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.

31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 7: “Dramas” by Edna O’Brien

May 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Lantern Slides

“A writer’s imaginative life commences in childhood,” says Irish novelist, playwright, and short-story writer Edna O’Brien. “All one’s associations and feelings are steeped in it. When you’re young, everything is seen in wonder and detail. I don’t see it as a limitation. So long as the words and the story spring from a true place, that’s all that counts.” For O’Brien, who was born in County Clare in 1932, that true place is Ireland. She has continued to return to the country of her birth in fiction over the course of her long writing career, apparently finding endless inspiration in the people, the attitudes, the mores. Her critics have suggested that her work is mired in an idealized past, a refusal to acknowledge the changing face of Ireland in the late 20th and early 21st centuries but, a certain broad obviousness aside, the kind of intolerance and bigotry O’Brien portrays in her 1989 story “Dramas” is easily recognizable, not only in an Irish setting, but in pretty much any small town the world over.

Like Cheever’s story “The Enormous Radio,” “Dramas” is essentially about hypocrisy. It tells the story of a shopkeeper named Barry who comes to a small Irish village “from the Midlands” and opens a general store in an old, disused bakery. Barry is a lover of the theatre, and is constantly sizing up the townspeople on the basis of the characters they resemble from the classical stage: “although none of us knew precisely what he meant, we would agree when he said, ‘Rosalind, a born Rosalind,’ or, ‘Cordelia, if I ever met one.'” Barry’s ambition is to mount a play in the village, but not Shakespeare because “he feared that, being untrained, the people would not be able to get their tongues around the rhyming verse and would not feel at home in bulky costumes.”

Barry’s assessment of the townsfolk’s relative sophistication points to the disparity between the shopkeeper and his clients. The differences are clear from the moment Barry arrives in town: he has a pony he calls Daisy, “a name unheard of in our circles for an animal.” He replaces the old scales from the bakery with an up-to-date model “that simply registered the weight of a bag of meal and told it by a needle that spun around, wobbling dementedly before coming to a standstill.” His store stocks “ten different flavoured jellies and more than one brand of coffee.” He refers to biscuits as “bikkies” and cigarettes as “ciggies.”

The villagers, meanwhile, are “suspicious” of Barry’s theatrical leanings; “they did not want plays about dead birds and illegitimate children, or unhappy couples tearing at each other, because they had these scenarios aplenty.” Marital discord and sexual infidelity are not foreign to the village but, as is the case with most small towns, these things are kept carefully concealed behind the curtain of decorum and respectability. There is irony in Barry’s decision to eschew Shakespeare and Chekhov and instead mount “something more suitable, something that the people could identify with”: it is the very fact that the people in the town can readily identify with subjects such as tragic predestination and familial strife that arouses their distrust.

Instead, Barry decides, “wisely,” to put on “a simple play about wholesome people and wholesome themes, such as getting the harvest in quickly.” In addition to papering over the fractures and tensions that run through the town, this decision foregrounds a condescending attitude on the part of the new shopkeeper. Barry harbours the notion that the citizens of the town are yokels who do not possess the sophistication to comprehend the great dramatic works of the Western canon. Although this is probably untrue, his conception of the townsfolk’s limitations does appear to be an accurate reflection of a particular kind of unrealized aspiration. The young first-person narrator’s mother, for instance, “would have loved to have been rich, to entertain, to give lunch parties and supper parties, to show off the linen tablecloths and the good cutlery which she had Vaselined over the years to keep the steel from rusting.” It is frustration at a kind of societal paralysis, not an inability to comprehend great works of literature, that afflicts the townspeople.

There is also, however, a deep strain of conservatism, which finds full expression when Barry invites an actor and his “friend,” Ivan, to visit. Early on in the story, the narrator informs us that when Barry goes to the city for supplies, he always picks up one or two plays, which he performs in his shop, “himself acting the parts, the men’s and the women’s.” The narrator is a young girl who is far from worldly: it would not occur to her why it should be that Barry “was very convincing when he acted the women or the girls.”

As readers, however, we understand what is implied here and, in case we were in any doubt, O’Brien provides us with a balcony scene in which Barry, the actor, and Ivan, all in drag, recite Shakespeare and make increasingly lewd comments to the scandalized crowd beneath. This scene is a misstep: the characterization of the three flamboyant men comes too close to rendering them caricatures of mincing homosexuals. When the actor leans over the balcony and gestures with a rolled-up scroll to a man he has “taken a liking to,” saying, “It’s bigger than that, darling,” the broad sexual humour falls flat. Much more subtle is the moment in which the actor utters what the young narrator calls “something awful.” He quotes Oscar Wilde – a famously gay playwright – referring to the marriage bed as “the couch of lawful lust.” Although the full import of this observation goes unremarked upon, Wilde’s comment neatly skewers the hypocrisy of the townspeople who pretend moral outrage at the antics of the three men, all the while maintaining an unacknowledged familiarity with subjects such as “illegitimate children, or unhappy couples tearing at each other.”

O’Brien’s mode in this story is comic, but her climactic scene veers too far into the realm of the bedroom farce to entirely satisfy. Nevertheless, as a portrait of small-town pretense and intolerance, “Dramas” is ultimately effective. The final image of the narrator watching as Barry is taken away “like a criminal” has a powerful resonance: “He looked so abject that I had to look away and instead concentrated my gaze on the shop window, where the weighing scales, the ham slicer, and all the precious commodities were like props on an empty stage.”