This is my first experience with Edna O’Brien, whom I have been longing to read for years, and she did not disappoint. Her work itself and the reaction to it pose a giant problem for the patriarchal literary world and male-dominated society in general. Bolder than Alice Munro, and in the more restrictive context of Ireland, she is just as insistent on recording women’s voices in all their honesty, beauty, woundedness, sexuality, and strength. But why is her unapologetic insistence seldom celebrated by feminists?
O’Brien is well-known for writing about women’s experiences and is certainly a feminist writer. She has been called the “doyenne of Irish literature” and Philip Roth’s admiration has stuck equally fast: he referred to her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English.”
Putting aside the accusations of misogyny levelled at Roth’s own writing, why these qualifications? Why is she “the most gifted woman?” Why the “doyenne,” which means “senior lady” or “grande dame” or something? Ah, the eternal problem of male writers as the default, or the “great writer” signifying a man unless otherwise specified. Why is it that the topics of great literature are simply “human experiences” when written about by a man but if a woman writes about what she knows she is writing about “women’s experiences”?
Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Yeats, Wilde.
Could it be more obvious that our society is patriarchal when men’s experiences are universal but women’s are specific to us, somehow niche? It is the way textbooks show the human body as male, and the female body may be shown to illustrate reproduction, or for the way it differs from the “standard” of the male body. It is a body marked by difference. O’Brien’s work is marked by its difference from the universal norm of male experience.
This at once shows us our patriarchal heritage (and current condition) and makes her work feminist. She knows she is writing in a patriarchal world. The world she depicts is patriarchal. And she is making a space for the voices regarded as different, marginal, and so often unheard – women’s voices.
Given her generous concern with women’s experiences, it is perhaps surprising that she has been largely ignored or dismissed by feminist critics. Apparently her characters are too defeated, wounded, victimised, dependent on men. This catches her work in an odd in-between place. On the one hand, her first book The Country Girls was banned and often burned in Ireland for its depiction of women’s sexuality and she chose self-imposed exile, echoing Joyce and Beckett, to write more freely in London. On the other hand, she hasn’t had much interest from those most critical of patriarchy’s forced silences: feminists.
This may have something to do with the fact that O’Brien doesn’t seem to write from a consciously “feminist” perspective – that is, applying academic feminist theory to real life – and as far as I can tell has never really embraced a feminist label. As a fiction writer also entranced by feminist theory I wonder: how can we creatively represent feminist ideas, undermine patriarchal “real life” society and at the same time patriarchal language and systems of representation that are our legacy as writers in English?
For one thing, we need to honestly give voice to women’s experiences as we know them. Making a decision to write about “strong female characters” may be politically appropriate, but it’s not always ethical. Much of the trouble comes from the fact that women characters are expected to stand in for women as a whole – every single woman everywhere right now. Fiction writers simply aren’t concerned with that. The short story, the novel, are intensely personal and subjective forms. They are not political tracts. They examine the individual: her life, her thoughts, her heart. Of course, this opens out onto the world. But in the same way that men in fiction aren’t expected to represent an entire gender, we need to write weak women, wounded women, women who find comfort in patriarchal certainty, women who try and fail, women who are unsure, women who have no other choice but to live in exile. Fiction writers have a very special relationship to the old feminist adage: “The personal is political.”
For many Western liberal feminists, religion isn’t a popular subject. Writing about Ireland, despite her exile, O’Brien cannot help but be tied up with Catholicism, and she is never apologetic about it. Many feminists have forgotten about the reality of women’s experiences to such an extent that they wish to deny the power and truth of religion in many women’s lives. This cultural imperialism seems to me, if anything, anti-feminist. Feminism is an opening out, a construction of space, in which women’s voices are loud and truthful and multiplicitous.
Failure to recognise the subtlety with which O’Brien writes about the Catholic Church is unfortunate, because it is a failure to deconstruct the kind of patriarchal power the Church circulated, and still circulates today, which can teach us a lot about the patriarchal power that circulates in society as a whole. When asked why she has been forgiving of her father’s “small oppressions” but not so the Church’s, O’Brien remarked:
“The mantle of the Church, the power of the Church, the jurisdiction, the authority, was so overwhelming and not about Christianity. It was very secular. It was about power… What was done to people in the name of God was wrong in every way. It was a murder: psychic, social, and heart murder. And that was because the Church, the bishops and priests, they were omnipotent.”
This is murder done to individual women, and relationships between women. In “A Scandalous Woman” young Eily Hogan is sacrificed following her passionate relationship with a bank clerk and her pregnancy. She is punished – beaten and forced into solitary confinement and finally into marriage. Her future, her sanity and her very Self are sacrificed to a morality that denies women choice and a full sexuality. So the narrator concludes, having visited Eily after some time when they are both married and mothers, “what with that and the holy water and the red rowan tree bright and instinct with life, I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”
It is not about religion, it is about power. A centuries-long power that has othered women, objectified them, made them into nothing but reproductive objects. O’Brien does not diminish the crime of this. It’s not simply “the way things are,” that women marry men and raise children, it is murder.
