In the Middle of the Fields
In the Middle of the Fields
Mary Lavin's "In the Middle of the Fields" is often referred to as one of the author's "widow stories," a group of stories that Lavin wrote in the late 1960s that reflect her own struggles with widowhood. Patricia K. Meszaros, in her article on Lavin for Critique, writes that her widowhood "informs" this work "in her searching and compassionate portrayals of loneliness." "In the Middle of the Fields" is one of the most gripping stories in this group in its focus on the efforts of a recently widowed woman to resist the pull of the past in order to function in the present.
The unnamed woman is determined to run the farm herself after her husband dies. During the day, she demonstrates an independent spirit that suggests she will ultimately succeed in her attempt to establish a new life and identity for herself. Yet in the evening, her fear of being alone makes her more vulnerable to her memories. An encounter one night with Bartley Crossen, a neighboring farmer whom she employs to cut her grass, highlights the tenuous balance she has struck between past and present and the sometimes overwhelming sense of loss she experiences. In this intimate and sensitive story, Lavin reveals the painful consequences of death on those left behind.
Mary Lavin was born in East Walpole, Massachusetts in 1912 to Thomas and Nora Lavin, who were both Irish immigrants. The family moved back to Ireland in 1922, living first in Athenry, County Galway, and later in Dublin.
In Dublin, Mary attended the Loreto Convent School, and in 1934 she graduated from University College, where she received honors in English. In 1936 she completed a thesis on Jane Austen that earned her a master of arts. She was working toward a Ph.D. and teaching French at the Loreto Convent School when she wrote her first short story, "Miss Holland." After many rejections, "Miss Holland" was finally published by Dublin magazine in 1938.
Lavin married William Walsh, an Irish barrister, in 1942 and a year later they had a daughter whom they named Valentine. Also in 1942, Lavin had a collection of her short stories published entitled Tales from Bective Bridge. The collection received acclaim in Ireland as well as in the United States and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
In 1944, Lavin's first novel, Gabriel Galloway was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in seven consecutive issues. In 1945, the novel was published in its entirety under the title, The House in Clewe Street. The following year, after the birth of her second daughter as well as the death of her father, Lavin published her second book, The Becker Wives and Other Stories. Although at this point in her career, Lavin realized that the novella was her preferred form, she completed the novel Mary O'Grady, published in 1950.
Her husband, William, died soon after the birth of their third child in 1954, forcing Lavin to raise her three daughters and manage their farm by herself. She handled these responsibilities and at the same time earned two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. In 1961 she was also awarded the Katherine Mansfield Prize and in 1968 the University of Ireland awarded her a Doctor of Letters degree.
In 1967, Lavin published another collection of stories, In the Middle of the Fields. Stories she published in the late 1960s are often referred to as her "widow stories." Patricia K. Meszarus, in her article on Lavin for Critique, writes that Lavin's widowhood "informs most of her middle and later work … in her searching and compassionate portrayals of loneliness and sometimes willful isolation."
Mary Lavin continued writing short stories for magazines such as the New Yorker up until the mid-1980s. She died in Dublin in March 1996.
"In the Middle of the Fields" begins with a description of a recently widowed, unnamed woman in her house in Ireland. Surrounded by fields, she feels her house is like an island but admits that she is less lonely on the land where she and her husband had lived together. Nonetheless, she often experiences anxiety during the day, and she is always fearful at night. The townspeople have talked about how she must be feeling about her loss, but she insists that they do not know. When they tried to talk to her about their own memories of her husband, she became annoyed since their reminiscences triggered her own.
When the story opens, the widow is concerned about the grass in the fields that needs topping (trimming), and she worries about how much it will cost. Ned, the old farm hand, suggests that Bartley Crossen, a neighboring farmer, could do the job, noting that her husband "knew him well." Initially, she cannot recall who Crossen is, but then she declares that she has seen him but never met him. When Ned tells her that he will set up a meeting, she insists he come before dark because she does not like to be downstairs at night. She locks herself and her children in their rooms after dark, dreading a knock at the door. Ned tries to reassure her that no one would pay her a visit at night and insists that she is safe. He makes sure that whenever he needs to come at night to tend to something on her farm, he announces himself as he comes up the walk so that she will not be afraid. When he does come, she is grateful to have someone in the house.
Crossen arrives at the house with Ned before dark while his wife waits outside in the car. As they discuss the job, Crossen looks out over the fields to the riverbank that he claims he knows well. He tells them that when he was young, he courted a girl there, who the woman later discovers became his first wife. Crossen tells her that he can do the job in the morning and that he will be fair with the price. As Crossen leaves, Ned whispers to her, "he's a man you can trust."
After Crossen departs, Ned tells her about Crossen's first wife, Bridie Logan, who, he claims, was "as wild as a hare" and "mad with love." The two married young, and soon after Bridie got pregnant. Too soon after the baby was born, Bridie decided to help Crossen milk the cows. When he told her that it would be too far for her to walk, she jumped on her bike and pedaled out of the gate. As she got to the bottom of the hill, she turned the bike around and started "pedaling madly up the hill again." Half way up the hill, she started to bleed internally, and later that day she died.
Ned notes that the baby was strong and that Crossen's second wife, who had more sons with Crossen, did a fine job of raising it. When the woman asks Ned whether Crossen has forgotten about Bridie, Ned tells her that he has and that it will be the same with her. But she shakes her head "doubtfully."
At night in her room, the widow wonders if Crossen has really forgotten Bridie. As she brushes her hair, Crossen knocks on the door, which fills her with fear. When Crossen calls out, she recognizes his voice and comes down the stairs to let him in. He apologizes for disturbing her so late when he sees her with her hair down and in her dressing gown. He tells her he has never seen such "a fine head of hair" and that it makes her look like a young girl. When she smiles with pleasure at his compliment but sharply exclaims that she does not feel like one, he responds that he can see she is a sensible woman.
They begin to discuss cutting the grass, and Crossen tells her that cutting the tops off costs him as much as cutting hay. He admits that she does not get an immediate return from cutting the grass, but she will in the long run as it will be better for her cows to eat. When she angrily disagrees, he insists that he made "a special price" for her, especially because she does not now have a man to take care of the farm for her. She declares that she can take care of the farm herself to which he responds, "that's what all women like to think!"
When he tells her that he would like to do the job later in the week rather than the next day, she gets angry, insisting that by the time he gets around to it, her fields will be ruined. He admires her authoritative stance but tries to maintain his position, insisting it will be only a few days. When she stands firm, he gives in. As he prepares to leave, he tells her that he hopes that she does not think he was trying to take advantage of her and that no one in the community thought that she would stay there after her husband died.
He then asks her if she gets lonely at night. When she corrects him with "you mean frightened?" he says yes, but assures her that she is safe there. She admits that she is "scared to death sometimes," which makes her go up to her room so early in the evening. When he responds sympathetically, she asks him to wait until she goes upstairs and then turn off the light as he leaves. He is genuinely troubled about her fears and asks whether anyone could stay with her but then realizes that that would not work out.
As she "somewhat reluctantly" starts up the stairs, he calls to her, asking how to put out a light. She comes down again saying she will do it. While he blocks the doorway, Crossen grabs her arm and inquires "are you ever lonely—at all?" and then asks for a kiss. He tries to get a better hold of her, but she wrenches her arm free and escapes out into the lighted hall. As she begins to laugh, he appears "pathetic in his sheepishness," which she is surprised to admit touches her. She tells him that he should not feel badly, that she really did not mind, but he is miserable, claiming "I don't know what came over me." She tries to make him feel better, but he remains dejected. After an awkward silence, she tells him that she will see him in the morning, but he does not immediately go. He feels the need to talk about the incident, insisting that he did not mean any disrespect. He cannot understand why he did it and wonders what his wife would say if she knew. She tells him not to tell her.
