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"Never tear the linnet from the leaf": the feminist intertextuality of Edna O'Brien's Down by the River.

In 1983 an amendment was added to the Irish Constitution proclaiming that "the State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right." In 1992 a fourteen-year-old Irish girl who had traveled with her family to England to obtain an abortion was forced to return to the Republic of Ireland without having completed the procedure. The girl, who had been raped by an adult friend of her family, was determined to be suicidal, and it was this determination that allowed the Irish Supreme Court to lift the injunction against her leaving the country while upholding the 1983 constitutional amendment. The case of a suicidal pregnant girl--whose despondency threatened equally her own life and that of her fetus--continues to provide an anomalous legal rationale for abortion in the Republic of Ireland, a state in which abortion is otherwise banned. This remains so despite the best efforts of the Irish government, in a number of referenda, to close this loophole. The legal consequences of the 1992 X case continue to determine the parameters of Irish law--and of Irish women's sexuality, reproductive rights, and citizenship. (1)

Because the adjudication of the X case continues to affect Irish law, the case continued to be debated in the Irish media long after its resolution. For example, in 2000 a former Irish High Court justice, Roderick J. O'Hanlon, wrote a letter to the Irish Times arguing that in fact Miss X had not been suicidal, that her suicidality had been concocted as a legal strategy to circumvent the 1983 amendment. O'Hanlon begins his letter by writing, "The 'X' case will not go away. In the words of Shakespeare, it 'will rise, though all the world o'erwhelm it, to men's eyes.'" (2) O'Hanlon uses--and misquotes--Shakespeare's words in order to introduce his argument about the spuriousness of the legal strategy employed by the advocates of Miss X. In so doing, he tells a story of the X case that reflects the plot of Hamlet: a story of intimate political usurpation, of female sexual misbehavior, and of adolescent male revenge on behalf of an absent father. In O'Hanlon's retelling of the X case, Miss X becomes not a terrified raped girl, but a woman who, like Hamlet's mother, is a possible accomplice to the overthrowing of proper governmental authority through her unchaste behavior, while the influential and elderly O'Hanlon transforms himself into Hamlet, vowing to restore order on behalf of this overthrown authority. (3) His quote suggests a common trope of the Irish anti-abortion movement, that the Republic of Ireland remains the last tiny bastion of traditional morality, "though all the world overwhelm it"; it suggests as well that "men's eyes" might yet read Miss X's intentions, intentions that unintentionally changed the course of Irish history.

Edna O'Brien's 1996 novel Down by the River is based on the events of the X case, and it is both explicitly and implicitly intertextual. This intertextuality would seem to be a strange choice for a novel based on real-life events, but this aesthetic decision by O'Brien calls attention to the intertextuality of the real-life events on which her novel is based, as O'Hanlon's letter exemplifies. Particular stories govern Irish society, just as they do every society; the words circulating in a culture are overdetermined, laden with both ancient and recent histories and meanings. O'Brien's strategy in her novel is to make this overdetermination visible, to show how the stories that have been inherited and the words that continually circulate create the collective ways of knowing the X case and Miss X herself. In her novel O'Brien shows that these collective ways of knowing, agreed upon in the patriarchal Irish courts and Irish media, as well as created by a patriarchal Western literary tradition and Irish literary canon, preclude a true understanding of the female experience of sexual assault, an experience that remains "unspeakable" in O'Brien's novel, in Irish culture, and in the Western literary tradition. (4) In seeking to represent in literary form that which has paradoxically been silenced by previous literary representations, O'Brien concocts an aesthetic strategy that is explicitly feminist. Elissa Marder argues that rape has long been represented in Western literary tradition as a kind of silencing, as in the classical story of Philomela. As in "the story of Philomela," Marder notes, "which articulates the difficulty of speaking the experience of being silenced, the discourse of feminism constantly struggles to find a discursive vocabulary for experiences both produced and silenced by patriarchy," such as rape. (5)

In her novel O'Brien seeks to articulate both the experience of being silenced and the difficulty of articulating the experience of being silenced. O'Brien does so in part by retelling and revising the story of Philomela and in part by retelling and revising other stories: stories from Greek mythology (Ovid's Metamorphoses); from Irish mythology (the story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, among others); from her own oeuvre (particularly her first novel, The Country Girls); and from the Irish literary canon, represented by Yeats and Joyce, whose work is itself highly intertextual. O'Brien's conscious and strategic intertextuality extends even to individual, overdetermined words, such as the Yeatsian (and Blakean) "linnet," which she evokes in the novel's final chapter. Through her novel's intertextuality O'Brien shows the ways in which classical mythology and canonical literature have both presumed to account for female experience and been entirely inadequate to do so. Down by the River narrates a female experience, rape, that has been represented many times in classical mythology and in canonical literature. Yet this experience was, until the X case, considered unspeakable in Irish society and, generally, has long been theorized by both feminists and the patriarchy as made possible by silence, greeted with silence and a kind of silencing, not just of the victim but of language itself. (6)

The plot of O'Brien's novel echoes the general narrative of the X case: it presents the story of Mary MacNamara, a fourteen-year-old Irish girl who is raped and impregnated, becomes suicidal, and flees to England for an abortion but is ordered by the Irish legal system to return to Ireland before she can complete the procedure. Like the X case Mary's case becomes a national scandal, the focus of an intense debate among the citizens of Ireland, who know her only by a pseudonym: in Mary's case this pseudonym is the highly charged "Magdalene." Mary's fate, like that of Miss X, seems to lie in the hands of the patriarchal Irish court system, but Mary ultimately miscarries, just as Miss X is rumored to have done. O'Brien's fictional character differs from Miss X in that her rapist is her own father, James, who kills himself in the closing scenes of the novel; also, unlike Miss X, Mary does not have the support of her mother, who dies early in the novel. O'Brien relocates her fictional Miss X to the rural West of Ireland, while the events of the X case all apparently took place in the Dublin area. This aesthetic choice means that Mary follows the narrative trajectory of O'Brien's titular characters in her first, controversial novel, The Country Girls. (7) By the end of the novel Mary has relocated to Dublin, moving from the country, where she has grown up and where she was raped, to the city, where in the novel's closing scene she and her friend Mona sing for a crowd of Dionysian disco revelers. Indeed, several critics, including Sophia Hillan and Christine St. Peter, have read Down by the River as a revision of The Country Girls, though it is also a revision of the myth of Philomela, stories of Irish mythology, and at least four canonical texts by Yeats and Joyce. (8) These include "A Prayer for My Daughter," "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," "The Dead," and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, all of which are referred to in the brief last chapter, which depicts country girl Mary starting a new life in the city.

