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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.)
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[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.
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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...
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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 irritation. One cause of that irritation conditioning an attitude toward the characters is the woman's role as devourer of masculine fantasies. Lavin's women are not made into symbolic presences whose egos feed on monstrous greed or possessive jealousy; there is rarely the touch of the super-ego playing out its destructive forces in their lives. They are, however, more like the small, tidy, neat and efficient women or young girls who at best can only reluctantly let go of the man's heart strings when some improbable demand of his ego intervenes between their wills and his desires.
The theme of the killing of the male's fantasies is chillingly done in the story "At Sallygap" in which Annie, wife of the timid shopkeeper Manny, has so soured the husband that even a few hours outing outside Dublin, away for the first time in years from her and their fetid shop, makes him irritably nervous as he realizes the price he will have to pay for his stolen joy of watching the simple country people. His escape blends into fantasies of forgotten recklessness of childhood, and he is momentarily happy and free as he roams the country roads until he nervously remembers that Annie awaits him at the shop door, trembling in rage at this extravagant flightiness. (pp. 125-26)
Manny now knows clearly what before he had darkly understood. Annie's hate is the source of all that holds them hopelessly together. But the death of Manny's fantasies of escape into a healthier life is not the only death Miss Lavin masterfully dramatizes in this story. The shuttered and darkened shop which awaits Manny on his return to Dublin is a symbol of the closed heart Annie has nurtured ever since the day of her first victory over him…. Although Manny's complacency makes him a sexually impotent husband, it is finally his kindness and softness, too frail to contain the animal lustiness she had once hoped to find in marriage, which she insists on battling as weakness.
The Annie Ryans of Lavin country are legion. Their husbands' small and delicate strengths are never judged or used psychologically on their own terms for what they are. Their vicarious pleasures in other women's sexuality are joyless and illusory. (pp. 126-27)
[Miss Lavin's] prose style is very straight and not in the least convoluted or involuted with verbal lyricisms which, if used, might reduce the tension of the narrative or inflate the banality of the dialogue into symbolically pregnant speech. Her admirable control of point of view works well to maintain an almost extremely cruel distance from the characters to the extent that at times it is impossible to say where her true sympathies are…. One value of this apparent objectivity is the absence from her fiction of stuck-on social issues as background scenery or of clichéd ideas of 'Irishness' as ingredients of characterization. Another is the humility she holds toward the characters as evidenced time and again throughout all the stories in the marvellously hearable and repeatable dialogue, strong enough to suggest that the story writer must also be a dramatist willing to forego the pleasurable sensation of hearing a detectable point of view through the speech of his characters. (pp. 130-31)
What matters, finally, is the readability of the fictional surfaces; there are few surprises in the narrative or imagistic detail to shock the reader with artistic self-consciousness as the scenes, situations, and possible larger metaphoric senses of design are controlled by a firm core of anecdote. In spite of the reader's uneasy dread which stems from his awareness of the short-circuited feelings of a husband and wife or a mother and her children, Miss Lavin's usual technique is a tell-tale sign of a shift in the rhythms of the characters' speech without making it a criss-cross of reflexive references stretching into poetry but keeping it on the safer side of spoken speech. (p. 131)
Thomas J. Murray, "Mary Lavin's World: Lovers and Strangers," in Éire-Ireland (copyright Irish American Cultural Institute), Vol. VII, No. 2, 1972, pp. 122-31.