Crossen muses about how good his wife Mona has been, how she took care of his and Bridie's son from the time he was a week old. He admits that he is grateful to her as he remembers Mona taking the baby all day, each day to her house next door, bringing him back for a while in the evening, and then taking him back to sleep with her. She helped him become "a living man" again. Eventually he decided that he should marry her, which would make things more convenient. When Crossen insists that he has shamed Mona, the widow argues that what happened has nothing to do with her, adding that it has nothing to do with any of them except Bridie. She demands that he blame her, and with a note of hysteria claims, "you thought you could forget her" but he could not. After her outburst, Crossen leaves without looking back while exclaiming, "God rest her soul." Lavin does not make it clear whether he was referring to Bridie or the widow.
When the main character first meets Bartley Crossen, a neighboring farmer, she observes "something kindly in his look and in his words." Ned, the farmhand, insists that Crossen is decent and "a man you can trust." He often is solicitous in his dealings with her, mentioning his wife waiting for him at home, which she understands as "meant to put her at her ease." When he comes to her house at night, he tries to allay any fear of his motives when he says, "I'm long gone beyond taking any account of what a woman has on her. I'm gone beyond taking notice of women at all." This claim proves false, however.
Crossen's relationship with his first wife Bridie suggests that he is a passionate man. Ned notes that he had the same passion for her as she for him. They were both "mad with love … she only wanting to draw him on, and he only too willing!" He tries to suppress his memories and feelings for Bridie, perhaps out of respect for his second wife and also to avoid the pain of the past. The only comment he makes about Bridie is that he "courted a girl" down by the riverbank. His passionate nature remerges when he visits the main character at night. He reveals his obvious attraction to her when he notices her hair and later when he asks for a kiss.
Before his passion causes him to shame himself, he displays confidence in his business dealings with her, standing "stoutly" in her hallway. This easy confidence allows him to accept her harsh words. When, after he compliments her, she sharply insists that she does not feel young, her words seem "to delight him and put him wonderfully at ease." He responds that she is a sensible woman and tells her to stay the way she is.
Bridie, Crossen's first wife, gets so caught up in her passion for her husband that it clouds her vision and ultimately leads to her death. Ned calls her "wild as a hare" and "strong as a kid goat." She was "mad with love" for Bartley and did everything she could to please him. Her passion grew after they were married to the point where, Ned claims, "it was … as if she was driven on by some kind of a fever." Her desire for his praise caused her to scrub the house until there was little left to scrub. Her lack of common sense in her relationship with him became evident when she got on the bike too soon after the birth of their child, an impulsive act triggered by her desire to be with him.
Mona, Crossen's second wife, always comes with him when he works on other farms. She stays in the car, sitting rigidly, "the way people sat up in the well of little tub traps long ago, their knees pressed together, allowing no slump." She is a good woman according to Ned and Bartley, who describe how she cared for his child with Bridie. Both insist that she raised the child as if he were her own.
Ned, the main character's loyal farmhand, initiates the action of the story when he brings Crossen to cut the grass. Ned likes to chat and to gossip about his neighbors, but not in a malicious way. In this sense, he serves as a narrative voice, filling in all the relevant details about the characters. He shows considerable kindness and concern for the main character. Noting her night fears, he tries to assure her that she is safe, that no one would come to the house at night. He always takes care to call out to her when he comes in the evening to tend to the farm. When he realizes that the past is weighing heavily on her, he tries to assure her that "everything passes in time and is forgotten."
The first line shows the duality of the main character, her vulnerability and her strength. She is isolated, "islanded by fields" but also "like a rock in the sea." She feels nameless anxieties and fears as she struggles to take care of the farm after the death of her husband, dreading in particular, a knock after dark, which can paralyze her with fright.
Her practical side emerges as she tries to control her thoughts of her husband, insisting that they are only "dry love and barren longing." She recognizes the danger in living in the past and determines to make a new life for herself. Thus, she gets impatient with neighbors who want to reminisce about him, which inevitably triggers her own painful memories. Her common sense and her survival instincts emerge in her dealings with Crossen. She realizes what must be done on the farm to keep it successful. When she feels as sluggish and heavy as her hair, she immediately brushes it so that it and she become energized.
She refuses to allow Crossen to put her in a vulnerable position. Although at first, she appreciates his compliment about her hair, she immediately adopts a stern tone with him, letting him know that he must treat her as an equal. Each time he tries to insist that she is a woman and therefore needs the help of a man, she reasserts her independence and strength. However, her thoughts about Bridie's influence over Crossen remind her of her own fears about the power of the past and her vulnerability emerges. By the end of the story, the main character has made progress toward establishing an independent identity and a new life without her husband, but she remains vulnerable to her fear of being alone and her memories of the past.
Passion is clearly evident in Crossen's relationship with Bridie and only suggested in the main character's with her husband, but both appear to share the same intensity and the same difficult consequences. Bridie was "mad with love" for Crossen, which only strengthened after their marriage. Ned notes that "it was like as if she was driven on by some kind of a fever." She did everything she could around the house and the farm to make him proud of her. Immediately after she had her baby, her love for him prompted her to get out of bed and join him in milking. She jumped on her bike and pedaled madly down the road, trying to encourage him to chase her. Yet her passion ended up destroying her when the vigorous exercise caused internal bleeding. Crossen, Ned insists, was mad with love for her as well, which becomes evident when Crossen notes that after she died, he was no longer "a living man."
Although we never get a glimpse of the relationship that the main character had with her husband, she hints at the intensity of their love for each other when she tries to suppress her memories, which she claims are only "another name for dry love and barren longing." She and Crossen have both suffered from the loss of a dearly loved partner; she insists that his grief over Bridie is to blame for Crossen's attempted kiss. By declaring that Bridie still has such a powerful influence on Crossen, the widow suggests that her husband has a similar hold on her.
Although Crossen is often sympathetic and solicitous toward the main character, he also displays sexist attitudes in his encounters with her, which ironically helps reinforce her independent spirit. When, for example, as they are haggling over the grass cutting, Crossen insists, "I'm not a man to break my word—above all, to a woman," she immediately questions his motives and gets on her guard. This stance helps her remain firm in her insistence that he do the job the next morning.
Topics for Further Study
- Read two other short stories by Mary Lavin and write an essay comparing and contrasting the main themes.
- So much of the emotion in this story remains beneath the surface. How would you film this story, allowing for the suppressed emotions while conveying them? Write a screenplay for the final scenes in the story, beginning with Crossen's arrival at night.
- Investigate the emotional stages that one goes through when a loved one dies. Chart these stages in a PowerPoint presentation.
- Write a short story about the main character twenty years from the time in which the story is set.
Crossen's quick change of heart concerning the job suggests his need to gain control over her. He had originally agreed to come the following morning to complete the job, but he immediately changes him mind, insisting that he needs more time. When he comes at night to speak to her about it, he appears much more forceful than he had that morning, arguing with her about the value of topping grass. In an effort to gain the upper hand, he tries to assert his superiority as well as placate her, insisting, "I'm glad to do what I can for you, Ma'am, the more so seeing you have no man to attend to these things for you." His suggestion of her weakness only reinforces her strength, though, and she rejoins, "Oh, I'm well able to look after myself!"
Landscape as Symbol
Lavin's evocative descriptions of the landscape reflect the woman's character and situation. At the beginning of the story, Lavin uses natural figures to describe the woman: she appears "like a rock in the sea," suggesting both her strength and isolation. Lavin turns the word "island" into a verb to reinforce this sense of separation when she claims that the woman is "islanded by fields." The grass, with its "ugly tufts of tow and scutch," give the farm "the look of a sea in storm," symbolizing her own struggles with memories of her married life and fears of her lonely future. Maurice Harmon, in his article on Mary Lavin in Gaéliana, finds that these descriptions provide a "clear analysis of her own state of mind" and determines that the detail is "compact, flexible and capable, adjusted to her character."