Joyce and Yeats themselves often drew on classical and Irish mythology in their work as a means of claiming, revising, and problematizing both the European intellectual tradition and the Irish nationalist one. Today these two authors head the Irish literary canon and function as the literary forefathers for all successive Irish writers, including O'Brien herself. O'Brien's own place in the Irish literary canon is far from secure: she is a writer who is talked about at least as often as she is written about, and what is said about her is often highly uncomplimentary. Though recent critics have taken O'Brien's work far more seriously than did her earliest critics, her aesthetic achievements continue to be undervalued. Critics have asserted that she writes romantically about romance, that she is not a serious writer, that she plays the role of an "Irish Colette" or a "Connemara Dietrich," and that her work is inadvertently inter-textual. (9) In conversation with me an eminent Irish historian dismissed her most recent novel, The Light of Evening, as "unconscious pastiche." (10) In fact Down by the River is quite deliberate in its intertextuality, and starting with the novel's two epigraphs, it demands that readers develop a reading practice equal to this dazzling intertextuality. By tracing out, one by one, the most important moments of intertextuality in O'Brien's novel, and employing a practice that reads this novel intertextually, the conscious authorship of Down by the River is revealed: a revelation that, however problematic it may be from the standpoint of contemporary theories of authorship, is essential to a feminist consideration of the novel. O'Brien refers to, mimics, and parodies the language of Joyce and Yeats in order to express the distinction between male and female relationships to language, power, and meaning. In O'Brien's novel literature reinforces the law and the media in rendering Irish women symbolically central and socially peripheral, contributing to the discourse of sexual assault through which Mary MacNamara is violated and to the discourse of pregnancy and motherhood through which she and her case are understood and produced. (11) In Down by the River, then, Edna O'Brien refers to and revises the discursive vocabulary of patriarchy to reveal the ways in which literature both presumes to know and cannot possibly know female experience.


In his poem "Leda and the Swan," the original title of which was "Annunciation," Yeats narrates the rape of Leda by Zeus and asks the famous question, "Did she put on his knowledge with his power?" O'Brien's novel can be read as an attempt to answer this question: it is a work in which cognates of the verb "to know" appear repeatedly, even obsessively. (12) In Down by the River Yeats's question resonates for both O'Brien's main character and O'Brien herself, given that both are attempting to articulate a female experience that has long been represented, both by the patriarchy and by feminists, as unspeakable and unknowable. (13) Of course, Yeats's query is ambiguous: to "put on" knowledge can mean that Leda clothes herself in Zeus's knowledge or that she merely pretends to do so. Indeed, Yeats's use of this ambiguous phrase to wonder what might (or might not) happen to Leda suggests that it may not be important whether Leda genuinely can know what Zeus knows or can only mimic this knowledge. O'Brien's novel in turn suggests that "putting on" knowledge is a process in which language covers up the unspeakable female body and its unspeakable female experiences: language represses the knowledge of what has happened to Mary while purporting to express it. This is shown in a key passage in which Mary returns to her home place to get her father's permission to seek an abortion of the fetus that he himself has impregnated her with:
  Everything was made worse by her coming back, everything seemed
  to be watching her, the trees and dipping strands of ripped paling
  wire, that and a strange cat, a queer cat, with a queer look to it.
  Even the house looked shook and all along the field, like some
  wandering spirit a white mist travelled in shadows. Only the shrubs
  which her mother had put in were thriving. Devoid of flower or leaf
  they were nevertheless filled with colour, a purple colour like blood
  flowing through them. Nearly everything reminded her of blood. Her
  father's, her ancestors', her own, and thinking how none were
  separate and yet none were kin. [Her lawyer] would come out with
  some good news. She would be able to tell it by his bashful smile. He
  would not say it on account of being shy, he would say something
  ordinary like "We have got to get our act together." They were
  probably in the room where it had happened. The good room. Good.
  Bad. Just words. Shibboleths. (14)

Mary's trauma ensures that "nearly everything" reminds her of blood: like the fetus she is carrying, the blood of which is composed of her father's, her mother's, her ancestors', and her own, nothing is completely separate or completely akin. (15) "The good room" in the MacNamara house is a room in which Mary has been raped, so its designation as "good" is, for her, completely nonsensical, and Mary's ability to make sense of her world through language is concomitantly compromised. However, the narrator steps in to supply the word "shibboleths," which emphasizes the nonsensical nature of the words Mary confronts. This is a word that Mary herself, a young girl from the West of Ireland, should be seen as highly unlikely to know even as it describes the particular role of words within her discursive universe, as signs of her outsider status. In this context the odd word itself functions as a shibboleth, a password exchanged between the narrator and the reader, a password that excludes Mary. For Mary all words are shibboleths, tribal passwords, in the sense that she is excluded by and from language itself and defined by this exclusion: all words are shibboleths because they are simultaneously empty of meaning and constitutive of identity. In this novel words are what people "put on," and what they "put on" Mary, in order to cover up, even as they are meant to express, unspeakable experience.

Other characters in the novel "put on" knowledge in order to understand the Magdalene case and themselves, and the knowledge they put on is often the knowledge generated by the literary canon itself. Thus, the character Betty, whose attempt to procure Mary an English abortion has been stymied and who faces social ostracism as a result of her actions, is consoled by a friend with a reference to Yeats: "Never mind ... you still hold yourself with the walk of a queen." (16) This reference to Yeats's early nationalist play Cathleen ni Houlihan offers Betty simultaneously the promise of redemption, because in the play Cathleen transforms from a dispossessed old hag to the triumphant queen of an imminently independent Ireland, and a static nationalist identity: Betty, like Ireland, "still" holds herself with the walk of a queen, despite the disaster unfolding in her community. Likewise, the politician's mistress, who has argued with him about Mary's case, is held in place by the seductive power of the Irish literary canon: "A week will pass, bickering about her mother, then will come one of his boyish letters about love, about friendship, about the enduringness of love, a poem, Yeats, who else, and it will all start up again." (17) Finally, the Judge has dinner with a foreign visitor who tells him that he and his wife love Ireland because they love James Joyce and asks if it is "true that your great Mr. Joyce carried a pair of miniature knickers in his overcoat pocket, to amuse himself." (18) The juxtaposition of the "great Mr. Joyce" and the "miniature knickers"--knickers such as the fourteen-year-old Mary might wear--shows Joyce's (alleged) prurient interest in female sexuality, positing it as amusing at the same time that it minimizes and dismisses the young girl whose unspeakable body was once covered up by such clothing. Moreover, the metonymy of "Joyce" and "Ireland" in the visitor's assertion of love suggests the degree to which Joyce has come to represent Ireland, which means that Ireland can also be posited as carrying a pair of miniature knickers in its pocket, that the nation is both obsessed with youthful female sexuality and invested in hiding it away. For his part the Judge, presumably one of those who will decide Mary's fate, establishes his conservatism when he thinks, "Drove him mad it did, this worship of highfalutin pornography, no appreciation whatsoever of the earlier stuff, the courtly verses, the psalms, the epiphanies of monks and the grand laments written for the wild geese, cream of the country's aristocracy forced into exile." (19) Of course, in this novel it is Mary herself who is "forced into exile" in order to procure an abortion, an experience not easily assimilated by courtly verse, psalms, nationalist elegies, or Irish modernism. (20) The characters attempt to make sense of the novel's events by appealing to the Irish literary canon, a privileged producer of knowledge: a set of texts that all are meant to know and through which all are meant to know, a set of texts known by the characters in the novel and through which they attempt to know Mary, her case, and themselves. But in O'Brien's novel the Irish literary canon is shown to be inadequate to producing knowledge of female experience even as, in a moment of cultural crisis, it is appealed to for just that purpose.


