‘The Eldest Child’ by Maeve Brennan

The Eldest Child by Maeve Brennan, 1968

The magic trick:

Examining a child tragedy through the lens of the parents’ newly changed relationship

If the last couple of Bagot series stories reveled in the mundane, this story is about something, something big: the death of the Bagots’ first child.

As you might guess, it’s not an easy read. Brennan focuses on the immediate aftermath. The emotions aren’t necessarily sharp, but they’re incredibly heavy. The characters in this story act from a deep well of feeling. Very, very deep.

What’s most interesting is the look at the parents’ relationship. Much of the story revolves around the way Mr. Bagot responds – or fails to respond – to his wife’s agony. It’s not simple. No straight lines. We’re not led to believe, ‘Oh, he’s a monster. He’s a machine. He has no feelings.’

He cares very much. But he also shows himself lacking in crucial skills and feelings. This tragedy, it seems, has exposed his concept of marriage as immature, selfish, and wholly unrealistic. He needs Mrs. Bagot to be pleasant, happy, and giving. He can’t fathom a wife who requires something of him.

Even given all that, the story is generally sympathetic. There are no axes to grind. Just sadness and humanity.

And that’s quite a trick on Brennan’s part.

The selection:

Delia turned her head on the pillow and looked at him. “Martin,” she said, “I am not angry with you.”

He would have gone to her then, but Mrs. Knox spoke at once. “We know you’re not angry, Mrs. Bagot,” she said. “Now, you rest yourself, and I’ll be back in a minute with your tray.” She gave Martin a little push to start him out of the room, and since Delia was already turning her face away, he walked out and down the stairs.

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