Flora's Answer to the Irish Question: A Study of Mary Lavin's "The Becker Wives." (Irish Female Author's Short Story)

By Neary, Mary | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Flora's Answer to the Irish Question: A Study of Mary Lavin's "The Becker Wives." (Irish Female Author's Short Story)


Neary, Mary, Twentieth Century Literature


"What ish my nation?" is a question that surfaces time and again, and in various forms, throughout Irish literature. It most explicitly appears in Shakespeare's Henry V, with an answer that leaves much room for emendation, particularly considering that it originates in English, not Irish, literature. "What ish my nation?" asks an Irish captain named Macmorris. "Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal" (3.2.125-26). If this answer is not a compelling catalyst for the Irish imagination, the question is: It has driven Irish people back into the old mythology, the old language, or forward into a nation state - just as mythic - free from outside influence. The Irish poet Eavan Boland paints the tortuous Irish quest for an identity eloquently:

Across years of humiliation no people can hold their possessions intact and least of all their chief possession of identity. Sooner or later they begin to lose it by seeing themselves through the eyes of their oppressors, and to measure worth by that measure until pride becomes shame, self-knowledge self-denial. Yet a people who take so long to form, like a rock in the sun, cannot altogether be destroyed; like a human soul, once they are created they exist. ("Innocence" 81)

This passage touches on the long process of change and the elusiveness of a final form, a final center, in the Irish people.

Mary Lavin's short story "The Becker Wives" (1945) dramatizes this Irish quest for identity, the asking of the question "What ish my nation?" Perhaps in the context of this story, though, a winding river delivers an even more appropriate metaphor for Ireland than a rock: a river incessantly turning back on itself, questioning itself, dancing over perpetually changing ground. What Lavin ultimately uncovers in this story is not a rock of solid identity, not centrality, but elusiveness and eccentricity. The story dramatizes more the phenomenon of asking the question "What ish my nation?" - a phenomenon that I think hits on what is really characteristic of Ireland - than the answer that ultimately surfaces.

Lavin does not, however, stop simply with an exploration of "Irishness" as if it were a single entity. She looks specifically at female Irishness and reveals how particularly pressing the question of identity is to modern Irish women. She anticipates another insight of Boland: the trivializing of Irish femininity by using it as a national emblem. "Once the idea of a nation influences the perception of a woman then that woman is suddenly and inevitably simplified," writes Boland. "She can no longer have complex feelings and aspirations. She becomes the passive projection of a national idea" ("Outside History" 33). In "The Becker Wives" Flora, the central female character, is exploited by her husband not as a national but as a family emblem. Lavin explores in microcosm, then, the pattern Boland depicts; and by exploring the way that a woman is objectified, made "the passive projection of a national [or familial] idea," Lavin also investigates the larger Irish problem, male and female: the struggle to establish an identity from within rather than to succumb to the vision of politically powerful outsiders. The story illuminates simultaneously struggles of gender and nation.

In this context the short story becomes for Lavin the perfect vehicle, a genre Frank O'Connor characterizes in The Lonely Voice as one devoted to the "little man" living on the margin of a large, established society (16). He elaborates: "Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society . . ." (19). In many senses Lavin's Flora is just such a person: small in stature and unconventional in her actions, she is a character whose internal life could be deemed insignificant in a context wider - or in a genre larger - than the one Lavin creates for her. "The Becker Wives" joins, in fact, a number of other Lavin stories about small characters. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Flora's Answer to the Irish Question: A Study of Mary Lavin's "The Becker Wives." (Irish Female Author's Short Story)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.