In the visitor's question to the Judge about James Joyce, Joyce is the subject of the sentence, and the girl's knickers, like the girl who once wore them, is the object. This is true of Mary MacNamara in O'Brien's novel as well, and her positioning as the object of the sentence rather than the subject begins with the novel's epigraphs. The epigraphs of Down by the River reference two of the most read, interpreted, and written-about texts in Western culture, and these two epigraphs not only foreshadow key themes in the novel but offer both a method of reading the novel and a warning to the novel's readers that they are implicated in what occurs within it. The first epigraph is taken from the "Proteus" episode of Ulysses, reelecting the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's hero and alter ego: "Darkness is our souls do you not think?/Flutier. Our souls, shame-wounded by our sins." The second epigraph comes from the Song of Solomon: "And thy belly be like a sheaf of wheat set about with lilies." Both these epigraphs will resonate thematically in the main text, as Irish "souls," beset by a sense of sin, attempt to make sense of the pregnant belly of the novel's protagonist, Mary, which is a synecdoche for Mary herself. Moreover, the positioning of readers themselves as subjects, with Mary as our object, is implicit in the placement of these two epigraphs. (21) Even if one does not read the final clause of the first epigraph and the second epigraph as one complete and continuous sentence--a reading invited by the use of the word "and" to begin the second epigraph--it is clear that Mary is the object and not the subject of the epigraphs, just as she is the object of the sentence that might be made by combining the two epigraphs. Mary's position as the object rather than the subject is mirrored by the narrative style of the text: though she is the protagonist of the novel and the ostensible motive force of the situation described therein, the narrative does not always directly focus on her. Though the novel employs the Joycean narrative technique of free indirect discourse, the narrator does not and indeed seemingly cannot always access Mary's consciousness and often ventures from Mary, to depict the forces far outside her that also create her subjectivity. These distant but powerfully impinging forces include the readers of Down by the River ourselves, starting from the moment when we are addressed by O'Brien's/Joyce's/Stephen's question in the first epigraph.

O'Brien's epigraphs also ask us to read more deeply for thematic resonance: the "Proteus" episode is set at the seashore, connecting it not only to the recurrent water imagery of O'Brien's novel but to Stephen's famous earlier epiphany in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an epiphany that is reworked in the final chapter of O'Brien's text. (22) Likewise, the figure of Proteus, itself an intertextual allusion, signals the metamorphosis that Mary will undergo, itself signaled by her story's references to classical moments of metamorphosis such as Philomela's and Daphne's. Moreover, as the reference to lilies in the second epigraph might indicate, the Song of Solomon was sometimes interpreted as a prophetic account of the life of the Virgin Mary, who, having been frustratingly silent in the Gospels, was seen by medieval exegetes as having spoken through the words of this Old Testament book. (23) O'Brien's Mary, who is explicitly connected by and in the text to the Virgin Mary, is also frustratingly silent in the work purporting to give an account of her life. (24) Her experience can be apprehended only through reading the words of others; using the text's recurring image of unspeakable female experience, her father describes Mary as having always been silent: "Deep water ... like her mother." (25) Both epigraphs ask readers to engage in reading practices similar to those developed by readers of Ulysses and the Song of Solomon, to venture beneath the surface of Mary's story, the narrative woven by O'Brien. This kind of reading has rarely been applied to O'Brien's work, and before we turn to the novel itself, the first epigraph cautions us to consider our own complicity in the ways in which Mary, and O'Brien herself, have already been inscribed by what is embedded in our souls, souls that are "dark" to us--illegible, impenetrable, deep waters.

Moreover, because O'Brien's first epigraph is attributed to James Joyce but is in fact attributable to Stephen Dedalus, who is both identified with and differentiated from Joyce himself, O'Brien from the outset calls attention to the relation of the author to her own text, to the relationship between author and protagonist, and to the ambiguous nature of the relationship between text and reality, as well as signaling that her own story--or is it Mary MacNamara's?--is somehow related to the story of Stephen Dedalus. Interestingly, despite O'Brien's own stated literary debt to Joyce, the epigraph of Down by the River is, as Bertrand Cardin notes, her only epigraph referring to his work; unusually for O'Brien's epigraphs, it calls attention to its own provenance, so that readers cannot mistake its source. (26) Cardin asserts that O'Brien's Joycean epigraph is a sign of respect and indicates a desire to align herself with her "famous predecessor," arguing against reading the epigraph for any thematic resonances. (27) In fact, Down by the River is a postmodern and feminist revision of Joyce's Portrait, with Mary uneasily inhabiting Stephen's role. Contrary to Cardin's assertions, Joyce's presence in O'Brien's text is blatant, not latent. In signaling so baldly Joyce's presence in and importance to this text, and in using his first name as the first name of her female protagonist's abusive predecessor, O'Brien in fact expresses a much more complicated relationship to Joyce, whom she has referred to as "the father of us all," than most critics have assumed. (28)

This gesture linking O'Brien's own literary forefather to the predatory father of her character indicates that Joyce is O'Brien's "symbolic father," as Cardin calls him, in more than one way. (29) He is the source of the masculine language that she must rely upon in order to represent female experience; his is the Name-of-the-Father, deliberately invoked in the epigraph, which creates the symbolic order that engenders O'Brien's novel and the subjectivity of her protagonist. As indicated by a first chapter not only depicting the initial paternal assault that separates Mary from all knowledge of what has happened to her but also delineating the legal apparatus that claims for itself the privilege of producing knowledge of this female experience, the novel consistently posits that language is itself a vehicle of gendered violation. The first chapter is, as Ann Norton notes, written in a style that parodies Joycean language. (30) If the first epigraph signals that we should read Mary in relation to Stephen, the first chapter reveals that Mary will have a vastly different relationship to language than Stephen does. As he matures, Stephen seeks to become an in-scriber; Mary's maturation, on the other hand, is a process of inscription: after she is raped, she is described, in the first chapter, as a piece of parchment. (31) Mary is language's object and victim, rather than its subject and originator. O'Brien's novel, then, functions as a postmodern Bildungsroman: it presents not the self-created discursive formation of a subject, but the coalescing of a discourse that in turn generates a subjectivity. That is, Mary cannot "forge in the smithy of [her] soul the uncreated conscience of [her] race"--rather, Mary's uncreated conscience will be forged in the smithy of her race's sin-wounded souls. (32)


Stephen Dedalus reads a prophecy of his artistic future in his own last name, but we cannot read any such prophecy in Mary MacNamara's. Mary's last name means "son of the seas," and Mary is a daughter, not a son, while the reference to water again alludes to the text's recurring symbol representing the unknowability of female experience. Mary's last name, however, does call attention to the disjunction between female and male relationships to language, as exemplified by the disjunction between herself and her Joycean counterpart, as even her own name is inadequate to represent, let alone prophesy, evolving modes of female subjectivity and experience. O'Brien's postmodern Bildungs-roman begins and climaxes in ways that echo Joyce's modernist Kunstlerroman, but O'Brien pointedly revises and parodies his work so as to reflect the position that Mary, her female Irish protagonist, occupies relative to power, language, and meaning. Certainly, as Norton argues, the omniscient narration of O'Brien's text is "imbued with Mary's voice as the omniscient narrator of Portrait contains Stephen's," but the omniscient narrator of O'Brien's novel is also imbued with Stephen's voice. (33) That is, in O'Brien's novel the Joycean technique of free indirect discourse is expanded to include the consciousness of characters outside the novel itself. (34) The male story, Joyce's story, precedes and shapes Mary's story.