Lavin conveys a pervasive silence in the story, which sometimes suppresses intense emotions. Her depiction of the characters' silent surface with feelings roiling immediately below it suggests the possibility of an impending explosion. Dialogue between the characters is kept at a minimum, especially when it veers too closely to the unhealed grief and anxiety about present problems. When, for example, Crossen speaks about his first wife, whose memory still haunts and influences him, he provides only a few understated details: "I courted a girl down there when I was a lad." He hints, though, at the devastation he experienced after her death when he admits that his second wife, helped "knit" him back into "a living man," but he is unable to express his deep love for Bridie. The main character never gives voice to her "vague, nameless fears" that could destroy her efforts at establishing a strong sense of self. These suppressed emotions come out unexpectedly when Crossen asks the main character for a kiss, and later when she "hysterically" insists that Bridie was "the one did it!"
In last half of the nineteenth century, writers turned away from the earlier romantic style, which idealized nature and rural life. Writers in the late 1800s, who were later called realists, focused more on the actual difficulties of common life and the natural and social forces that determined people's lives. They rejected the celebration of the imagination typical of Romantic literature and instead took a practical look at what shapes personality and what kinds of problems confront people, both in society and in nature. Realists focused on the hardships in the commonplace and how people often succumbed to them. Their depiction of the human condition was not embellished by happy coincidences and providential help, which are central parts of romanticized literature.
Writers who embrace realism use settings and plots that reflect their characters' daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns. Literary movements such as naturalism and modernism came in vogue during the early part of the twentieth century, but realist fiction regained popularity during the 1930s and continued to be enjoyed into the early 2000s, especially in the genre of the short story. Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Bowen, and Mary Lavin from the United Kingdom and Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, and Flannery O'Connor from the United States have been recognized as twentieth-century masters of the form.
Changing Roles for Women
During the first few decades of the twentieth century, feminist thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic engaged in a rigorous investigation of female identity as it related to all aspects of a woman's life. Some declared the institution of marriage to be a form of slavery and thus recommended its abolition. Others derided the ideal of the maternal instinct, rejecting the notion that motherhood should be the ultimate goal of all women. The more conservative feminists of this age considered marriage and motherhood acceptable roles only if guidelines were set in order to prevent a woman from assuming an inferior position to her husband in any area of their life together. A woman granted equality in marriage would serve as an exemplary role model for her children by encouraging the development of an independent spirit.
The early feminists in England and the United States, such as Eleanor Rathbone who became a leading figure in England's National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, were able to gain certain rights for women, including the right to vote. They were not able, however, to change the widely held view that a woman's place is in the home. During World War II, American and British women were encouraged to enter the workplace where they enjoyed a measure of independence and responsibility. After the war, however, many were forced to give up their jobs to make room for returning troops.
Roles for women began to change during the 1960s and 1970s. During the decades following World War II, women continued to join and stay in the workforce. They also began to demand reproductive rights. The availability of birth control and the legalization of abortion had the greatest impact on these changing roles. Women now had greater control over their pregnancies and the responsibilities that came with them. Some women started work while raising their children, and many began after. After they became financial contributors to the household, British and American women began to demand childcare and equal pay. During the 1960s, women's groups began to appear throughout Great Britain and the United States that helped raise their participants' awareness of women's issues.
Compare & Contrast
- 1960s: Abortion is legalized in the mid-sixties in Britain and the United States, yet it is still severely limited in Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country.
Today: Federal and state governments chip away at abortion rights in the United States as anti-abortion groups gain strength. Women in Ireland, led by the Irish Family Planning Association, continue to petition the government there for easier access to abortions, which still remain illegal except in cases in which the mother's health is threatened.
- 1960s: In 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tershkova becomes the first woman in space.
Today: Women continue to travel in space as well as run large corporations. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey is one of the most powerful and wealthiest people in the world.
- 1960s: In 1963, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan is published. The book chronicles the growing sense of dissatisfaction women feel about the unequal treatment they receive in the home, the workplace, and in other institutions.
Today: Women make major gains in their fight for equality. While the Equal Rights Amendment is approved by Congress in 1972 but never ratified, women successfully fight discrimination in the United States. The Equal Opportunities Commission in the United Kingdom enables women there to gain equal treatment and opportunities in the workforce.
The critical response to Mary Lavin's short fiction has been overwhelmingly positive. A group of her stories, including "In the Middle of the Fields," published in the late 1960s and gathered together in the third volume of The Stories of Mary Lavin, has been singled out as among her finest. In his review of this volume, Richard F. Peterson notes that these stories are most often referred to as her "widow stories." He writes that they "represent a major phase in Mary Lavin's career in which she added new power and control to her fiction by occasionally dramatizing her painful adjustment to widowhood." Peterson cites the "powerful influence of memory on the emotions of Mary Lavin's widows, especially in preserving the pleasure of married life and the pain of loss."
Reva Brown, in her review of the same volume of Lavin's stories, considers the author to be a "superb storyteller" who has "the capacity to take an apparently ordinary, even banal, situation and to compress within the few pages of her short story an entirely credible small world." Brown praises Lavin's "sensitive insight into the human condition" in these stories, noting "nothing extraordinary happens to [her characters], but their lives and feelings are portrayed with a clear vision and empathy that transforms these 'ordinary' people into something special." She concludes that Lavin's characters are "fully rounded and believable, depicted with a subtle wit and humour that sets up echoes of irony, pathos or recognition in the reader."
Commenting on the widow stories, Maurice Harmon in his article on Mary Lavin in Gaéliana writes that they have "a kind of all-round decency, compassion and common-sense." Harmon praises the unity of the stories where "all the elements—characterisation, theme, imagery, structure, style—are brought together in the service of the larger over-view" and concludes that "the pace of the narrative matches the sense of wisdom and experience embodied in the main character."
Harmon singles out "In the Middle of the Fields" for its "narrative ease," especially in the opening paragraphs that, he argues, provides important character details. Richard F. Peterson also praises the story in his review, commenting that in it, Lavin "reveals the intense loneliness of the widow immediately after the death of her husband."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins explores the interplay of past and present in the story.
Mary Lavin published several stories in the 1960s that explore the often devastating sense of loss experienced by women after the death of their husbands. The recently widowed, unnamed main character of "In the Middle of the Fields," one of the most compelling of these "widow stories," struggles to survive the loss of her husband as she takes over the operation of their farm. While she determines to live in the present and establish a sense of continuity for herself," she is forced to recognize the strong pull of a past that interferes with her attempts to create an independent, secure sense of self.
Richard F. Peterson notes, in his article on Mary Lavin in Modern Fiction Studies, that her widow stories mark "a phase in a long and difficult struggle to understand the relationship between past memories and the emotional pain of the present in finding a new life and identity." This struggle appears immediately in the first paragraph of "In the Middle of the Fields." The main character's present strength of spirit is suggested by Lavin's likening her to "a rock in the sea," yet the sense of loss is pervasive for her, even that of the cattle's "gentle stirrings" as they move to the woods in the evening. The loss of her husband has created "anxieties by day, and cares, and at night vague, nameless fears." Harmon notes that these feelings are "preventing her release, threatening to bury her as well as her husband." They spring from the woman's recognition that death is not absolute, that her husband is never fully absent. Her anxieties arise from her fear that her memory of him will pull her into the grave, preventing her from establishing herself in the present.
