NO NOVEL SINCE ULYSSES, IT seems fair to say, occasioned a greater or more sanctimonious paroxysm of Irish scandalmongering than Edna O’Brien’s debut, The Country Girls (1960).
Written in a creative white heat over the course of her first three weeks of self-imposed, Joycean exile, The Country Girls incurred the wrath of church, state, and society in Ireland. Both the archbishop of Dublin and the minister of culture declared O’Brien a “smear on Irish womanhood” (Kernowski 2014, xviii). The pastor of O’Brien’s local parish summoned his congregants to bring their copies of the book to the church grounds for a ceremonial burning (Lawson 2014, 75), O’Brien’s own mother thought the book a “most terrible disgrace” (Guttridge 2014, 60), the local postmistress told O’Brien’s father that she “should have been kicked naked through the town” (Guttridge 2014, 60), women were said to have fainted over the book’s contents (Kernowski 2014, xviii), and all of this occurred immediately after its appearance, since in short order it was banned throughout O’Brien’s native land.1 In sum, it touched a nerve. That much is obvious. The question of why the novel incited such outrage is less evident, we would argue, than it might appear. Was the source of self-righteous agitation the frankness of O’Brien’s language, which her mother took to “inking out” of her own copy (Lawson 2014, 75)? Was it the sexualized expression of rebelliousness, amounting at certain points to sacrilege, that the protagonist, Caithleen, and her fair-weather friend, Baba, periodically vented? Was it the disreputable portraits of the families and townspeople involved in the girls’ upbringing (those characters that Philip Roth denominated the “rural Dubliners”),2 or the cruel, tyrannical picture of the nuns in charge of their convent education? Was it the vision of Irish Catholic patriarchy as a backward regime consumed with the subjugation of women? Or was it merely the sexual errancy, in thought and deed, exhibited by Caithleen and Baba as a signature feature of their personal bildung? Was it the accumulated effect of all these goads to the pietistic sensibility of post–de Valera Ireland? Or was such gross offense taken on still other grounds that have remained obscure?
Without discounting any of the listed rationales, we propose a more decisive if less conscious point of sensitivity (or perhaps more decisive because a less conscious point of sensitivity) animating the initial, disproportionately censorious response to O’Brien’s maiden novel. In our view, The Country Girls hints subliminally but powerfully at the endemic operation of sexual or sexualized abuse in the youthful development of rural or small-town Irish girls—a traumatizing abuse sufficiently endemic, sufficiently interwoven in the fabric of everyday social life, to pass more or less unremarked by participants and bystanders alike.
Published at the chronological midpoint of our survey, The Country Girls constitutes a pivotal moment in the gathering canon of child-abuse literature, when its sexual dimension was becoming available for recognition yet going largely unrecognized nevertheless. The novel does not, accordingly, represent scandal so much as the scandalous, that which would become scandal. In this sense, The Country Girls gives scandal and, in so doing, became a scandal unto itself.
FATHER—THE CRUX OF HER DILEMMA
Taken from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, the epigraph to Edna O’Brien’s memoir, Mother Ireland, begins, “Let us say, before I go any further, that I forgive nobody” (Roth 2014, 41). Addressing O’Brien’s proud irreconcilability, Philip Roth queried her in an interview, “Who is the most unforgiven creature in your imagination?” “Until the time of his death ,” O’Brien replied, “it was my father,” and she goes on to cite “his anger, his sexuality, his rapaciousness” as the grounds for her reproach (Roth 2014, 41). The loosely biographical tenor of The Country Girls, acknowledged by O’Brien herself, leaves little doubt of her intention to pass the baton of unpardonability from her own father to the father of her fictive alter ego, Caithleen Brady.3 As the critic Peggy O’Brien contends, Mr. Brady, “perceived as sexually rapacious and perpetually absent” (1987, 485), is a projection of the original father figure—in his savagery, his intemperance, and his calamitous fecklessness.
