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The Deathly Conformity of Irish Women: Novels by Mary O'Donnell and Susan Knight

Jeanette Shumaker
Affiliation:
San Diego State University, Imperial Valley Campus
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Summary

Joyce's Dubliners is the most famous example of fiction about the emotional paralysis afflicting the Irish. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O'Brien, Mary Lavin, and Maeve Brennan added important Irish contributions to this sub-genre as it applies to Irish women. Women may be especially vulnerable to deathly conformity, because patriarchy constructs femininity as submission, particularly in traditional countries such as Ireland. Recent works that deal with Irish women's conformity as an obstacle to their growth include Susan Knight's Grimaldi's Garden (1995), Mary O'Donnell's The Lightmakers (1992) and Virgin and the Boy (1996).

O'Donnell's Lightmakers depicts a woman who is consumed by the desire to bear a child, and is willing to do so without a husband. She cultivates a professional career that is unusual for Irish women of her generation. O'Donnell's professional woman learns to face her regrets that she is not a conventional mother and wife, to tolerate the stigma of sterility, and to accept who she is. This protagonist's dilemmas refl ect those of her era. By 1979, the numbers of Irish women seeking counseling for self-esteem and identity problems had skyrocketed; this increase probably came from the new careers available to women (Redlich 83); the decline in support for mothers from their extended families (Redlich 85); and from dissatisfaction with traditional roles in a generation that was more educated than previous ones (Redlich 88).

O'Donnell's Virgin and the Boy also portrays peer pressure and conventionality as obstacles to growth. In Virgin, right-wing activists imperil a rock-singer who refuses to agree with their definition of her work as sinful. Another pressure to conform in Virgin concerns the taboo against relationships between older women and younger men.

Conformity and peer pressure are central, too, in Knight's Grimaldi's Garden. Knight shows Dubliners struggling to surmount prejudices against homosexuals, retarded children, single mothers, and fathers who leave their wives. In a novel that dramatizes the pain and pleasure of mortality through its central floral motif, Knight creates sympathy for Bohemians. O'Donnell likewise advocates Bohemianism as a way to escape the emotional paralysis brought on by conforming to conventions.

Emotional paralysis not only destroys individual happiness, but a marriage as well, when habit replaces feeling in The Lightmakers.

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Writing Modern Ireland , pp. 207 - 215
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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