Mary Lavin Lavin, Mary (Vol. 99) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mary Lavin 1912–1996

American-born Irish short-story writer and novelist.

For further information on Lavin's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 18.

Lavin was one of Ireland's most respected contemporary writers. Although her short stories explore everyday events in the Irish countryside, the thoughts and actions of her characters often spark a deep personal resonance with her readers. She describes convincingly the eccentricities and illogic of average people and it is this character development, rather than her plots, which gained her critical acclaim. Born in Massachusetts, Lavin immigrated to Ireland as a child and grew up in the environs of Dublin. In 1934 she received a degree in English, with honors, from University College in Dublin. She continued her studies there, earning an M.A., with honors, in 1936. While writing her dissertation, she wrote and published her first story, "Miss Holland" (1938), which received favorable attention. Lavin subsequently abandoned her graduate studies to write fiction, and, in 1942, married William Walsh, with whom she had three daughters. Widowed twelve years later, Lavin continued to write, publishing thirteen short story collections and two novels. Best known for her short stories and novellas, the form she preferred, Lavin received three Guggenheim Fellowships, the Katherine Mansfield Prize, and the Aos Dana Award. Critics praised her ability to create contained, even isolated settings for her characters with great brevity and efficiency. She often wrote about poignant moments in the lives of families; not necessarily instances of dramatic action, but moments of profound insight. The sparse style of her work and its melancholy mood lead critics to compare it to that of some Russian writers, particularly Anton Chehkov. As Jean Stubbs wrote, Lavin "invites us to contemplate with her the infinite sadness and beauty of the world, the divine inconsequences of life."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tales from Bective Bridge (short stories) 1943; revised edition, 1978
The Long Ago and Other Stories (short stories) 1944
The House in Clewe Street (novel) 1945
The Becker Wives and Other Stories (short stories) 1946
At Sallygap and Other Stories (short stories) 1947
Mary O'Grady (novel) 1950
A Single Lady and Other Stories (short stories) 1951
The Patriot Son and Other Stories (short stories) 1956
A Likely Story (juvenilia) 1957
Selected Stories (short stories) 1959
The Great Wave and Other Stories (short stories) 1961
The Stories of Mary Lavin 3 vols. (short stories) 1964–85
In the Middle of the Fields and Other Stories (short stories) 1967
Happiness and Other Stories (short stories) 1969
The Becker Wives (short stories) 1971
Collected Stories (short stories) 1971
The Second-Best Children in the World (juvenilia) 1972
A Memory and Other Stories (short stories) 1972
The Shrine and Other Stories (short stories) 1977
Mary Lavin: Selected Stories (short stories) 1981
A Family Likeness and Other Stories (short stories) 1985
In a Cafâe (short stories) 1995


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James F. Clarity (obituary date 27 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Mary Lavin, 83, Wove Tales of Irish Experience," in The New York Times, March 27, 1996, p. D21.

[In the following obituary, Clarity provides an overview of her life and career and comments on the style and major themes of her fiction.]

Mary Lavin, whose short stories and novels about the conflicts in the hearts of her fellow Irish men and women transcended mere tales of life in Ireland, died on Monday at a nursing home here [Dublin, Ireland]. She was 83.

Ms. Lavin was the author of 19 collections of short stories and three novels. She won three Guggenhelm Fellowships and a number of literary awards, including the Katherine Mansfield Prize, in 1961. Her stories appeared regularly in The New Yorker.

Her death was front-page news in The Irish Times, whose chief book critic, Eileen Battersby, called her "one of modern Irish fiction's most subversive voices" and said, "Her art explored often brutal tensions, disappointments and frustrations dictating the relationships within socalled 'normal' families."

Ms. Lavin's favorite form was the short story, which she once likened to "a flash of lightning lighting up the whole landscape all at once." In a 1976 interview she was quoted as saying "Publishers are definitely unfair to short-story writers. Since the essence of the short story is its conciseness, an addiction to change is an occupational disease and not the self-indulgence publishers think." She also said: "I don't think a story has to have a beginning, middle and end. I think of it more as an arrow in flight."

