Edna O’Brien is acutely aware of how experiences in childhood color the remainder of life, and as an epigraph to A Pagan Place, she chose a quotation from Bertolt Brecht: “I carry a brick on my shoulder in order that the world may know what my house was like.” In keeping with this, the theme of the novel is the growth of a young girl toward maturity, in which she grows away from her family yet retains the marks of her family upbringing throughout her life.
The narrative reveals the protagonist’s steady progression away from intimacy. In the womb “was the nearest you ever were to any other human being.... Being near someone on the inside was not the same thing as being near them on the outside.” Even so, early in the recollections the daughter is so close to her mother that even a goodnight kiss is unnecessary. They automatically pray the same prayer. Yet maturation requires separation; later, the protagonist believes that there has been an irrevocable breach, and she sheds a tear for lost innocence, “for all the things that were beyond [her].”
The process of individuation is particularly clear from the last page of the novel, in which the first-person voice is used for the first time. No longer “you,” homogeneously linked to “your father” and “your mother,” the protagonist is a person set for independence: “I will go now.” Yet paradoxically, even though she loses the closeness she had once enjoyed with her family, particularly her mother and sister, she will continue forever to carry their influence with her, both good and bad. She carries the brick on her shoulder out of necessity as well as choice. The final words of the novel, linking father, mother, and daughter together, suggest that the negative rather than the positive experience will remain uppermost: " . . . the last thing you heard was a howl starting up, more ravenous than a dog’s, more piercing than a person’s, a howl that would go on for as long as her life did, and his, and yours.” Although she will receive a new name in the convent, a saint’s name, there is in reality only one birth, not two. She will remain what her family experience has made her.