A Life of Their Own: Women's Mid-Life Quest in Contemporary Irish Women's Short Stories

By Chang, Ann Wan-lih | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2016 | Go to article overview

A Life of Their Own: Women's Mid-Life Quest in Contemporary Irish Women's Short Stories


Chang, Ann Wan-lih, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


Introduction: The Lonely Other Voice

There have been some notable, if gradual, changes in many aspects of Irish women's role and life in general since "the other voice" emerged in Irish society in the post-Eamon De Valera period from the 1960s. It is evident, possibly inevitable, that these changes in Irish women's lives are echoed in contemporary Irish women's stories, some writers of which are self-declared feminists or have engaged actively with the Irish women's movement. (1) Consequently, their literary works tend to be gynocentric, concerned overtly with women's issues and seek explicitly to give voice to women's quest for justice within male-dominated Irish society. This essay evaluates a recurrent motif in stories by Clare Boylan, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Stella Mahon, Mary Dorcey and Marilyn McLaughlin, the motif of "quest". As opposed to the traditionally male genre of the "monomyth" or "Bildungsroman", Irish women's quest motif is about a heroine who embarks on a different kind of adventure with the aim of achieving a different kind of goal. (2) This female quest involves subversion of the social norm, rebellion against a socially prescribed role and destiny, and reclamation of a lost place within Irish society. This essay argues that Irish women's stories serve both as a vibrant narrative genre within Irish literary tradition, and as a strategic device by Irish women writers who are seeking to engage with a collective, and evolving, Irish feminist awareness. Typically, such stories focus on women who start by accepting passively a socially imposed role and life as wife or mother, subsequently become "bad" by diverging from the traditional patriarchal view of women's role in Irish society, and undergo, ultimately, a transformative inner journey of self-discovery which leads them towards emotional independence and individuality.

The short story genre as a strategic narrative device for Irish women has roots in Ireland's literary tradition and heritage. According to Frank O'Connor, the short story in an Irish literary context is a "natural form" deriving from the Irish storytelling tradition "embedded in the Irish psyche" (Casey 1990: 9), a genre associated closely with Irish history as well as with Irish women's writing. The short story is considered to be a "natural progression of story-telling, letter-writing, diary-keeping, and even school essay-writing", forms of writing with which women were already familiar in their lives (Madden-Simpson 1984: 13, 18). The skills and techniques inherent in the short story medium are also relevant when seeking to reach a broad and diverse audience through printed, visual or social media. (3) Traditionally, the short story also plays an essential role in Irish culture and politics. (4)

O'Connor argues also that the short story is a vital expressive tool for the "submerged population" of a country, such as Ireland, in a post-colonial state (O'Connor 1963: 20). In the light of Frank O'Connor's view, Colm Toibin, echoed by Boada-Montagut, connects the prominence of the Irish short story to Ireland's status as a country with a broken and traumatic past. (5) Toibin's or Boada-Montagut's association of a political discourse with the short story genre may suggest a reason for the significant appeal of the short story genre within contemporary Irish women's writing. The short story serves Irish women's purpose of expression because, among the submerged population, Irish women as the "Double Other" have actually experienced the legacy of a double dispossession (Edge 1998: 215-6; Boada-Montagut 2003: 10). (6) Within the male-dominated Irish literary canon and tradition, women's writing has tended to be marginalised. (7) In this essay we suggest that Irish women may find the short story both an effective and also an instinctive way of expressing varied issues related to women as well as a medium which offers fresh scope for women to create a distinctive style of literature, a literature of their own (Boada-Montagut 2003: 38). …

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