Paradise Themes (Edna O’Brien)

Edna O’Brien

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Paradise” belongs to Edna O’Brien’s second phase, inaugurated by the novel August Is a Wicked Month (1965), to which this story bears a passing resemblance, and concluded by the publication of the novel Night (1972). The work of this period typically depicts female protagonists in states of rootlessness and sexual exploitation or anxiety. It would seem that the author’s raw materials originated in the fashionable, but perhaps callow, world of filmmakers and their entourages: During this period, O’Brien wrote a number of successfully produced film scripts.

In contrast to her early fiction, “Paradise” and its companion pieces represent a marked departure from Irish settings and naïve gaiety. The author’s fictional world may have broadened in her second phase, but her protagonists find authentic experience virtually impossible to attain in it. This wider world may be populated by the so-called (or perhaps self-styled) beautiful people, and not by crude provincial swains, but the jet-setters’ beauty is barely skin deep. Their lives are a tissue of surfaces, objects, and locations. They lack depth and substance; thus, in the protagonist’s view, though she is superficially one of them, they lack credibility. The story’s muted, though nevertheless intense, conflict arises from the protagonist’s need to attain credibility—first, in the eyes of her lover and the social milieu in which he feels at home; and second, and more significantly, more desperately, in her own eyes.

A central preoccupation of all O’Brien’s work is with love—how to obtain it, how to retain it, its status in contemporary culture, and the pain and peril that attend it. Her invariably female protagonists seem to be conceived as emotional seismographs, registering helplessly the destruction of their social autonomy and moral integrity. The protagonist of “Paradise” spends her life menaced by a divided sense of her affair. Her one source of legitimacy in the world of the story is the affair. She is not independently wealthy and possesses none of the material props or behavioral savoir faire exhibited by the rest of the group. She seems to have no particular interests. Her past is not available to her in a meaningful way. She only has the overwhelming immediacy of her feelings; for that reason, it seems, her environment rejects her.

All the other characters in the story are, in contrast, strikingly complacent. They reveal little emotional range and no capacity for companionship or fellow-feeling. Participants in a charade of sociability, their collective presence has the ultimate effect of making the protagonist unbearably aware of her own distinctiveness. The most important embodiment of the scenario’s predominant shallowness is the protagonist’s lover. A patriarchal...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)