Mary Lavin Lavin, Mary (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lavin, Mary 1912–

An Irish short story writer and novelist, Lavin is concerned in her fiction with the despair and frustration of lonely people. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mary Lavin writes] most of the time about people who appear to be living, at first, in a state of inertia, in the lethargy of country life: then we notice that they are smoldering and what her stories contain is the smoldering of a hidden life. Her short stories are as dense as novels and we shall gradually apprehend the essence of complete life histories … and they make the novel form irrelevant. They give a real and not a fancied view of Irish domestic life and it combines the moving with the frightening. She excels in the full portraiture of power-loving women, downtrodden women, lonely women, bickering country girls, puzzled priests and seedy shopkeepers who might pass as country types first of all, but who soon reveal a human depth of endurance or emotional tumult in their secret lives. (p. x)

Many of [her] stories describe country deaths and widowhood, the jealousies of young girls, the disappointments of courtship, the terrible aspects of lonely lives, the sly consolation of elderly love; the picture of Ireland is a somber one, relieved only by the mean comedy of country calculations and watchfulness. Why is it that these stories are not merely depressing? Simply because Miss Lavin is a great artist; we are excited by her sympathy, her acute knowledge of the heart, her truthfulness and, above all, by the controlled revelation of untidy, powerful emotion. She has a full temperament. The tales are mutinies of an observant mind, a record of unrepentant tumult where one did not know it could exist.

I cannot think of any Irish writer who has gone so profoundly without fear into the Irish heart. This fearlessness makes her remarkable. (pp. xii-xiii)

V. S. Pritchett, in his introduction to Collected Stories by Mary Lavin (copyright © 1971 by Mary Lavin; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, 1971, pp. ix-xiii.

Thomas J. Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lavin's fiction cannot be placed alongside the best from other cultures, but it can be seen, at full maturity in a few stories, as a quietly respectable contribution to the mainstream narrative action of the Irish story. That fictional technique is not at all like the tendency in the great novels of Joyce, Beckett or O'Brien to lyricize itself through poetry into some grand design which creates out of the minutest parts cosmological and metaphysical schemes of reality…. Miss Lavin's fiction shows more respect for the anecdotal rather than the poetic….

[In "The Green Grave and the Black Grave" and "The Great Wave,"] a remarkable ritualistic texture and sensitivity to poetic dialogue make wrong symbols out of the sea and its simple followers. The men and women of these stories are like Synge's tragic folk; their knowledge of suffering and love is unequal to ordinary conversation, but it erupts in a strange incantatory power that makes the characters embodiments of some mythological force. "'The sea is stronger than talk of love,' said Tadg Og, going out after him into the dark." Almost none of the other characters in other stories realize the truth of Tadg's remark, for their speech reveals not a knowledge either of love or death or the tragic but mere opinions of unfanciful social realities. (p. 123)

Lavin's scenery is the territory staked out by shopkeepers, ordinary workers, serving girls, clerks and widows of some means but of uncommonly ugly tongues and silly pretentions. They almost unnerve a reader into worrying them into real fictional existence as he keeps asking, in story after story, what really aches their hearts. Many of them are Catholic, but that does not seem to matter as faith is not in crisis in the fictions. Many of them show no ambition for power or money or goods; many of them show no questioning of conscience or identity. They are very small neighborhood people of insular concerns, but curiously when they shut their doors … they remain the small crabbed people one associates with small dingy shops: cheapness and meanness…. [Their problem is] a sterility that has killed long-repressed sensitiveness. In almost all of the relationships of these tradesmen types, a telling poison clots their blood and chokes their speech, turning an incipiently passionate hate into ineffectual passive resistance. (pp. 124-25)

It is these half-way people, belonging in neither city nor country but affecting the mean or boorish airs of both ways of living, who obviously fascinate Miss Lavin. She makes them work on a reader's rejection of them until he grudgingly accepts them in their own ordinariness as he might accept some annoying and unnameable...