The various specimens of Mr. Brady’s domestic violence are an ongoing source of childhood trauma, taken from O’Brien’s prodigious memory and rendered in fictional form.4 But thus translated, they are not, as Elizabeth Weston holds, “a straightforward instance of trauma” (2010, 85). To the contrary, the effects of Mr. Brady’s manifold paternal malfeasance are profoundly traumatic insofar as they are not straightforward but compound, pervasive, and mutually reinforcing. Full weight needs be given to Baba’s summary assessment of Caithleen’s fate in the epilogue to the Trilogy, the heading to this section: “Father—the crux of her dilemma” (E. O’Brien 1986, 531). Caithleen’s father represents the crux of her dilemma in the sense of being the essential traumatic core or hub of all of her subsequent travails, but he does so because he is also the crux of her dilemma in the sense of being the point at which it divides and redoubles, exists crosswise with itself. Father is “the crux of Caithleen’s dilemma” in that her troubles, leading to her untimely death, arise primarily from the chiasmatic structure of the trauma he inflicts.
Evidence of the split and intersecting impetus of her traumatic relation to Mr. Brady presents itself from the very beginning of The Country Girls. The novel opens with Caithleen awakening abruptly, her heart “beating faster,” in a panic that her delinquent father had once again “not come home” (1960, 5). Yet the anxiety gripping her in the hour before dawn is, if anything, exceeded later that day by her fear at the prospect, and then the reality, of his homecoming, which he validates with “a punch under the chin so that my two rows of teeth chattered together” (33). The establishing framework of the novel thus positions Caithleen in a terrorized double bind: she quakes in oscillating if unequal measure at her father’s habitual truancy and his habitual violence, or what Peggy O’Brien calls his rapaciousness and his perpetual absence. Caithleen is rattled to sleeplessness by his disappearances and panicked to paralysis at his reappearances. By the same token, turning matters around, Caithleen is paradoxically invested in both his staying away and his coming home (being stricken at his visitation and afraid of his abandonment). She regrets her father’s prolonged absence as well as his overbearing presence, even though vicious and to her mind lethal assaults on herself and her mother attend the latter. No model of “straightforward” trauma can readily explain Caithleen’s psychomachia on this score, her conflicting desire for her father to be and not to be away from her altogether.
The extended dynamics of Laplanche’s general theory of seduction can help us understand the thorny crux of Caithleen’s paternal dilemma. As noted in our discussion of O’Brien’s literary hero, James Joyce, the general theory of seduction holds that parental figures bring their unconscious stirrings—desires, cathexis, transferences—to bear on their children in enigmatic signifiers carrying ambiguous psychic messages. In their highly charged indeterminacy (and the indeterminacy of their charge), these enigmatic signifiers elicit the nascent libidinal fantasies of the child, inducing thereby a shock of traumatic jouissance.
Retroactively forbidden—the primal seduction always rings twice—this overload of enjoyment serves to institute the spaltung, or fissure, between conscious and unconscious mentation fundamental to subjectivity as such (Laplanche 1997, 661). This primal mode of seduction cannot be reduced to the fantasy of the child since, as Slavoj Žižek observes, it “does refer to a traumatic encounter with the Other’s enigmatic message.” But neither can it be located in some “actual interaction” between child and adult, since that very message depends entirely for its meaning and its effect, its existence qua message, on the fantasy frame determining the child’s reception (Žižek 2009, 20). The primal seduction, then, emerges as a virtual phenomenon at the doubly inscribed interface between a real and an imagined encounter, where the encounter activates the phantasmatic staging that actualizes the encounter, where the encounter is vertiginously the effect of its own cause. Put another way, the primal seduction is simultaneously an intrusion of adult sexuality as if from within the psychic interiority of the child and a staging of an endogenous fantasy emanating paradoxically from without.
