Happiness by Mary Lavin, 1969
by Mary Lavin, 1969
As her career developed, Mary Lavin's short fiction went through subtle but important changes. These developments have the overall effect of making more explicit and deliberate tendencies that recur throughout her large output. Apart from such obvious features as a continuing preoccupation with the lives of women and the moral climate and cultural atmosphere of provincial Ireland, Lavin's short stories are also marked by distinctive formal features. Among these are an inclination toward the anecdotal and also toward a certain looseness of structure, with a resultant lack of emphasis on plot. As with many other Irish writers, the emphasis is first and foremost on character. In addition, Lavin's work has tended away from the vignette. She prefers greater temporal and spatial scope, so that her stories are generally longer, and to a certain extent more old-fashioned, than many contemporary works in the genre.
The more pronounced presence of many of these features dates from the appearance of the 1969 volume of Lavin's short fiction, of which "Happiness" is the title story. One of the effects of the greater emphasis on the distinctive character of Lavin's imagination is fiction with a stronger autobiographical component. In "Happiness" a mother's early widowhood, family of three daughters, and rural domicile are identical to the situation in which the author found herself. The presence of Father Hugh also has an autobiographical dimension. More important than, or perhaps the ultimate expression of, this autobiographical emphasis is the greater imaginative freedom of many of Lavin's later stories.
This freedom may be discerned in the broad time span of "Happiness." Rather than being a story, it is more in the nature of a life story. The narrator's role and the final scene indicate as much. Another expression of the increasing breadth of Lavin's work is the persistence with which the mother is depicted as a character who typically occupies a space larger than that prescribed by merely domestic circumstances. "Happiness" is notable in the first instance, therefore, for the ways in which it reconfigures the author's deployment of time and space relationships. And it is these reconfigurations that give the story its open and unplotted air.
There is more to the story, however, than its technical accomplishments, however relevant an appreciation of these are for an adequate judgment of an author who has perhaps not always received her artistic due. The openness, rapid movement, and interweaving of anecdotes that characterize the technique of "Happiness" also are directly related to the story's somewhat mysterious theme. The theme's strangeness derives from the fact that the central experiences of the mother's life—widowhood, debt, an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother—can hardly be considered a recipe for happiness. The story's point is much less simple than its title and much less simple than the claims the mother wishes to make for the presence of happiness in not just her own life but in life in general. So unapparent is the meaning of happiness that the reader may well consider that perhaps the momentum, spontaneity, and naturalness of the narrative is as convincing an explication of what is meant as anything the characters affirm.
This view is suggested by the use of the word "rhetoric" to describe the mother's perception and evaluation of her life and experiences. But, as in the case of "happiness," the finality of the word does not necessarily express the spirit of the phenomenon.
From the perspective of her daughters, whose lives have understandably taken a different trajectory from their mother's, the insistence on happiness may seem purely rhetorical, a knowing sublimation of the effort to look on the bright side and to keep going despite the vicissitudes of death and taxes and an implicit declaration of a need to find value in such an effort. Such a perspective, however, merely addresses the mother's continual use of the word "happiness" and does not address the more dramatic manifestations of the spirit she intends the word to describe.
In particular, the striking incident of attempting to bring the heaps of daffodils to her dying husband's bedside surpasses both the scope of rhetoric and the seemingly cogent rationality of Father Hugh. But Father Hugh's observations are based on a life barren of the kind of bloom that inheres in the mother's extravagant, life-enhancing gestures. Because of such gestures, she cannot be regarded as merely all talk, nor can her talk be dismissed as nothing more than a tissue of self-serving, self-deceiving fabrications. The detailing of action, with its implications of an objective, problematic world beyond the self, gives the mother a vitality that is not merely the signature of an appealing personality but that also argues for the existential viability of her outlook. The culmination of the mother's actions in gardening, with its connotations of nature and nurture and of energy and effortlessness, acts as a gloss on the other versions of the life process that have similarly engrossed her.
Moreover, as additional proof of the unsentimental challenge of objective reality, Lavin concludes "Happiness" with the daring intimacy of a deathbed scene. Death is clearly antithetical to the spirit of survival, and overcoming it is characteristic of the moth-er's viability. Yet, despite the obvious difficulties harshly dramatized by Bea's contribution, the mother ultimately seems to embrace the fact of death as comprehensively as she identified with the nature of life. This unsettling ending makes the greatest demands on the reader's credibility, for it is Lavin's most incisive reminder that "Happiness" is less a story in the conventional sense of the term, despite its superficially conventional form, than a meditation. Its method is not so much a narrative of idiosyncratic events as an exploration of the means whereby the events may be rendered tolerable, and its subject is not merely the facts of a certain life but instead the necessary freedom to perceive the spirit of those facts.