‘The Widow’ by Edna O’Brien

Portrait of Irish writer Edna O'Brien, 1970s. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Edna O'Brien

The Widow by Edna O’Brien, 1989

The magic trick:

Making a point about town gossip, ratcheting the narrative to a tragic peak, and then pushing it even further

Eudora Welty is maybe the master of exposing the world of small-town jealousies and judgments. It’s such a rich subject, though, there’s room for more than just one writer on this bandwagon. Edna O’Brien does for the Irish village what Welty did for the old, dusty towns of the American South.

The town gossip makes a misery of Bridget’s life in the story and then cuts it short. It’s a very sad story. The woman is dead. The pressures of the neighbor’s mean-spirited judgments are responsible. Clearly the point has been made. But then O’Brien isn’t done. She sticks the knife in one more time. She has the neighbors passing judgments about Bridget’s makeup at the wake. They have learned nothing. They are still doling out petty gripes and bites – which only doubles the power of the story’s theme. And that’s quite a trick on O’Brien’s part.

The selection:

The mourners who came the next day were surprised, even aghast. Her face was so beautifully smooth, without cuts or gashes. It was makeup, they claimed, perfect makeup. What a scandalous thing to adorn a corpse.

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