin's short stories contending that parts of the novels could easily succeed as short fiction.]

“Two bad novels” is Mary Lavin's dismissive description nowadays of The House in Clewe Street1 and Mary O'Grady,2 the only two novels she ever did write. She has wished that “novels could be torn down like houses”.3 But there they are; in fact they are neither all bad, nor all...

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Bonnie Kime Scott (essay date autumn 1979)

SOURCE: Scott, Bonnie Kime. “Mary Lavin and the Life of the Mind.” Irish University Review 9, no. 2 (autumn 1979): 262-78.

[In the following essay, Scott considers Lavin's fascination with the human mind, particularly the female mind, as evinced in her short fiction.]

In general treatments of Irish fiction and in articles more specifically on her own writing, Mary Lavin has been acclaimed as a “promising”, “skillful”, and even a “great” short story writer, the encomiums coming from such distinguished sources as Lord Dunsany, Seumas O'Sullivan, Frank O'Connor, Benedict Kiely and V. S. Pritchett. But, even though discovery of her dates back some thirty...

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Regina Mahlke (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Mahlke, Regina. “Mary Lavin's ‘The Patriot Son’ and ‘The Face of Hate’.” In Studies in Anglo-Irish Literature, edited by Heinz Kosok, pp. 333-37. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1982.

[In the following essay, Mahlke discusses Lavin's brief foray into stories with political themes, focusing on “The Patriot Son” and “The Face of Hate.”]

Critics began to protest almost immediately after Mary Lavin's first story with a political theme had appeared in 1956. Elizabeth Bowen disliked The Patriot Son [The Patriot Son, and Other Stories] as a title for a short story collection as she thought that other stories in the book had...

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Janet Egleson Dunleavy (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Dunleavy, Janet Egleson. “Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, and a New Generation: The Irish Short Story at Midcentury.” In The Irish Short Story: A Critical History, edited by James F. Kilroy, pp. 145-68. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Dunleavy traces Lavin's literary development and evaluates her contributions to the Irish short story.]

By the end of World War II, the Irish short story had become an established subgenre of twentieth-century literature. Its form and content, pioneered before World War I by George Moore and James Joyce, had been redefined by Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain (“the Romulus and Remus of Irish short...

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Jeanette Roberts Shumaker (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts. “Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 185-97.

[In the following essay, Shumaker examines the use of sacrificial women characters in the short fiction of Lavin and Edna O'Brien.]

Edna O'Brien's “A Scandalous Woman” (1972) ends with the statement that Ireland is “a land of strange, sacrificial women” (33). Like O'Brien, Mary Lavin features sacrificial women in her short stories. The disturbing martyrdoms of the heroines created by both writers stem, in part, from Catholic notions of the Madonna. The two writers criticize their heroines'...

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Mary Neary (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Neary, Mary. “Flora's Answer to the Irish Question: A Study of Mary Lavin's ‘The Becker Wives’.” Twentieth Century Literature 42, no. 4 (winter 1996): 516-26.

[In the following essay, Neary asserts that “The Becker Wives” provides valuable inside into the “Irish quest for identity.”]

“What ish my nation?” is a question that surfaces time and again, and in various forms, throughout Irish literature. It most explicitly appears in Shakespeare's Henry V, with an answer that leaves much room for emendation, particularly considering that it originates in English, not Irish, literature. “What ish my nation?” asks an Irish captain named...

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Further Reading


Hawthorne, Mark D. “Words That Do Not Speak Themselves: Mary Lavin's ‘Happiness’.” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 4 (fall 1994): 683-88.

Examines autobiographical aspects of “Happiness.”

Kelly, Angeline A. Mary Lavin, a Quiet Rebel: A Study of Her Short Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1980, 200 p.

Full-length study of Lavin's short stories.

Levenson, Leah. The Four Seasons of Mary Lavin. Dublin: Marino, 1999, 368 p.

Critical evaluation of Lavin's work.

Peterson, Richard F. Mary Lavin. Boston: Twayne Publishers,...

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