Necessary heresies: Women, disavowal and desire in the works of Edna O'Brien

Helen Thompson


Edna O'Brien's narratives, filtered through the consciousnesses of her female characters, articulate both the repressive nature of Irish women's social and sexual identities, and the difficulties they face in attempting to emancipate themselves from these clearly defined roles. For O'Brien, a woman's social identity is derived from her sexual identity; the institutions of government, Catholic church, community, and family define, control, and enforce these female roles. Through her subjective narrative style, I trace the growing self-awareness and dissatisfactions of her characters as well as their desire to create their own sexual identities by renouncing the roles as wives and mothers. However, such a process of recognition, anger, desire, and disavowal of the institutions and roles that have shaped their lives is by no means simple and unproblematic. Rather, O'Brien's subjective narratives allow the reader insight into the paradoxes of Irish society and its women and the tensions created by internal voices of socialization conflicting with her characters' attempts to recreate their sexual identities. Previous scholarship focuses on plot and character to demonstrate the autobiographical nature of O'Brien's work and to criticize her for creating passive female characters who lack the self-motivation to free themselves from the constraints of family, motherhood, and sexual repression. They view her characters as passive women who are unable to liberate themselves from abusive relationships, dysfunctional families, and restrictive sexual and social roles. I argue that O'Brien is most concerned with the process of self-discovery, the struggle towards self-definition, and the internal and external conflicts which constitute both efforts. Focusing on selected novels, a short story, and a play, as well as the cultural climate of newly independent Ireland and the popular romance tradition out of which O'Brien writes, I examine O'Brien's literary reputation, her representations of static gender roles in newly independent Ireland, the repressive nature of motherhood embodied in images of the Virgin Mary and Mother Ireland, the uncanny nature of lesbian desire, conflations of madness and lesbianism, hysterical narrative, and the ambivalent influence of James Joyce on O'Brien's work.