The Irish female story differs from the Irish male story to which it alludes: unlike Portrait O'Brien's novel begins, as does her own earlier Bildungsroman The Country Girls, not in childhood, but in puberty. In this O'Brien is typical of authors who seek to portray the maturation of the Irish female. In Irish literature generally childhood experience is presented as unimportant to the development of mature female subjectivity, in sharp contrast to the male maturation narrative, fathered by Joyce in A Portrait, in which childhood experience is overdetermined as the source of the adult male Irish subject. (35) Indeed, it is possible to argue that in the Irish symbolic order the gender of female children remains unacknowledged until puberty. (36) A supporter of Miss X, the young woman on whom Mary MacNamara is based, defended her right to an abortion by denying her a gender identity, arguing that "this girl, as she is being called, is not a girl. She is a child and this judgment has gone against the wishes of her parents." (37) The crisis of knowledge engendered by the X case is one created by the collision of the female child with the maiden and with the mother: Miss X inhabits all three roles simultaneously, causing a crisis in the Irish symbolic order, in which the Irish female child is typically not visible at all, the Irish maiden is a virgin, and the Irish mother is married. O'Brien's novel, like Irish maturation narratives generally, reflects the law of the Irish symbolic order by eliding the girlhood experience, which is both symbolically and socially peripheral: until and unless a female subject is a maiden or a mother, she simply does not signify in the Irish symbolic order. This reflects the ways in which the Irish literary canon authorizes representations of certain stages of Irish female life even as it obscures female experiences: there is no symbolic representation of the Irish girl in the Irish literary canon, only the familiar maiden, mother, queen, and hag--and so representations of Irish female lives tend to begin with maidenhood. (38) This, of course, occurs at puberty, when the female is (ostensibly) first feminized--a gendering that is often accompanied, at least in Irish literature, by the girl's separation from her mother. For Mary this female gendering occurs when she is raped, inscribed, and impregnated at fourteen and is quickly followed by her removal to convent boarding school and the death of her mother.

Mary's coming to consciousness, then, is presented at the beginning of her maturation narrative, just as Stephen's is, but her narrative begins much later in her life. Similarly, the stories that Mary and Stephen are told in the first chapters of their respective narratives, stories that shape their own narratives and their identities, are highly distinctive in nature. Vicki Mahaffey writes of Stephen's story, which is told by his father, that "story antedates subject. ... The book begins with a story, but not until the third sentence do we learn that 'he' is the subject of that story. The story is told before the subject is identified, before the life-story has even begun." (39) The story that famously begins Joyce's Portrait evokes the traditional fairy tale, but it also alludes to Irish epic history: the reference to the cow recalls The Tain, the ancient story of the cattle raid of Cooley. The stories of Irish history, the inheritances of Irish literature, predate the Irish subject, and they are responsible for making Stephen an Irish child. Stephen himself is specifically placed in the action of the story as "Baby Tuckoo," and he recognizes himself as the subject of the story. The story represents the origin of Stephen's consciousness, a childish consciousness that is also shaped by the other sensory experiences presented in the first chapter, experiences of all five senses that will become the basis for Stephen's empirically acquired knowledge and the origin of a relationship to language that will remain quite sensory, sometimes bordering on synaesthesic. (40)

Signaled by the epigraph, and by O'Brien's Joycean language in the first chapter of Down by the River, we are meant to read Mary's story in conjunction with Stephen's. And Mary is also told a story by her father in the first chapter of her Bildungsroman, a story related to Irish mythology. However, Mary is not a subject of the story she is told: instead James supplements his story with a bit of childhood doggerel through which he attempts to inscribe Mary's gendered subjectivity. James first references the tale of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the hero of the Fenian saga cycle, who catches a Salmon of Knowledge, determines to give his catch to a druid, and upon cooking the fish burns his thumb. (41) After Fionn sticks his thumb in his mouth to cool it, he is given the gift of prophecy. Mary's father does not place her in this story; rather, he refuses to distinguish between himself and Mary, saying to her, "We'll make a fire and we'll roast him. ... Who was that fellow ... I know ... Finn Mac Comhill [sic] who ate of the salmon of knowledge. ... We'll be the same." (42) James's assertion that he and Mary will be "the same" indicates (hat he cannot acknowledge that her desires might be different from his, an assertion echoed by Fionn's mythic thumb-sucking, which is at once infantile, erotic fit mimics the sex act), and solipsistic (it posits the sexual penetration it mimics as a closed loop). James follows this story with a bit of doggerel that he attempts to make Mary repeat, an act through which he attempts to impose on Mary the recognition that her desires are the same as his and also to feminize her. The nursery rhyme, with which James tries to inscribe a newly acknowledged feminine identity onto the pubescent Mary, is the one that asserts sexual difference, the notion that girls are sugar and spice and all things nice--and thus are available to be consumed. The first chapter of Portrait records Stephen's experiences with food by referencing "lemon platt," a foodstuff associated with the woman who sells it, but in the first chapter it is Mary herself who is consumed. Indeed, throughout the text James often refers to sugar when speaking to or about Mary, and when he first grabs at her he says, "And after the spuds comes the strawberries," another association of the female body with consumable sweetness. (43)

Moreover, unlike Stephen, Mary does not come to consciousness by first experiencing the world through her senses. Rather, her experience of sexual assault cuts her off from her senses:
  Darkness, then, a weight of darkness, except for one splotch of
  sunlight on his shoulder and all the differing motions, of water, of
  earth, of body, moving as one, on a windless day. Not a sound of a
  bird. An empty place, a place cut off from every place else, and her
  body too, the knowing part of her body getting separated from what
  was happening down there. (44)

Mary is almost entirely deafened and blinded by what is happening to her, and her ability to produce knowledge is compromised as a result of her separation from her own senses. Mary's ability to make sense of the world through language, then, will also be compromised, and her relationship to language will be posited by the text as radically distinct from Stephen's. Moreover, in this passage as in so many others in O'Brien's novel, the narrator must step in to explain what is happening, as Mary herself cannot credibly articulate it even as stream-of-consciousness. In O'Brien's novel Joycean free indirect discourse is often reversed: rather than Mary's thoughts imbuing the narrator's language, the narrator's language must imbue Mary's unconscious experience.

Much of Stephen Dedalus's development in Portrait is driven by the quest to match words to their meanings; Kevin Dettmar has argued that Joyce's modernist novel is "wedded to the project of ever more faithfully representing the signified." (45) A famous example of this is when Stephen attempts to understand the relationship between figurative language and literal meaning and is able to puzzle it out, at least provisionally, through sensory experience:
  [Dante] did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was a
  protestant and when she was young she knew children that used to
  play with protestants and the protestants used to make fun of the
  litany of the Blessed Virgin. Tower of Ivory, they used to say,
  House of Gold! How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of
  gold? ... Eileen had long white hands. One evening when they were
  playing tig she had put her hands over her eyes: long and white and
  thin and cold and soft. That was ivory: a cold white thing. That was
  the meaning of Tower of Ivory. (46)

Though his relationship to language is at times strained, and we may see his quest as quixotic, Stephen never ceases to attempt to match words to meanings, to faithfully represent the signified.

By contrast, Mary experiences signifiers and signifieds as utterly random, language as meaningless, words as mere shibboleths. After the anti-abortion activists who have gotten access to her tell Mary that one day she'll have a nice wedding, she thinks, "A wedding. A word. Another word like death or truth or goldfish. She thought that words were the thing people used to suit their purpose, to stuff holes in themselves, to live lies, and that one day those words would be sucked out of them and they would have to be their empty speechless selves at last." (47) In this passage language itself is a vehicle of violation--something that "stuffs holes," an image that evokes Mary's rape--and the loss of language, imagined by Mary as a kind of metaphorical abortion, is a relief and a liberation. Mary does not seek, as Stephen does, to match signifiers and signifieds: even though a goldfish has been presented to her by the anti-abortion activists as a substitute fetus, she calls "goldfish" just a word, seeing no relationship between the signifier "goldfish" and its signified swimming in front of her, let alone accepting the proposed substitution of "goldfish" for "fetus." (48) Mary's experiences cause her to reject language altogether, in sharp contrast to Stephen's embrace of it. Mary conceives of herself as not just carrying a fetus, but as pregnant with meaning, with discourse inscribed on her body, false inscriptions that she longs to erase.