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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 motherhood, but the strong dose of religion in the second half of the novel further damages the credibility of the novel. As Mary's religious beliefs grow in significance, the narrative voice, assuming the maternal perspective throughout most of the novel, becomes so sympathetic to her simple view of life that the point of view collapses into sentimentality. Unlike Flaubert, who maintains narrative objectivity in Un Coeur Simple while treating a character similar to Mary O'Grady in her simple religious values, Mary Lavin allows the narrative voice to fall into a subjective role in the novel. That flaw, along with the intrusive manipulation of the O'Grady history, spoils a novel that had the potential of expanding the successful techniques of her short stories. Mary Lavin's feeling that her two long novels should have been broken up into "the few short stories they ought to have been in the first place" is particularly relevant as a measurement of the value of Mary O'Grady. (pp. 74-5)
In the early years of her career, Mary Lavin wrote stories carefully designed to allow the reader to experience the emotional reality of her characters' lives. Her collections published in the 1950s, however, contain many stories that rely more on patterns of writing that impose the truth upon her characters and readers. "A Single Lady," "The Convert," and "A Tragedy" are successful in creating an impression of reality, but stories with surprise endings and intrusive narrators are more typical of these collections. Though well written, [these] patterned stories lack the fine balance of her early stories. In the 1950s, Mary Lavin also wrote a number of stories about the same character or family. Five stories from thie period portray the Grimes family and collectively embody Mary Lavin's most ambitious attempt to explore the emotional reality of middle-class Irish life. (p. 76)
The majority of stories in A Single Lady strongly suggest a change of direction in Mary Lavin's writing. "A Single Lady" and "The Convert" continue the trend of her early work, but several others are clearly stories with a pattern…. Both stories develop the tragic theme of opposed natures within a carefully controlled point of view that reflects the temperament of the central character. Unfortunately, "A Single Lady" and "The Convert," the most satisfying stories in the collection, are exceptions to the story telling pattern in A Single Lady. (p. 78)
The artificiality imposed upon "An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands" is typical of the stories with a pattern in A Single Lady and The Patriot Son. These stories are entertaining and cleverly written, but they lack the quality of most of Mary Lavin's earlier fiction, and fall short of her goal of capturing the emotional experience. Though clever enough to be popular, her middle stories, with their intrusive narrators and surprise endings, are not representative of her best fiction. In her future collections, her stories return to the form of her earlier fiction, and assume an even greater power and authority because of their mature theme. (p. 94)
In the 1960s and 1970s [in her collections The Great Wave and Other Stories, In the Middle of the Fields and Other Stories, Happiness and Other Stories, and A Memory and Other Stories,] Mary Lavin gradually moved away from the story with a pattern and returned to the impressionistic story that attempts to capture the emotional experience of her character. She also added new strength to her fiction by objectifying her painful adjustment to widowhood in a series of powerful portraits of widows. Several of her widow stories form a sequential pattern of events in the life of middle-aged women struggling to find their self-identity after the loss of their husbands. During this period. Mary Lavin also created Vera Traske, her most autobiographical character. After appearing in several stories of emotionally isolated women, Vera finally emerges as the autobiographical heroine in "Happiness." In this central story, Vera expresses a philosophy which enables her to endure terrible suffering and still keep faith with herself and her work. "Happiness" is a counterpoint to Mary Lavin's compelling studies of the great loneliness of individuals trapped by their own emotional failures; and Vera is one of her rare characters to recognize that life, with all its tragic potential, also offers the chance for love, understanding, and happiness. (p. 100)
In many of her stories, Mary Lavin uses one striking symbol as the focal point for the loneliness or bitterness of her main character. In stories like "Second Hand" and "The Yellow Beret," however, the symbol also functions as an artificial means to resolve the plot. Because this type of story emphasizes its narrative cleverness rather than its insight into the underlying truth of a character's lonely existence, the final result is often an entertaining but less interesting study of human nature than her stories without an intrusive pattern. (p. 106)