Pedophilic child abuse draws upon and exploits this primal seductive scenario, rehearsing its basic elements along more deliberate, predatory, and explicitly genitalized lines. In so doing, even as such abuse maintains a degree of dialogical uncertainty necessary to the effect of seduction, it shifts the epicenter of the encounter away from that interface where the real and the imagined, external event and interior fantasy, are mutually constitutive, and toward the former dimension, into the parameters of an “actual interaction.” As such, it brings the now taboo elements of the original scenario of seduction and the child’s own subliminal investment therein to the brink of their awareness. That is, it threatens to breach the conscious/unconscious barrier that the undecidable contours of the original seduction worked in part to establish. The libidinal energies that the child first experienced as a part of his or her subject formation are tapped and evoked only to be turned against that now formed subject, to his or her undoing. Traumatic jouissance, wherein shock and disturbance pervade an economy of surplus pleasure, turns into full-fledged sexual trauma, wherein erotic pulsions and attachments, retroactively tainted, are subsumed within an economy of violent psychic mortification. It is precisely owing to the metonymical displacement of primal seduction in child sexual abuse that the attempt to remedy the psychic wounds of the latter, to disentangle its traumatic violence from the formative traumatic jouissance, so often leads to a repetitive cycle of abuse, specifically the self-injurious pursuit of sexualized occasions of overwhelming distress.
But the sexual and the violent complements of child abuse can also unfold in reverse order, as they do in The Country Girls, to its distinction among Irish novels taking up this theme. Given that a sexual assault on a child, inflicted by a parental figure or surrogate, necessarily evokes the scenario of primal seduction and thereby induces a traumatized response in its victim, a physical assault on a child inflicted by a punitive parental figure structurally implicated in that primal seduction will inevitably evoke that scenario as well—that is, it will resonate erotically at the unconscious level and induce a sexualized response. As Freud’s famous essay “A Child Is Being Beaten” (1963) leads one to infer, parentally administered corporeal discipline cannot entirely avoid sexual, potentially sadomasochistic implications. Child victims subject to extreme, overtly sadomasochistic encounters with parental violence are often pressed into a converse abusive cycle: the attempt to repair the psychic wound or damage suffered in childhood leads to its repetition, in a self-punishing pursuit of traumatic occasions of sexual attachment and excitement.5
Caithleen’s psychosexual predicament or “dilemma” in The Country Girls follows just this latter itinerary, which helps explain her otherwise baffling sense of dread at what might seem the liberating incidence of her abusive father’s perennial defections. Mr. Brady himself betrays a subliminal awareness of the eroticized thrust of his own brutality. On his initial return home, when he “chattered” his daughter’s teeth with his fist, he proceeded to rebuke her as follows: “Always avoiding me. Always avoiding your father. You little s—. Where’s your mother or I’ll kick the pants off you” (33).6 His verbal formulation oddly yet aptly combines a conscious disciplinary idiom—“I’ll give you a swift kick in the pants”—with a less customary view to forcible denuding—“I’ll take the pants off you.” That is to say, Caithleen’s father threatens a method of chastisement that will leave her uncovered and exposed, an eroticized spectacle, even, implicitly, an available and defenseless sex object. His introductory complaint, that she is always avoiding him, bespeaks a frustrated desire for proximity that, in context, carries a libidinal tinge. Caithleen’s reaction to her father’s ambiguous message is answerably bifold as well. She calls for her friend, Baba, but not upon being punched, only after her father threatens to kick her pants off. Yet she claims to have done so strictly to protect herself from her father’s physical brutality, not from any attack on her modesty. In a similar manner, we can see in Caithleen’s dread at her father’s presence a conscious reaction to the onset of his savage, preemptory discipline, and in her anxiety at his absence an unconscious reaction to eroticized destitution.