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Richard F. Peterson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the three collections of stories published in the 1940s [Tales From Bective Bridge, The Long Ago and Other Stories, The Becker Wives and Other Stories], Mary Lavin established the emotional drama and technical strategy of her art. In story after story, the emotional ordeal of her characters is created out of the clash of opposed interests and sensibilities…. Gradually emerging out of these early stories, then, is the portrait of an Irish middle class peopled by lonely, sometimes bitter characters trapped by their own natures and their frustrated emotional needs. Within this portrait, Mary Lavin's characters act out their own individual failures or discover the terrible emptiness of their lives. (p. 25)

["At Sallygap"] develops several of the basic techniques of Mary Lavin's fiction. She often reveals the emotional reality of her characters by moving them from a fixed point in time, uneventful in itself, to a moment in the past which exposes the painful truth of their lives. At the same time, the oppressiveness of one memory, heavily weighted with emotional content, often denies her characters the chance to express their feelings through some dramatic statement or action. At the most, the typical Lavin story offers a brief glimpse of the truth without suggesting any conclusion or remedy for the conditions of her characters. (p. 26)

[In one of these stories, "Miss Holland,"] Mary Lavin achieves a balance between characterization and storytelling by allowing the narrative to enter the private world of Agnes Holland through the third-person limited point of view. The advantage of this viewpoint, which in some stories approaches the indirect interior monologue, is that it invites the reader to experience a character's feelings and thoughts. In the preface to Selected Stories, Mary Lavin says this technique gives her reader the chance to look "closer than normal into the human heart." The narrative structure is controlled by the central character's emotions and perceptions, for "the vagaries and contrarieties" of the heart "have their own integral design." While the content reveals what it is like to be a human being, the form traces the secret patterns of the sensitive heart. Thus the story achieves the delicate balance between tragedy and beauty because it unveils the secret terror and pity of the human soul. (p. 32)

Two of the stories in The Becker Wives reflect a new interest in Mary Lavin's fiction. "The Becker Wives" and "A Happy Death" are closer in narrative length to the novella than the short story. In her conversations about the type of fiction which falls somewhere between the short story and the novel, Mary Lavin has made a distinction between the short novel and the novella. While defining the short novel as something squeezed together, she sees the novella as just the right length. "The Becker Wives," according to these definitions, is a squeezed-together novel…. "The Becker Wives" has the same basic design as The House in Clewe Street [Mary Lavin's first novel]. The narrative begins with an ironic view of the Beckers, a prosperous merchant family, whose most distinguished characteristic is its incredible mediocrity. The narrative voice, assuming the role of the comic stoic, establishes the same viewpoint and identical atmosphere Mary Lavin admired in Jane Austen's novels and used in her own first novel. (p. 39)

The shift from the comic to the tragic view in "The Becker Wives" resembles the change that takes place in The House in Clewe Street when Gabriel Galloway decides to leave home for the great city. The increased intensity in "The Becker Wives," however, is more characteristic of Mary Lavin's short stories. Once the fantastically gifted Flora becomes the focal point of the story, the pace of "The Becker Wives" quickens dramatically. The narrative focuses on her delicate consciousness until her amazing gift for mimicry finally reveals itself as a symptom of madness. Structurally, Flora's mad confession ends a story resembling the novel in plot and characterization but the short story in intensity and swift insight into human emotions. A "squeezed-together novel," with no clear identity of its own, "The Becker Wives," nonetheless, concludes with a troubling vision of the artist who goes too far. In the process of becoming the personalities of those around her, Flora loses her own mind and soul. By shifting from the broad perspective of the novel to the intense medium of the short story, "The Becker Wives" reveals the tragedy of a young woman whose gift of insight becomes a maddening curse, preventing her from entering the comfortable, commonsense Becker world….