The main character experiences what Patricia K. Meszaros, in her article on Lavin for Critique, calls a sense of "willful isolation." She tries to maintain continuity by staying on the farm by herself since "she was less lonely for him here in Meath than elsewhere." Her neighbors appear foolish to her when they believe that she "hugged tight every memory she had of him." She fights the urge to live in the past, understanding that memories are "but another name for dry love and barren longing." And so she becomes annoyed when they visit her farm and talk of her husband, which triggers her own thoughts of him.
In his article on Lavin in Gaéliana, Maurice Harmon concludes that the main character in the widow stories "knows what she is doing, has known love and passion, feels a keen sense of loss, but is determined to 'take hold of life.' " The widow in "In the Middle of the Fields" forces herself to focus on the present and the upkeep of her farm. "It wasn't him she saw when she looked out at the fields"; she saw that the grass needed topping so that the fields would not be ruined. Yet, at night, she cannot avoid the impact of change—the absence of her husband. Her fear of being alone threatens to undermine her emerging independence. This fear causes her to lock herself and her children upstairs every night and to dread a knock after dark. She becomes grateful when Ned, the farmhand, comes on an errand at night, "relaxed by the thought that there was someone in the house."
Her sense of self becomes stronger during the day, as when she discusses topping the grass with Bartley Crosson. Harmon argues that she is "practical and capable in dealing with [him] about farming matters, is equally able to deal with him when he tries to kiss her and does so with understanding and sympathy." Yet her response to Crossen reveals both her strength and her weakness as she struggles to resist the pull of the past and her fear of the present.
During her first meeting with Crossen, she brings up the issue of price immediately, suggesting that she will not be taken advantage of. Yet, she appears vulnerable after Ned tells her about the death of Crossen's first wife Bridie. When she asks him if he thinks Crossen has forgotten about her, Ned answers in the affirmative and insists, "it will be the same with you, too…. Everything passes in time and is forgotten." She, however, remains doubtful.
Lavin illustrates the conflict between the past and the present as the main character sits in her room later that night. Initially, as she thinks about Crossen and Bridie, her hair appears "sluggish and hung heavily down" "like everything else about her lately." Yet, it jumps with electricity when she brushes it, and her spirits begin to lift with her hair. Immediately, though, the new life that stirs within her is counteracted by the terror she feels when she hears a knock at the door.
Her responses to Crossen after he enters her home reflect this same duality. At first, still shaken by her response to the knock, she runs downstairs, still in her nightclothes, which makes her appear vulnerable. She regains her composure when she sharply rebuffs Crossen's compliment about her hair, which she had not stopped to pin up. However, she is forced to admit her anxieties about her lights short circuiting.
When the two begin to discuss cutting the grass, she is able to regain her composure and sense of purpose. Crossen tries to persuade her to delay the job by playing on her assumed weakness when he declares, "I'm not a man to break my word—above all, to a woman." This places her immediately on her guard as she insists he do the job in the morning. She stands her ground, even when he reminds her that she has "no man to attend to these things" for her. Angered by his attempts to take advantage of her situation, she speaks to him authoritatively until be throws up his hands and agrees to come in the morning, admitting that he has been "bested."
Her vulnerability returns when she tells Crossen that she is "scared to death sometimes." When he sympathizes with her, she feels divided, part of her wanting to accept his kindness and the other wanting to reject it. Ultimately, she gives in to her fears and asks him to turn off the lights for her after she goes up stairs. Yet his sympathetic response has touched her and makes her hesitate on the stairs.
When Crossen grabs her and asks for a kiss, her strength returns and she rebuffs him. At this point she is able to deal with him practically, touched by his humiliation yet maintaining a "matter-of-fact" tone when she insists that nothing serious has occurred. She patiently listens to his story about how his second wife Mona helped raise his and Bridie's child, revealing the depth of his suffering when he admits that Mona helped knit him back "into a living man."
Perhaps it is this note of suffering that stirs the woman, making her impatient for him to leave. When Crossen insists that he has shamed Mona, she becomes increasingly agitated and declares that what happened had nothing to do with any of them except Bridie. Reaching the point of hysteria, she exclaims, "you thought you could forget her … but see what she did to you when she got the chance!"
The woman has concluded that Crossen's momentary passion for her, which threatens the continuity of his present life, was caused by his inability to forget the love he felt for Bridie. Her outburst suggests that she fears that she will never be free from her own memories, that the past will continue to cause problems in the present. When Crossen exclaims, "God rest her soul," he is most likely referring to the woman, whom he now knows suffers as much as he has from the pull of the past.
Lavin refuses to resolve the tension between the past and the present in the story, suggesting that the woman will have a difficult time as she searches for a new and satisfying life for herself. Harmon concludes that Lavin clearly has "important things to tell us about ourselves and does so with sophistication, warmth and intelligence." Her compassionate study of one woman's struggle with the power of the past in "In the Middle of the Fields" reveals the painful consequences of loss.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "In the Middle of the Fields," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
What Do I Read Next?
- Death in the Family (1957), by James Agee, is the tragic tale of the effect of a man's death on his family.
- Edna O'Brien's novel House of Splendid Isolation (1994) focuses on the relationship between an Irish widow and an escaped Irish Republican Army gunman who has taken refuge in her home.
- Lavin's The House in Clewe Street (1945) chronicles the coming of age of a young man in Ireland.
- "The Demon Lover," (1955) one of the most popular stories by the Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, focuses on a woman whose lover is killed in the war.
Patricia K. Meszaros
In the following essay, Meszaros explores Lavin's "treatment of the relationship between femininity and creativity" in her writing, however "oblique and ambiguous" it is.
Although Mary Lavin's portrayal of the Irish middle-class character has been compared with some justice to the portraits in Dubliners, only a few of her many fine short stories are quintessentially Irish in setting or plot, and little of her work is known except among specialists in Irish literature. She herself has said, "I did not read the Irish writers until I had already dedicated myself to the short story," and she claims to have been influenced most by "Edith Wharton, the pastoral works of George Sand, and especially Sarah Orne Jewett." Before she thought of becoming a writer, she had prepared herself at University College Dublin for an academic career, completing a master's thesis on Jane Austen and beginning a doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf. A recent study of her work estimates that sixty percent of her stories have a female protagonist or narrator, and a number of her later stories form a quasi-autobiographical cycle exploring widowhood and the attainment of self-sufficiency in a solitary, middle-aged woman writer. That Mary Lavin's work has continued to suffer neglect is surprising, while both the women writers she most admires and those (like Doris Lessing and Jean Rhys) who are her near-contemporaries are receiving a great deal of critical attention. The growing interest in books by and about women no doubt prompted New American Library to bring out in 1971 a paperback reprint of Lavin's novella, The Becker Wives (1946), yet even that work does not seem to have found an audience. None of the recent major critical works on women writers so much as mentions Mary Lavin.
Part of the reason, perhaps, is hinted at in the title of the critical study by Angeline Kelly cited above: Lavin is not a feminist in the contemporary sense; she is a "quiet rebel" who prefers to take an ironic stance, like Jane Austen, directing her detached gaze upon the foibles of men and women alike. Her vision has little in common with that of Doris Lessing, or of Sylvia Plath, or even Virginia Woolf, whose work and life inspired her own first attempt at writing fiction. Yet the treatment of women in Lavin's stories, particularly her treatment of the woman as artist, is at least as central to an understanding of her work as her treatment of the Irish character. One should remember, however, that "there is no such thing as the female genius, or the female sensibility." If Lavin's treatment of the relationship between femininity and creativity differs in important ways from the treatment of similar themes in the work of more fashionable writers, that is all the more reason to enrich our understanding of "the female sensibility" by paying close attention to her work.