After her mother’s enigmatic disappearance—a source of sexualized trauma unto itself—and as Caithleen prepares to leave for convent school, she once again has occasion to be “avoiding [her] father.” Only this time, the libidinal tincture in Mr. Brady’s frustrated desire for his daughter’s recognition or attachment runs a little deeper. His advances shift from the confrontational to the solicitous: “‘Don’t forget your poor father,’ he said. He put out his arm and tried to draw me over onto his knee, but I pretended not to know what he was doing and ran off to the yard to call Hickey for his tea” (56; emphasis added). Mr. Brady’s overture might be classified as undecidably amorous. Is it an invitation to an innocent embrace? An index of a murkier, even forbidden complex of feelings? A prelude to something approaching molestation, or even a conscription of Caithleen as a substitute, symbolic or otherwise, for her deceased mother? Caithleen’s reading of her father’s tender is correspondingly indefinite. She is sufficiently sensible of something untoward to be wary and uncomfortable, but what she knows and pretends not to know does not coalesce into a concrete, or concretely erotic, surmise. Her father’s movement insinuates without signifying, admits without requiring, a sexual interpretation. This is to say, the encounter evokes for Caithleen the original scenario of enigmatic seduction, even partakes of that scenario retroactively, but does not crack the repressive lock that protects her from any conscious memory thereof.
The incident thus takes its place as the most prominent of the routinely equivocal inklings of an errant, furtive sexual energy percolating in the distressed Brady household—for example, Mrs. Brady’s monitoring of the groundskeeper Hickey’s filthy nighttime emissions; sounds from the parental bedroom, such as the cracking of Mr. Brady’s knees, overheard from an out-of-order bathroom serving as an impromptu whispering gallery; the moans, coughs, rustles in bed, and screams of Caithleen’s mother; and Hickey’s sly wink and commentary, as when he disrupts the “very close” embrace of Caithleen and her mother with the words “Old mammypalaver” (8). Indeed, the casualness of Caithleen’s report on her father’s attempt to corral her betokens a likewise routine occurrence, the implicit erotic motives of which leave but a vague, uncertain impression on the surface of her mind, while depositing themselves deep in her unconscious.
Mr. Brady here initiates his solicitation of Caithleen with the same appeal to filial devotion with which he prefaces his teeth-rattling blow to her jaw. The rhetorical iteration not only signals a psychic connection between his physical brutality and his claim on her affection; it intimates that paternal violence might be his defense against what Lacan calls “père-version” (1997a, 167). In a bookended scene, his response to her expulsion from the same convent school betrays a cognate form of psychic projection. He calls her a “filthy little—,”and then, upon hearing her “vehemently” rancorous rebuff (“I hate you”), he “struck [her] a terrific blow,” blaring, in an unwitting double entendre, “I’ll do what I like to her” (117). Since Caithleen surely knows the sort of violent retribution her scornful back talk must incur—she has experienced this brand of corporeal punishment over and again—one must infer an unconscious masochism that also “likes” what he’ll “do to her,” even as Caithleen her-“self,” Caithleen in her ego identity, “hates it” and him. Such is the wrench that child abuse throws into the desiring machinery of its victims.
In her landmark study, Trauma: A Genealogy, Ruth Leys (2000) contends that “from the moment of its invention, the concept of trauma [has] been balancing uneasily—indeed veering uncontrollably—between two ideas, theories, or paradigms”:
- A mimetic theory, which holds that “because the victim cannot recall the original traumatogenic event, she is fated to act it out or in other ways to imitate it.” What is more, because the traumatic occurrence undergoes psychic dissociation, it never fully enters the victim’s “ordinary memory”; she cannot cleanly distinguish the traumatic locus from the traumatic source, her own agency from that of the other, what has supervened from without and what has emerged from within. In the very state of suffering a trauma, on this paradigm, the victim identifies with and internalizes the cause. As a result, any attempt to repair the original insult issues in a displaced repetition thereof.
- An anti-mimetic theory. Here the victim is “essentially aloof” from the traumatic experience and “remains a spectator of the traumatic scene, which she can therefore see and represent to herself and others.” Under this model, the victim apprehends the violence suffered “as purely and simply an assault from without”; a “purely external event” thus befalls, without substantially compromising, “a fully constituted subject.” Ordinary memory continues to function in the recovery of the event, and since, as Freud contends, we repeat instead of remembering, no imitative acting out need transpire (Freud 1966, 273–77; Leys 2000, 298–300).
