Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories of Edna O'Brien

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories of Edna O'Brien

Article excerpt

I am obsessed quite irrationally by the notion of love ..." writes Edna O'Brien. "It's an obsession and I know it's very limiting. At the same time it's what I feel truest and most persistently about, and therefore it's the thing that I have to write about" (Rafroidi and Harmon 272). And write about it she does - the obsession, that is, perhaps more than the love.

A reading of O'Brien's stories, beginning with the 1969 collection, The Love Object, reveals that several of her characters share their author's obsession with "the notion of love." Yet between these women and their love objects there is so little real connection, so little love. For them, obsession with love seems to stand in the way of its attainment.

That O'Brien's protagonists should find themselves in this bind is perhaps not surprising. Obsession - a "persistent or inescapable preoccupation with an idea or emotion" - seems to involve not only compulsion but insatiability. A person obsessed, whether with an idee fixe or a person, seems disinclined, or perhaps unable, to feed her obsession to the point of satiation. Obsession, like addiction, sets in motion a self-fueling and potentially endless cycle. Love and obsession are, in a sense, opposites. Obsession feeds on itself, is self-absorbed, while love reaches beyond the self toward authentic contact with another. In the stories considered here there are moments of genuine love and compassion. But these occur only as their protagonists free themselves, or are torn, from the grip of their obsession.

"Irish Revel," one of O'Brien's early stories from The Love Object, pictures what might be called the birth of the obsession. It opens with a young country girl, Mary, making her way by bicycle to town. She has been invited to a party at the home of Mrs. Rogers, one of her "betters," and welcomes the ride as an opportunity to entertain in solitude her treasured memories of John Roland, the young painter she met two years earlier, also while visiting Mrs. Rogers's house. Perhaps, magically, he will be there again.

Soon after her arrival at the party, she realizes not only that her dream of seeing John is a groundless fantasy, but also that she has only been invited to serve guests, clean up, and add color to the affair. She takes shelter in daydreaming again of John and remembers a ride she took with him on his bicycle: "They did not talk for miles; she had his stomach encased in the delicate and frantic grasp of a girl in love and no matter how far they rode they seemed always to be riding into a golden haze" (O'Brien, Love Objects 96). She then recalls his calling her "Sweet Mary" and remembers his explanation that "he could not love her, because he already loved his wife and children ..." (97).

At the close of "Irish Revel," Mary returns home burdened with her fruitless hopes and crushed by the ordinariness and crudity of the party. She stops briefly for a view of the countryside from a hill above her home and surveys it in a way that clearly echoes Joyce's language in "The Dead" (Eckley 81). However, instead of the falling snow that Gabriel Conroy views from his hotel window, a snow that softens the harsh outlines of the physical world and suggests gentle acceptance, Mary witnesses an unforgiving frost:

The poor birds could get no food, as the ground was frozen hard. Frost was general all over Ireland; frost like a weird blossom on the branches, on the riverbank from which Long John Salmon leaped in his great, hairy nakedness, on the plough left out all winter; frost on the stony fields, and on all the slime and ugliness of the world. (O'Brien, Love Object 113)

Despair surrounds her on all sides, from the frozen, unyielding landscape to the equally grim vista of her family's cottage, evoking as it does the specter of a dead-end life: "She was at the top of the hill now, and could see her own house, like a little white box at the end of the world, waiting to receive her" (114). …

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