A Scandalous Woman by Edna O'Brien, 1974
A SCANDALOUS WOMAN
by Edna O'Brien, 1974
The publication of A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories (1974) followed closely on the success of Edna O'Brien's early novels. The novels won almost instant admiration for making an art of naïveté, for their intimate and sensitive portrayals of young women growing up, dealing with their burgeoning sexuality in an unusually repressive society, and inevitably being disappointed in love.
A constant theme throughout O'Brien's work is the entrapment of women by social pressures, by the expectations of family and religion, and by their own desire for "romance." Her women, generally sensitive and self-sacrificing, value themselves only when they are needed by men who selfishly use and then discard them, leaving them, at worst, completely destroyed or, at best, going through the external motions of an empty life. In "A Scandalous Woman" Eily Hogan, vivacious and gifted and with the face of a Madonna, conceives a desperate infatuation for a worthless man and after a brief, self-deluding moment of happiness is forced, because she has become scandalously pregnant, into a loveless marriage with him. It is a marriage that initially leaves her angry and haggard, with her "lovely hair" falling "out in clumps," but eventually with "the feelings drugged out of her."
"A Scandalous Woman" clearly demonstrates O'Brien's most notable quality as a writer, her ability to evoke vividly the world of rural Ireland in the 1940s. The method is to focus on a single idiomatic phrase or on an apparently trivial detail in order to create a picture of an impoverished rural economy in which unremitting drudgery is commonplace and excitement scarce. It is a society of rigid social distinctions and even more rigid social and moral expectations and controls that are monitored by the Catholic Church and cruelly reinforced by the family. The controls apply especially to sexuality, or rather to the suppression and repression of sexuality, which is constantly associated with a sense of guilt and with the expectation of punishment. It is clearly a society in which women are dominated by their husbands and fathers. The narrator's father goes "to bed in a huff, because she had given him a boiled egg instead of a fry for his tea." Eily Hogan's father is "a very gruff man who never spoke to the family except to order his meals," and as a child Eily "always lived under the table to escape her father's thrashings." Mrs. Hogan is a terrified, demoralized woman, the wreck of her expectations pathetically evoked in the description of her attempt to give birds some of the pleasure of which she is deprived, "She liked the birds and in secret in her own yard made little perches for them, and if you please hung bits of coloured rags, and the shaving mirror for them, to amuse themselves by." In this isolated world, which is backward looking, superstitious, and tribal, glamour and excitement can be found only in the hellfire exhortations of a visiting missionary or in those whispers of the modern world that creep in through bad films, tacky furnishings, and cheap perfumes with suggestive names. For a brief moment these things delude young women into believing that there are possibilities, even if they are only vaguely imagined, for self-fulfillment.
O'Brien has a fondness for the apparently guileless, childlike, first-person confessional narrator. "A Scandalous Woman" deals with the brief and spontaneous flowering of Eily and of her destruction by the perverted rigidity of the adult world. The story is narrated by a younger child who shares many of the attitudes of the community. But she also is distinguished by a highly accurate ear—the crassness of male attitudes to women evoked by the description of Peter the Master as spitting into the "palm of his hand" and as saying, "Didn't she strip a fine woman"—by an immediate, sensuous relationship to experience—the pink jelly, which is the only thing her mother can eat at Eily's wedding, is "like a beautiful pink tongue, dotted with spittle, and it tasted slippery"—and by an ability to isolate a single image that encapsulates the full significance of the events she has witnessed:
It was a wonderful year for lilac and the window sills used to be full of it, first the big moist bunches, with the lovely cool green leaves, and then a wilting display, and following that, the seeds in pools all over the sill and the purple itself much sadder and more dolorous than when first plucked off the trees.
The innocence and freshness of the child's response reveal the hypocrisy and comic incongruity of much of the adults' behavior, as, for example, when the men sing a song or two after they have threatened, bullied, and beaten Jack into marrying Eily. Apart from the somewhat irritating use of the word "you," the style is mostly effective and appropriate. It is especially effective when O'Brien speaks through her naive narrator. By exploiting the superstition and folklore that are a part of the child's everyday reality, she thus expands the range of references and elevates Eily into a symbol of Ireland herself. Eily moves in a recognized metaphorical pattern from Madonna to scandalous woman or from Cathleen or Houlihan to the hag/crone figure suggested by the witch, whom she comes to resemble.
It is arguable, however, that the tendentious ending, which is given from the perspective of an experienced adult and a rationalizing narrator, negates the immediacy of the naive narrative and of the movement to a deeper mythological level: "It was beginning to spot with rain, and what with that and the holy water and the red rowan tree bright and instinct with life, I thought that ours was indeed a land of shame, a land of murder and a land of strange sacrificial women." The last sentence appears to be unnecessary and indicates a lack of confidence on the part of the writer in her readers as well as a lack of trust in the accumulated impact of the story.