As we have seen so far, however, the mimetic and anti-mimetic paradigms are not mutually exclusive in The Country Girls. To the contrary, in what may be the novel’s signal contribution to Irish trauma narrative, they operate simultaneously at different levels of the same ordeal. Mr. Brady’s physical aggression toward his daughter, the overt concussive attacks, plainly fall under the anti-mimetic reading. Caithleen bears witness to the violence she suffers; she processes it as “a purely external event.” She can recall the particulars without dissociation, and she well understands these experiences as grounds for “always avoiding” him. The sexual valences of her father’s attacks, by contrast, affect Caithleen along the lines of the mimetic paradigm. In this respect, the barrier to “ordinary memory” of the primal seduction on which they draw remains prohibitive. As indicated in that later groping scene, Caithleen cannot recall the traumatogenic event that lends her father’s behavior toward her its sexual import.
Because it is the master enigmatic signifier of subject formation, the scene of primal seduction is always and necessarily occulted by a likewise primary, or foundational, repression. At the same time, the impulse to identify with and internalize the traumatic cause or agency is enjoined by the very structure of primal seduction, which confounds self and other, endogenous fantasy and intrusive libidinal communique. Caithleen is doubly fated, therefore, to imitate the toxic jouissance that her father catalyzes, doubly bound to pursue it self-reflexively—by repeating, in various guises, the scenario and the dynamics of its coming to be.
Because Caithleen can bring to conscious recognition neither the erotic dimension of her filial connection nor its lateral reemergence in her father’s alternating bouts of belligerence and dereliction, the underlying connection between the two likewise remains under the ban of repression, whence it continues to fuel and shape the metaphoric repetition and metonymic displacements of her acting out. A cardinal instance of these psychic operations is manifest in her ongoing fear of her mother’s death at her father’s hand. To be sure, her worry is not unrealistic, given his volcanic temper, but it also speaks to her reflexive association of the traumatically habitual eruption of parental violence and the seminally traumatic intrusion of parental sexuality. The anxiety she feels for her mother’s vulnerability dovetails with her own dread of paternal violence, and with the unerring reverse logic of unconscious thought, she projects the sexual element of that dread back onto her parents’ relationship.
Consider the image of the mysteriously vanished Mrs. Brady that Caithleen invokes as a reason for “avoiding” her bedridden father and disregarding his likely wishes: “I didn’t go up to see him, though I knew he would have liked a cup of tea. I hated going into his room when he was in bed. I could see Mama on the pillow beside him. Reluctant and frightened as if something terrible were being done to her. She used to sleep with me as often as she could and only went across to his room when he made her” (58–59). In this mental tableau, the intimations of battery alternately infect and override, on different planes of recall, the conjugal mysteries of the parental marriage bed. At the level of Caithleen’s ordinary memory, the threat of bodily assault to her mother predominates, relegating the conjugal implications of the scene to the background. The image of Mama “frightened” models Caithleen’s own fear of continued physical abuse, and Mama’s ensuing retreat to Caithleen’s bed (“to sleep with me”) binds them in a partnership of terror and mutual protectiveness, which Caithleen’s present refusal to visit her father recalls and, in a sense, honors. At the level of Caithleen’s dissociated memory, however, founded as it is on the scene of primal seduction, violence may be seen as a concomitant of the conjugal mystery, as part and parcel of sexuality itself. Here, the image of Mama “reluctant” models Caithleen’s reluctance to attend her father abed, while eliding the sexual grounds of such reluctance. As Caithleen remembers, her mother’s retreat to her bed, and hence their partnership, did not extend to those evenings when “he made her [mother]” go to him, a euphemism for marital rape. In other words, the mother-daughter terror-bond did not extend from spousal or filial abuse, of which Caithleen bears a knowledge both conscious and intimate, to sexual abuse, of which Caithleen’s knowledge is indirect and shrouded in deniability. (In this respect her apprehension of her mother’s plight is nearly akin to her subliminal sense of the erotic inflection of her own abuse.) Thus, Mrs. Brady functions in Caithleen’s memory as her double, not only in the metaphorical sense, as a mirror image of her own family-centered trauma, but also metonymically, as a vehicle or objective correlative of the scission to which that trauma was subject (mimetic/anti-mimetic, conscious/unconscious, physical/sexual).7
The split between the mimetic and anti-mimetic strains of Caithleen’s filial trauma, between what she is able “to represent to herself and others” and what she cannot, translates into a second breach, this one within the anti-mimetic register itself: an epistemic divide opens between the traumatogenic event, her father’s violence, reliably witnessed by Caithleen, and the longer-term effects thereof, which are honeycombed with traces, residual and abusively renewed, of a traumatic jouissance that she cannot access. While she never loses sight of the concussions, she cannot, as a structural matter, gain insight into the repercussions. Absorbed into the volatile brew of her unconscious promptings, the aversiveness of battery by a cruelly super-egoic father, however delegitimized, lends a comprehensive and stultifying ambivalence to the course of Caithleen’s future sexual adherences, which are the main narrative focus of the novel.
