“The only human person in that whole neighborhood”: James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, and the Question of Originality

Author: Margot Gayle Backus (University of Houston)

In 2013, my standing in Irish Studies as a specialist on the Anglo-Irish gothic and James Joyce paradoxically qualified and compelled me to deliver a plenary address on Edna O’Brien, whose writing I had only started to read, at a mainstream Irish Studies conference. That year I was invited to give a keynote talk on the subject of my choice at the Mid-Atlantic American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS). This particular conference was important to me because it was to be held in Rochester, New York, at St. John Fisher College, where I first learned to be an English professor. And it was scheduled for the same month—as it happened, the same week—that my second book, Scandal Work, on James Joyce and the political sex scandal, appeared in print. I was thoroughly delighted and eager to wow my audience. Almost at once, however, a major problem arose. I had spent the last several years studying Joyce, yet the Mid-Atlantic regional ACIS’s previous plenary had been about Joyce. When I proposed Joyce for the 2013 keynote, the organizers kindly alerted me to the conflict, then respectfully reaffirmed that my subject matter was up to me.


This situation stirred up a painful, long-suppressed conflict. In graduate school, I had called James Joyce “the thing that ate Irish literature”; I refused to revisit Dubliners and Portrait and boycotted Ulysses on the grounds that Joyce had had enough critical attention for twenty authors. I meant to lavish my own attention on all the writers—specifically, the women and LGBT writers—whose work Joyce and other dead straight males had eclipsed. As we shall see, over time various pressures—some straightforward, and others more insidious—eroded my resistance to the uber-canonical Joyce. First, the straightforward pressures: when I got lucky and landed a job teaching Irish literature, I just didn’t feel like a fully credible (read “smart”) scholar of Irish literary studies without reading and teaching Joyce. So I made some inconclusive forays into Ulysses, started teaching Portrait, and published an article on “The Dead.”[1] Then, aided by that article on “The Dead,” I got insanely lucky and landed an R1 position as a British modernist. When I started my new job, armed only with Yeats, Joyce, Bowen, Beckett, and some Virginia Woolf, I was intensely grateful, and acutely aware of my deficiencies as a modernist, or as a British anything. My game plan was to earn my keep by learning to teach Ulysses and thus quickly (and impressively) fill a gap in the graduate curriculum. In my early years, as I was puzzling away at Ulysses and thus talking about the novel not infrequently, I sometimes heard it implied or said outright that while Ulysses is usually taught to ivy league undergraduates, our own urban, multicultural, working-class English majors weren’t up to it. And so it was that my game plan expanded to my undergraduates. At some point, I found I was as politically committed to teaching Joyce as I had once been to not learning him. At the same time, my critical engagement with Joyce’s writing was emerging organically from the surprisingly stimulating process of teaching it.


Now, however, I was preparing an important plenary talk—one I really wanted to make beautiful, memorable—and that talk had to be on virtually anyone or anything other than Joyce. And I had no unpublished work that was not devoted to this ubiquitous usurper of endless weeks on syllabi and numberless conference plenaries, British, Irish, and Modernist. I was unavoidably faced with the horrible truth: James Joyce had indeed eaten me. And though I had made my peace with that—I had reasons—I would be damned if I was going to disappear so far down that thing’s gullet as to let it have the one little bully pulpit a scholar ever gets, solely because my work on James Joyce would, once again, make me look smart. That struck me as the frozen limit, blatantly selfish and un-civic-minded, the final and official vitiation of my youthful commitment to expand rather than merely clog up the aperture of Irish literary studies.


And so I decided, instead, to give a plenary on Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy, on which I was (and am) co-authoring a book chapter with Joe Valente. O’Brien was perfect. She was and is not only the most celebrated living Irish woman author; she is also, arguably, the most celebrated living Irish novelist period. I had already started drafting the chapter, focusing on connections I had found between Joyce’s oeuvre and The Country Girls, and unlike the other chapters Joe and I had drafted, only I had thus far worked on the O’Brien chapter. Thus, in 2013, I set out to research and craft a talk that would, as it developed, explore not only the ways in which Joyce has repeatedly been invoked in critical responses to Edna O’Brien—as well as some of the connections to Joyce in O’Brien’s early work that I had noted—but also some experiential insights that grew out of my position as a scholar immersed in the scholarship of Ireland’s foremost male author, James Joyce, when I transitioned abruptly into the scholarship devoted to Ireland’s foremost female author, Edna O’Brien.