Critics often compared Ms. Lavin's work to that of other acclaimed Irish writers, including Liam O'Flaherty and Sean O'Faolain, and also perceived echoes of Balzac, Chekhov and Saki. Her writing influenced the work of others, as well, including the novelist William Trevor.

Ms. Lavin said her childhood reading of Jane Austen influenced her writing. She said that, as a realist, her writing was "only looking closer than normal into the human heart, whose vagaries and contrarieties have their own integral design." In an appreciation in The Irish Times, Maurice Harmon, professor emeritus of Anglo-Irish Literature at University...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mark D. Hawthorne (essay date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: "Words that Do Not Speak Themselves: Mary Lavin's 'Happiness'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 683-88.

[In the essay below, Hawthorne focuses on language and meaning in Lavin's story "Happiness," arguing that the story suggests an incongruence between language and meaning.]

In the short story "Happiness" (1969) Mary Lavin constructed a text in which the characters', and especially the narrator's, bewilderment over and confusion of the signification of key words points both to the arbitrariness of the words themselves and to the narrator's inability to understand the story that she tells. The narrator's attempt to account for her mother's enigmatic use of the word "happiness" illustrates the futility of trying to comprehend verbal constructs; the speaker's original construct and the narrator's reconstruction of what she thinks that construct signifies negate each other in such a way that the reader must accept that, in the final analysis, words cannot communicate. If "the main purpose of the narrative … is to capture and evaluate Vera's philosophy of life," Lavin has made the inability to communicate a major part of that purpose.

Lavin unabashedly based the story on her own experience: like Vera, she was left after the death of her husband in 1953 with the responsibility of raising her three daughters; during the first years of her widowhood, Lavin, like Vera, took the girls to Florence. Nevertheless, Lavin's narrative seriously alters her experiences: the story is narrated by an unnamed daughter, and Vera, who dies at the end of the story, does not marry Father Hugh despite the neighbors' thinking that their relation is too intimate. In 1969, Lavin married Michael Scott, who had applied for and was granted laicization. These deviations from Lavin's autobiographical experience should warn us that the story is more complex than it appears at first, even while it provides a striking picture of her own despair and renewed commitment after William's death.

Vera, the widowed mother who teaches the enigmatic lesson that happiness is the essence and goal of life, seems at first to be a truth-sayer. Her name derives from the Latin verax, "truthful," and she seems earnest, however unclear her lesson. As a librarian, she works with words, an occupation also suggested by her study and the sheaf of paper that preoccupies her as if she were, like Lavin herself, a writer. But if she is truthful, her inability to communicate clearly suggests that truth cannot easily be shared: neither Father Hugh nor her three daughters understand what she means by "happiness." Her name also suggests the Latin ver, "youth" or "springtime," a reading that Lavin supports in repeated references to spring, spring flowers, and the rejuvenation of spring following winter's desolation. As youthful or springlike, her name carries an obvious double or paradoxical meaning: she is old (and getting older as the story progresses), yet she is youthful in her attitude and springlike in her ability to bounce back from despair. As her name suggests, she is a fulcrum that contains opposites without fully embracing the contradictions that those opposites define.

As in the case of the main character, the narrator frequently uses words that can be read with contradictory significance, thus generating what Augustine Martin called "vibrations in the mind and the imagination which continue in the reader's mind long after the story has been put down." Twice, for example, she uses the word "rhetoric" in such a way that the reader cannot distinguish whether it signifies Vera's skill in using language effectively or an insincerity concealed behind a grandiloquent barrage of words. The first use of "rhetoric" occurs just after Vera declares that "Happiness drives out pain, as fire burns out fire," a cryptic statement obviously beyond the understanding of her daughters who, nevertheless, "thirstily drank in her rhetoric" (emphasis added). Here the word seems to denote the narrator's distrust of her mother's glib reply, but in the second use of the word, there is no hint of glibness: here Vera, on her deathbed, speaks of the nun and the daffodils in such a way that the daughters are mystified, Vera's language seeming to conceal a secret that she cannot or will not communicate. In the first passage Bea is skeptical, trying in vain to understand but failing because she takes Vera's statement too literally, but in the second Bea recognizes Vera's signification, a comprehension of Vera's "rhetoric" that makes her joyous and strong in facing her mother's death, the very reactions that Vera had wanted in the passage in which the narrator first uses "rhetoric."

