Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501
The story is told in an apparently effortless, episodic recollection and then, suddenly, ends with a howl of despair at the destruction of the innocent joy that was re-created in the narrative: “I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.” The role of storyteller seems to remove the narrator from the category of “throttled” women, but the anger that issues directly here is present throughout under the calm surface. The style blends a wide-eyed innocence appropriate to the age of the schoolfriends with a bitter irony and a grotesque humor that are suited to the exposure of that horrific reality that the girls in their innocence do not consciously oppose. By entering fully into the girls’ earlier experience, the narrator tells the story with a surprising acceptance of the horrific reality that is part of things as they are in the world.
Sometimes the irony is directed against the children’s way of observing and of expressing themselves. “She would work like a horse to get to the main road before dark to see the passerby”; such a sentence captures the grim routine of the farm, which turns Eily into a workhorse, and also her craving for excitement or release. This is a typical, understated sentence, apparently factual but catching a raw quality of the life there. The next sentences deepen the insight that was dropped so casually: “She was swift as a colt. My father never stopped praising this quality of her and put it down to muscle.” The humor of this innocent and ignorant commentary is prominent and heightens a grimmer irony that underlies it. The father’s sense of an affective response to life’s possibilities issues in animal images that are demeaning; when Eily is pregnant, he says she has “a porker in her.”
Grotesque humor is again unintentional on the part of the narrator and serves to underline the pervasive violence and repression that are accepted as bland fact. The blandness and the horror are wonderfully captured in a sentence such as this: “As usual, my mother ate only the pope’s nose, and served the men the breasts of chicken.” At a turning point in the story, poignancy and comedy blend with the grotesque. Eily’s secret pregnancy becomes public knowledge at a religious service attended by the entire community, and she is taken outside the church. The narrator’s overly literary manner reports: “They bore her aloft as if she were a corpse on a litter.” The narrator appears not to realize the irony of her metaphors.
The style in which Edna O’Brien reveals her world owes much to James Joyce’s early fiction; in “Araby” and “The Boarding House,” Joyce used a similar mixture of styles to convey the sinister ordinariness of a life that is a form of death. O’Brien adapts Joyce’s style to her country world and gives it a nostalgic innocence and humor.