The biographical fact most often advanced as essential to an understanding of Lavin's later fiction is that she was widowed when she was forty-two, after twelve years of marriage, left with a farm to run and three young daughters to rear. Her experience of widowhood, indeed, informs most of her middle and later work, both indirectly, in her searching and compassionate portrayals of loneliness and sometimes willful isolation, and directly, in her stories about widows, including her writer figure, Vera Traske. Oddly, however, these stories reveal very little about the feminine creative sensibility. Vera is a woman, a widow, who just happens (like the author) to be a writer. One of Lavin's earliest published works, "A Story with a Pattern" (1945), and one of her most recent, "Eterna" (1976), allude to the tensions in the lives of creative women more explicitly, as does her richly resonant and complex but unsettling novella, The Becker Wives. Even though Lavin's interest in the woman as artist spans her whole career as a writer, her treatment of the creative woman is always oblique and ambiguous. Creative women are never narrators or centers of consciousness in the stories in which they appear, and evidence of their talent is either unreliable or unavailable. The focus of these stories is instead upon the effects such women have upon those around them, and the pervasive irony makes the author's attitude toward her female artist-figures difficult to assess.
On the other hand, Lavin's attitude toward her own work is not ambiguous. Very early in her career she recognized that the short story was to be her métier, and she has repeatedly spoken slightingly and apologetically of her two novels, The House in Clewe Street (1945) and Mary O'Grady (1950). In her frequent comments about the craft of the short story, she has made fascinating suggestions of a direct relationship between her life as a woman writer and her esthetic as a writer of short stories. The experience, the temperament, and the talent that fashioned this esthetic, as I hope to show, also account for the author's ambivalence toward her female artist characters. Such ambivalence is most evident in The Becker Wives, the most extended treatment in Lavin's fiction of the woman-as-artist theme. The meaning of this novella (or long short story) itself can also be illuminated by placing it in the context of other stories making direct or indirect use of the theme and of the author's own statements on her work. The Becker Wives is thus the centerpiece, the primary exhibit, in my argument, but the purpose of the whole is to demonstrate that Mary Lavin's vision of the woman as artist is both highly individual and one that finds its perfect embodiment in the short story form.
The very early work, "A Story with a Pattern," addresses explicitly the question of the nature of the short story and implicitly the situation of a young woman writer. The protagonist encounters at a party a middle-aged man who criticizes her published stories for their lack of plot and conclusive endings, saying that her work will never appeal to a wide audience because "a man wants something with a bit more substance to it." Pressed by the writer to give an example, the critic tells a "true" story with a neat, O. Henry-like twist at the end, but the writer offends the critic by objecting that life "isn't rounded off like that at the edges." The story's title obviously refers to the patterned tale told by the critic but may also refer to the larger pattern of the frame story, one that Lavin may already have begun to observe in her own development as a writer. Concerned to practice her craft in a way that would not falsify her experience and—like all young writers—to establish her identity, she had to confront traditional notions about the proper form and content of the short story. By placing the confrontation in "A Story with a Pattern" between a female author and a male critic in a social context, she demonstrates her awareness of the difficulties faced by the woman writer in the search for her own authentic voice in her fiction. At the time she wrote this story Lavin was receiving advice and encouragement from Lord Dunsany, one of her earliest admirers, who praised her in his preface to her Tales from Bective Bridge (1943) but who recommended to her in private correspondence that she place more emphasis on plot and that she take O. Henry as a model.
However, to claim that a specifically "feminist" consciousness is revealed in this story, or indeed in any of Lavin's other works, would be a distortion. The group of "widow stories" is a case in point. Some of them, like "Happiness," "The Cuckoo-spit," and "In the Middle of the Fields," focus on the widow's struggle to live independently in the present rather than in memories of the past, but they evoke at the same time a strong sense of the emotional and sensual deprivation of the widow's life. Even more à propos, the stories which portray the widowed Vera Traske specifically as a writer—"Villa Violetta" (1972) and "Trastevere" (1971)—clearly make the point that both personal happiness and a secure environment conducive to work are to be found in male protection and companionship. These two stories, however, have less to tell us about the author's sense of the place of art and creativity in a woman's life than does another of the "widow stories" whose protagonist is not presented as a writer, even though Lavin has admitted that the "Mary" of "In a Café" is herself. This story, indeed, may represent a transition between the earlier stories that (despite the wariness of the protagonist of "A Story with a Pattern") were sometimes marred by pat conclusions and the more searching, complex, and equivocal later work. As Lavin said in a recent interview, "For years I wrote for fun," but in the years immediately following her husband's death she became increasingly serious and self-critical.
"In a Café" (1960) links the motifs of a widow's new-found independence and the preservation of her husband's memory to esthetic vision in a significant way. Two women, one young and recently bereaved after a brief marriage, the other (the story's center of consciousness) older and two years widowed after a long and happy marriage, meet in a café frequented by students and artists. By chance they exchange a few pleasantries with a young man at the next table, a painter, some of whose work hangs for sale on the café's walls. Later, alone, the older woman seeks out the artist in his studio, telling herself that she will look at the rest of his paintings and perhaps purchase one of them. Receiving no answer to her knock at his door, she impulsively bends to peer through the slot of the letter-box, gaining only a partial view of the interior which is yet enough to tell her much about its inhabitant's poor and solitary existence: "an unfinished canvas up against the splattered white wainscot, a bicycle-pump flat on the floor, the leg of a table, black iron bed-legs and, to her amusement, dangling down by the leg of the table, dripping their moisture in a pool on the floor, a pair of elongated, grey, wool socks." The scene is at once comic and pathetic. A door from an inner room opens, and the young painter appears to her as two "large feet, shoved into unlaced shoes, and … bare to the white ankles. For, of course, she thought wildly, focusing her thoughts, his socks are washed!" She springs to her feet and runs away.
This grotesque experience both frees the widow from her past and enables her to reclaim it. Earlier in the story, we had been told of her inability, since his death, to recall her husband's face. Now as she walks back to her parked car, his image comes to her vividly. The story ends:
Not till she had taken out the key of the car, and gone straight around to the driver's side, not stupidly, as so often, to the passenger seat—not till then did she realize what she had achieved. Yet she had no more than got back her rights. No more. It was not a subject for amazement. By what means exactly had she got them back though—in that little café? That was the wonder.
Clearly, the widow's regaining of "her rights" is closely connected in the story with esthetic experience. When she first sees the paintings in the café, we are told, "She knew what Richard would have said about them. But she and Richard were no longer one. So what would she say about them?" When she peers through the hole in the letter-box into the painter's bare little flat, she has herself become a sort of artist, focusing, as does Lavin herself as the writer of short stories, on limited and selective but vivid and telling details, deriving from them a compassioniate vision of human isolation. The articulation and acceptance of this vision enable the character to accept her own circumstances and thus to live her own life in the present while having her past restored to her as memory.