Likewise, "father" means both the priest—as in Father Hugh—and the father of the family, but this particular distinction becomes blurred when Father Hugh takes on the role of the father of the family, growing to play an intimate role in the three girls' childhood even while he remains chaste and faithful to his priestly vows. If we have no trouble seeing the priest as a spiritual father, Father Hugh's role takes on broader domestic implications that have generated gossip even though he has remained fully faithful to his priestly vows. In other words, though he is not the girls' natural father, he becomes their father in every other way.

Equally significant is the narrator's use of "mother"—on the one hand, because she is a daughter telling about her own mother. But she is also married, and possibly a mother herself, thereby playing a double role of daughter to her mother and mother to her own children, a double role that she does not develop. On the other hand, she develops a verbal ambiguity between her mother and grandmother. While Vera clearly takes the role of mother, her own mother calls her "mother," thus creating a situation in which the daughter is verbally the mother of her own mother. Yet Vera confesses to her daughters, "I would never have put so much effort into rearing you, because I wasn't a bit maternal." That is, the character whom the narrator develops as mother rejects the verbalization of her role even while she clearly fulfills it. Though such reversal may be commonplace as a sign of humility, Lavin uses the change in the noun from describing a familial relation to signifying a behavioral relation to emphasize her treatment of other words that have changing or shifting significations. That the same woman can be both mother and daughter merely indicates the shifting of generational perspective, but that the woman can be called mother by her own mother reflects either a confusion in attribution or a shift from familial relation through which the mother lets her daughter the dominant role of decision-maker.

Still another blurring of family names—similar to the blurring of "father" and "mother" but more grotesque—is with the word "kid." Though the children see themselves as kids, the word, of course, also refers to young goats. When Linda mistakes goats for children, her mistake is humorous, but it is also rather frightening because it involves the slaughter of the young. The change in "father" points toward a double role played by Father Hugh; the change in "mother" points toward shifting dependencies; but the change in "kid" points toward the inexplicable terror of a child who must leave childhood to become an adult. Thus the mistaken signification suggests one of Lavin's major themes in the short story—the inability of the children to understand their mother's use of language, their inability to understand the lesson that she strives to teach.

If words that normally carry unambiguous denotations are wrenched from their usual signification, we should not be surprised by other words that carry double, contradictory meanings. Vera finds "rest" in her garden where she works and where she finally finds the "rest" of death. Like "kid," "pillow" in the final symbol of the story suggests a gap between signifier and signified. Ordinarily, a pillow is a soft object whereon to rest one's weary head; here, however, the pillow is a stone marking both Vera's death, her movement from softness, and her grave, her final resting place. This choice of words, like Lavin's use of familial words, derives from a domestic, homey vocabulary in which we usually do not expect such double meanings.

In addition to the words that have double meanings, Lavin's narrator also uses words that are misleading because they are not clearly defined; that is, either a character or the narrator uses some words that are left for the reader to interpret because the text does not given enough clues to determine a definitive signification. These words, unlike those with double meanings, often carry the appearance of a signification that they do not actually have in the context in which they appear. For example, when Vera refers to the Alps, she calls them "hills," a word that hardly describes their size and magnificence, but when the narrator corrects her, she does acknowledge her "mistake." On the one hand, she may simply confuse the two nouns, an unlikely confusion for a woman whose working life centers around words; on the other hand, she may be making a judgment in which her use of "hills" is intended to be pejorative, an attack on the spectacle that the daughters fail to comprehend. In this latter sense, Vera's word choice is a reversal of the hyperbole that enables us to talk about the "Dublin mountains" when that geological feature is merely a range of hills compared to the Alps.

