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Edna O'Brien

'New Critical Perspectives'


Edited By Maureen O'Connor, Kathryn Laing and Sinead Mooney

The essays collected in Edna O’Brien: New Critical Perspectives illustrate the range, complexity and interest of O’Brien as a fiction writer and dramatist. Together they contribute to a broader appreciation of her work and to an evolution of new critical approaches, as well as igniting greater interest in the many unexplored areas of her considerable oeuvre.

The contributors who include new and established scholars in the field of O’Brien criticism, are Rebecca Pelan, Maureen O’Connor, Michelle Woods, Bertrand Cardin, Ann Norton, Eve Stoddard, Michael Harris, Loredana Salis, Shirley Peterson, Patricia Coughlan, Sinéad Mooney, and Mary Burke.

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5 | From Eros to Agape: Edna O’Brien’s Epiphanies

5 | From Eros to Agape: Edna O’Brien’s Epiphanies


Ann Norton

Edna O’Brien based her 1997 novel, Down by the River, on the actual case of a fourteen-year-old Irish girl – referred to in the press and in court as ‘Miss X’ (named ‘Magdalene’ in the novel) – who was purportedly raped by her uncle by marriage and impregnated, and who sought an abortion in England in 1995. When she was discovered and initially prevented from terminating her pregnancy by forcible return to Ireland, she became a media emblem for the abortion wars in Ireland and the world. Down by the River emphasizes the fact that this happened to a human being and not to a symbol; it is an empathetic imagining of the trauma she must have experienced. O’Brien ups the ante of the original case by making her fictional rapist the alcoholic father of fourteen-year-old Mary and by graphically depicting the rapes themselves, which Mary does not fully understand and which her father denies to himself and others. The story of Mary’s manipulation by priests, politicians, and anti-abortion activists, who use her for their own purposes and never consider the girl’s health, her future life, or her own desires, clearly indicates O’Brien’s belief that it is the girl’s choice alone to continue or terminate her pregnancy. It is a fierce defense of legal abortion and an excoriation of what ←83 | 84→O’Brien presents as the personal hypocrisy or fanaticism of its opponents.

Yet O’Brien’s plea for mercy toward all the characters – even, especially, those who...

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