The influence of the dead upon the living is a constant theme in Mary Lavin's fiction. Several critics have commented on the near obsession with death that emerges from her stories. Zack Bowen, for example, claims that she "is preoccupied with death, and the effect of death upon the living is perhaps the most frequent motif in her writing." The influence of memory is also a major factor in her writing. The basic narrative strategy in many of her stories is to tell the story retrospectively. She learned from Turgenev and Jane Austen that this approach breaks up the monotony of storytelling by balancing past and present as well as character and event…. In the early stories, death acts as a catalyst, revealing the truth about a character's life. In the widow stories, death becomes a presence, influencing a character's every action and thought. Memory, rather than functioning as a storytelling strategy, plays a vital role in the widow's adjustment to her new life. (p. 109)
Mary Lavin accomplishes in "A Memory" [in A Memory and Other Stories] one of the most sophisticated treatments of the major theme of her fiction. Most of her stories are studies of the terrible loneliness of people even within the closest possible relationships. Alienated either because of a difference in temperament or a flaw in character, husband and wife, father and daughter, brother and sister, all experience the same disappointments and the same bitter feelings of emptiness and failure. If a couple, in spite of their differences, gain a moment of bliss, they also run the risk of having their happiness ripped from them by some cruel stroke of nature. In her widow stories, however, Mary Lavin also observes the capacity in some individuals to endure their personal ordeals and to struggle forward with their lives. Her Vera character embodies this particular attitude and strength. What emerges as a final vision, then, is a recognition that life with all its snares and emotional pitfalls still represents the only chance that people have for love and understanding. Mary Lavin's strongest characters commit themselves to love, endure their personal tragedies, and never give up the struggle for life until assured that life is finished with them. Her weakest characters, like James, find that life is too much for them. All they can do is curse their life and wait for death. (pp. 141-42)
Though Mary Lavin's subject matter is as Irish as the town of Athenry, the form of her fiction is indebted to sources more Russian, English, and American than Irish. Benedict Kiely has identified one particularly Irish characteristic of her stories, her tendency to introduce an element of fantasy into her otherwise realistic studies of the middle class. This characteristic, however, lies on the periphery of her fiction. As effective as the technique can be in stories like "The Becker Wives," with its spritelike Flora, and "The Cuckoospit," with its echoes of the Dierdre myth, Mary Lavin's fiction is basically made up of what Kiely calls "her quiet terrifyingly intimate studies of domesticity." (p. 147)
An ordinary mind on an ordinary day—add an ordinary life and you have the given characteristics of Mary Lavin's stories. What transforms this world into an extraordinary aesthetic experience is the writer's unwavering commitment to revealing the inner truths hidden beneath the surface realities of her characters' lives. This commitment is what Mary Lavin recognized in Katherine Mansfield's fiction, and what she sought in her own stories….
"A Cup of Tea" and "The Convert," for example, create intensely personal experiences which reveal the hidden truths of her characters' lives. Seeing these stories as comparable to "At the Bay" and "Prelude," Mary Lavin believes they come closest to what she wanted to do, to her own idea of the truth. At the other end of the scale, however, are her stories with a pattern, those stories in which a truth is imposed upon the reader. Entertaining and clever as they often are, stories like "The Small Bequest" and "Posy" fall short of the standard of excellence Mary Lavin found in Katherine Mansfield's fiction and used in judging her own work. (p. 150)
One obvious influence on Mary Lavin's fiction is the work of Ivan Turgenev. "An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands," it has been noted, is a retelling of Turgenev's "The Tryst." Though only a few of her stories use the first-person narrative of A Sportsman's Sketches, her short fiction shares the same tender and sympathetic vision as Turgenev's…. [In] Mary Lavin's best fiction she shares Turgenev's depth of understanding of the world of character and feeling. Both writers, working within a familiar and ordinary world, create a vision of the larger pattern of human nature out of their characters' small intimacies and failures. Free of the usual emphasis on plot, their stories reveal a hidden world in which folly and endurance, wonder and despair, exist within what Henry James, in describing the work of Turgenev called "an exquisite envelope of poetry." (pp. 151-52)
