‘My Oedipus Complex’ by Frank O’Connor

My Oedipus Complex by Frank O’Connor, 1950

The magic trick:

Perfectly capturing the tone of a 5-year-old narrator

We’ve talked all week about Frank O’Connor’s gift for recreating the painful lessons learned in youth. His narrators often walk that line between knowledgeable hindsight and childhood innocence. This, maybe his most famous story, takes that walk right up to the brink. And, honestly for me, it crosses that line into the cartoonish once too many times for my liking. I much prefer his “Man Of The House” or “Man Of The World” for a glimpse into his Irish childhood.

Certainly, this is doing that skillful, insightful writing through a child’s eyes thing in the extreme. We know the boy is blinded by his 5-year-old’s perspective. The narrator indicates that he sees the folly of his youth. And yet he continually assumes the 5-year-old’s point of view, almost taking up his side of the argument as if it was still happening. In this story, that argument strays a bit from universal childhood into “Yikes, we get that you were close to your mom and all, but maybe we should call a doctor?” territory. That boy needs therapy.

That said, there’s no denying the execution. Every single sentence pushes along the same line, putting the reader directly into the boy’s mindset. And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.

The selection:

“You must be quiet while Daddy is reading, Larry,” Mother said impatiently.

It was clear that she either genuinely liked talking to Father better than talking to me, or else that he had some terrible hold on her which made her afraid to admit the truth.

“Mummy,” I said that night when she was tucking me up, “do you think if I prayed hard God would send Daddy back to the war?”

She seemed to think about that for a moment.

“No, dear,” she said with a smile. “I don’t think He would.”

“Why wouldn’t He, Mummy?”

“Because there isn’t a war any longer, dear.”

“But, Mummy, couldn’t God make another war, if He liked?”

“He wouldn’t like to, dear. It’s not God who makes wars, but bad people.

“Oh!” I said. I was disappointed about that. I began to think that God wasn’t quite what He was cracked up to be.

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