A Scandalous Woman

Edna O’Brien, A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories of Edna O’Brien, A Scandalous Woman (New York: Plume, 1985).

In the short story, “A Scandalous Woman,” Edna O’Brien elaborates on the sacrificial role that young women assume as a result of Irish cultural values and their own naivety.  The story is conveyed to the reader through the recollections of an older woman reminiscing on a cherished childhood friendship with Eily Hogan, for whom the story is aptly named.  From the onset, the narrator identifies herself as Eily’s shadow.  This is illuminated in the vignette of Eily who is portrayed as beautiful but rebellious in nature.  Moreover, the narrator’s characterization suggests that she was the meeker of the two girls (O’Brien, 23).  As such, this establishes the friendship as linear. It evolves from a point of infatuation on the narrator’s part to one of girlish mischief laced in secrecy and culminating in a regrettable dissolution.

The secrecy of the relationship resonates from Eily’s unscrupulous liaisons with a local bank clerk who has newly arrived in town.  Eily expresses her passion for “Romeo” and employs the narrator to aid her in meeting him (O’Brien, 244-245).  Reluctantly the narrator agrees in order to preserve the friendship.  However, she serves as a counter to Eily’s immorality as she bears the burdens of guilt for both of them.  Additionally, the seedy relationship of Eily and Jack serves as a prop to depict how the social pressures wrought from family tradition, sense of honor and religion serve to entrap women.  This is portrayed by the reactions of the supporting characters when the tryst is exposed as Eily’s “fall from grace.” She suffers harsh punishments such as beatings and solitary confinement which are meant to make her conform to society’s norms. Marriage to the bank clerk is also forced upon her.  The marriage serves as the primary catalyst in breaking Eily’s free spirit and leads to her eventual insanity (O’Brien, 252-263).  By the same token the secrecy also brilliantly expresses O’Brien’s theme of young women who inherently strive to escape the confines of their upbringing only to meet with calamity from which they never seem to recover.

O’Brien’s style envelopes the qualities of fairytales but in reverse. Instead of the young girl meeting her prince and living happily ever after, she is typically exiled to a life that she ardently tries to escape.  “A Scandalous Woman,” incorporates this quality not only through Eily’s experiences but also through the subtle use of metaphor and cliché.  The inclusion of dogs in the story serves to accentuate the conditions in which women live as well as foreshadows the trouble the girls incur from Eily’s downfall.  Careful analysis renders the discovery of cliché in the “mother’s warning,” “It was all too good to be true” ( O’Brien, 247). Furthermore, it delineates women’s relations to one another as overcome with competitiveness and jealousy.  This is best exemplified in the sister, Nuala, who the narrator describes as “happiest when someone was upset” (O’Brien, 241).  Clearly the cliché here is “misery loves company.”

O’Brien is to be celebrated for successfully capturing the essence of life in a rural community by delicately weaving small town cultural traits such as gossip and meddling into the story which gives the feeling that the reader is actually there.  More importantly, she triumphantly demonstrates the seriousness of violating a code of silence in that while it is detrimental for a woman to step outside the boundaries society has laid for them, it is much worse to admit to the deed itself. Although Eily denied her love affair with the bank clerk to the bitter end, it was her own body, not the narrator who betrayed her. Conclusively, the misdeeds one commits are known but to talk about them is taboo.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. chelsea.dermody@lindsey.edu
    Sep 19, 2013 @ 15:48:07

    I really like the idea you assert here that O’Brien employs kind of a backwards fairy tale. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but it’s certainly true. It’s as if Eily is Cinderella’s negative. Meeting her prince is the catalyst for Eily’s downfall, while the opposite is true for Cinderella, or other popular fairy tale characters. It would be interesting to compare the techniques employed by Carter and the techniques employed by O’Brien. Both significantly twist the traditional fairy tale, but in very different ways.


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  3. Travis Monroe
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 05:28:30

    I think you make a lot of really interesting and observant points in “A Scandalous Woman.” O’ Brien creates this story of adventure and rebellion in young girls. This theme is repeated a few other times in O’ Brien’s works and this rebellion serves many purposes. I think readers feel like they are supposed to look down on these girls mischievous actions, but I think we find ourselves rooting for them in certain instances. I believe that O’ Brien constructs these stories this way, because although the girls are doing things that are bad, they are breaking out of the strict Irish rules that govern their lives. I think your comment on how these girls know, and others know they have done something wrong, but that it will be OK if they do not talk about it. This idea of secrecy and hidden truth is a relevant factor in many of these stories–I think it is symbolic to the secrecy and cover ups in the lives of young women in Ireland. “A Scandalous Woman” is a great coming of age story, and conveys many meaningful messages to the reader.


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