Throughout the novel this state of alienation from language does not change for Mary, even after her case is resolved by her miscarriage, though critics of the novel have typically read the final scene of Down by the River, in which Mary and her friend Mona sing for a crowd of revelers, as a transcendent convergence of sundered signifier and signified. Indeed, because of the final chapter's Joycean allusions, Ann Norton reads the final chapter as an epiphany for Mary, one analogous to the climactic epiphany of Gabriel Conroy, Joyce's main character and alter ego in "The Dead." Yet this epiphany, like the novel's other Joycean allusions, reveals yet again the disjunction between the male subject and female subjectivity. Norton writes of the two epiphanies that
  Gabriel suddenly sees his wife Gretta as a real, vulnerable human
  being rather than as an appendage for his ego, or merely a vehicle
  for sexual pleasure. Likewise in O'Brien, the Irish audience's
  "innermost" selves, uncensored by social, political, or cultural
  rules and memories, recognize that Mary is more than an ill-educated
  country girl impregnated out of wedlock. As a scapegoat, and as a
  human being who has suffered and survived, she merits reconciliation,
  respect, and love, as do the people who hear her sing. This
  recognition of Mary's humanity will bring "life" back to the "vacant
  rooms" of these people, whose former callous treatment of Mary--and
  by extension others like her--has caused their metaphorical deaths,
  represented in "The Dead" as snow. The "melting" silence implies that
  the snow that in the Joyce story was "general all over Ireland" at
  last will disappear. (49)

As the Joyce references indicate, there is indeed an epiphany in the last chapter of Down by the River, but Norton does not seem to realize that this epiphany isn't Mary's, but her audience's. After Mary agrees to sing, the text abruptly zooms out to a general view of Ireland, clearly alluding to "The Dead":
  Across the land the snow is falling, the silver-thorn flakes meshing
  and settling into thick, mesmerising piles, sheeting the country
  roads, looping the winter hedges to a white and cladded stillness,
  and down at home their house is empty, the vacant rooms waiting for
  life to come back into them, for windows to be lit up too, and the
  sloshing crowd waiting too, the way she is waiting for the face to
  materialize, the face that she will sing the words to, sing
  regardless, a paean of expectancy into the gaudy void.

The last paragraph of the novel reads:
  Her voice was low and tremulous at first, then it rose and caught, it
  soared and dipped and soared, a great crimson quiver of sound going
  up, up to the skies and they were silent then, plunged into a sudden
  and melting silence because what they were hearing was in answer to
  their own souls' innermost cries. (50)

In the parallel that Norton correctly notices between O'Brien's narrative epiphany and Joyce's, Mary corresponds to Gretta Conroy, the object of the epiphany, while the audience corresponds to Gabriel Conroy, the one who has the epiphany. Both epiphanies are set in motion by a song, and when Mary's audience hears her song, they hear it as an answer to their own souls' innermost cries. (51) Norton interprets the reference to "souls" as an expression of the audience's essential selves, untouched by the political, the social, or the cultural, but when we read the final few lines of O'Brien's text in conjunction with the first few lines, we are reminded that our souls are in fact shame-wounded by our sins. Moreover, the reference to the "cries" of the audience suggests that Mary is playing a maternal role even in this last chapter, a suggestion reinforced by the pregnant image of "expectancy": those who watch and listen to Mary continue to--indeed, because of the laws governing the Irish symbolic order have no other choice but to--figure her as maternal despite her miscarriage. The transcendence implied by the final scene's epiphany is thus undercut. (52) If we as readers desperately want reassurance that Mary will surmount the horrors she has suffered, or at least survive them, a close reading of the novel reveals that she remains a prisoner of the Irish symbolic order, figured, now that she has lost her maidenhead, only in maternal terms.

Furthermore, there is more than one Joycean epiphany taking place in the final chapter of O'Brien's novel: the final scene alludes not only to Gabriel Conroy's epiphany but to Stephen Dedalus's climactic epiphany in Portrait. When she sings, Mary is responding to the call of the disco's master of ceremonies, who in seeking a new singer asks flatly, "Who will be the little linnet." (53) In agreeing to be the little linnet, Mary undergoes a symbolic metamorphosis from girl to bird. This not only marks her passage from childhood into adulthood but connects Mary to a number of canonical birds: the Yeatsian (and Blakean) linnet, certainly, but also the Philomelan nightingale and the Joycean bird-girl. At the end of her maturation narrative Mary becomes not the nascent artist inspired to epiphany by the bird-girl, but the bird-girl herself. In relation to linguistically conjured epiphany, she remains language's object, not its subject, art's cause rather than its agent. As the bird-girl she remains gendered: indeed, she sings to a "sloshing" crowd, and her voice is described as "melting" the Joycean snow that obliterates difference, once again causing the water to flow, the water that is the text's symbol of unknowable female experience. (54)


Mary's concluding metamorphosis, which serves as the resolution of her Bildungsroman, is one in which she becomes a bird, an overdetermined symbol that implicates her in Joycean, Yeatsian, and classical discourse as birdgirl, linnet, and Philomelan nightingale. (55) Specifically, Mary is interpellated as a linnet, a bird that appears in two of Yeats's best-known poems," The Lake Isle of Innisfree" and "A Prayer for My Daughter." Given the intertextuality of O'Brien's novel, and the unlikelihood that a Dublin deejay would use a word like this to ask for brave volunteer singers, this can hardly be a random word, or bird. Indeed, given O'Brien's deliberate shift of her story's setting away from the Dublin area, where the events of the X case took place, to the West of Ireland, to mimic the narrative trajectory of her earlier novel The Country Girls, it is evident that O'Brien is problematizing the traditional literary valorization of the Irish countryside. This valorization is exemplified by Yeats's poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," which has been repeatedly voted the best-loved Irish poem. Like the speaker of "Innisfree" at the close of that poem, Mary is surrounded at the end of her narrative by the gray pavements of the city. For Mary, though, as for O'Brien's earlier country girl heroines, the city represents a potential escape from the Irish countryside. Indeed, Mary effectively blames the Irish countryside for her sexual assault, writing of her fetus that "the person whose it is is the last person's it should be. I would rather not say, ever. Out in the country things get very murky." (56) As is characteristic of all English-speaking subjects, Mary refers to the father of her fetus as its owner by calling him "the person whose it is," though in fact she is the person who is carrying it and who will be charged with taking care of it if she is forced to give birth to it. To call something "murky" is at once to evoke rural mud and linguistic inarticulacy: this "murkiness" is apparently responsible not only for Mary's inability to speak and to name her experience but for the incestuous sexual assault itself. Mary's final transformation into an Irish pastoral icon, the linnet, undercuts the potential association of the urban space with transcendent escape, effectively sending her back to the country: the murkiness of the Irish rural space is in fact the murkiness of the female body, to which it has so often been compared. (57) Mary's metamorphosis, then, represents a return of the rural repressed: she will not arise and go because she is always already there.