While Mary Lavin shares a common vision with Turgenev, her fiction is equally indebted to the work of Anton Chekhov. She has been influenced by Chekhov's genius for placing emphasis on gestures, words, moods, and situations which seem to have no immediate relevance until they suddenly reveal some hidden meaning or secret truth. Her stories also closely resemble Chekhov's in their use of provocative moods as a substitute for conventional plotting. Not only does she share Chekhov's interest in lives which appear narrow and drab on the surface, she has the same tendency to act as a detached observer even though she obviously has sympathy and compassion for her characters. (p. 152)
Mary Lavin possesses Chekhov's sympathetic genius for portraying common humanity. In story after story she reveals the terrible loneliness of the shy and timid. While her narrative exposes the tragic circumstances of individuals caught in domestic situations which force them to act meanly and cruelly, the focus is always upon the twisted and tormented humanity of her characters. The most frightened, the most timid, even the most repulsive characters, have the chance to tell their own stories, reveal their own failures or empty triumphs…. Once her subject matter is established, she creates a world extraordinary in its revelation of the emotions hidden in common and undistinguished lives. (p. 153)
[Except] for an occasionally intrusive narrative comment, Mary Lavin's stories maintain a remarkable balance of form and content. Her point of view is strategically controlled from the perspective of the central character, thereby creating an interdependence of form (character's view) and content (character's movements, feelings, and discoveries). (p. 155)
Very early in her career Mary Lavin knew that her stories did not have the startling situations that immediately attract attention. Even her admirers were advising her to use more plot and stronger conclusions in her stories. Her response to the criticism was "A Story with a Pattern." She accomplished two purposes in writing this story. On the one hand, she showed with the tale of Murty Lockwood that she was quite capable of writing a story with a "meaty" plot and ending. The real story, however, is the debate between the writer and her well-meaning critic. Confronted with this impressive story with a pattern, the writer still keeps her faith in her own approach to her work, arguing that life has little plot and is not rounded off at the edges. Mary Lavin's early stories from "Miss Holland" to "A Happy Death" generally support the writer's point of view in "The Story with a Pattern." In these stories, she achieved a high degree of success by devoting herself to the truth without any concession to literary conventions. Unfortunately, possibly because her early stories received little critical attention, she turned to writing a more conventional short story at about the time of the publication of "A Story with a Pattern." Immediately interesting and entertaining, these stories lack "inherent, individual beauty."
Mary Lavin returned to her own vision of art with her widow stories. Those tales of love lost and grief endured represent her best work. In the Middle of the Fields is perhaps the best single group of Lavin stories ever published, the one upon which her reputation should finally rest. "In the Middle of the Fields," "The Cuckoospit," and "One Summer" all have that happy balance of representative subject matter and intrinsic form. Even the dark and powerful "The Mock Auction," which at first seems so out of character with the rest of her fiction, shines forth with its own particular quality of beauty out of the squalor and misery endured by its central character. Among the stories in her later collections, "Happiness", "The Lost Child," "Asigh," and "A Memory" continue the pattern of excellence begun with Tales from Bective Bridge and resumed with In the Middle of the Fields. (pp. 156-57)
Richard F. Peterson, in his Mary Lavin (copyright © 1978 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1978, 171 p.
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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 process of feeling…. (p. 70)
However, the group of Miss Lavin's stories which involve experience encountered at a time of heightened imagination … does a good deal more. These stories describe an individual's apprehension of an extended dimension of reality, the "spiritual reality" …; they not only reaffirm the existence of this reality but also … suggest something of its precise link to the human imagination and its not always beneficient influence on human life. Primary suggestions include the views that this spiritual reality is the locus of the ongoing life force which fructifies the individual's imagination, enabling it to interact with his or her consciousness in the task of unifying individual experience; that under certain circumstances this force can so overcharge or intensify the process of imagination that the countering process of consciousness is overwhelmed; that with this overwhelming of consciousness comes a consequent blind and direct subjection to the dynamic of the extended dimension, a subjection which is ironically destructive, not vivifying, because individual human consciousness, the distinction of the species and the source of a person's active and evaluative comprehension of reality, has been replaced by a tyrannical life force quite indifferent to individual existence and to individual aspiration to complete development.
