Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien
Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts, Studies in Short Fiction
Edna O'Brien's "A Scandalous Woman" (1972) ends with the statement that Ireland is "a land of strange, sacrificial women" (33). Like O'Brien, Mary Lavin features sacrificial women in her short stories. The disturbing martyrdoms of the heroines created by both writers stem, in part, from Catholic notions of the Madonna. The two writers criticize their heroines' emulations of the suffering Virgin. Julia Kristeva's "Stabat Mater" (1977) and Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) scrutinize the impact of the Madonna myth on western European women. Their feminist scholarship illuminates short stories such as Lavin's "A Nun's Mother" (1944) and "Sarah" (1943), as well as O'Brien's "Sister Imelda" (1981) and "A Scandalous Woman." In each story, female martyrdom (en)gendered by the Madonna myth takes different forms, from becoming a nun to becoming a wife, mother, or "fallen woman."
Kristeva comments upon the fluidity of the Madonna, who encompasses diverse female roles, as do the Irish female characters who emulate her. Discussing the dimensions of the Madonna - Virgin, mother, wife - Warner describes the primary effect of the Madonna myth: "By setting up an impossible ideal the cult of the Virgin does drive the adherent into a position of acknowledged and hopeless yearning and inferiority," (337). The heroines of Lavin's and O'Brien's stories fit the pattern of self-hatred that Warner describes. Their varieties of sacrifice stem from self-disgust fostered by failing to reach the standards of the Madonna myth.
In O'Brien's "Sister Imelda," the teenage narrator falls in love with her teacher, the beautiful young nun of the title. The joys of their love are the Foucauldian pleasures of self-denial - a passion never to be realized but fanned by both teacher and student through notes, whispered confidences, devotional gifts, and an occasional hug or kiss. This story fits the pattern of O'Brien's novels that Thomas F. Staley calls confessional, "crying out for absolution" (188). Imelda's and the narrator's romance makes life in the cold nunnery, tolerable, even enjoyable. The romance stands, in miniature, for the unrealizable passion that Sister Imelda holds for Christ. Thus it becomes an enlistment tool for the nunnery, as Sister Imelda lures the narrator into a permanent sisterhood of sublimated passion. The narrator abandons her plan to become a nun after she leaves the convent, instead taking up the worldly solaces of makeup and nylons to attract the attention of men. Her best friend, Baba, outdoes her at dressing like a mature woman, becoming the narrator's model as Imelda once was. Baba's name suggests trite babytalk among lovers, as well as the magic of the Arabian Nights - here the transformations of puberty that are supposed to lead to marital joy.
The narrator's struggle to sublimate her sexuality into a pure love for Sister Imelda may come from her wish to emulate the Virgin. Warner writes that "the foundations of the ethic of sexual chastity are laid in fear and loathing of the female body's functions in identification of evil with the flesh and flesh with woman" (77). The nuns' routine mortifications, which the schoolgirls are expected to imitate, reveal their sense that the female body is an inherently evil possession for which they must compensate. Sister Imelda gets a sty that suggests both her neglect of her body and her distorted view of it. Meanwhile, "Most girls had sore throats and were told to suffer this inconvenience to mortify themselves . . ." (2373). Sore throats are a metaphor for the voicelessness of the girls and the nuns under the convent's regimen. Both the nuns and the girls are often hungry because the convent habitually underfeeds them. Delicacies, such as the narrator's comically suggestive gift of bananas for Imelda, are saved for visiting bishops. The semi-starvation of both nuns and girls by a wealthy church forces their bodies into thin and spiritualized shapes that avoid the lush fecundity stereotypically associated with woman as sexual body. …