The linnet also sings in "A Prayer for My Daughter," one of Yeats's most personal poems, in which the patriarchal control of female sexual and political agency is what ensures that the linnet will never be torn from the leaf--and in which a classical story of sexual assault and poetic language is encoded. At the end of O'Brien's novel Mary, like Yeats's linnet in the poem, evidently has no business other than "dispensing round/ ... magnanimities of sound." And like O'Brien's text Yeats's poem reflects the absence of Irish girlhood from the Irish symbolic order: as Elizabeth Butler Cullingford writes, Yeats "proleptically prescribes the sexual identity of one who at the poem's inception was no more than a month-old child. The baby in the cradle of the first two stanzas becomes the marriageable girl in front of her looking-glass in stanza three: the intervening years of childhood are elided." (58) Yeats can predict only two possible outcomes for his daughter's life: the dreaded outcome in which she experiences anger and has opinions and her excessive beauty brings her and the men around her to madness, and the favored outcome in which she makes a good and essentially chaste marriage, preserving her father's bloodline and the Big House that shelters and is sheltered by it. Yeats asserts in this poem as in so many others that female beauty is the cause of disaster; certainly, female beauty has been traditionally singled out as the cause of a particular disaster, sexual assault. This is true in the classical story of Philomela: her rapist's inability to control himself is ascribed to her excessive beauty. This traditional story of the power of female beauty to cause destruction, and to bring ruin on the woman who possesses it, recurs in O'Brien's text, as several characters in the novel identify Mary's beauty as the cause of her incestuous sexual assault, though she is never described in the novel and we have no idea what she looks like.

The final pages of Down by the River depict Mary's metamorphosis, her final turn from childhood to adulthood: she has left her home--though the novel prophesies, as Yeats does for his daughter, that she will return to bring life back to the house--and she is separated from her parents, both dead by the end of the novel. Mary is also, by the end of the novel, anticipating her own (adult) romantic life. Yet a reading of Yeats's poem, which encodes a metamorphosis within it, in conjunction with O'Brien's novel reveals that the moment of metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood is, for Irish females, a moment in which they become symbols. Yeats wishes for his daughter that she might "live like some green laurel," an allusion to the classical metamorphosis of Daphne. Daphne, threatened with sexual assault by the god Apollo, calls upon her father, Peneus, to rescue her. He does so by transforming her into a laurel tree, which Apollo pronounces "my tree," (59) and the leaves of the laurel tree become symbolic of masculine achievement. Among other things Apollo is the god of poetry, connecting Yeats not only to Daphne's father--they both transform their daughters into laurel trees--but to her would-be lover. If Yeats is both Peneus and Apollo in relation to his daughter, then Yeats seeks to, and has the power to, turn his daughter into a symbol in order to protect her from himself and his own desires. In return, as Cullingford notes, she will protect and shelter his bloodline. (60) Mary MacNamara's father changes this equation, forcing his desires on Mary and extending his bloodline himself, but both fathers see themselves, as is the custom, as owning the sexuality of their daughters. Indeed, this is the custom of the Irish legal system as well, as Mary MacNamara is forced to appeal to her father for permission to abort the fetus that he has impregnated her with.

In his poem Yeats is the privileged generator of symbols, his daughter one or more of those symbols: the linnet, the laurel. Mary, too, becomes a Yeatsian symbol, the linnet, at the end of her narrative. In both the poem and the novel the Irish female child, both symbolically and socially peripheral, metamorphoses into the Irish woman, symbolically central and socially peripheral. The ceremony of "radical innocence" envisaged by Yeats at the end of his poem is one in which his daughter has become a symbol:
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn
And custom for the spreading laurel tree. (61)

By the end of the poem the baby in the cradle has already become a (symbolic) mother herself, a "spreading laurel tree" who gives birth to "innocence and beauty." Likewise, Mary becomes a symbolic mother, the only role that can be imagined for adult Irish women, at the end of Down by the River, answering the "cries" of her audience with her "magnanimities of sound," "her paean of expectancy." Mary's ceremony of metamorphosis restores her nation's innocence rather than her own, infantilizing her audience and, because her song is language-less, transforming the space of the disco into a kind of semiotic chora, a womb. (62) If Mary's case, like the X case, potentially gives birth to a new Irish symbolic order, it is not one that will transform Mary herself. Mary has been forged in the smithy of her race's sin-wounded souls: it is they who transformed her into a maternal figure, and even after she is no longer literally pregnant, they continue to demand that she play this role. One might ask, at the conclusion of her story, not how a woman might be a tower of ivory or a house of gold, but how she might be anything else--anything other than a symbol of something.


There is a third reference suggested by Mary's metamorphosis into a bird at the end of Down by the River, and this literary reference, too, points to the disjunction between language and female experience. The myth of Philomela is a classical myth of sexual assault, and Philomela has become a symbol for male aesthetic inspiration in the English-language literary tradition: "The nightingale leaning on her thorn--choosing it--to inspire the male poet who then translates her song into poetry." (63) In Ovid's Metamorphoses, the best-known classical account, Philomela's sister Procne asks her husband, Tereus, to bring her sister home for a visit. When Tereus arrives to collect Philomela, her father Pandion asks him to "watch over her like a father," so that Tereus becomes Philomela's symbolic father. (64) Instead of protecting Philomela, Tereus is driven to rape by her overwhelming beauty then cuts out her tongue to prevent her from indicting him. Still Tereus's captive, Philomela weaves a depiction of her violation and manages to get it to Procne; when the sisters are reunited, they enact revenge on Tereus during a Bacchanalia, killing his son and feeding the remains to him. All three are then transformed into birds.

Like Philomela, Mary loses her tongue as a result of her rape, though this is only metaphorical in her case: after being orally raped, the text tells us, "Her tongue was gone." (65) Like Philomela, Mary can only articulate what has happened to her indirectly, elliptically. After Mary's tongue--and "tongue" refers not only to the organ but to language itself--has become her "enemy," she is given a "sheet of paper and a pencil. She wrote down that there was a lorry parked with animals in it. She did not see anyone, only the beasts in the back." (66) This bestial image echoes Ovid's story, in which the rape is figured through animal imagery. Marder writes:
  The rape of Philomela's body is represented as unspeakable in human
  terms. There is no human, symbolic description of rape, because the
  rape violates human powers of description along with Philomela's
  body. The animal comparisons serve to figure the symbolic silencing
  that is initiated by the rape. ... Neither narrator, nor reader, nor
  Philomela has access to the experience of the raped body. At the
  moment of the rape, because of the rape, Philomela is outside herself
  and beside herself; she cannot be present to herself as body or as
  human form. (67)

The loss of speech, of language, is inexorably connected to the experience of being raped, for Mary as well as for Philomela. Indeed, Mary never does directly speak her violation. If Philomela's story has been recuperated by feminists who see it as an allegory of female artistry, this metaphor cannot be applied to Mary herself: at the end of her narrative she becomes not an artist, but a symbol. It is Mary MacNamara who loses her tongue, but it is Edna O'Brien who weaves the tapestry that tells the story of Mary's violation.

