Sexuality and Religion in Kate O’Brien’s Fiction.
Essays in Irish Literary Criticism: Themes of Gender, Sexuality, and Corporeality.
The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd. UK, pp. 125-140.
“[T]he residue of all emotional experience tends in spirits large enough to be at last of natural and universal value, whatever the personal accidents of its accretion.”1 This observation was written by Kate O’Brien (1897-1974), in her travelogue, Farewell Spain, about the artist El Greco. Whilst not all of O’Brien’s characters can be described as “large spirits” on the scale of an artist like El Greco, the “accretion” and “residue” of emotional experience drives the plots of most of O’Brien’s fiction. Any reading of O’Brien’s work must ask whether or not “universal value” can be derived from such close attention to emotional patterns or whether each is of an individual cast with little or no relevance to wider truths about women’s lives. In a post-structuralist world, critics are sceptical of claims to universal value, and any attempt to see fiction as a version of history or “truth” must also fail. However, an argument can be made for reading the emotional “accretion” and “residue” of experience in O’Brien’s work as an aestheticisation of disquiet with ideological perspectives that presume middle-class women’s homogenised acceptance of their prescribed roles. By focusing on the individual experience, O’Brien’s novels, the literary critic Adele Dalsimer wrote in Kate O’Brien: A Critical Study, “quietly protest against the fates of middle-class Irish women who are sheltered, stifled, and forced into prescribed roles as wives, mothers, or spinsters.
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