Analysis of Edna O’Brien’s Stories

Edna O’Brien (born 15 December 1930) has written short stories throughout her long career. “Come into the Drawing Room, Doris” (retitled “Irish Revel” in The Love Object collection) first appeared in The New Yorker on October 6, 1962. “Cords,” published as “Which of Those Two Ladies Is He Married To?” in The New Yorker, on April 25, 1964, deals with many of the aspects of loss and missed connections, which are O’Brien’s constant themes. The missed connections are most frequently between mothers and daughters, and between women and men. O’Brien is at her most persuasively graphic when her protagonists are clearly Irish women, at home, in a vanished Ireland whose society as a whole she re-creates and often increasingly indicts most convincingly.


The question “Which of Those Two Ladies Is He Married To?,” which forms the original title of “Cords,” is posed in the story by Claire’s scandalized, rural, Irish mother on a London visit to her sexually active, editor, lapsed Catholic, poetdaughter. The dinner guests are a husband, his pregnant wife Marigold, and his mistress Pauline—which grouping elicits the mother’s question. The newer title, “Cords,” more aptly focuses attention on the constrictive mother-daughter bond, which is at the center of this story. The conflict is effectively rendered; no final judgment is made on who is to blame. The Catholic, self-sacrificing mother, who masochistically sews without a thimble, is a spunky traveler. The rather precious daughter, with her “social appendages” but no friends, “no one she could produce for her mother [or herself] and feel happy about,” for her part means well. The two women are deftly shown to be on a collision course, not just with their umbrellas or their differences over food. The detailed parts of the story all function smoothly. The mother looks at herself in a glass door; Claire sees herself reflected in a restaurant’s mirrors. Each woman is herself and an image projected elsewhere. The constraint between them is vividly rendered from their moment of meeting until they are at the airport again, where both “secretly feared the flight number would never be called.”

In the background here, in Claire’s thoughts, is the father, “emaciated, crazed and bankrupted by drink,” with whom the mother’s unhealthy, symbiotic relationship continues: “She was nettled because Claire had not asked how he was.” In “Cords,” then, are many of the perennial, rush-of-memory themes: the family feuding, the malevolent Church influence, the searing, almost flawlessly detailed exposé of the tie that binds many mothers and daughters. All is rendered here with the saving grace of good humor, and even old jokes are recalled, such as those about good grazing on the Buckingham Palace lawns, about Irish planes being blessed and therefore never crashing, and about an overly heavy suitcase—“Have you stones in it?” Claire asks.


A Scandalous Woman

“A Scandalous Woman” sets the tone for O’Brien’s second collection, named after it, and reveals an increasingly gloomy view of the female predicament, whether in Ireland or elsewhere. The story, published in 1974, concludes, “I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, [to which is added in the stronger A Fanatic Heart version, ‘throttled’] women.” Here is an indictment of a family, its church, and society, very like that in A Pagan Place, and to be seen again in “Savages.” The anonymous narrator leads the reader through Eily’s life from early courtship days until the moment when the narrator, now no longer a young girl but a mother herself, seeks out her childhood friend, to find her much changed: “My first thought was that they must have drugged the feelings out of her . . . taken her spark away.” “They” and their “strange brews” are part of the “scandalous” environment of this pagan place.

The anonymous narrator graphically describes how, as a young girl, she admired and sought the company of Eily, who was a few years older and had the “face of a madonna.” The narrator tells how she loved Eily and visited her home each Tuesday, even though this meant that she had to play, in the hospital game, the patient to Eily’s sister’s surgeon. Lying on the kitchen table, she saw “the dresser upside down” in a world whose values are far from upright either. It is Eily, however, who is hollowed out at the story’s end: Her playing Juliet to her Protestant Romeo, a bank clerk named Jack, ends in Eily’s sniveling at a shotgun wedding. The young narrator had acted as lookout and cover so Eily could meet her lover, “Sunday after Sunday, with one holy day, Ascension Thursday, thrown in.” When Jack attempts to throw Eily over, the narrator reveals in herself the same confusion of pagan and Christian values of the others:

I said . . . that instead of consulting a witch we ought first to resort to other things, such as novenas, putting wedding cake under our pillows, or gathering bottles of dew in the early morning and putting them in a certain fort to make a wish.

The combined forces of the family, church, and community, in a profusion of animal imagery, move events along to the marriage solution. This is a dense, beautifully put together story, packed with details of the repressive effects of society on a lively girl, who is cowed into submission. From the symbolism of the upside-down world observed by the child on the kitchen table to the loaded “Matilda” term for the female genitalia (between “ma” and “da,” there “I” am), everything in this story contributes to the indictment and ironic redefinition of what is “scandalous.”

Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories

O’Brien’s pessimism about much of the female condition shows little alleviation in the Mrs. Reinhardt, and Other Stories collection, heavily though erratically edited and renamed A Rose in the Heart in the American edition. The stories overall continue to chronicle the depressing, unsuccessful search of O’Brien’s heroines for happiness in, but more often out of, marriage. Other perennial themes such as loss, isolation, motherhood, and bigotry are not neglected, especially when the setting is Ireland. The gothic story “Clara” has a rare male narrator.