When the girls try for the umpteenth time to ascertain exactly what their mother means by "happiness," Bea concludes, "It's a sham!" While a sham is something false that pretends to be genuine, it is also a curtain or decorative cloth that conceals. Because the context does not develop Bea's statement further, we cannot resolve whether she is making a moral judgment on her mother's advocacy of happiness or describing her mother's use of happiness as a quality that acts like a pillow sham to conceal something from view. That is, Bea may have an insight that her sisters lack, the same sort of insight that enables her to understand her mother in the final scene. Along the same lines, when Vera says she is "foolish" after the nun's revelation that her husband is dying, we have no context for determining the exact signification of her adjective. On the one hand, she may be saying that she is ridiculous, but, on the other, she may be suggesting her own insignificance. In the first, she may recognize her absurdity, a self-mocking that results from a context of denial, but, in the second, she may recognize that humility forces her to deny the importance of what she recognizes. Or, contrary to either of these readings, she may suggest that she is, indeed, the fool that we associate with a certain freedom from ordinary or material matter-of-factness or with an other-worldliness that seems simple or naïve.

Mary Lavin wrenches words from their expected denotations to shape some of the most striking images of the story. The ordinary experience of turning on a light in a dark room turns a window into a mirror: Bea turns on the light to distract Father Hugh from Vera, who has stayed in the garden after the sunset. Instead of looking through the window at Vera, the narrator, Bea, and Father Hugh see themselves reflected in the window. Structurally, this shift from transparency to opacity marks the moment when Vera's philosophy faces its most demanding test. Just as Bea turns the light on so that they can no longer see Vera in the garden, Bea, not the narrator, will be the daughter who tells her mother that she can die in peace. Bea holds Vera's "face between her palms as tenderly as if it were the face of a child" (another mother/daughter inversion) while she tells her that "You don't have to face it!" The combination of the imagery of seeing and this play on "face" pass Vera's legacy to the middle daughter, the only one who comprehends what Vera had been striving to teach.

The narrator uses this tendency to blur denotation to confuse the difference between tangible objects and intangible ideas. As a pillow can be a stone or a soft object on a bed, a rosary can be the beads that Grandmother says or the growing list of "if only" wishes. The object and the idea thus become inseparable: the word invokes the object even while the object exists only through its name. Thus Vera can carry her daughters "by magic" to the "small girl with black hair and buttoned boots" just as Robert, "while he lived, had cast a magic over everything." This magic, objectification through words, transforms the ordinary into the unusual, the commonplace into the extraordinary. If Vera can use words as magic, then her words about happiness turn the words themselves into the objects that they represent just as the narrator's use of words to tell about her mother's lessons makes those lessons palatable. Daffodils are both harbingers for new and refreshed life and the brutal awareness of death; Vera's swimming carries both an escape as she hovers birdlike over a rushing stream and the temptation to die when she wades into the moonlight sea after the death of her husband; a snowdrop is both "a bleak bud that had come up stunted before its time" and a summation of "the whole point of happiness."