First, of course, I ran into more trouble; indeed, a title I briefly considered for this essay was “Gender Trouble in Irish Studies.” As I researched and drafted the presentation, I became increasingly convinced that despite my good intentions, a presentation on Edna O’Brien by me was doing Irish women authors no favors. That I should be giving an Edna O’Brien plenary risked trivializing O’Brien herself, as well as those scholars who have given her work the serious attention it merits and rewards. I was in danger of slighting both O’Brien and O’Brien scholarship by presuming that I could pick up her work so quickly and expect to make a contribution to that scholarship without taking sufficient time to immerse myself in the relevant scholarship on O’Brien and in relevant women’s and gender studies scholarship.


My focus in this essay, though, is not on my personal inadequacy, which is not inherently interesting; rather, it is, in part, a meta-reflection on the double binds that account for the paradoxical conditions of that 2013 presentation’s production—the double-binds that led a Joycean with a new single-author book on Joyce to give a talk on Edna O’Brien, an author with whom she was vastly less familiar, so as to avoid devoting the one plenary address on literature at an annual Irish Studies conference to a male rather than a female author. To put my central claim in a nutshell, the reason I was in the position to give a plenary presentation on Edna O’Brien was also the reason I was not qualified to do so.


I am a recognized authority in Irish Studies, qualified to give plenary talks, because I have published two books in Irish Studies from academic presses. They are good books, I think, and I work hard on my talks and I know a lot of people, many of whom think I am friendly and smart, but the usual sine qua non for a plenary presenter is at least one book from an academic press. Two such books, in most departments and in most fields, confer seniority. And my point is that—and I think I can support this claim with evidence—if I had spent the last twenty years working on Edna O’Brien and other Irish women authors exclusively, I could not possibly have two books from academic presses. And if, say, I had worked exclusively on O’Brien, so as to make myself the best possible authority on the subject of the 2013 conference’s plenary, it is highly improbable that I would have had even a single such book. Indeed, at the time of my presentation, there had been only two single-author monographs on O’Brien published since Grace Eckley published Edna O’Brien with Bucknell University Press in 1974.[2] Both of these monographs constitute important contributions to the existing scholarship, exceeded in their importance only by the two outstanding edited collections devoted to O’Brien.[3] Both single-author monographs, however, were published by non-academic presses. One was published by a press that is not only nonacademic but is what I think of as a vanity press. I usually don’t bother reading books from this press, but as there was such an extraordinary paucity of material, I gave it a skeptical look. To my surprise, the book was outstanding in terms of scholarship and literary critical analysis. I wondered briefly whether the author had lacked mentorship. Testing this hypothesis, I read the book’s acknowledgments, where I found that one of the book’s external reviewers had been the most distinguished feminist and women’s studies specialist in Irish Studies—in other words, the author had not used this press to avoid peer review; rather, she had sought the most highly-qualified reviewers possible. Furthermore, the introduction was written by the former director of the National University of Ireland-Galway’s now dismantled Women’s and Gender Studies Centre, a similarly formidable senior Irish women’s studies scholar. With these scholars as interlocutors, I concluded, this author had lacked neither the support nor the mentorship of senior scholars in her field. Rather, its placement implied that even the most senior scholars in the field of Irish women’s studies had not been able to overcome a powerful bias in academic publishing against Irish women authors, even in the case of a well-researched, well-written and insightful study of the most prolific, well-known, and long the most critically accepted living Irish woman author.


That only two single-author monographs on O’Brien had been published in the preceding thirty years, and those by nonacademic presses, strongly suggested that, in the case of Edna O’Brien, the irresistible force of scholarly curiosity had met with a formidably immovable blockage. In short, in my all-too-brief review of the books that had been published on O’Brien, I discovered that none of those who were qualified to speak on O’Brien had published academic monographs on O’Brien. If they had published monographs, the monographs were not from academic presses. If they published extensively on O’Brien, they had done so in articles and book chapters, and as editors for special issues of journals and edited collections. There is, thankfully, a wealth of such work on Edna O’Brien now available. Yet, no matter its quality or quantity, seldom does such work qualify a scholar to give plenary talks.


Thus, although I had entered graduate studies with a specific interest in women’s literature, I was now in the position to choose to give a plenary talk on a woman author at an Irish Studies conference because as a junior Irish Studies scholar I had not focused my output on women’s writing. Rather, I had let my output be guided by the currents that strongly skew research in Irish literary studies toward male authors. One can actually measure the strength of these currents by observing the shift in sex/gender ratios that becomes apparent in Irish Studies as research projects wend their way, or don’t, from the gender neutral conference paper to the male-gendered full-length talk, and from the male-inclined journal article to the wholly gyro-averse single-author monograph.