The critical consensus on Caithleen’s pubescent/postpubescent amorous history has been that she longs for and fantasizes about romance, protection, and economic security in an effort to restore all that her father’s deprivations and her mother’s untimely death have cost her, both emotionally and materially. Peggy O’Brien holds that a “morbid” Caithleen “yearns for romantic fulfillment” (1987, 484). Lynette Carpenter finds this “need to fulfill her romantic ideals” to be combined with and complicated by a “competition for economic security” with Baba (1986, 265). Tasmin Hargreaves sees Caithleen “desperately attempting to find safety and wholeness” (1988, 291). According to Elizabeth Weston, finally, Caithleen follows an “imagined arc of romance narrative,” which provides but “momentary escape” from her traumatic suffering before thoroughly exacerbating it by “inculcating submission to a problematic, socially constructed image of femininity” (2010, 85, 93).
On each of these readings, Caithleen exhibits what we might call white-knight syndrome: she seeks older men, father substitutes, better versions of her father, to rescue her from the dilemma he has created. Not surprisingly, this approach allies closely with the feminist critique of O’Brien for creating women “obsessed with and victimized by their relationships with men” (Cahalan 1995, 61). Caithleen has been understood to hazard, even invite, the exploitation that befalls her. But in the process, her misfortune appears a byproduct of gendered misrecognition, an attachment to a romance script fettering her to a certain image of femininity, as opposed to proceeding from the vicissitudes, however imposed or extorted, of her own sexual desire—and this despite O’Brien’s statements concerning the inveterate masochism of her female protagonist.
In our view, the white-knight gloss on Caithleen’s early adolescent adventures badly underestimates the extent to which her filial trauma engenders in her a subliminal, specifically erotic investment in its replication—that is, the extent to which her impulse to repair the damage her father so violently wrought converges with the countervailing impulse to repeat the sexualized trauma trailing in its wake. That is to say, the tribulations she encounters as a young adolescent are not only the lamentable offshoot of her quest for romance, protection, and economic security but also the outcroppings of a larger if deeply unconscious design: a design instilled in her from without as if it were her own.
In a very real sense, the oscillations of her father’s sadistic attentions and desertions groomed Caithleen for her conflicted—at once zestful and oppressed—participation in what, given her tender years, must be deemed serial instances of pedophilic interference, if not outright violation. His grooming of her in this regard may be unintentional. But in effect he does groom Caithleen by or rather for proxy. He grooms her to seek out and enter into child sexual transactions or relationships that serve to confine her perdurably within the original calamitous terms of her family romance.