Miss Lavin's stories not only suggest these ideas but dramatize them with extraordinary imaginative, psychological, and artistic power. Her use of a dynamic developmental image or group of images to suggest the unifying of several planes of awareness in stories of ordinary existence such as "Lilacs" and "Brother Boniface" … is also the method of those of her stories which involve the extended dimension; the difference is that in the latter stories Miss Lavin seeks to encompass in a single unity that further plane of reality perceived by the roused imagination…. This pursuit of the connection between the reality perceived under normal conditions of consciousness, the structure of which the individual feels he comprehends (however partial that comprehension may seem from another perspective), and the reality perceived by "even the simplest and most normal people" in heightened states of imagination, the structure of which is not fully apprehended and which is not comprehended at all, is present from the very first collection of stories and increases in importance with each succeeding volume.
Its most extended representation in Miss Lavin's work occurs in [some of the] related stories involving a widowed protagonist, these stories being a significant part of Miss Lavin's more recent work: "In a Café" … [and "In the Middle of the Fields" are particularly important in this regard. These stories] dramatize the protagonist's isolation and vulnerability before she is again returned to a more customary, structured life; in them the fundamental conflict lies between direct subjection to the forces of a larger cosmos apprehended by her roused imagination and a commitment to ordered conscious life and individual persons. The protagonist in these … stories, disoriented by her widowhood and intensely aware of death, is vulnerable to the apprehension of an extended dimension at almost every step.
In "In a Café," the protagonist Mary, two years widowed and suffering from a sense of loss not only of her much-loved husband but also of her own identity, is drawn to a foreign artist, sensing in his art, manner, and socially dissociated life their similarity of position…. She discovers, however, that her feeling is a specific loneliness for her husband Richard, not a longing for love in general—and her conscious recognition of the specificity of her emotion restores to wholeness her previously fragmented memory of Richard, her sense of association with her context, and her sense of her own particular identity. (pp. 71-2)
The dramatic conflict of "In the Middle of the Fields" does not lie in the protagonist's temptation to yield to a passion opposed to her specific awareness, as in the earlier story; instead the oppositions, elaborated primarily in terms of light-dark imagery, lie in the power of a supra-human force to affect normal awareness even against one's will. The dead who had in life yielded to this force, the story implies, become one with that force, influencing the imaginations of those whom they have loved….
The story thus implies that the loved who have died are a part of the ambiguous force of the extended dimension apprehended through imagination; and that for those who have experienced a profound love, the death of the beloved is never absolute, the beloved never wholly absent. As in the earlier "Loving Memory," however, the power of love can extend beyond the grave, but is itself a force of death when it does so. Thus the heart of the protagonist's dilemma is that the vital source of life is also the source of the death of normal consciousness. (p. 76)
Intense and encompassing as [these stories] are, "The Great Wave," from the author's 1961 collection, most completely renders, in a single story, Miss Lavin's most extreme vision of the relation of the forces of the extended dimension to conscious life and feeling; more directly and explicitly than any other story, it posits realistically, as the early "The Green Grave and the Black Grave" posits poetically, the fully independent reality of a sensate cosmos apprehended by, and influencing, the individual imagination. (p. 77)
[Throughout] Miss Lavin's work, the fragility of the necessary partnership of imagination and consciousness is at its roots inescapable: to evade involvement with the ambiguous forces of the larger cosmos is to evade vital human life; to become involved with these forces is to risk being overwhelmed directly by them, drawn from the meaning and order of conscious life into a formless inhuman chaos. The human being of vital imagination exists, then, with an aware allegiance to conscious life in its fullness as his only bulwark; and that bulwark, "The Great Wave" implies, is arbitrarily subject to an unequal encounter with the ambiguous forces of a supra-human cosmos linked to his imagination. Miss Lavin's awareness of the power and indifference—even malignity—of this supra-human and influential cosmos would seem to be the foundation of her ironic vision, its existence casting into question the strength and pride of conscious human choice; her recognition of the courage of the men and women of vital imagination who live at risk in the face of it is her testament to human beauty and value. (p. 79)
Catherine A. Murphy, "The Ironic Vision of Mary Lavin," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1979 by the University of Manitoba; acknowledgment of previous publication is herewith made), Vol. XII, No. 3 (Spring, 1979), pp. 69-79.