Over the five years leading up to this plenary, I had already started to suspect the extent to which particular currents had buoyed my productivity based on numerous conversations with a brilliant junior colleague in Irish literary studies who was experiencing what were, for me, unexpected, unreasonable and persistent problems with placing several sophisticated and impeccably researched essays on Edna O’Brien and other women authors. With increasing horror, I gave what advice and feedback I could as she continually revised and resubmitted one essay after another as the tenure clock ticked ever-louder. Placing these articles either within or outside of Irish Studies proved astonishingly difficult because external readers for an array of journals—some undoubtedly women and some undoubtedly feminists—routinely found them insufficiently contributive. In one case, for instance, a reader advised a women’s studies journal—not a journal of feminist theory—against publishing one of the O’Brien essays because it did not add anything new to feminist theory. That one got my attention, because that struck me as an enormous thing to demand of a literary critical essay. An entirely new theoretical approach, or a new take on an existing theory? That reader’s response surely came from a feminist, but a feminist who was, I could not but observe, applying a very, very high standard that most non-Irish literary critical articles in that same journal did not meet. Some Irish Studies scholars went beyond expecting my colleague’s work on Edna O’Brien to do more than to produce new and insightful readings of rich and nuanced texts. Some assured her that O’Brien’s oeuvre had already received, apparently, far more attention than it deserved, so that further attention of any sort was inherently worthless. In 1995, my colleague told me that a senior colleague told her that O’Brien (who, as we now know, still had at least twenty-two years of extraordinary writing still ahead of her at that time— writing that didn’t even exist yet) had been “done to death.”


One effect of all this moving of goal posts with respect to Edna O’Brien scholarship has been to exclude O’Brien’s literarily and culturally pivotal response to the X Case, in Down By the River, from international feminist conversations because it can’t “earn its keep” by providing ground for some new theoretical insight. This anomalously high bar, applied repeatedly across journals and fields (and in retrospect, I fear that my own gatekeeping activities in various subfields may have reflected this same clearly unconscious double standard) also put a feminist scholar’s career at risk by demanding of her what is not demanded of other scholars working in Irish Studies, postcolonial studies, women’s and gender studies, critical sexuality studies or literary studies in general. As it happened, my colleague did place her articles and was rightly tenured and promoted, but it was a close thing, and the whole process rattled my faith in a meritocracy I had previously seen as flawed but, ultimately, fair. I had had a pluralistic model of peer review, assuming that if your work came before a hostile reader at one point, if it was good, it would find a more sympathetic reader next time. But getting a close look at my colleague’s many and contradictory rejections across multiple subfields suggested an alternate reality: that there is an unacknowledged but pervasive dearth of sympathetic readers.


At that same time, my own research on Joyce, which was comparably ambitious in its theoretical, historical, cultural and political scope, was being gobbled up. My work, as noted on my book’s back cover, is original and contributive. It is so because, as my external readers enthused, it demonstrates new, compelling ways to read Joyce’s writing and to think about Irish cultural history. My colleague’s readers’ many contradictory rejections agreed on only one thing: that her work lacked originality, an originality defined variously, but always as something well beyond new readings of O’Brien’s work, or even new insights into the Irish socio-symbolic order to which O’Brien so cannily responds. I was really shocked by the vastly different standards that were consistently applied to her work and to my own. My readers were happy that I was doing the same kind of interpretive work that Joyceans have been doing for generations; their most glowing praise was reserved for particularly ingenious interpretations of particular phrases or scenes. One reader, for instance, happily effused “what is extraordinary is that no one else, to my knowledge, has ever noted this connection!”


