Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692

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Labeling “A Rose in the Heart of New York” a “feminist” story should not be construed as reducing it to a simplistic set of assumptions about life and literature. Rather, it powerfully and movingly dramatizes exactly what it means to be a woman in modern rural Irish society. The story’s feminist theme can best be seen in what the women devote themselves to but what fails or even enslaves them: men, the Church, other women.

Men are less an outright evil than they are facets of a brutal, unyielding landscape. The dominant male figure in the story is the father, a violent drunkard who “takes” the mother in scenes of intercourse more reminiscent of impalement than love or even lust. Two of the daughter’s most vivid memories are of the time when the father went after the mother with a hatchet and a later episode when he tried to shoot her. His mellowing with age is less a sign of growing tenderness than of growing senility. If the men in the daughter’s life are less violent, neither are they much more satisfying. Her first sexual encounter is banally sordid. She marries a man who dominates every facet of her life, even down to how she should fold her clothes. Rather than a relationship of mutual growth and sharing, her marriage feels “like being in school again.” Subsequent affairs bring mostly guilt. In short, not a single man in the story brings to the mother or the daughter the slightest modicum of happiness.

Historically, especially in Ireland, when all else fails, the woman can take solace in the Church. Such is hardly the case in “A Rose in the Heart of New York.” Religion is not an overt theme in the story, but a rich pattern of religious imagery shows how subtly important it is in women’s lives—and how decidedly it fails them. The first mention of religion is the bottle of holy water that the midwife brings, along with her gauze and other medical supplies. These she administers to the laboring mother who is “roaring and beseeching to God.” Does God hear? No one can say, but in her agony the mother drops the crucifix, then dents it by biting down on it in pain. The mother, indeed, is invested with more religious imagery than anything else in the story. Being stitched up after delivery is her “vinegar and gall.” She finally rises from bed after the third day. Later, she is attacked by her husband on a hill under three trees—a scene suggesting Christ’s crucifixion on Golgotha. Significantly, the nun who replaces the mother in the daughter’s affections is seen by her as an “idol,” whose gift of a tiny Bible, unreadable, is cherished by the daughter as “a secret scroll in which love was mentioned.”

Perhaps mother and nun achieve such godlike status in the daughter’s eyes because the traditional religious figures—Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Mary, and so on—offer only false hope. What can be said with certainty is that at no time in the story—at birth, death, or anywhere in between—does religion ease the woman’s lot.

Other women offer no more hope than do men or religion. Other than her mother, no woman makes any significant impression on or achieves a lasting relationship with the daughter. Her relationship with her mother, too, comes to seem a kind of death. As a child she wishes to go to Heaven with her mother; after her divorce, her mother writes that her one wish is that they be buried together. However, their last visit concludes with the daughter openly hating her mother and resolving that they will never be buried together.

O’Brien clearly believes that death is less horrible than being buried alive: “buried” by poverty, ignorance, the false hope of religion, sexual dominance, suffocating love. If by the end the daughter has learned that lesson, painful as it is, then perhaps “A Rose in the Heart of New York” should be seen as more affirmative than a catalog of its grim specifics would seem to suggest.