Frail Vessel by Mary Lavin, 1956

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by Mary Lavin, 1956

Apart from two novels, Mary Lavin's literary reputation rests exclusively on her short fiction, of which she has published 10 volumes together with numerous other selected and collected editions. "Frail Vessel," from The Patriot Son and Other Stories (1956), is typical of the stories of her middle period in being less generalized than her earlier work and less discursive than her later fiction.

"Frail Vessel" is set in the small-town provincial Ireland in which Lavin grew up and with whose middle class she was intimately familiar. Reared in the fledgling years of the Irish Free State, as the newly independent country was then called, Lavin was exposed to the full force of the cultural austerity and moral timorousness that characterized Irish social life during the period. The marks of this formative environment, and in particular its effects on the lives of women, are to be found throughout her output. Her stories are an exemplary chronicle of a submerged population group within a generally submerged population. The full significance of her work, from both a cultural and an artistic point of view, has yet to be given its due recognition.

As in many of Lavin's stories, the setting in "Frail Vessel" is rendered so sketchily as to make it seem makeshift. Yet despite the place's anonymity—a relative rarity in Irish writing—Lavin deftly depicts its mean streets, indifferent housing, and lack of opportunity. These are represented as the devitalized facades behind which an inner reality, consisting of a narrow economy and an exploitative morality, thrives. In addition, depriving the setting of a name draws attention to the story's expertly controlled orchestration of motifs of face making, face-saving, shamefacedness, and related concerns, all of which have a bearing on the kind of name Bedelia believes her sister is making for herself in her hapless marriage to Alphonsus O'Brien.

As though to emphasize the relevance of names, the story's two protagonists are named so as to suggestively evoke their characters: beadlelike Bedelia and the somewhat giddy Liddy. It is at the point at which such facile evocations no longer suffice, however, that the characters' reality transpires. Liddy is not merely a picture of youthful flightiness, and Bedelia fails in her attempt to police her young sister's destiny. Just as Lavin reveals the forces that sustain the moribund town, a place to which the reader is introduced by way of a funeral, so she unmasks the human consequences of either adopting or resisting the spirit of such a place.

The revelation is accomplished by means of a carefully structured system of dualities. This embraces not only the two sisters but also their husbands, the feckless and opportunistic Alphonsus and the careful, clerkly Daniel. The contrast between the two men is highlighted by their financial scrupulousness, though the limited, economically determined role each man plays underlines the unrewarding social context in which he is expected to function. Under the circumstances Alphonsus's inability to comply with such expectations slyly speaks in his favor. Such a view is necessary since there must be an objective basis for Liddy's attachment to him. If such a basis is missing, there is a risk of reading Liddy's marriage, and her view of it, as an act of self-deception, thereby rendering spurious her resistance to Bedelia's baleful influence.

It is this resistance, however, that substantiates Liddy's triumph. Impoverished, pregnant, possibly abandoned, obliged to "creep back" to her domineering sister, Liddy yet possesses what Bedelia cannot comprehend. What this possession consists of is also kept at a somewhat intriguing distance from the reader, as is Liddy's marriage itself. In this way Lavin creates a sense of the ineffable fulfillment Liddy experiences in her relationship with Alphonsus. The fulfillment does not derive from the marriage as such, or at least not from the marriage institutionally considered, which is Bedelia's perspective on it.

On the contrary, as the closing words of the story make clear, Liddy's bliss derives from a sense of intimacy whose components the reader may infer without their being shown. By means of such sympathetic inference Bedelia's inhibiting presence in the story may be circumvented, so that the reader experiences something of Liddy's ultimate autonomy and authenticity. The realignment of forces that "Frail Vessel" proposes reduces the power of that somewhat empty vessel, Bedelia, whose view of life is determined by a strongly developed attachment to social pomp and to circumstances. In place of this attachment is Liddy's somewhat wayward, unpredictable, ostensibly inappropriate, and socially unsuccessful marriage to Alphonsus. The very unlikelihood of the relationship gives it a distinctiveness, daring, and intrigue that make it far more substantial for Liddy than all of Bedelia's oppressive orthodoxies. Whether this inner substance can protect Liddy remains a painfully open question, however, for it renders her frailty as both a spiritual strength and a social weakness.

Lavin's implicit endorsement of Liddy's spirit is conveyed in the story's spontaneous, intimate style. Here again the story functions in terms of a telling duality. Bedelia is characterized by means of stream of consciousness. Yet that consciousness belies its flow and emerges as a scheming, self-regarding instrument. In contrast, no direct access is provided to Liddy's thought processes. But her speech, over which she is not always able to exercise appropriate control, reveals her openness, lack of guile, integrity, and self-respect. This artful verbal complement, which underwrites the story's more prominent structuring of duality, emphasizes Lavin's literary economy and imaginative resourcefulness, and it shows how she, like Liddy, finds much in what appears to be so little.

—George O'Brien