Animals and the Irish Mouth in Edna O’Brien’s Fiction

Maureen O'Connor


From Edna O’Brien’s earliest novels, many commentators have noted that desire is at the core of the narratives. The true irony in such observations lies in their frequently blinkered understanding of what comprises that desire, reducing it to a heteronormative, Barbara-Cartland-style pursuit of “romance.” While the characters themselves may think this is what they hunger for, the text inevitably opens up vaster sources of insatiable longing. As Mary Douglas has established, “the body is capable of furnishing a natural system of symbols” (xxxii), and in O’Brien’s texts the human mouth, especially when at its most “animal,” metonymizes numerous desires, most often balked and even impossible ones, including those that actuate the scene of writing. Mouths are everywhere in O’Brien’s novels, licking, yawning, weeping, swallowing, keening, grimacing, biting, shrieking, chewing, singing, speaking, and opening in silence. These mouths give voice to the immaterial, and even animate the inorganic, which, for all of its immateriality, can yet resist manipulation. The inscrutable “inhuman” voice that emerges ultimately reveals “that words themselves are sphinxes, hybrids of the animal, the human, and the inorganic” (Ellmann 77).


Edna O'Brien; Animals; Ecocriticism

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@Journal of Ecocriticism. ISSN 1916-1549