‘The Connor Girls’ by Edna O’Brien

The Connor Girls by Edna O’Brien, 1981

The magic trick:

Creating the illusion of clean, neat separations amid a story of messy nuances

This story is broken into two parts – one, in which the narrator is a girl; the other, when the narrator returns home as a married mother. That’s clean and simple. Two sections. Much like how the town in the story sees people in two groups – Catholic and Protestant.

Ah, but as you might have guessed, nothing is ever that simple. Life rarely, if ever, separates itself into nearly defined sections and neither does this story. Everything is jumbled up. The characters take very strong stands on simple social issues – who should be talking to whom, which social invitations should be accepted, and on and on. But they change over time. People die. Hopes are dashed. Humility sets in. It’s all very true to life. Experience is far too nuanced to fit into cut-and-dry prejudices.

So it’s a perfect bit of irony when the narrator closes her story by attempting to crunch the whole mess into a neat black-and-white lesson learned. Well, if I hadn’t done this, then I’d have that. Of course, it’s not so simple. We’ve spent the last 15 observations just how foolish that kind of logic is. Plus, the reader to this point has seen the narrator as the calm amid the storm. Everyone else is passing judgment, while the narrator is the beacon of logic, simply wishing to follow her heart and not abide these outdated social norms.

So, yeah, that final paragraph is telling. It’s hard to grow up beyond those social norms, no matter how much logic you seem to have on your side.

And that’s quite a trick on O’Brien part.

The selection:

As it happened, someone brought mischievous news about the bank clerk. A commercial traveler who was familiar with other parts told it on good authority that the bank clerk was a lapsed Catholic and had previously disgraced himself in a seaside town. People were left to guess the nature of the mistake and most concluded that it concerned a girl or a woman. Instantly the parish turned against him. The next evening when he came out from the bank he found that both wheels of his pedal bicycle had been ripped and punctured and on the saddle there was an anonymous letter which read “Go to Mass or we’ll kill you.” His persecutors won. He attended the last Mass the following Sunday, knelt in the back pew with no beads and no prayer book, with only his fingers to pray on.

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