As I reflected on my colleague’s struggles, however, it dawned on me that my own early experiences in Irish Studies had not been dissimilar to hers; it’s just that I had unthinkingly stopped trying to place my literary critical work on Irish women authors. While I had readily placed my earliest (non-Irish) work—on Anne Sexton and Judy Grahn, Helena Maria Viramontes, Radclyffe Hall, Toni Morrison, Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, and Jeanette Winterson—as I moved into Irish Studies, without my noticing, the output conduits for scholarship on women and women’s writing had jammed up, and much of my work on Irish and Irish-American women like Mary Dorcey, Karen Finley, and Rita Ann Higgins had gotten stuck on my hard drive. Indeed, the most substantial work I have ever published on Irish women’s writing is a chapter in my first book on the burning Big House novels of Molly Keane, Elizabeth Bowen, and Rosamond Jacob. It’s my favorite chapter, but no one ever mentions it, and it is only there at all because I added it when the book was already under contract. Thereafter, my research skewed sharply toward male authors. Throughout what has been a very exciting and gratifying career, I found that I have been unreflectively whizzing down those same “readiest channels” that both Buck Mulligan and Leopold Bloom recommend to Stephen Dedalus, and the elaborate rejection of which Ulysses itself (as I argue in Scandal Work) represents.


I won’t lie: I have loved the work I have done, and I never thought of myself as experiencing success at the expense of Irish women authors and Irish women’s studies—at least, not until I was preparing my Edna O’Brien presentation, when this rare chance to get long stymied new thoughts about an Irish woman writer (one could even say the Irish woman writer) out of my head and onto my hard drive confronted me with how little I actually knew by this time about Irish women’s writing and women’s studies. And with how often presses and journals have called on me as though I were a specialist in the field, and how readily I have agreed to review such work as though I were qualified to do so. And, thus, also, with the extent to which my exciting career has benefited from my unconscious accommodation of and collusion with the systematic devaluation of women—in particular as authors—that remains observably operative in mainstream Irish Studies.


To sum up what these dynamics might suggest: within Irish Studies women remain disruptive, unwieldy, specialized, and above all unrepresentative of “the Irish experience,” while in women’s and gender studies, critical sexuality and queer studies, and in other fields as well, Irish women are insufficiently colonially or racially peripheral to be interesting as Others, but insufficiently canonically American or British to stand in for the white, educated, middle-class Anglo-American woman who is the tacit subject of plain vanilla feminist scholarship. In short, the Irish woman seems to remain an embarrassment to many fields’ ongoing, unconscious, powerful claims to a particular subject position’s (whether male middle-class, white female middle-class, of color, colonial, or subaltern) purported universality. And, I should add (pricked to consciousness by the work of my colleague Anne Mulhall on Irish women immigrants, and by the courageous and crucial if too little-heeded feminist work that is thriving in Irish language and literary studies), this burden of gendered, ethnic anomalousness is vastly greater for Irish women of color, immigrants, Travellers, Irish speakers, poor and working-class women, and disabled women.


Because I have long and proudly cultivated what I had thought was an ecumenical interest in both male and female-authored texts, and in the burdens and contradictions of masculinity as well as femininity, I was astoundingly slow to notice that over the course of my career, one line of inquiry had wholly eclipsed the other, let alone to wonder how this had happened. And yet, paradoxically, because it did—because I directed my writing and research, and the curiosity and enthusiasm that drive them, toward the channels that were most open and receptive—I have published my way with comparative ease into some degree of prominence in Irish Studies. And thus it is, owing to a paradox that seems to be hardwired into a system that I am sure none of us participates in with the intention of trivializing or silencing women—and in which I have been as complicit as anyone—that it is because I was so poorly qualified, in terms of my research, to speak in 2013 on Edna O’Brien, that I was also uniquely qualified to do so in terms of my standing.