Some support of the view that this story expresses something of the author's faith in the restorative and even redemptive power of her craft comes from Lavin's only published piece of criticism, the "Preface" to her Selected Stories (1959), in which she recounts a childhood experience, when she was taken by her father to see about having her "small gold watch" mended. With dismay the child notices that the watchmaker's hands are palsied, shaken by "some kind of ague," and that "all down the front of his waistcoat and jacket, stains and slops of food showed how badly he was disabled." But then the old man takes the watch in his hands, bracing his wrists against the side of the table, and the little girl marvels at "the fixity, the sureness of those fingers when once they had entered the intricate world of their craft." The moral Lavin attaches to this anecdote is that "like that old man, I … had applied myself so singly to the art of fiction that I had maimed, and all but lost, the power to express myself in any other form." The reader, however, may perceive a larger meaning. Obviously, the image of the watchmaker is appropriate, for like the writer of short stories he must have a delicate, precise touch. But the other parallel, not made explicit by the author herself, is with his apparent handicap. Later in the essay she speaks of the necessity of writing "in snatches of time filched from other duties, and particularly of late years when I have had to run the farm from which we get our livelihood." Even before her husband's death, soon after the publication of her first book, she had spoken in an interview of looking forward to "having the morning hours to herself in the autumn when the baby would be in her crib and the older girls in school." Lavin seems consciously to have developed her technique as a writer to accommodate her personal situation, and she even maintains that her work is the better for the demands placed on her time by her domestic responsibilities: "I believe that the things that took up my time, and even used up creative energy that might have gone into writing, have served me well. They imposed a selectivity that I might not otherwise have been strong enough to impose upon my often feverish, overfertile imagination. So if my life has set limits to my writing I am glad of it. I do not get a chance to write more stories than I ought; or put more into them than ought to be there." She seems to believe not just that her craft enables her to overcome what might be viewed as the handicap of her personal circumstances, but also that those circumstances in themselves have forced her to refine and develop her craft.
Clearly, Lavin's view of the particular conditions affecting the woman as artist, as presented both in her stories and in her remarks on her own work, is a highly personal and perhaps even unique one among twentieth-century women writers. Despite her early interest in and admiration for Woolf, she seems to have no inclination to yearn for a room of her own, and she seems almost entirely lacking in that sense of confinement within the social and esthetic conventions of a male-dominated world that feminist critics find to be so pervasive in writing by women. Although her later works, particularly the Vera Traske stories, must be seen at least partly as personal responses to a devastating personal loss, it is nevertheless significant that even in the early novella, The Becker Wives, where we find Lavin's most sustained treatment of the woman as artist, traditional concerns of women writers are handled in untraditional ways.
The novella explores the venerable theme of the disruptive influence of the artist on an ordered society. From Plato through Shakespeare to Goethe and Coleridge the motif has been sounded, but here it is modulated into a new key because the artist is a woman and therefore doubly mysterious, potentially more disruptive. An archetypal figure older than that of the artist with "flashing eye" and "floating hair" is the fatal woman, and Lavin has vested the power of both figures in the character of her woman-artist. Flora, the poet, the actress, is also la belle dame sans merci. At the same time, The Becker Wives resonates with questions that have filled the diaries, letters, and published works of talented women for at least two hundred years. Do the woman's traditional roles in society inevitably stifle her creativity? Is the creative impulse in women perhaps an unnatural deviance of the maternal instinct; or, to put it differently, is motherhood the natural end, the apotheosis indeed, of female creativity? Much of the richness and subtlety of this work derives from the way in which the author has brought to a single focus in her central character the romantic myth of the artist, the myth of the fatal woman who has been seen both as the artist's muse and as his nemesis, and the new myth of the destructive conflict between femininity and creativity endured by the woman-artist.
The mystery surrounding the woman-artist is enhanced in two ways by the narrative technique of The Becker Wives. First, Flora is presented only from the outside, as the Beckers see and imagine her, so that we gain no direct insight into her consciousness. Second, the work is unique for Lavin in that it introduces into the solid, closely observed domestic world of middle-class Dublin not only a mythic dimension but also an element of almost gothic mystery, as if Ligeia had come to live among the Forsytes. Marianne Moore's definition of poetry describes the world of The Becker Wives almost exactly: an imaginary garden with real toads.
The toads are the Beckers themselves, a family of wealthy corn merchants—four brothers and a sister—who, like Galsworthy's Forstyes, are long on family solidarity and earnest materialism but short on grace, wit, and imagination. All the Becker children take spouses as like themselves as they in turn are like their parents; all, that is, except the youngest brother Theobald, who wants a wife with more to recommend her than "suitability for marriage and child-bearing." Theobald is actually no more enlightened than the rest of his family; he is merely more snobbish. Nevertheless, he manages to marry the beautiful, talented Flora, who paints, plays the piano, and writes poetry, but whose real talent seems to be for acting. From the beginning the Beckers are charmed by Flora's piquantly histrionic behavior: she brings "into all their homes, as into their lives, more air … more colour, more light," and with Theobald's brother Samuel as her ally, she improves their taste in furniture and art. Best of all, she entertains them with her pantomimes and impersonations, most frequently of one of the other Becker wives. As Flora's acting proves to be an obsession, Theobald's pride turns to irritation. Samuel, in contrast, begins to watch Flora almost compulsively, and as his pregnant wife Honoria takes to staying at home, he seeks Flora's company in the evenings.
The Becker wives are prolific; at any given time two or three of them are to be found in various stages of pregnancy. But Flora remains slim and ethereal, and though her sisters-in-law privately pity her, she seems unconcerned. Eventually, however, the other wives notice that the object of Flora's impersonations has become almost exclusively Honoria. Finally one day Flora sits in a corner sewing a small white garment, refusing to answer to her name. Begging the family not to tease her, she points toward Honoria, basking in the sun outside: "As for that one,… that wretched creature out there: if someone doesn't stop her from driving me mad, I won't answer for what will become of her." This is no impersonation; Flora has exchanged places in her own mind with Samuel's wife. To Samuel, Flora confides her secret, speaking in Honoria's voice:
You're the only one I trust. You won't let her drive me mad, will you, like she's been driven mad herself? That's it, you see. No one knows but me and I didn't tell anyone before now. But I knew it all the time. She's mad. Mad! She was really always mad. Her family was mad—all of them. Her father died in a madhouse.
Just before Samuel closes the door on his appalled family, they see him put his arm around Flora's shoulders, saying tenderly, "Hush, Honoria. Hush, hush."
The Becker Wives can be most readily interpreted in terms of the most universal of the myths to which it alludes, as a fable about a fragile poetic sensibility which temporarily disturbs but is ultimately quelled by an uncongenial environment. One version of this classic story locates the seeds of destruction in the artistic sensibility itself; thus Peterson says that Lavin's novella "concludes with a troubling vision of the artist who goes too far," that it tells of "a young woman whose gift of insight becomes a maddening curse, preventing her from entering the comfortable, commonsense Becker world." At the same time, that world itself, the narrative makes clear, is not one in which the poetic temperament can thrive. At the end, Samuel reflects that Flora was "a flitting spirit never meant to mix with the likes of them."
Largely because of the presence of Samuel, the romantic myth of the artist proves to be inadequate to a full interpretation of the narrative, for while Flora is the story's central character, Samuel's expanding consciousness focuses our vision, his quickening imagination stirring our sympathy. To the extent that it is Samuel's story, The Becker Wives follows the classic pattern of a youth's encounter with seductive pleasures and his resulting loss of innocence. As the seductress, however, Flora represents not sensual gratification but the lure of a world of imagination from which the Beckers are insulated by their complacent materialism. When the two worlds are brought into conflict, the Beckers' dimension is rendered in specific physical detail, but Flora's dimension is rendered in archetypal images. Similarly, we can explore Samuel's responses and trace the development of his imaginative awareness because he clearly belongs, like the great majority of Lavin's characters, to a world in which the human psyche can be explored. Flora we can only know—because what she represents can only be known—in a series of avatars. The realm of myth is made to impinge upon the realm of literally represented reality in this narrative in a way that is directly related to its fullest meaning.
The first pages of the novella establish the Beckers as dull people, so lacking in interest even to themselves that, having dinner in a fashionable restaurant, they evince only a bovine placidity, sitting "stolid and silent, their mouths moving as they chewed their food, but their eyes immobile as they stared at someone or other who had caught their fancy at another table." In the following pages, however, the narrative expands in connotative richness as a shift in focus records for the first time Samuel's perceptions: "Like limelight the moon shone greenly down making the lighted windows of the houses appear artificial, as if they were squares of celluloid, illuminated only for the sake of illusion. He hoped Theobald wouldn't insist on dragging him back to reality." Samuel is evidently the one Becker susceptible to esthetic emotion, the only one who will be in any way prepared to understand Flora.
