Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

A Woman Alone: The Depictions of Spinsters in Irish Women's Short Stories

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

A Woman Alone: The Depictions of Spinsters in Irish Women's Short Stories

Article excerpt

Introduction

This paper focuses on a group of female characters who have never been married and whose role within Irish society is, therefore, not defined by marriage or child rearing. In this paper we draw on the perspectives of Irish female writers whose works cover, overall, the entire second half of the twentieth century-Mary Lavin in the pre-1960's, Maeve Kelly, Emma Cooke, Clare Boylan, Jan Kennedy in the 1970's and 80's, Mary Beckett, Angela Bourke and Claire Keegan in the 1990's. Running through the works of these writers is a core theme of generalised hostility within Irish society towards women who, by choice or circumstance, have remained single. The stories by these writers return consistently to portrayals of the force exerted upon women by society to conform through self-sacrifice in a cultural environment which emphasises the benefit of society in general at the expense of women. These stories dissect the social ideology underlying and underpinning the politics of gender roles and human interaction within Irish society. The stories achieve this goal by choosing themes and issues of alienation, internal exile and prejudice against spinsters, and setting these against a backdrop of an ideological manifestation of a "spinsters as odd women" stereotype as well as of a requirement for women to conform to a role of selfless "social mothers". The social norm shaping women into natural wives and mothers serves, in effect, as a means of social control over women (Mustard 2004 "Spinster"). (2) Representations of a negative image of single women as spinsters in these stories indicate the continuing social marginalisation and discrimination which this distinctive (single women) group experiences as a result of falling outside of the conventional social enclosure in Ireland.

The social phenomenon in post-famine Ireland in which a growing number of women stayed unmarried or permanently celibate is not unique in the context of modern Western Europe. (3) Like other western European countries, Ireland also experienced rural depopulation. Given that Ireland was, and remains, a stronghold of the belief that the role of women lay in domesticity and motherhood, a belief reinforced by the rejection of birth control of any kind, it is worth noting that the demographic patterns of population growth in Ireland since the Great Famine up to the 1960s remained much lower than in many other European countries. Partly, this demographic pattern may be due to "the combined effects of large-scale emigration and the lowest marriage rate in Europe" (Murphy-Lawless 1993: 53). (4) The feasibility of attaining married status for Irish men and women may also have been limited in many respects by practical factors and available economic options. The tightening economic conditions resulted in a gradual change in the system of land inheritance amongst rural farmers. Typically, only the eldest son could inherit his father's land and therefore only the eldest son would have been in a practical position to marry and raise a family of his own. As a result, the younger siblings either had to stay single or leave, or possibly both (Clarkson 1981: 237-55; Strassmann and Clark 1998: 38). At that time, many single women left the country to escape poverty and perhaps also social pressure resulting from their continuing single status (Horgan 2001 "Women's Lives").

The 1937 Constitution emphasises that the primary role of women in Irish society was that of wife and mother, a reflection of a dominant view that "the family was a moral institution, possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights" (Murphy-Lawless 1993: 54). Marriage in general becomes the social norm, or default option, for women inasmuch as women are largely defined in Irish society by the roles and duties in which they engage within the enclosure of marriage. Even today, social identities of Irish women continue to be constructed in the domestic arena of marriage and motherhood despite Ireland's economic modernisation as a member of the European Community, a theoretical availability of greater choice to women through access to higher education, and the impact of women's movements (Byrne 2008: 19). …

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