Since the specific logic of the talk was one of substitution—of replacing a talk I could easily have given on James Joyce with a talk I was not qualified to give on Edna O’Brien—the extensive critical commentary on O’Brien’s relationship to Joyce provided me, in the talk itself, with a made-to-order starting point. In a hasty online hunt through commentary on O’Brien’s stylistic debt to Joyce, one pattern that emerged across a range of critical responses to O’Brien’s writing in which Joyce is discussed strikingly resembled the polarized responses of journal readers to my colleague’s work on O’Brien and mine on Joyce. Again and again, for instance, Joyce is praised specifically for his originality, which is equated to his disembodied, purportedly genderless genius, whereas O’Brien is described as derivative, parasitic, and inferior, and done so often in implicitly insultingly gendered, corporeal terms.[4] In a 2006 review of The Light of Evening, for instance, the generally well-disposed Michael Langan describes O’Brien as having “made a career of milking mother-Ireland for source material,” and complains that she is in Joyce’s thrall. He advises her to “relinquish the ‘gift of gab’” because she is “a good writer who has knelt too long at the altar of a better one.”[5] The less well-disposed William Pratt envisions a divided audience for O’Brien’s James Joyce, made up of the easily satisfied and implicitly female “readers of Edna O’Brien,” who, he predicts, will unquestioningly accept that Joyce’s and O’Brien’s shared status as Irish writers legitimates her writing on Joyce, in contradistinction to the more discerning (and implicitly male) “readers of James Joyce,” who, he foresees, “may be left wondering if the book is justified.”[6] The book, as Pratt sees it, is “a feminist perspective on Joyce,” and in his estimation such a thing—a thing that is both too strange and too predictable—may not be worth having. “Well,” he sighs, “it is here, like it or not,” going on to complain that O’Brien is “predictably” interested in “Joyce’s mother and wife….”[7] Ultimately, he concludes, Joyce’s fiction is “highly original” while O’Brien’s insights are “less than illuminating.” Joyce’s work is “dominating,” and Ellmann’s biography is “masterly,” while O’Brien’s opinion that Anna Livia Plurabelle is Joyce’s most accessible and beloved character reveals her to be “straining after [an] originality” of which, as he repeatedly emphasizes, she is incapable. Another unsigned review, published in 2000 in the Virginia Quarterly, alternately insults O’Brien and praises Joyce, despite the fact that the Joyce being praised is the one conjured by O’Brien’s distinctive craft.[8] Particularly notable in this short review are strangely recurrent passive voice constructions that seem designed to distance the author from an O’Brien who passively emits rather than crafts a kind of glutinous prose that elicits the critic’s humorous revulsion. O’Brien “plops her reader down in the middle of a characterization stylistically inspired by the prose of its subject.”[9] But why is this writing so weird, the reviewer envisions a bemused reader wondering: “was Edna perchance in her cups? Had Edna no editor?” In other words, O’Brien’s linguistic play is disconcertingly original—too much so. Later, however, the critic notes that while O’Brien is “having fun with language,” she is not unconditionally, heroically committed to linguistic innovation at any cost, the way Joyce was.[10] She is “snorkeling where Joyce dove deep,” so that her prose, earlier ridiculed as off-puttingly strange, is also insufficiently inventive. Following this charge of superficial stylistic snorkeling, O’Brien is altogether displaced by a final, long paean to the inimitable weirdness and “adamantine will” of “this proud, sad, half-blind, half-mad man….”


Tellingly, Joyce’s genius and originality, the purported basis for the superiority of Joyce in relation to O’Brien as repeatedly asserted across fifty years of literary criticism, have passed almost entirely out of currency in Joyce criticism itself. Joyceans writing on Joyce have long been in accord with Joyce’s own assessment of his writing as the product of magpie-like thefts and mimicry, the tracing of which—to authors and scholars across an array of fields, to music hall reviews, political speeches, advertisements, newspaper writing, and living models, emphatically including Joyce himself—affords one of the seemingly inexhaustible pleasures of Joyce scholarship. Even from the earliest Joyce criticism, and I am thinking of Stanislaus Joyce’s My Brother’s Keeper and Richard Ellmann’s biography, Joyce’s pattern of obsessive recurrence to specific narrative patterns is cited as the basis for, rather than an embarrassing detraction from, his genius status. In particular, Stanislaus recalls and Ellmann approvingly affirms Joyce’s youthful claim that a great artist can really incorporate only one or two great tragedies—in his own case, Christ’s Passion and Parnell’s Fall. In O’Brien criticism, on the other hand, critics seem inordinately burdened by the relentless necessity of either conceding as an obvious failing or strenuously justifying O’Brien’s “repetitiveness,” a quality that, like madness, obsession (whether sexual or otherwise), stylistic excessiveness, crude corporeality, and even an ongoing engagement with female embodiment and women’s perspectives is, in her case (and in direct contradistinction to Joyce’s), a failing to be conceded and got past or a slur to be rebutted.


In all of this, it is not difficult to see a widespread pattern of sneaky, unconscious, deniable deprecation, analogous to that which Edward Said famously identified in the discourse of Orientalism, at work in the critical reception of Edna O’Brien’s work as well as in the reception of O’Brien criticism. Just as one can begin to specify both the seriousness and the nature of the obstructions that have muted and deformed O’Brien criticism quantitatively, were one closely to examine where and by how much the sharp falling off of female authors occurs over the long march from conference paper to journal article to monograph, one can, I think, likewise qualitatively measure the double standard that has existed specifically in the critical treatment of O’Brien by looking closely at the extent to which James Joyce is distortingly cast against type, in the context of O’Brien criticism, into an iconic figure for original, cosmopolitan literary value. For it is, above all, in respect to this specially-crafted Joyce that O’Brien is continually discredited, as it is from this unrecognizable Joyce that she is said to take the illicit license to write in strange and unfamiliar ways that are, in the hands of her lesser artistry, merely excessive and self-aggrandizing, or toward whom, on the other hand, she is slavishly imitative.