Before she herself appears, Flora is presented in images refracted from other imaginations, first in Theobald's casual remark to his sister Henrietta that "Flora doesn't eat as much as a bird," so that "Henrietta's imagination rose with a beat of wings, and before her mind's eye flew gaudy images of brightly plumed creatures of the air." Caught up in the image, Theobald then makes a quite uncharacteristic slip of the tongue when, speaking of his intention of surprising his sisters-in-law by introducing Flora at a family party, he says, "I'm not going to miss an opportunity like this for killing two stones with the one—I mean two birds with the one stone."
The slip is not lost on Henrietta, and when that evening Theobald arrives with his bride-to-be as the family is finishing dinner, it occurs to her that "all the seated Beckers, and all their seated guests, seemed to have been turned to stone." Yet the woman who has produced this Medusa-like effect does not seem to Henrietta to be at all forbidding in appearance:
Flora was small. She was exceedingly small. She was fine-boned as well, so that, as with a bird, you felt if you pressed her too hard she would be crushed. But in spite of her smallness, like a bird she was exquisitely proportioned, and her clothes, that were an assortment of light colours, seemed to cling to her like feathers, a part of her being…. She accepted her clothes as the birds their feathers: an inevitable raiment.
Henrietta's impressions seem to be highly subjective, however, for they are not corroborated by the other observers: Flora seems to have the power of exciting and confusing the imaginations of those who meet her for the first time. In James's mind she evokes "gaudy and tinsel images" of the dancers from the operettas of his youth, while to Samuel she appears as the goddess Flora, in "a vision … of a nymph in a misty white dress, with bare feet and cloudy yellow hair, who in a flowering meadow skipped about, gathering flower heads and entwining them in a garland," even though he notices that she is dressed not in the "assortment of light colours" that had seemed to Henrietta like feathers but in "a trim black suit."
More perceptive than the others, Samuel soon realizes that indeed the "real" Flora is protean, that she actually becomes what she imagines herself to be, even when she is alone, and fascinated, he becomes "more and more dependent" upon her friendship. Flora's influence on Samuel refines his sensibilities and heightens his awareness of character. He no longer attempts to impress Theobald or boasts that his wife is a heiress. His ability to recognize in Flora's secret transformations the "naive and childish" expression of his wife Honoria or the "cold and shallow" stare of Theobald implies a new clarity of judgment, and toward Flora he now exhibits exquisite tact:
It was becoming Samuel's biggest pleasure to watch his new sister-in-law in the act of departing from her own body and entering that of someone else. But he was careful to guard her secret for her, and even when he saw the transformation coming, he'd bend one part of himself to the task of diverting the attention of the family, while the other part of him he'd give over to furtively watching her and sharing in her adventure.
The images in which Flora herself is described progress from the conventional and natural to the strange and hieratic. Initially seen by the Beckers as a bird-like creature, a dancer, a flower-goddess, Flora presents herself as a maker of images (a pretend photographer), as a flame "withering the life" out of people, as the keeper of an imagined "little green dragon" over which her fingers move "delicately, guardedly, as if her pet had some prohibitive quality, such as a scaly skin," and as a woman capable of "departing from her own body and entering that of someone else." So, although we see her through Samuel's eyes as a powerfully attractive woman, we know so little of her real nature that we can not feel her to be a sympathetic character.
The scene marking the highest point in the development of Samuel's awareness also most poignantly reveals Flora's essential mysteriousness. One evening Samuel calls to find Flora alone in an unlighted room, pressed against the side of a window, staring upward at "the thin spikes of the first stars." She seems "like the bowsprit of an ancient ship,… and as sightless." Samuel whispers, "Who is it?… Who are you now?" and although she answers in her normal voice, "Why Samuel! What a strange thing to ask! I'm Flora, of course, who else?" for Samuel the moment has been an epiphany:
Yes, it was Flora: but if ever a person was caught in the act of self-impersonation, that person was Theobald's wife, for in that tense, motionless figure which a moment before had been unaware of his presence, he realized that Flora had concentrated her whole personality. And the essence of that personality was so salt-bitter that a salt-sadness came into his heart too.
He is prepared for the end, and when Flora retreats permanently into her fantasy world, Samuel knows "that the terrible terrible sadness that had settled on his heart would lie upon it forever." In the last scene, despair settles on him as he looks out the window at the fat, stodgy children of his other sisters-in-law, knowing that the child "his wife Honoria was carrying would be like them, as like as peas in a pea-pod."
Samuel is a victim of la belle dame sans merci; having lost his beloved "flitting spirit," he has been abandoned like Keats's knight, where "no birds sing." Flora is presented in such a way as to suggest many of the avatars of the femme fatale. Like Poe's Ligeia, her family origins and circumstances are obscure, and like her she attempts to usurp the identity—if not the body—of another woman. Like Lamia or Lilith, she might be regarded as the seducer of young men and the barren, envious stealer of other women's children. An allusion may even be made to the Celtic analogue of Lilith, Blodeuwedd or Blathnat, whose name means literally "flower-face," and who was turned into a bird—an owl, like Lilith—after she betrayed her husband. The Medusa is suggested in the way Flora seems to turn the Beckers to stone when they first meet her, and Samuel's apprehension of her agelessness and inscrutability ("like the bowsprit of an ancient ship,… and as sightless") is reminiscent of Pater's description of La Gioconda: "She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times," and learned the secrets of the grave. "The important difference between these versions of the femme fatale and Lavin's version is that Flora is not evil," certainly not sexually destructive. Her implied threatening of Samuel's wife and unborn child is pathetic rather than sinister, because she speaks as a passive and ineffectual "Honoria," directing her words toward a "Flora" who no longer exists.
If Lilith in her various incarnations expresses fear of the independent, dominant woman, seen as a sexually and socially destructive being, in this remaking of the myth by a female writer her emasculating, murderous aspect is suppressed while her exciting, disturbing aspect is retained and expanded by combination with the myth of the socially disruptive artist. Whatever danger this fatal woman represents is due not to her being a woman alone but to her also being an artist—she is something less and something more than the legendary femme fatale. Moreover, the "fatal" woman herself is ultimately destroyed; the woman-artist becomes her own victim. Here both the myth of the romantic artist at odds with society and the myth of the fatal woman merge with the myth of the conflict between femininity and creativity. In the light of this myth, we can see Flora as doomed not only by the frustratingly conventional environment into which she has married, but also by the role set for her as a woman in that society.
As la belle dame is traditonally sterile, so also the female artist is traditionally childless; at least in the popular imagination, there has been "an eternal opposition of biological and aesthetic creativity." It is probably no coincidence that Samuel's wife, the woman whose identity Flora tries to usurp, the woman who is almost indistinguishable from the other wives and whose child will be as like theirs "as peas in a pea-pod," bears the somewhat unusual name, "Honoria." The Becker Wives was first published in 1946. Given Lavin's interest in Woolf, she would likely have read the posthumous collection, The Death of the Moth and Other Essay, published in 1942. That collection contains the text of Woolf's talk on "Professions for Women," and the talk itself contains the now famous passage in which the author describes how, in order to find her own identity as a writer, she first had to kill the spectral "Angel in the House," that "ideal" woman who was sympathetic and self-sacrificing, who "excelled in the difficult arts of family life." The reference to the "Angel in the House" is of course an allusion to a popular Victorian poem by Coventry Patmore; the name of the heroine of that poem is "Honoria."
