"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. …