A Search for Self-Love in Edna O’Brien’s Masterful ‘The Love Object’
Edna O’Brien’s definitive story collection The Love Object is a compelling tome that bears testimony not just to the author’s distinct voice and remarkable genius, but to love in its many, and all too often maleficent, forms. Award winning short story writer Ethel Rohan explores it for writing.ie:
One of the most important reasons why we read is to better understand ourselves and our culture, and The Love Object is most instructive. Instructive because O’Brien is devout in her search for the truth and the lie, the best and the worst, of us. I brought a specific search for understanding to my engagement with The Love Object: beyond these characters’ love for others, however glorious or inglorious, do they exhibit self-love and how does that self-love, or lack thereof, inform and move them?
It is my personal opinion that one of the great ills of contemporary culture is our failure to love ourselves. Not self-love in its damaging, narcissistic forms—we have become alarming champions in that arena—but self-love that dispels the impossible ideal of perfectionism and instead nourishes, respects, and accepts the self exactly as we are, thereby nurturing an unshakeable belief in our self-worth.
Edgar Allen Poe insisted a story’s opening line should capture the entire work’s theme and essence. We may extrapolate that the first story in a collection should capture… The dictum applies well to the first line in the first story of this collection Irish Revel which contains the word “rotted.” This wrenching story, and the entire collection, holds up an unwavering mirror to humanity’s rottenness, and in particular the love, hopes, and dreams that decompose within us.
We meet seventeen-year-old Mary, our protagonist in Irish Revel, as she cycles into town and to a party, a young, besotted girl giddy with hope and excitement. The sense of gaiety and escapism that begins the story—as Mary leaves her rural, isolated home on the hill with its restrictive prescriptions for womanhood—quickly dissipates once she arrives to the party. There, she learns she is not an invited guest about to meet her beloved, but is essentially required to act as maid. During the course of the ill-fated night, she must withstand the other girls’ cruelty and suffer sexual harassment inflicted by one of the older, drunken male guests. The story closes with the ominous image of Mary’s descent down the hill toward the claustrophobic ‘box’ of home.
What is striking about Irish Revel, and again about the collection as a whole, is how it reads both as a grieving for, and an ode to, the human spirit. Mary is rejected by the town girls, by her beloved, John, and by her transgressor, O’Toole, and there are also moments where she rejects herself. Her sole sources of wellbeing are wrought from misguided romantic attentions [John’s, not, as the townspeople claim, O’Toole’s], her good clothes, and her good looks. It is also telling that Mary’s love interest, John, is an unattainable older male, married with children, who is living abroad. This hints at self-sabotage, and self-sabotage reappears often in this collection.
Despite everything, at the story’s close, Mary retains a heartening capacity to look outward and to see the beauty and sanctity in nature. When she looks inward, she struggles with loss, disappointment, and shame. When she looks outward, she sees the ‘pearliness’, a balm to our prevailing rottenness. For all her strength and resilience, though, and her ability to see the wonder, Mary’s burning emotions are those of fear, guilt, and shame—emotions that thrive in the absence of self-love.
The title story, The Love Object, opens with the sentence, ‘He simply said my name.’ We infer the theme of awakenings and the essence of not having control over things, least of all the choice of our very name, and also how our name can be used against us. The lack of the narrator’s self-love in The Love Object is devastating. Similar to Mary in ‘Irish Revel’, and with harkenings of Cathy in Wuthering Heights, this narrator is drawn to the gilded and unattainable, to plagued love. Why? Because she believes she needs the gilded to make her worthy and seeks out the unattainable and plagued because at her core she doesn’t believe she will ever get, ever deserve, any better.