O'Brien exists in a radically different relationship to her own character than does Joyce: it is impossible to see Mary MacNamara and Edna O'Brien as alter egos. Because of the story that O'Brien tells, we cannot associate O'Brien with her character, as we do when we read Portrait, "The Dead," or the Telemachus section of Ulysses. O'Brien does not implicate herself in the story of violation and scandal that she recounts, except in the most elliptical and indirect way, by revising her own first semiautobiographical novel, overlaying its structure on her retelling of the X case. O'Brien's tapestry must be woven from the lan- guage of patriarchy, including the words of canonical male authors, a discursive vocabulary that represents experiences both produced and silenced by patriarchy. (68) Yet by producing a discursive vocabulary, and one that does rely (necessarily, consciously) on patriarchal language, does O'Brien foreclose the possibility of an identification with her character, who insists that all words are shibboleths? And should we value the identification of the feminist author's experience with the subject matter of her work that the feminist revision of Philomela seems to posit? Mary does not consent to the intertextuality that produces her discursive universe; O'Brien does, though to be an artist, she has no choice but to. Mary loses her tongue and is never able to articulate her experience; O'Brien takes it upon herself to tell it for her, using the words of a hostile tradition--just as, but not like, her predecessors Yeats and Joyce, as Irish men, were obliged to do.


There is one last canonical reference in O'Brien's novel that is important to this argument, a reference that once again evokes the "Proteus" episode of Ulysses. This reference appears in the death scene of Mary's father and rapist, who commits suicide. The text tells us that as James "swings," he screams: "It was then that he knew, it was then the words came, a great welter of words from the entrails, the help word, the hate word, the blast word and the love word, known to all men." (69) This, too, is both a reference to and a rewriting of Joyce's work. The word that fits James's predicament is "fuck." The word that is known to all men is definitively identified here as "love," but the ambiguous syntax of the sentence in which it appears indicates that the other words are known to all men as well. The phrase "the word known to all men" appears first in the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus in "Proteus," then in Hans Walter Gabler's much-debated "restoration" of Stephen's words in "Scylla and Charybdis," and once more in the "Circe" episode when, in confronting the phantasmal presence of his mother, Stephen asks her to tell him the word known to all men and she refuses. O'Brien's reference to it in James's death scene operates in two ways: first, by asserting that the word known to all men is in fact not "love," but probably "fuck." Second, by suggesting here, as throughout the novel, that the word known to all men is in fact the word known to all men. In "Circe" Stephen's mother cannot speak the word "love" even though she is meant to represent it, even though, as Stephen has been told in Portrait, a mother's love is the only certain thing in the world. (70) Stephen asks for the impossible when he asks a symbol to speak: symbols can only be spoken.

Moreover, it is the word known to all men, "love," spoken to Mary by her lawyer when he asks her, "Is it that you love the person?," that precipitates her bursting into tears and revealing, without articulating, what has happened down by the river. (71) Mary's lawyer must then translate Mary's watery outburst into language, an action analogous to the male poet's transformation of Philomela's wordless song into poetry. Like the other words Mary encounters, the word "love" appears to her as a shibboleth, as a password that reveals her exclusion from the Irish symbolic order as other than symbol. In her novel Down by the River O'Brien's conscious intertextuality is mobilized precisely to show how "the words known to all men," the overdetermined words and stories of patriarchy, silence the experiences of women even as they presume to represent them.


(1.) The case was known in the legal system as Attorney General v. X and Others but was referred to in the Irish media as the X case.

(2.) Roderick J. O'Hanlon, letter, Irish Times, May 22, 2000.

(3.) In this O'Hanlon is entirely typical of Irish opponents of Miss X's right to travel, many of whom asserted that Miss X had not been raped, but impregnated by a "foreign student" through more or less consensual sex.

(4.) Abortion, too, has long been an unspeakable issue in Irish culture. Indeed, the national referendum that followed the X case referred to abortion only as the "substantive issue."

(5.) Elissa Marder, "Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomela," Hypatia 7, no. 2 (1992): 162.

(6.) For example, in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Susan Brownmiller refers to rape as "the unspeakable crime" (392) (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

(7.) Because of its frank depiction of adolescent female sexuality, The Country Girls was one of the last works of literature to be censored by the Republic of Ireland. Moreover, during the divorce proceedings of Edna O'Brien and Ernst Gebler, he claimed that he was the one who had written O'Brien's first novel (Carlo Gebler, Father and I [London: Abacus, 2001]).

(8.) Critics reading the later novel as a revision of the earlier one include Christine St. Peter, "Petrifying Time: Incest Narratives from Contemporary Ireland," in Contemporary Irish Fiction: Themes, Tropes, Theories, ed. Liam Harte and Michael Parker (New York: St. Martin's, 2000), 131; Sophia Hillan, "On the Side of Life: Edna O'Brien's Trilogy of Contemporary Ireland," in Wild Colonial Girl: Essays on Edna O'Brien, ed. Lisa Colletta and Maureen O'Connor (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 151.

(9.) For "Irish Colette" and "Connemara Dietrich" see Rebecca Pelan, "Reflections on a Connemara Dietrich," in Edna O'Brien: New Critical Perspectives, ed. Kathryn Lain, Sinead Mooney, and Maureen O'Connor (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2006), 24, 18.

(10.) For fuller discussions of O'Brien's critical reception see Amanda Greenwood's book Edna O'Brien (Horndon: Northcote House Publishers, 2003); the introduction to Lain, Mooney, and O'Connor, Edna O'Brien; and Pelan, "Reflections on a Connemara Dietrich."

(11.) I have borrowed the terms "symbolically central" and "socially peripheral" from Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986). Many feminist scholars of Ireland have pointed out that the importance of female symbols of the country--particularly the maiden, the mother, the queen, and the hag--to its sense of itself has coexisted with the marginalization of living Irish women. For more on this see Gerardine Meaney, "Sex and Nation," in A Dozen LIPs (Dublin: Attic Press, 1993), 188-204.

(12.) There are fourteen uses of cognates of "to know" in the five-page first chapter alone. For "Leda and the Swan" see William Butler Yeats, The Yeats Reader (New York: Scribner, 2002), 102. All Yeats poems cited here are from this volume.

(13.) For example, Tami Spry argues that "though vaginal rape is a biological fact known only to women, our language ... defines the experience from the perspective of the phallus, thereby continuing the discursive separation of a woman from her own bodily knowledge, from her self as a knower" ("In the Absence of Word and Body: Hegemonic Implications of 'Victim' and 'Survivor' in Women's Narratives of Sexual Violence," Women and Language 18, no. 2 [1995]: 27-32).

(14.) Edna O'Brien, Down by the River (New York: Penguin, 1997), 216.

(15.) This epistemological problem is the epistemological problem of incest itself: incest is an experience in which everything is at once too akin (as seen in the popular conception of incest as "keeping it in the family") and not enough akin (the child is violated by those, his or her kin, who are most expected to treat him or her tenderly).

(16.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 117.

(17.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 159. At the time of the X case, and at the time O'Brien would have been writing, divorce was legally impermissible in Ireland, and the two adulterous lovers would have had no hope of marrying each other.

(18.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 162.

(19.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 162.

(20.) In her book Sisters the feminist writer June Levine has suggested that the term "wild geese," a term traditionally denoting the seventeenth-century exiled aristocracy of Ireland, should be applied to those Irish women who seek abortions in England. I have never seen the term applied this way in any context other than Levine's work. See Sisters: The Personal Story of an Irish Feminist (Dublin: Ward River Press, 1982).