In her preface to Selected Stories, Mary Lavin states her dissatisfaction with her two long novels. In spite of her early interest in the novel form, she wishes that she "could break up" the ones she has written "into the few short stories they ought to have been in the first place." Lacking selectivity, her novels fall short of revealing the truth. Only her short fiction takes its "shape as well as matter" from "the writer's own character."

In her unpublished notes for an essay on the short story, she also acknowledges her preference for the short story. She believes the novel requires a full knowledge of history or a commitment to endless hours of research to recapture the historical experience. The short story, however, does not depend upon the writer's memory of facts or his avid interest in history. Its brevity and intensity are best suited for capturing the immediacy of impressions. Admitting her own difficulties with the novel form, Mary Lavin considers the problem of stamina, but recalls that she wrote her two long novels with a great deal of care and concentration. Rather than a shrinking from the rigors of novel writing, her own decision to write short stories was based upon an awareness of the needs and limitations of her own nature. She sees this recognition of one's limitations, strengths, and the particular blend of both, as a major step in the writer's development of his craft. (p. 44)

"Jane Austen and the Construction of the Novel" [Mary Lavin's thesis for her Master of Arts degree at University College, Dublin] shows a wide-ranging knowledge of the great novelists and a deep interest in the structure of their novels….

The first part of Mary Lavin's thesis, her discussion of the requirements of the good novel, offers several insights into the strategy of her own novels, The House in Clewe Street and Mary O'Grady. In her comments on plot, she stresses the importance of a strong narrative based on a logical probability of events. She also believes that the novelist should take advantage of plot agents, dramatic irony, proper magnitude of events, and the omniscient point of view to make events more adhesive and credible. Character, she says, should be inseparable from plot. It should also establish an affinity and universality with the reader. The chief purpose of plot and character is to reveal the significant influences which shape human destiny. Mary Lavin defines sentiment as the moral of the work, and believes most books have a definite moral purpose. Recognizing the dangers of a laid-on morality, however, she argues that the best method of the novelist is to make his views part of the texture of the story. (p. 45)

Mary Lavin's first novel, The House in Clewe Street, utilizes several of the judgments made in her thesis. The novel is divided into three parts and the title of each part bears the name of a character who figures prominently in the major events of the novel. In this way she achieves in the very outline of the novel the sense that plot and character are inseparable. She also hints that the purpose of each major part of the novel is the revelation of some state in the destinies of her chief characters. (p. 46)

Because the third-person narrative voice in Mary O'Grady reflects the perspective of the central character, it is less formal and more personal than the voice [of the narrator] in The House in Clewe Street. In this respect, Mary Lavin's point of view in Mary O'Grady is much closer to her short stories than her first novel. The end result is that Mary O'Grady has at least the opening advantage of a narrative that reflects the central character's thoughts and feelings. (p. 63)

The credibility of Mary O'Grady [is] so stretched by the rapid frequency of the family's tragedies that no aesthetic bliss balances the spiritual bliss of the novel's heroine. Tom's death is acceptable as a shocking but natural tragedy within the history of the family, but, when Ellie, Angie, and their sweethearts, are killed in [a] plane crash, the tragic events seem more manipulation than natural history. After Tom's early death, Angie and Ellie's tragic accident, Patrick's mental illness, Lary's failure, and Rosie's marital problem, Mary O'Grady emerges as a maternal version of the story of Job. Unfortunately, it lacks the objectivity and complexity of the biblical story or the modern variations that have appeared in drama and fiction.

Mary O'Grady does develop a strong spiritual message about the enduring values of...

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Catherine A. Murphy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. (p. 69)

Mary Lavin's [stories demonstrate her] own observation of the force of the "intuitive imagination" [and] … her apprehension of a "plane of reality" beyond that known merely by observation and experience…. Moreover, [in] the characteristic action of her stories of ordinary experience, the synthesis of external perceptions … [is] modified by an individual's habitual...

(The entire section is 1188 words.)