Table of Contents
2. Femininity in Mary Lavin’s A Memory
3. Women in Irish society in the 1960’s and 1970’s
3.1. In Irish literature
3.2. In Irish history
4. Mary Lavin as an Irish-American woman in an Irish context
For as much as there are Irish female authors, they represent a minority. When revising different anthologies of literature coming from Ireland though, one is predestined to encounter Mary Lavin’s name in at least most of them. Lavin was born in America, and that might also contribute to the fact, that she stood out between so many male writers. As published by Daphne Wolf in an Irish America magazine issue of 2013, “In the male- dominated field of Irish writers, Mary Lavin was a pioneer” (60), it is of no minor relevance to focus on her work, and how she, herself, as an Irish-American avant-gardist female author, created women in the Irish literature.
Mariam-Webster defines femininity as follows: “the quality or nature of the female sex“. The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology defines femininity as A summary term, contrasted with masculinity, for the distinctive ways of acting and feeling on the part of women. Precisely what characteristics are listed varies, though passivity, dependence, and weakness are usually mentioned. Sociologists point to the social origins of femininity and female subjectivity, and stress their ideological role, but discussions of femininity have often lapsed into essentialism. (250) These definitions are wide enough to give us the chance to adapt the term femininity to the environment and society we’re getting involved with, and figuring the set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function in that specific society.
This paper treats about how Mary Lavin deals with the complexity of being a born American writing about Irish women in Ireland, and by taking A Memory as an example. The questions this study deals with are: How is femininity represented in A Memory? Does the American born author Mary Lavin follow the traditional picture of Irish women in Irish literature and its historical context? What are her motives for doing or not doing so?
To answer these questions, this research will firstly analyze the short story A Memory and the definition Lavin gives there to femininity in both a formal perspective, taking in count the story’s narrative point of view, style and theme, and its content, like the plot and the conflict of the story. Secondly, it will explain the role and position of women in the Irish society through its literature and authors, and it will explore the historical events in which women were involved during the 1960’s and 1970‘s that is the time when A Memory was published (1973). For this, relevant pieces of information of Irish history and analysis of Irish literature will serve to answer to the question. In the third place, this work will compare the results to Mary Lavin’s background in order to give a concise explanation for her motives, if the fact of being a born American woman has an influence in her perspective of femininity, and how she transfers that into Irish literature. Lavin’s biography and articles about her, such as her obituary, are relevant for the study.
2. Femininity in Mary Lavin’s A Memory
In this short story based in Dublin and its surroundings in the early 1970’s, two academics, a man, James, and a woman, Myra, play the main role. The narrative apprises the reader with one-day events, although it does also recall events from the past that mark the relationship between both characters. In the middle of the story, a conflict involving both characters takes place. This conflict marks a breach to the continuity of the plot, characterization, style and narrative point of view of the story. Hence this part of the study is divided in two, the first part of the story and the second part of the story, cut by the beginning of the conflict.
In the first part of A Memory by Mary Lavin, James is characterized like a quiet and sensitive person, and his past and present are distinguished by a failed relationship and by a restrained personality pursuing an academia oriented way of life. Myra, on the other hand, is described as an organized, well-dressed person, a “very feminine […] domestic failure”, who lives alone in a “little place [that has] a marvellously masculine air” in Dublin, and can’t cook or sew anymore, but who is very dedicated to her studies (203, 204). Since James moved to a cottage in the Irish countryside from the capital, “his interest in Dublin had dwindled to its core, and the core was Myra”, and “mentally at least, Myra made him feel more alive than twenty men” (210, 218). In this part of the story, the narrator is heterodiegetic and has a limited third person point of view, which mentions the thoughts and feelings of James. James Black explains in the online Author Magazine that this point of view is used to tie the outer events of the plot with James’ inner growth. The description of the characters gives the idea of Myra belonging to the stronger sex, and also the idea of an admiration that James feels towards her. Also, the author never uses any reference to religion, and since religion is a main subject in Ireland, this feature virtually puts the characters outside of Ireland. For instance, in the writing style when reading about Myra, there’s always a positive picture to be associated with because of such a relaxed tone that is put in use.
The way Mary Lavin writes this part of the story insinuates with its characterization, style and plot, that it all takes place in a fantastic emancipated society, where women and men enjoy equal rights. Also intellectually, women and men are to be in the same level, as described in this passage: “he came to believe that a man and woman could enter into a marriage of minds” (211); what holds their relationship together is the dependence that James has on Myra in order to keep living the way he does: to for example set a limit to his work, and to have someone to talk about his frustrated love from years ago, Emmy, who’s the kind of wifey they both detest.
In the second part of the story, which starts with the beginning of the conflict, Myra was defeated by her real nature, the one of the woman she really was, and by society’s pressure. Lavin states it clearly in the following passage:
James would see the real woman for a change. […] she wondered if she could pretend to some other meaning in the words [you have denatured me]. […] she was being prompted by the voices of all women in the world who’d ever been let down, or fancied themselves badly treated. […] Go on, they prompted. Tell him what you think of him. Don’t let him get away with it. He has got off long enough. (227)
It is not until she becomes the woman she really is, and not the one she faked she is, that Myra’s feelings are put into scene, and this can also be seen in the way the author writes the passage: For the first time, but only for a few paragraphs, the third voice limited narrative is focused in Myra and not in James, altering the continuity of it being only based on his thoughts and feelings. As described before, this inquires that the narrative is used to tie the outer events of the plot with the character’s inner growth, but this time, it’s about Myra’s inner-growth, which is of finally giving up being someone she isn’t.