What I set out to do, in light of all this, in the course of my presentation, then, was to argue for one discernible relationship of Joyce to O’Brien—one that has nothing to do with questions of originality or imitativeness—by considering O’Brien’s critical understanding and adaptation of one defining element of Joyce’s style that might be termed his representational ethos. My interest, specifically, was in how both authors compellingly depict grim social relations nearly relentlessly predicated on the instrumentalization of one human by others, without losing sight, either in aesthetic or ethical terms, of some more humane potential, inhering perhaps in what Marx has termed human “species being.” I chose the title of my presentation—and hence of this essay—to invoke what is, for me, a very striking outbreak of incipient humanity in O’Brien’s second novel, originally titled The Girl With Green Eyes (or, The Lonely Girl). It occurs rather late in the novel, when the protagonist, Caithleen, has been forcibly dragged back to her hometown by her terrifyingly abusive alcoholic father after he has received an anonymous letter accusing her of “keeping company” with a divorced foreigner.


Caithleen is trapped, with the implicit threat, as the priest is called in, being that if she cannot perform her prescribed role within her community, she will have to be permanently removed from that community and placed in a Magdalene laundry. While institutional incarceration is not threatened during this period of de facto house arrest, it is explicitly threatened in the immediate aftermath of her flight back to Dublin. Her father and other adult men from her village turn up at the home of the (not yet) divorced and not actually foreign Eugene, and openly declare, in response to Eugene’s astonished protest, that a grown woman cannot be controlled in this way, that Ireland is their country now, and they can have her put away. Historically speaking, of course, these men are correct—thus, the highly coercive choice with which Caithleen is faced during her period of house arrest and unwanted priestly ministrations is between a carceral small-town outward conformity, or actual incarceration. She is able to extricate herself from this horrifying situation with the help of the village shopkeeper, Jack Holland, whose interactions with her are otherwise distinctly creepy. (He is also a figure for the jejune and simultaneously manipulative “infatuation with the English language” of the Irish Revival, which bores Caithleen.) He appears to have had a sexual relationship with Caithleen’s now missing, presumed drowned mother that, subsequent to the mother’s disappearance, he is eager to transfer to Caithleen. His earlier interactions with her are overtly sexually encroaching, and later he will join the party that stages a raid on Eugene’s house with the aim of either forcibly reabsorbing Caithleen into their community or institutionalizing her. Yet at one crucial moment he reacts to the trapped and terrified Caithleen’s desperate situation with spontaneous fellow-feeling when he helps her to escape her pursuers by getting her out the back of his store unobserved and arranging for a cab to drive her back to Dublin. Registering his spontaneous empathy, the astonished Caithleen realizes that in this moment, he is “the only human person in that whole neighborhood.”[11]


O’Brien has often been accused of treating her male characters with hostility, a point her supporters sometimes concede. I have not read all of her work, so I do not know if this might be true of some of it, but concerning The Country Girls and indeed the other O’Brien texts I have read, I think such a reading is not only wrong but profoundly destructive, in that it opposes O’Brien’s ethical vision to Joyce’s at precisely the point where the two most significantly converge—that of modern Irish sex/gender relations as instrumentalizing and dehumanizing. O’Brien, like Joyce, is unquestionably interested in—if not riveted by—gender relations as one key system through which human beings are rendered instrumental, one mode of social organization among others that both allows for and normalizes exploitation.


It is as absurd to claim that O’Brien depicts only men as morally degraded by Irish mid-century sex/gender relations as it would be to claim that Joyce depicts turn-of-the-century Irish sex/gender norms as coarsening only his female characters—as if one were to read Mrs. Mooney’s instrumentalizing treatment of Bob Doran in “The Boarding House,” for instance, as gendered in a way that Lenehan’s and Corley’s attitudes toward the slavey in “Two Gallants” is not. In The Country Girls, Baba is often mean and instrumentalizing of Caithleen, just as Joyce’s male characters often manipulate gender norms so as to exploit each other as well as women, as exemplified by Buck Mulligan’s treatment of Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses. Strikingly, in the scene of same-sex exploitation in The Country Girls that most pointedly plays on Joyce’s exploitative male/male pairings, in which Baba prepares the reluctant Caithleen for a dinner date with two repulsive Dublin businessmen that she has arranged so as to get a nice meal, Baba specifically cautions Caithleen not to talk to them about Joyce’s Dubliners.