(21.) I use "subject" and "object" in their old-fashioned meanings here, to reflect Joyce's own positioning of his hero as the subject of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man--as the apparently unproblematically unified self whose subjective selfhood creates the text and the world. Since Joyce published his novel, our theoretical understanding of the "subject" has become more complicated, because we know now that being a "subject" not only positions us, as it does in the sentence, as the active entity but also encompasses the forces to which we are subject. In Mary's case she is not the subject of the sentence, and her "subjectivity" also includes her objectification. Thus, I distinguish throughout the essay between the Joycean understanding of the subject, as exemplified by Stephen Dedalus, and our more current understandings of subjectivity, opposing Joyce's male subject to O'Brien's female subjectivity, which encompasses objectification.

(22.) Water is the text's recurring symbol of unspeakable female knowledge and unknowable female experience. Images of water are consistently opposed to patriarchal language, as in the scene in which Mary is interrogated by her lawyer about what she has suffered. He must translate her wordless tears, the only way she can articulate what has happened to her, into the language of patriarchy in order to satisfy the requirements of the Irish court system. Similarly, Betty discovers what has happened to Mary when she comes upon Mary trying to drown herself.

(23.) Rachel Fulton, "Mimetic Devotion, Marian Exegesis, and the Historical Sense of the Song of Songs," Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 27 (1996): 105.

(24.) One example of her being linked to the Virgin Mary is when an anti-abortion activist announces to Mary that she is carrying a child--a "saviour"--who can redeem sin (O'Brien, Down by the River, 152).

(25.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 217.

(26.) Bertrand Cardin, "Words Apart: Epigraphs in Edna O'Brien's Novels," in Laing, Mooney, and O'Connor, Edna O'Brien, 73.

(27.) Cardin, "Words Apart," 73.

(28.) Pelan, "Reflections on a Connemara Dietrich," 37n4. Also see Greenwood, Edna O'Brien, 95.

(29.) Cardin, "Words Apart," 73.

(30.) Ann Norton, "From Eros to Agape: Edna O'Brien's Epiphanies," in Laing, Mooney, and O'Connor, Edna O'Brien, 88.

(31.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 5.

(32.) James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Hans Walter Gabler with Walter Hettche (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993).

(33.) Norton, "From Eros to Agape," 88.

(34.) The technique of free indirect discourse is one in which the language of the omniscient narrator is imbued with the style of the characters being portrayed. A classic example comes from "The Dead," when the maid Lily is described by the narrator as "literally run off her feet," a description that comes directly from Lily's own (illogical) consciousness of her situation rather than an accurate rendering by an objective omniscient narrator.

(35.) For more on this as a general phenomenon in Irish literature, see my essay "Nuala O'Faolain and the Unwritten Irish Girlhood," New Hibernia Review 11, no. 2 (2007): 50-65.

(36.) In her novel The Dancers Dancing (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1999), Eilis Ni Dhuibhne writes, "Boys were boys or lads or fellas. Girls were just ones: they did not merit a generic name of their own" (79). Angela Bourke notes that "'girl' in the older Ireland meant an unmarried female" of any age (16), suggesting that the designation "girl" refers not to age, but to the supposition of virginity. The category of the "girl," then, becomes meaningful only when virginity does--when the female is of marriageable age and able to give her virginity away--or to have it taken away. See Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004).

(37.) Quoted in Lisa Smyth, "Narratives of Irishness and the Problem of Abortion," Feminist Review 60 (Autumn 1998): 79.

(38.) Kelly J. S. McGovern's excellent essay on The Dancers Dancing explores Ni Dhuibhne's strategies for narrating the heroine's necessary transition between the invisibility of Irish female childhood and the overdetermined identity of Irish maiden. See "'No Right to Be a Child': Irish Girlhood and Queer Time in Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's The Dancers Dancing" Eire-Ireland 44, nos. 1-2 (2009): 242-64.

(39.) Vicki Mahaffey, Reauthorizing Joyce (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995), 70.

(40.) Hugh Kenner, "The Portrait in Perspective," in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A Casebook, ed. Mark A. Wollaeger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 55.

(41.) The Fenians, Fionn's warrior companions, lent their name to the nineteenth-century precursors of the Irish Republican Army, the Fenian Brotherhood, and to the dominant political party, Fianna Fail, whose longtime head, Eamon de Valera, spearheaded the Irish Constitution--a constitution that famously prescribes the maternal role as the only proper role for an Irish woman.

(42.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 3.

(43.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 3.

(44.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 4.

(45.) Kevin J. H. Dettmar, The Illicit Joyce of Postmodernism: Reading against the Grain (Madison; University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 21.

(46.) Joyce, Portrait of the Artist, 55.

(47.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 184.

(48.) In a brilliant moment of black humor the substitute fetus jumps out of its bowl in an apparent suicide attempt as Mary apathetically watches.

(49.) Norton, "From Eros to Agape," 84.

(50.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 265.

(51.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 265. In Joyce's story this song is "The Lass of Aughrim," which has extensive thematic resonances with O'Brien's novel: it is about a young mother carrying her illegitimate baby and pleading at the door of the noble house whose scion has impregnated her. The refrain of the song is: "But leave you these windows and likewise this hall/For it's deep in the ocean you must hide your downfall."

(52.) In part this is because, as Norton suggests in her reading, "transcendence" is only possible in the absence of gender--an impossibility for adult subjects in the Irish symbolic order.

(53.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 264.

(54.) Vincent Pecora, "'The Dead' and the Generosity of the Word," PMLA 101, no. 2 (1986): 243.

(55.) The bird also suggests the Irish mythological figure Mad Sweeney, who was a popular figure in Irish poetry of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly that of Seamus Heaney. Sweeney was a king who, believing a bishop to have encroached on his territory, threw the bishop's psalter into a lake and was cursed by God with madness. Condemned to live as a bird, he traveled all over Ireland but never again knew peace or rest, having only the temporary companionship of another madman. Sweeney, too, operates in opposition to Fionn Mac Cumhaill: Mac Cumhaill knows the future, while Sweeney articulates nonsense.

(56.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 98.

(57.) O'Brien's country girls, Cait and Baba, also seek but do not find an escape in the urban space, first of Dublin and then of London. See The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue (New York: Plume, 1987).

(58.) Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Gender and History in Yeats's Love Poetry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 131.

(59.) Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 43.

(60.) Cullingford, Gender and History in Yeats's Love Poetry, 143.

(61.) Yeats Reader, 81.

(62.) Julia Kristeva, "The Semiotic and the Symbolic," in The Portable Kristeva, ed. Kelly Oliver (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 36.

(63.) Patricia Klindienst, "The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours," rev. ed., (accessed June 30, 2010).

According to Jarlath Killeen, "For the early Christian Latin poets, the nightingale signified not just violated femininity, but the violation Christ underwent for the salvation of the sinful world" (46). See The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (Burlington, VT: Ash-gate, 2007). Indeed, Mary resists her society's attempts to designate her as either a Virgin Mary or a Magdalene, identifying with Christ and his crucifixion instead (O'Brien, Down by the River, 237).

(64.) Ovid, Metamorphoses, 148.

(65.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 29.

(66.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 29.

(67.) Marder, "Disarticulated Voices," 159.

(68.) Marder, "Disarticulated Voices," 162.

(69.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 249.

(70.) Joyce, Portrait of the Artist, 270.

(71.) O'Brien, Down by the River, 203.
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Title Annotation:Articles
Author:Dougherty, Jane Elizabeth
Publication:Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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