The stories “Number Ten” and “Mrs. Reinhardt” fit together and were in fact dramatized as a unit in a 1981 drama prepared for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Tilly, in a failing marriage with her art-dealer husband, Harold, sleepwalks her way into misery. For the normally self-centered O’Brien woman who lives, especially when in England, in an economic and social vacuum (very unlike O’Brien’s own successful career), Tilly’s two afternoons a week teaching autistic children is unusual and helps her credibility. In her dreams, she sees the perfect “nest”—an apartment, with one entire bedroom wall a mirror, where she and her husband can come together at night. The apartment, surreally, does exist, she discovers, and her husband uses it in the daytime with another woman. It is a rending, no-communication standoff; the unhappy O’Brien woman remains “an outsider looking in.”

In the second tale, Mrs. Reinhardt heads off to color-splashed Brittany for a trial separation, determined to somnambulate no more. She resolves to forget the past and to “get even with life” by taking advantage of a brash Iowan in his mid-twenties whom she meets by the sea. It is an ugly picture that O’Brien paints of Tilly’s sexual conduct, which is as predatory as that of the lobsters she observes in their tank. In this bleak tale, neither the love of the old patron at the hotel nor the arrival of Tilly’s husband does much to alleviate the joyless atmosphere: “What then does a Mrs. Reinhardt do? . . . One reaches out to the face that is opposite . . . for the duration of a windy night. And by morning who knows? Who knows anything anyhow?” Such is the pessimistic conclusion to this fiction; O’Brien’s aging heroine’s search continues.


O’Brien’s sharp study of a certain kind of female psychology continues in the collection Returning, where the external topography in all nine stories is the west of Ireland and the craggy community there. A young girl is present in all the collection’s stories, either as the ostensible narrator or as the subject of mature reflection on the part of the now-experienced woman. This then-and-now tension between the innocence of childhood and the experience of fifty years, Philip Roth, in his introduction to A Fanatic Heart, isolates as the spring for these stories’ “wounded vigor.” There is no title story of the same name, but in a very real sense each of the tales here represents a return for O’Brien, a going home.

“Savages,” in this collection, represents O’Brien, often accused of careless, awkward, and too-rapid writing, at her careful, three-times-reworked best. The theme bears distinct similarities to “A Scandalous Woman” in its indictment of the community. The story deals with Mabel McCann’s search for love in her village community, her false pregnancy, and ostracism. The three published versions of the story that exist (the version published in The New Yorker, January 18, 1982; the English edition; and the version in A Fanatic Heart) help reveal O’Brien’s artistic development, which, though it is by no means a straight-line progression, nevertheless represents work and progress. A noticeable distancing and maturing in the narrator can be seen from the first version to the second one, where she is no longer a precocious twelve-yearold. The second version introduces the five-hundred-word addition of a lugubrious scene between a deaf-and-dumb brother and sister to underscore the gothic qualities of the environment. Although all is not unequivocal, there is artistic progress in this second version, where Mabel is called a “simpleton” in the conclusion. In the third and final version, this term, removing her from the world of choices, is wisely dropped; readers are left to work out for themselves what happened. This emendation is a final improvement in the best overall version of an excellent story. The collection also includes the sensory-rich “Sister Imelda,” which received the accolade of inclusion in the 1986 Norton Anthology of English Literature.

A Fanatic Heart

A Fanatic Heart includes twenty-five O’Brien stories previously anthologized and a quartet of The New Yorker, heretofore uncollected works, in a splendidly produced volume introduced by Roth. The quartet is typical of O’Brien’s writing when she is on the brittle high road outside Ireland and is generally much less satisfactory. The shallow, codependent Irish woman of these stories moves in three of them through bitter, first-person musings on a current, seemingly doomed affair of the heart with a married family man. Only in the second story, “The Call,” is she looked at in the third person as she does not answer the ringing telephone. It is time to cease to be strangers, she muses in “The Plan.” In a later version of this tale, though, O’Brien cut the pessimistic note that follows immediately, “Though of course we would always be strangers.” The “blue” narrator takes a geographical cure to forget, but that does not work, and readers are left with her wondering in “The Return” how much longer she will be able to endure.

Another Time

In “Another Time,” in the collection Lantern Slides, the narrator, a single parent and glamorous former television announcer, gets away to her home in the west of Ireland. After a series of sharply observed encounters with and flashbacks to places and people, Nelly Nugent comes to terms with the present: “She felt as if doors or windows were swinging open all around her and that she was letting go of some awful affliction.” At her best, O’Brien has the capacity in her fictions to give this release to her readers. The mirrors that appear so often in her work serve then to alert not only her recurring characters but also her readers to the roller-coaster realities of love, loss, and endurance. This work was selected for The Best New Yorker Stories of 1989, in which magazine four others of the dozen stories in this collection also appeared.