This humorous commentary on Caithleen’s inability to conform to period gender norms is also an homage to Joyce inserted just as O’Brien’s guileless female protagonist is pushed into effective prostitution by an ambitious and worldly, if appealing, friend. The charming, quick-witted Baba’s scheme to dine out at Caithleen’s expense (since Baba is able to handle her own date, while the less experienced and more sensitive Caithleen is in way over her head) pointedly resembles the exploitative posture of Buck Mulligan toward Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses’s opening episode. In Telemachus, the attractive but coldly manipulative Mulligan, a similarly well-heeled and more gender-adept companion, repeatedly urges an impoverished and beleaguered Stephen who is, like Caithleen, suffering from the recent death of a mother and on the lam from an appropriative alcoholic father, to “touch Haines for a guinea.”[12] Various Joyce scholars have pointed to Mulligan’s clear interest in prostituting Stephen to Haines in order that Mulligan might himself enjoy a bigger night on the town than Stephen’s pay packet alone will afford him. Baba’s comic direction to Caithleen to suppress any mention of Joyce as she bullies Caithleen into dumbing herself down to the level of her appalling date pointedly emphasizes the parallels that exist between Baba’s appropriative and sometimes sadistic relationship to Caithleen, and the exploitative same-sex bonds that recur across Joyce’s oeuvre, including the unnamed protagonist and Mahony in “An Encounter,” Corley and Lenehan in “Two Gallants,” and culminating in the Mulligan/Stephen relationship in Ulysses.


So I think critics who either level or concede the claim that O’Brien is anti-male are, at least in terms of this text, badly missing the point. Caithleen, not unlike Stephen Dedalus at many points, seems rudderless, hapless, and unsympathetic. Her mother is pathetically adrift, drowning metaphorically even before she either drowns or, perhaps, in desperation, stages her apparent drowning so as to escape from an abusive marriage to Caithleen’s alcoholic father, abandoning her daughter to do so. Baba is mean and selfish, and her mother, Martha, is—to use vocabulary appropriate to the time and place—a drunken floozy. Nearly all of the male characters are equally flawed, but to read The Country Girls Trilogy as hostile in particular to Irish men completely distorts both the novel’s politics and its aesthetics, particularly as these make clear the nature of O’Brien’s indebtedness to Joyce. The point is that compassion and decency and the kind of acumen that together allow humans to care for each other, particularly under conditions of adversity or crisis, are in uniformly short supply in Caithleen’s world, as they are in the lives of Joyce’s Dubliners, and as they are in the world of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom.


And if one thinks of O’Brien’s take on gender as akin to that of Joyce, who was minutely attuned to gender and sexual norms not only as systematically advantaging one sex at the expense of the other but also as symmetrically dehumanizing both, it strikes me as very important that the male character in The Country Girls who has, as seen through Caithleen’s eyes, constituted the closest thing to a sexual threat, is the character who reacts in the most humane way to another human being in extremis. Jack’s act of spontaneous decency allows for a gifted but vulnerable youth to continue to grow and develop intellectually and aesthetically as surely as does Leopold Bloom’s compassionate intervention on behalf of the drunken, cornered Stephen Dedalus at the end of Ulysses’s “Circe” episode. That it is the village masher who performs this act of kindness has the effect of emphasizing how utterly devoid of humanity is the treatment of Caithleen by the other males in the village, viewing their hostility toward Caithleen’s independence more harshly even than Jack’s sexual manipulativeness. At the same time, Jack’s surprising act of compassion signals the incipient potential for redemptive fellow-feeling that remains integral within the human, suggesting, in agreement with Marx and with Joyce, that O’Brien’s characters’ inhumane, instrumentalizing treatment of each other is the product of material conditions and social relations, not the product of male/female biology.