Bea, whose name recalls the Latin beata, "happy" or "happiness," is the character who finally grasps the meaning of her mother's lessons, but the narrator remains nameless. Because even the grandmother takes on a nickname—Miss Imperious, Lavin implies that this lack of a name is important. Throughout, the narrator has been "loving yet occasionally skeptical," an ambivalence showing in her tone that forces the reader to question whether she has ever learned what her sister discovers at Vera's death. Vera proclaims happiness although her life does not seem happy: after the death of her husband, the girls even fear that she will commit suicide when she is swimming at night. Likewise, Bea does not understand her message until she mentions the daffodils, a word that invokes her memory of Vera's story about her husband's death. Because the word connects the past and present, Bea understands, not the word but the emotions that the word indirectly signifies: knowing that the cruel nun had made her aware of her husband's dying, Vera associated daffodils with death so that Bea can tell her that she herself can let go of life "confident that her tidings were joyous, her voice was strong." Looking on without speaking, the narrator merely reports because, unlike her sister, she has not mastered the rich confidence of language. In short, the narrator fails to understand her mother and consequently provides us with the sort of ironic contrast that Thomas Murray described as a "point of view [that] works well to maintain an almost extremely cruel distance from the characters to the extent that at times it is impossible to say where [Lavin's] true sympathies are as judged from the distanced and neutral point of view."

Lavin's choice of a narrator is especially interesting if Vera is, as we have no reason to doubt, her "autobiographical heroine," an assumption that seems well validated by her appearance in other stories. However, if Lavin used the medium of language to describe her own philosophy that enabled her to go on after her husband's death, she seems to distrust the very medium, not the content that Vera passes on to Bea. Likewise, if the story is, indeed, "the work most revelatory of Lavin's attitude toward her own life and art," then we must read through the ironic juxtaposition of narrator and misunderstood subject. The daughter who tells the story, another wordmonger, fails to grasp her mother's throwing of manuscripts from a train window or her meaning, a meaning that falls silent, unable despite many efforts to communicate itself through language. The narrator's words, like Vera's, defy their medium: as Bea discovers, they suggest but do not contain the message.

Jeanette Roberts Shumaker (essay date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: "Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 185-97.

[In the following excerpt, Shumaker focuses on the protagonists from Lavin's stories "A Nun's Mother" and "Sarah" and argues that the "martyrdoms" of both heroines can best be understood in the context of Catholic notions of the suffering Madonna.]

Edna O'Brien's "A Scandalous Woman" (1972) ends with the statement that Ireland is "a land of strange, sacrificial women." 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' emulations of the suffering Virgin. Julia Kristeva's "Stabat Mater" (1977) and Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) scrutinize the impact of the Madonna myth on western European women. Their feminist scholarship illuminates short stories such as Lavin's "A Nun's Mother" (1944) and "Sarah" (1943), as well as O'Brien's "Sister Imelda" (1981) and "A Scandalous Woman." In each story, female martyrdom (en)gendered by the Madonna myth takes different forms, from becoming a nun to becoming a wife, mother, or "fallen woman."

Kristeva comments upon the fluidity of the Madonna, who encompasses diverse female roles, as do the Irish female characters who emulate her. Discussing the dimensions of the Madonna—Virgin, mother, wife—Warner describes the primary effect of the Madonna myth: "By setting up an impossible ideal the cult of the Virgin does drive the adherent into a position of acknowledged and hopeless yearning and inferiority." The...

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Reviews Of Lavin's Recent Work

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Craig Brown (review date 29 November 1985)

SOURCE: "Breathing Hope and Despair," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4313, November 29, 1985, p. 1353.

[In the following review of A Family Likeness, Brown comments on Lavin's themes and style.]

There is something rather un-Irish about Mary Lavin's prose: it doesn't sing or soar or weep, it has no lilt, no twang even, and the sentences straggle and falter and thud. There is hardly a sentence in her new book of short stories, her first for eight years, which could be described as "beautifully turned", and she salvages no aphorisms or last-line truths from the sadness of her tales. The only...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


C. L. Innes. "Living in Separate Worlds." Irish Literary Supplement 7, No. 2 (Fall 1988): 20.

Favorably reviews The House in Clewe Street, which, Innes argues, "begins to fill a substantial gap in the subject matter of Irish fiction—the world of middle class Catholics in the towns and cities."

Patricia K. Meszaros. "Woman as Artist: The Fiction of Mary Lavin." Critique XXIV, No. 1 (Fall 1982): 39-54.

An overview of Lavin's work focusing on feminist themes in her fiction.