From the age of fourteen, Caithleen repeatedly engages in liaisons that rehearse in some fashion her dysfunctional and destructive relationship with her father, “the crux of her dilemma.” But while most of these liaisons involve the white-knight type of older, tutelary men who can feed her appetite for well-upholstered domestic romance, she is not exclusively attached to this generational type, nor to this gender for that matter. She actually begins her course of sexual dalliance with her lifelong frenemy and doppelgänger, Baba, an incident to which we will shortly return. Much later, now allied with Baba on the dating scene in Dublin, she explicitly rejects her counterpart’s plan to target the wealthy, middle-aged prowlers of the pub scene and argues for more youthful, one might say age-appropriate options. These exceptions to the avuncular rule indicate that the predominate spur to Caithleen’s desire, the object cause that magnetizes her postpubescent psychosexual economy, resides not in the paternal imago (identity markers like age and gender) or in the paternalistic function (social roles like provider or safeguard), except insofar as these harbor associations with the domineering enactment of paternal authority generative of her filial trauma. Without exception, all of Caithleen’s prospective intimates, irrespective of gender, generation, or class background, are in some way authoritative and aggressive figures. In this respect, and despite the settled reputation of The Country Girls as a heterocentric bildungsroman, Caithleen’s sexual penchants tend to queer the heteronormative standards of her Irish Catholic community in the very act of adhering to them. That is, she cathects the middle-class, male-identified faculties of domination to such a degree that they accrue a value detached from the received gender, class, and generational subject-positions themselves.
To be sure, in certain cases, such as that of Mr. Gentleman, these same faculties can and do merge with the accoutrements of mature and successful manhood in appealing to Caithleen’s sense of dependency and her corresponding wish for deliverance, both emotional and material. But precisely in putting herself at the disposal of such authoritative aggression, Caithleen not only courts enthrallment (in every sense), she thereby expresses in action the perverse, antithetical wish that marks every erotic pairing: to re-engage in some form, to “mimic” if you will, her traumatic upbringing. She exemplifies in this regard how, as intimated earlier, child abuse does its most lasting damage in setting the victim’s mechanism of desire at cross purposes with itself.
The bipolar split in what Caithleen wants from her several schoolgirl crushes manifests as a profound ambivalence toward the crushes themselves. Just as she is not exclusively attached to any one type, so she is not entirely attached to anyone. Rather, she lurches between different kinds of positive and negative estimations of each of her erotic interests. Her often adoring attitudes, extensively remarked on in the criticism of the novel, syncopate with less frequently noted but no less pronounced strains of mockery, enmity, disdain, and disgust. It is not too much to say that with respect to Hickey, Baba, Jack Holland, and even Mr. Gentleman, Caithleen inclines toward what puts her off and is repelled by the very thing she fancies.
This, the perverse logic of Caithleen’s desire, both results from and testifies to the childhood abuse that renews the traumatic jouissance of primal seduction. Owing to the evocation of that jouissance in her coming of age, Caithleen does not just repeat that trauma in order to repair its effects, the dynamic explored in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1961); she also seeks to repair that trauma as a strategy for repeating it, in its connection to a debilitating enjoyment. Moreover, given her still juvenile status, her earliest relationships with paternal surrogates do more than draw on the cycle of childhood sexual abuse; they continue it. Caithleen’s profound ambivalence toward her crushes, then, answers quite precisely to the dual return of the repressed, both bodily and psychic, that they induce: the intrusive retroactivation of a self-fissuring surplus enjoyment.
Caithleen’s early relationship with her lifelong peer, Baba, provides a crucial and entirely overlooked instance of this psychosocial economy. To begin with, the parallelism of Baba to Mr. Brady is manifold and conspicuous, not in the externals of the Imaginary register, of course, but in the symbolic position that she assumes toward Caithleen. O’Brien inscribes this symbolic doubling directly onto the surface of the text, its “characters” serving as clues to the characters. Caithleen calls her terrible father “Dada” and her terrible friend “Baba.” The names are both doublets; they have the same number of letters identically disposed; the consonants of each wherein their phonemic difference lies are the lowercase reversed images of one another, as in a mirror; and, of course, the names, the vehicles of the symbolic positions, rhyme, allowing for a certain confusion of the two.
Like Dada, Baba is at once commanding and contemptuous of Caithleen. In the latter’s words, Baba is her “bully” (18), a classification that perfectly summarizes Mr. Brady’s style of paternal rule. Like Mr. Brady, Baba denigrates Caithleen as a form of human waste: whereas Brady calls his daughter a “little—[shit]” (33), Baba repeatedly labels her “trash” (58, 68). However, Baba goes still further in slighting Caithleen, likening her to a “bloody sow,” her hair to “old mattress stuffing,” and her nose to a “petrol-pump” (60, 32, 26). Caithleen’s terror of her father has its match in her fear of Baba: “I’m afraid of Baba; she makes so little of me” (59).
