Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien explore the social rejection experienced by women who fail to conform to society’s expectations (particularly ascribed gender roles) in their short stories ‘The Will’ and ‘Creature.’ Lavin in particular was writing during a time when the Roman Catholic church held a great deal of sway in Irish society, and when the rightful, natural role of women was being presented (by Church doctrine and the literary world alike) as being wives and mothers. Both authors attempted to challenge these social and religious parameters through the representation of women in unorthodox situations and their (often negative) experiences.
Lavin explores the contradictions in the expectations placed on women; Lally conforms to society’s expectations that she become a wife and a mother, but her behaviour as a wife and mother is too free for her family’s liking. She is rejected for sending her children to free schools and for running her home as a boarding house and allowing lodgers in. Now, in every obvious respect, Lally is conforming to her ascribed role as wife and mother, but her failure to conform to her family’s demands by marrying a man of lower social standing and her failure to display the materialistic virtues of her class has caused her to be shunned anyway. This leads us to believe that individuality is not a virtue accepted in woman; women must conform in full to society’s expectations of them by fulfilling the roles ascribed to them and reflecting the dominant virtues of their society. However, we find through Lally’s experience (her individuality is ultimately crushed by the surrounding materialism) that if they do this, they lose their own sense of self and, consequently, their capacity for happiness and self-fulfilment.
Edna O’brien in her short story ‘Creatures’ also explores the social isolation and rejection experienced by a woman in an unorthodox situation. However, O’Brien’s Creature is not so active as Lally in Lavin’s ‘The Will.’ The old woman referred to as the Creature in this story fails to conform to the expected gender roles by a combination of chance and misfortune; her husband died two years after their marriage, and both her children have moved away, one to her nearby farm without any intention of maintaining a relationship with the elderly woman. Yet, even though the townspeople appear aware of her story, they shun her. This seems designed to shed light on the injustice of woman’s mistreatment for non-conformity, and reveals the significant impact of other people’s actions on her ability to conform to those expected gender roles. In this case, the old woman would have loved to play the role of mother, but was prevented by the heartless daughter in law who gladly took her property and denied her a relationship with her son. Yet the one shunned is the old woman, not the thankless daughter in law. The sense of injustice inspired by this story reveals O’Brien’s poignant message that society’s expectations for women are unattainable, and limit woman’s capacity for happiness.
Our primary contributor is Elissa, who is a qualified high school teacher and Irlen Screener.