Love’s Lesson

Whatever the question is, O’Brien’s answer is love; this story, then, which appeared in Zoetrope (Summer, 1998), closes out a decade in which no collection appeared after Lantern Slides. The varieties-of-love theme continued in the 1990’s to dominate O’Brien’s short fictions, beginning with “No Place” (The New Yorker, June 17, 1991) where her well-off, ageless, lonely, Irish protagonist, her two boys still in boarding school, waits “on love” in North Africa; her man fails to show up from London’s rougher-trade side. Still, in The New Yorker (July 11, 1994), a now aging, lonely widow, the love of her children growing “fainter and fainter,” her husband’s “unloving love” now a memory, shows herself in “Sin” to be far from well as she pictures her paying guests’ incestuous relations with their daughter: “What reached her ears could not be called silence.”

In “Love’s Lesson” a jagged, uneven, disconnected, at times overwritten letter from an Irish woman in New York City reviews the course of her affair with a celebrated architect. Her relationship with him has magnified her feeling of being an outsider. Cosmopolitan and international in her experiences and sympathies, she is yet setting out for home, the mysteries of love still mysterious: “Now we will never know for sure.” The lessons taught here by “love” in its various manifestations send the protagonist home to freedom, “to give up the habit of slavery.” Freedom has its costs, too. Nor is there any free love, as the narrator discovers, reviewing her violent relationship with the architect, which she wishes was just physical. She shares her lesbian relationship with her friend Clarissa, who is greatly troubled by thoughts of her dead mother, as is the nameless narrator. People she meets and observes, all with their “connection” problems, cause her to book her flight home.

Given the personal-journal format here, reinforced by O’Brien’s ongoing admiration for and work on master wordsmith James Joyce, the stream-of-consciousness technique is to be expected. O’Brien’s best prior example of this technique is her Night. Here, in “Love’s Lesson,” she continues her alliterative reaching for metaphorical, verbal epiphanies through all the senses to establish the mood. Sometimes she is successful, sometimes not: “Skeins of sound sweetening the air.” Here then O’Brien’s Irish heroine, alone, courageously as ever, confronts life and the varieties and manifestations of love. The constraints of the Roman Catholic Church and rural society have no place here, but family pressures are not absent, nor is the gallant hope with which her secular heroines view life as they must live it.

Major Works
Children’s literature: The Dazzle, 1981; A Christmas Treat, 1982; The Expedition, 1982; The Rescue, 1983; Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories, 1986.
Plays: A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers, pr. 1962; A Pagan Place, pr. 1972 (adaptation of her novel); The Gathering, pr. 1974; Virginia, pr. 1980; Flesh and Blood, pr. 1985; Iphigenia, pr., pb. 2003 (adaptation of Euripides’ play).
Anthology: Some Irish Loving, 1979.
Novels: The Country Girls, 1960; The Lonely Girl, 1962 (also known as Girl with Green Eyes, 1964); Girls in Their Married Bliss, 1964; August Is a Wicked Month, 1965; Casualties of Peace, 1966; A Pagan Place, 1970; Zee and Co., 1971; Night, 1972; Johnny I Hardly Knew You, 1977 (published in U.S. as I Hardly Knew You, 1978); The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue, 1986 (includes The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, and Girls in Their Married Bliss); The High Road, 1988; Time and Tide, 1992; An Edna O’Brien Reader, 1994; House of Splendid Isolation, 1994; Down by the River, 1996;Wild Decembers, 1999; In the Forest, 2001; The Light of Evening, 2006.
Nonfiction: Mother Ireland, 1976; Arabian Days, 1977; James and Nora: A Portrait of Joyce’s Marriage, 1981; Vanishing Ireland, 1986; James Joyce, 1999.
Poetry: On the Bone, 1989.
Screenplays: Girl with Green Eyes, 1964 (adaptation of her novel); Time Lost and Time Remembered, 1966 (with Desmond Davis; also known as I Was Happy Here); Three into Two Won’t Go, 1969; X, Y, and Zee, 1971 (also known as Zee and Company; adaptation of her novel). teleplays: The Wedding Dress, 1963; Nothing’s Ever Over, 1968; Mrs. Reinhardt, 1981 (adaptation of her short story); The Country Girls, 1983 (adaptation of her novel).

Guppy, Shusha. “The Art of Fiction: Edna O’Brien.” The Paris Review 26 (Summer, 1984): 22-50.
Irwin, Archibald E., and Joanne McCarthy. “Edna O’Brien.” In Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Revised Edition, edited by Carl Rollyson. Vol. 5. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2000.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
O’Brien, Edna. “Interview.” Paris Review 26 (Summer, 1984): 22-50.
____________. “The Pleasure and the Pain.” Interview by Miriam Gross. The Observer (April 14, 1985): 17-18.
____________. PublishersWeekly 239 (May 18, 1992): 48-49.
O’Brien, Peggy. “The Silly and the Serious: An Assessment of Edna O’Brien.” The Massachusetts Review 28 (Autumn, 1987): 474-488.
O’Hara, Kiera. “Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories of Edna O’Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Summer, 1993): 317-326.
Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts. “Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Spring, 1995): 185-197.
Woodward, Richard B. “Edna O’Brien: Reveling in the Heartbreak.” The New York Times Magazine (March 12, 1989): 42, 50, 52.

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