Mary’s sense of imprisonment and betrayal in Irish Revel is heightened a thousand-fold for the narrator of The Love Object, to the point of self-harm and self-medication with pills and alcohol. In fact, the narrator so rejects her pain and her self, she determines to complete suicide. Ironically, she is ‘shamed out of suicide’. This narrator also feels a sense of rage and hunger for revenge that we don’t see in young Mary. In contrast to Mary’s relative innocence, this anxious narrator is damaged by the world’s dangers and rottenness and by love turned poisonous. ‘Love can miss awfully, and when it does two people are mortally embarrassed’. This story thrums with fears around jealousy, getting caught, disgrace and humiliation, and the plague of thwarted love.
The narrator has the same preoccupation with appearances as Mary and draws her sense of self-regard from the same outward sources. The story closes with the narrator indulging in regular fantasizes about her ex-lover, a tortuous projection of fabricated love and intimacy that has become more real to her than the man himself. She chooses the pain of this fantasy versus the reality of nothingness. It is the lie of fantastical love, versus self-love, that sustains her—A lie and a lack that, ironically, keep her trapped.
The ruminative, moving story Old Wounds closes the collection. If we again give weight to the opening sentence, its reference to devil’s pokers’, a nuanced name for a flower, is notable. This story centers on displacement, estrangement, and the red-hot wounds family feuds can inflict. For much of Old Wounds, the narrator delights in family hostilities set aside and a renewed friendship with her cousin, Frank. She also rejoices in a strengthened connection to her birthplace and ancestors.
Old Wounds is a story, like the entire collection, thick with tropes of loss, death, passion, mistrust, betrayal, the sacred, and the natural world. In one gripping scene, where John teaches the narrator to shoot, they are threatened by an aggressive dog—an intrusion that ruins the harmony. The scene underscores the collection’s pervasive sense of ever impending dangers that cut away at pleasure, happiness, and the bonds that unite.
In the closing scene of this story and collection, the narrator is cast adrift on a boat, retreating from the graves of her cousin and former friend, and of her ancestors, and confronting her mortality. Her primary desire is for reconciliation and solidarity, and also for ‘something for which there is no name.’ She demands the truth of her motivations and seeks self-understanding, even to the point of confronting her lacks and her flaws. This seems a brave and honorable act, an attempt at honest self-discovery and ultimately an act of self-love that holds tidings of freedom. I’m grasping, though, because overwhelmingly the evidence in this collection is that, catastrophically, we do not love ourselves nearly enough.
Look at the people and our dilemmas, our ugly and our beautiful, O’Brien makes out of words. It’s staggering. Loving and painstaking and brutally honest. These three highlighted stories capture female characters in youth, adulthood, and old age, and are emblematic of the entire brilliant and resonant collection. Edna O’Brien’s mesmerizing storytelling abilities are breath-catching. Overall, her lovelorn stories reek of shame, imprisonment, and self-disgust, but offer the hope of transformation. Stories that hold a mirror to our pervasive lack of self-love and its disastrous consequences: Our self-destructive urges and our insistence on trying to source our self-worth from impossible external forces.
The burning question The Love Object poses flames on: how can we be free? It is art’s job to present to a culture our ills and our better natures, so that we may choose. It is the individual’s job to empower and heal the self. I am left with one of the closing images in the collection, ‘I watched a single flake of snow drift through the cold air, discolored and lonesome-looking.’ Right down to the single snowflake, over and over I saw myself and my pain and my hope in this collection. The Love Object reminds in startling, ugly-beautiful ways that we are all too often our own worst enemy when we could be our own best friend. Our own beloved. Own mother and father. The choice is ours. Is mine.(c) Ethel Rohan
Ethel Rohan is the author of two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize. She is also the author of the chapbook, Hard to Say. Her e-book, a short memoir titled ‘His Heartbeat in my Hand’, is forthcoming from Shebooks in 2014.
Winner of the 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award, her work has or will appear in The New York Times, World Literature Today, PEN America, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, BREVITY Magazine, Post Road Magazine, and The Rumpus, among many others. She reviews books for New York Journal of Books and sometimes elsewhere.