Thus, even in Edna O’Brien’s earliest novels it is clear that, aided by a stricter and less overdetermined examination of the basis for her admiration of and adaptation of Joyce’s writing, O’Brien’s feminism has been wrongfully aligned with those tendencies in second-wave feminism that, as Nancy Fraser argues, have proven most amenable to neo-liberal global capitalism.[13] O’Brien’s feminism has been interpreted, by both her critics and many of her admirers, as focusing on the rights of the individual and individual liberties in preference to the collective good. If, on the other hand, O’Brien has learned from Joyce to set forth with scrupulous meanness gender as an instrumentalizing system of material exploitation and misappropriation, then her feminism may be seen as distinctly collective, materially based, and engaged with questions of interpersonal care and justice—as constituting our ethics and our humanity itself on collective and relational rather than individualist and agonistic terms. O’Brien might—in concurrence with not only Joyce but also with Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, which it was my ego-shattering misfortune to re-read while revising this essay—construe her characters’ destinies as the product of social infrastructure, rather than individual anatomy.


Within such an instrumentalilzing, dehumanizing system, with its invisible yet compelling capacity to devalue both human beings and what they offer to the world based on a priori values assigned to gendered as well as raced and other subject positions, it is clear that certain perspectives will hardly ever be widely shared and thus that certain aesthetic, intellectual, theoretical, and political advances cannot be made. And, to direct my conclusion toward a more modest but for now immediate concern, it means that the work that is done by and about some bodies will continue to be consistently overlooked and undervalued, a situation that should concern us all—because it means that a lot of good work is unreflectively passed over, presumed to be “done to death” already, or to be inherently uninteresting as literature.


Perhaps the good news that can be salvaged from this reflection on what I learned from presenting a plenary I was unqualified to deliver—on the grounds that no one better qualified was likely to turn up until we somehow fix a badly broken system—is this: because the standards for academic merit are so clear, we really can, as a field, fix this particular gender trouble, either by working together to redress the existing bias against Irish women authors on the part of academic presses, by pointing it out and calling for change, or else by adapting our assessment of what constitutes senior status to reflect the existing realities, however deplorable. The best news of all is that if we stay attentive, we will know almost immediately when the first fully-qualified Edna O’Brien plenary presenter arrives—and as Virginia Woolf maintained, “she would come if we worked for her.”[14]


[1] See Backus, “Sexual Figures and Historical Representation in ‘The Dead,’” European Joyce Studies 11 (2001): 111-31.


[2] It might or might not go without saying that in 1974, and for over a decade thereafter, even a literary critic who won a Nobel Prize for his or her insightful scholarly treatment of Edna O’Brien would have been unlikely to have been invited to give a keynote at any Irish Studies conference on either side of the Atlantic. By the time women writers were even sufficiently viable within Irish Studies not to automatically and decisively disqualify a critic for standing in the field, Eckley’s monograph would have been considered too dated to credential her as a potential plenary speaker.


[3] The two single-authored monographs are by Amanda Greenwood, Edna O’Brien (Horndon: Northcote House Publishers, 2003) and Helen Thompson, The Role of Irish Women in the Writings of Edna O’Brien: Mothering the Continuation of the Irish Nation (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010). The two edited collections are Lisa Colletta and Maureen O’Connor, eds., Wild Colonial Girl: Essays on Edna O’Brien (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006) and Kathryn Laing, Sinead Mooney, and Maureen O’Connor, eds., Edna O’Brien: New Critical Perspectives (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2006). In the same month that I delivered my plenary on Edna O’Brien, Alice Hughes Kersnowski published an invaluable collection of interviews with O’Brien, Conversations with Edna O’Brien (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2013).


[4] In the prologue to her memoir, Country Girl, O’Brien cites a critic’s dismissal of her as “a bargain basement Molly Bloom” to exemplify the intensely ad hominem (or ad feminem) critical hostility that never quite stopped her from writing, thereby revealing, by implication, how close certain irresponsible, hateful invocations of Joyce by male reviewers came to doing just that; O’Brien, Country Girl: A Memoir (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 3.


[5] Michael D. Langan, “Too Much Like James Joyce, Too Little Like Edna O’Brien,” in Twice-Told Tales: Reviews of Irish Literature, 1998-2012 (Amazon Digital Services, LLC, 2011), Kindle edition.


[6] William Pratt, “Review of James Joyce by Edna O’Brien,” World Literature Today 75, no.1 (2001): 126.


[7] Ibid. (emphasis added)

[8]James Joyce (Book Review),” Virginia Quarterly Review 76, no. 3 (2000): 97-98.

[9] Ibid., 97.


[10] Ibid., 98.


[11] O’Brien, The Lonely Girl (New York: Plume Book, 2002), 97.


[12] James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Vintage-Random, 1990), 7.

[13] See Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2013).


[14] Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957), 118.