To recognise the wounds this causes is not to represent women as merely victims, but to give them a voice and the words with which to represent this recognition. Her narrators are intelligent. They experience desire and sexuality fully, in a way they are told is only natural for men. O’Brien also knows that to recognise the full force of patriarchal denial is to muddle your way through a mess of alternatives to compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and the nuclear family.
She writes the complexity of women’s relationships with women without resorting to the reductive patriarchal categories of “lesbian” and “heterosexual.” But she retains that sense of transgression that must be present in all relationships between women in a patriarchal hierarchy of intimacy, in which women’s first priority is supposed to be husband and children. Unfortunately this aspect of her work has been largely ignored, which merely echoes the tendency of a patriarchal society to ignore women’s friendships, desires and sexualities.
In the story “Sister Imelda,” the narrator, a young girl in a Catholic convent, develops an intimacy with a nun that is often blocked given the strictures of their context. She says, “I could cry, or I could tremble to try to convey the emotion, but I could not tell her” and “I dared to touch her wrist to communicate my sadness.” O’Brien narrates the small resistances women find to express intimacy, which in a patriarchal context is not supposed to be bodily. We all know the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that has been a staple of patriarchy for centuries. A woman may only be “pure” (and respectable to patriarchal society) when she denies her sexuality, or in fact when she has none. O’Brien blurs these lines, just a year after Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Intimacy and desire between women, which for O’Brien cannot be easily categorised as and reduced to sexual or non-sexual, is a way of resisting the overwhelming force of institutional heterosexuality that proscribes women’s futures. And it happens within a so-called patriarchal institution – a convent – which, let’s not forget, is made up of women.
Writers who are not interested in perpetuating patriarchal systems of thought and relationality must recognise such relationships between women. Just recognising them is difficult enough, because as Rich tells us “We begin to observe behaviour, both in history and in individual biography, that has hitherto been invisible or misnamed, behaviour which often constitutes, given the limits of the counterforce exerted in a given time and place, radical rebellion. And we can connect these rebellions and the necessity for them with the physical passion of woman for woman which is central to lesbian existence: the erotic sensuality which has been, precisely, the most violently erased fact of female experience.”
So in “The Mouth of the Cave” we read the deceptively simple narrative of a woman coming across a woman standing in the grass, dressing. She asks herself “Why am I running, why am I trembling, why am I afraid? Because she is a woman and so am I. Because, because? I did not know.”
That these intimacies and desires are written as transgressive, never fully enacted, confusing for the reader and narrators at once, is explained by Rich too. As she forces us to acknowledge: “What deserves further exploration is the doublethink many women engage in and from which no woman is permanently and utterly free: However woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, a female and feminist value system are relied on and cherished, indoctrination in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials in feeling, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion.”
Her stories focus very little on marriage and children. They confront the expectations of domesticity without depicting its day-to-day details. The beautiful and shocking story “Paradise” tells of a young woman on holiday with a wealthy older man who has been married three times and his friends. The impossibility of being herself in such an environment is painful: she cannot delude herself into the idea of a perfect love affair that only comes from the absence of outsiders. “She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and would leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.”
The small unkindnesses in unequal relationships that usually remain buried become the unforgiveable murder that O’Brien documents elsewhere. In taking swimming lessons the narrator finds both an incapacity for something supposed to be easy and a fascination with something she doesn’t quite understand. Finally, alone, she submits to the water: “As she went down to the cold and thrilling region she thought, They will never know, they will never, ever know, for sure.” The moment is most meaningful for her because she is alone, finally allowed to confront what Simone de Beauvoir would call her “transcendence” or her subjectivity: not how others see her but how she sees herself. “At some point she began to fight and thresh about, and she cried, though she could not know the extent of those cries.”
Of course, the impropriety of her suicide attempt leads to the guests leaving early and the man she is with expresses no empathy and she understands the relationship is over. The strength wrapped up in a moment of apparent defeat is clear in the reaction to her near-drowning: “the guests were polite and offhand and still specious, but along with that they were cautious now and deeply disapproving. Their manner told her that it had been a stupid and ghastly thing to do, and had she succeeded she would have involved all of them in her stupid and ghastly mess.”
The desperate measures to which women must go to speak, to imprint themselves on a world that consigns them to being looked at, to immanence as Beauvoir would say – or to being objects – is nothing short of sacrificial. O’Brien’s women aren’t women at ease. How could they be? But they are “strong women.” Along with being wounded, defeated, victimised. I think this has something to do with how O’Brien correlates writing with mental distress.
“Name me a writer who isn’t in psychological distress. They wouldn’t be writers unless they were in distress and complex and turbid and disturbed. Harmonious, happy, or for that matter businesspeople, are not creative people, they’re not.”
This is because writers must be outsiders. We have no other choice. So too for the women of O’Brien’s fiction, and that is why their voices are painful. They force us, if we are willing to read, to hear them. We feel their disturbance because O’Brien has made a space in the restrictive patriarchal symbolic. As Julia Kristeva says, “Women have the luck and responsibility of being boundary-subjects.” Sometimes it’s only in murmurs or cries or fights that O’Brien’s women can speak. But in the inscription of their voices we are also forced to recognise the shame, murder and sacrifice enacted by the patriarchal silencing that is never without gaps.