Flora may in this light be seen as a martyr to the untenable position imposed by her society upon the woman-artist. As Stewart describes the dilemma of the female writer, "To be a heroine, she must nurture, help, inspire; by defining her independence as an artist, she turns into a gorgon…. She must die as this mythic 'feminine' woman in order to give birth to herself as an artist." The fragile Flora, unable, under the pressures of Becker family life, to sustain her lonely artistic selfhood, succumbs to what for her can only be a spurious, borrowed identity. As one of the commentators on the work has said, "Her schizophrenia really represents for her an embrace of comfortable, sane, solid middle-class values: pregnancy and propriety." Ironically Flora, whose name is that of a classical fertility goddess, is "fertile" only in her imagination. She can give birth neither to a real child nor to herself as an independent artist.
That the work is rich and complex should be apparent, but the mythic patterns which delineate both its universality and originality, imposed on the narrative like templates, leave some ends and pieces uncovered. In the last analysis, Flora remains a highly ambiguous character, and although she is certainly pathetic, she is not tragic. The "salt-sadness" which appears to Samuel to be the essence of Flora's being may be interpreted by the romantic reader as the terrible isolation of the artist, but it may be only an early manifestation of the illness soon to overtake her. If we are to believe the final revelation spoken by Flora in Honoria's voice, we must relinquish the notion that the woman-artist has been "driven mad" by her impossible circumstances, for her madness is hereditary: "Her father died in a madhouse." Even what the Beckers take to be Flora's extraordinary acting ability may be a manifestation of schizophrenia rather than talent. Indeed, looking back over the narrative, we can find no clear evidence that Flora has attained more than a "ladylike" level of accomplishment in any of the arts, or that she is anything more than a lovely dilletante and follower of fashions.
The reader may have been taken in by the power of the myths invoked by the narrative, myths which express the fears of society about women and about artists—that the beautiful, independent woman is a dangerous seducer of innocent youth, that the artist is akin to the madman and just as dangerous to society, that the creative impulse in woman is a substitute for the maternal instinct and that the female artist is likely to be barren. The Becker Wives seems to explore the frightening possibility that all these myths may be true, but the narrative as a whole suggests that such myths at worst cause us to accept stereotypes as truths and at best obscure life's complexities and ambiguities.
In creating Flora, Lavin has admitted that the sources of creative energy are dark and potentially dangerous, and she has faced some of our worst fears (and perhaps her own) by portraying a dichotomous situation in which, on the one hand, the charismatic female artistic personality ends by destroying itself while, on the other, female domestic animals go on placidly reproducing their kind in a world devoid of beauty. At the same time, however, the ironic authorial voice seems to suggest that the dichotomy is false. Whether Flora is to be seen as a scapegoat or as a demon exorcised, her flaw is a too-vivid imagination that allows fantasy to over-balance reality and finally to obliterate it. That she remains a mystery is a clue to her significance for the author, who once deplored her own "feverish, overfertile imagination" and proposed to control it within the limits of the short-story form, even while she felt constrained by her domestic responsibilities and yearned for more time to follow her creative bent.
That same ambivalence appears once more, in some of the same ways, in one of Lavin's most recent stories. In "Eterna" she again portrays a creative woman who apparently goes mad. Once again we see the woman only from the outside, through the eyes of a rather ordinary character. Once again we cannot know for sure whether the woman is genuinely talented, whether she is driven mad by her restrictive environment or has carried the seeds of madness within her from the beginning.
The story's center of consciousness is a mediocre provincial doctor, complacently married to a very ordinary woman. One day in the National Gallery of Dublin, where he has gone while waiting for his wife, he encounters a madwoman whom he recognizes as a figure from his past and is thus forced to remember an incident he would rather forget. Not long out of medical school, he had been called to a convent to treat a young nun, Sister Eterna, injured in a fall from a scaffold while she had been painting a mural. Several visits later, when she impulsively showed him her treasure, a battered catalog from the National Gallery, he had committed a breach of propriety and professional ethics by speaking too familiarly to her, saying he would love to show her the paintings there. Much later he had heard that she had left the convent. Upset at first to see the once haughty young nun in her present condition, he regains his equilibrium as his wife approaches: "People had to learn to clip their wings if they wanted to survive in this world. They had to keep their feet on the ground. That was what Annie had taught him to do—God bless her." Annie, with her bundles of children's clothing bought on sale, is one of the Honorias of the world, and the doctor, with his smug hypocrisy, is one of the Theobalds.
Consistently, unmistakably ironic toward the doctor and his wife, the narrative voice of "Eterna" is entirely silent about the nun, who does not appear as a character except in the reminiscences of the doctor. Eterna is even more of a mystery than Flora. Thus, still apparently fascinated by the relationship between female creativity and madness, still apparently moved by the restrictions and insults suffered by the artistic temperament, Lavin is yet unable or unwilling to present the woman as artist in other than an oblique and ambiguous way.
The world from which her mysterious women-artists retreat, on the other hand, is a real world, and its flawed actuality is reported with zest by a witty, ironic voice, the instrument of a shaping and controlling imagination. Like the widow of the story, "In a Café," the artist as writer of short fiction organizes her experience by scrutinizing the world outside herself closely and compassionately but from an ironic distance. To conquer loneliness and isolation, she confronts them directly but keeps them contained within a small frame. The mysteries of creativity she refuses to look at directly, except through the veil of myth. Faced with conflicting demands upon her time and energy, the woman-artist steadies her wrists, as it were, like the old watchmaker, and concentrates all her craft upon the small but complex object before her. Perhaps the work most revelatory of Lavin's attitude toward her own life and art is the fine story, "Happiness." It tells of the death of Vera Traske, who suffers a stroke while cultivating her garden, from the point of view of her daughter, who recognizes that her mother's belief in and pursuit of "happiness" has been a conscious commitment requiring great courage and control. That control, manifested as craftsmanship, is the essence of Mary Lavin's image of the artist.
Source: Patricia K. Meszaros, "Woman as Artist: The Fiction of Mary Lavin," in Critique, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1982, pp. 39-54.
Brown, Reva, Review of The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. 3, in British Book News, February 1986, pp. 110-11.
Harmon, Maurice, "Mary Lavin: Moralist of the Heart," in Gaéliana, Vol. 5, 1983, pp. 113-26.
Lavin, Mary, "In the Middle of the Fields," in A Green and Mortal Sound, edited by Louise DeSalvo, Kathleen Walsh D'Arcy, and Katherine Hogan, Beacon Press, 1999.
Peterson, Richard F., "The Circle of Truth: The Stories of Katherine Mansfield and Mary Lavin," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3, Autumn 1978, pp. 383-94.
――――――, Review of The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. 3, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 170-71.
Church, Margaret, "Social Consciousness in the Works of Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, and Mary Lavin," in College Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 1980, pp. 158-63.
In this comparative study, Church examines Lavin's attacks on habit and social rigidity in her stories. She studies how Lavin's characters rethink social roles in their efforts to forge better relationships with each other.
Dunleavy, Janet Egleson, "Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, and a New Generation: The Irish Short Story at Midcentury," in The Irish Short Story: A Critical History, edited by James Kilroy, Twayne, 1984, pp. 145-68.
Dunleavy explores the Irish context of Lavin's work in political and social terms and compares it to that of other Irish writers.
Gibbons, Luke, Transformations in Irish Culture, University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.
In this collection of essays, Gibbons examines the political and cultural influences on Irish life and the tensions that ultimately arise between the establishment of a national and an individual identity.
Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts, "Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring 1995, pp. 185-97.
This study looks at different forms of female martyrdom and their relationship to sexuality in short stories by Lavin and by O'Brien.
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