31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 2: “‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” by Edna O’Brien

May 2, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Love Object: Selected Stories

The_Love_Object_Edna_O'BrienEdna O’Brien begins her story “‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” by breaking the rules. Short fiction, we are told, is a form that relies on concentration: of theme, of language, and of character. Stories are most often psychological, but the psychologies they limn tend to be individual; it is uncommon for a work of short fiction to incorporate a large cast of characters or to examine a cross-section of society. As Frank O’Connor has pointed out, the novel is the great social genre in literature; stories focus closely on one or two characters.

“‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” is approximately twenty pages long; the first half is taken up with an expressionistic, bird’s eye view of an Irish town. Addressing the reader in the second person, O’Brien presents brief sketches of a number of the villagers, past and present. These include Angela, an ex-nun who leaves the convent and takes up residence with her less attractive sister. Angela becomes enamoured of her sister’s husband and eventually dies of a wasting disease. We are introduced to a “respectable lady” who has her shoes stolen by an itinerant tinker (a kind of Irish gypsy). Another abode houses a defrocked priest; yet another contains “an unfortunate woman” who spends her day as a cleaner “while her husband skulks in woods to assault girls and women.” Some of the town’s women are so wanton, we are told, that the predatory husband does not need to force himself on them: they give themselves over to him willingly.

It is far from accidental that O’Brien, in her opening paragraph, insists on the sleepiness of the town, its apparently boring and “somnolent” aspect. A traveller might find the village “picturesque,” a place where life “has a quiet hum to it.” Such a traveller, O’Brien’s omniscient narrator asserts, would hardly pause while passing through “on [the] way to somewhere livelier.”

O’Brien is operating in the manner of David Lynch in Blue Velvet: she offers the veneer of a quaint village in rural Ireland, only to yank back the curtain to display the perverse venality that lies behind it. There is a strong streak of Gothicism in all of this, along with an emphasis on religion: one of the first landmarks noted in the opening paragraph is “a stone, Roman-type church.” Yet there are early indications that the religion that infuses the town is fractured and debased: Angela has left the convent, after all, and the priest has been defrocked.

From these early intimations, O’Brien zooms in and sharpens her focus in the story’s second half, which moves from the general to the specific. Here we are introduced to Ita McNamara, a devout sacristan who turns out to be the story’s central character. (It is surely atypical for a writer of short fiction to withhold the first appearance of her protagonist until the latter part of the story.)

Ita now lives across the road from the church, secreted inside a two-storey house that huddles behind a “disgrace” of a garden. “Everything is rampant: trees, shrubs, briars all meshed together in some mad knot, not only obscuring the path, but traveling right up along the windows, so that no one can see in.” In the context of the enfeebled and degraded images of religion we have already encountered, it is impossible not to read this as describing a kind of overgrown and decaying Garden of Eden, symbolic of Adam and Eve’s ejection and fall from grace.

Ita’s story is narrated retrospectively; at the time of her “catastrophe,” we are told, she was “a paragon” in the town, “the most admired devout person there.” Her downfall is precipitated by the arrival of a parish priest named Father Bonaventure, with whom Ita becomes entranced (the parallels between Ita and Angela are persistent and deliberate). Following a thunderous sermon during which Father Bonaventure rains down hellfire and brimstone on the village congregants, Ita steals a lily from the church. When she is found in her room after a commotion that night, she claims that the flower raped her.

Ita is, of course, branded a lunatic and sent off to an asylum, “where she spent the best part of a year and took to sucking in her cheeks, refusing to speak to anyone and having to be barred from the chapel because the sight of flowers drove her into a frenzy.” Here we have the psychological explication for the horrid state of Ita’s neglected garden in the present; it is also notable that the flower she steals from the church is a lily, with all its commingled associations of innocence, spirituality, and romantic love. The lily stands in for Father Bonaventure, the object of Ita’s desire who remains untouchable to her. When her brother discovers her in her room at night, Ita demands he seek out the priest so that he can exorcise the demon she is convinced resides within the flower.

The images of religious torment and disaffection that began as glimpses and allusions in the early stages of the story become furious and orgiastic by the story’s end; the picturesque town with the stone church at its entrance masks a seething tide of perversity and frank insanity. (It is notable, too, that the one specific feature of the church that gets mentioned in the opening paragraph is the graveyard that adjoins it, an association that gets picked up at the end in a reference to Angela, her sister, and her sister’s husband being “morsels for the maggots,” all of them buried creepily close together in the cemetery.)

Only in retrospect does O’Brien’s careful construction become clear; the symbolic and allusive elements seeded in the first half of the story blossom forth in the second. In the final paragraph, the narrator swivels round to address the reader directly one last time: “Now I ask you, what would you do? Would you comfort Ita, would you tell her that her sins were of her own imagining … or would you drive on helter-skelter, the radio at full blast.” O’Brien insists on the reader’s complicity, but does not quite condemn the reader who, like the wayward travellers, might want nothing more than to get the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible. To remain is to be forced to contend with what lies beneath the town’s placid surface, what roils at the heart of this odd, disturbing, and audacious story.

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