Like Mr. Brady, Baba asserts her authority parasitically, with Caithleen as her chief mark or target of exploitation. Baba steals flowers, demands foodstuffs, and inveigles jewelry from Caithleen, all the while displaying a cavalier attitude toward the gifts she extracts and absolutely no sense of indebtedness for her appropriations. She even calls out Mr. Brady for his cadging ways, a moment that invites the reader to draw the pot-kettle comparison. Finally, like Mr. Brady, Baba intersperses her dictatorial and manipulative efforts to bind Caithleen to her will with edicts of enforced separation. Whereas Mr. Brady periodically abandons his daughter, Baba periodically banishes her. Replicating, after her own lights, Mr. Brady’s toggling gestures of cruelty, Baba elicits a similarly conflicted response from Caithleen: anguish in Baba’s presence, overriding misery at prolonged division.
Emotionally abjected by, yet also dependent on, her sole if nominal friend, Caithleen comes to hold Baba in deeply ambivalent esteem, at once loathing and admiring her charisma, which is manifest in her ability to compel Caithleen herself to serve her every whim (Baba’s own father tells Caithleen, “you’ve always been Baba’s tool”; 118). At the same time, in reigniting the scenario of Caithleen’s filial trauma, her ambivalence toward Baba passes smoothly into homoerotic attraction. Thus, Caithleen only vents her childhood animus toward Baba in the midst of complimenting her alluring physical appearance: “hysterical with temper” over Baba’s bullying, Caithleen thinks, “I could smell her soap. The soap and the neat bands of sticking-plaster, and the cute, cute smile; and the face dimpled and soft and just the right plumpness—for these things I could have killed her. The sticking-plaster was an affectation. It drew attention to her round, soft knees” (22–23). Baba’s sexual appeal thus takes root in the very insults that she adds to Caithleen’s formative injury.
Caithleen’s most tangible sexual encounter with Baba comprises the same blend of wound and want, resuscitating essential features of her primal seduction, the enigmatic signifier included. She reports how “Baba and I sat there and shared secrets, and once we took off our knickers in there and tickled one another. The greatest secret of all” (10–11). In more than one respect, the enigmatic signifier here, the vehicle of an ambiguously fetching psychic message, is the word tickled, which carries both sexual and nonsexual, naughty and innocent, inviting and threatening, pleasant and unpleasant connotations. The primary signification of tickled in this context would be “titillated, stimulated to excitement and delight,” as in the metaphorical saying “to tickle one’s fancy.” In this instance, with the girls’ knickers off, this signification would carry an erotic and specifically a homoerotic reference, severely reprehended in the post–de Valeran Republic. Hence, of all the secrets shared by the girls, their mutual caresses are, to Caithleen’s mind, “the greatest secret of all.” If the illicit nature of the sexual activity incites a certain jouissance or surplus enjoyment in Caithleen—and “greatest” can mean most wonderful as well as weightiest or most serious—this is in part because it brings a traumatic element to bear on the proceedings, infusing Caithleen with a complex of fear, shame, and self-doubt redolent of the abuse scenario. For her part, Baba reinforces and exploits this traumatic dimension as if her own desirability depends on it, which it very well may. She bullies and blackmails Caithleen by threatening to disclose their forbidden, clandestine tryst, “and every time she said that [she would tell], I gave her a silk hankie or a new tartan ribbon or something” (11). Caithleen’s added phrase, or something, misleads in its offhand insouciance. Bestowed ritualistically, in a scripted exchange (“every time Baba said that”), the type of gifts specifically mentioned count as romantic tokens or favors, a way of perpetuating the romantic encounter along other, nongenital but masochistic lines, and thereby preserving a reminder of the traumatic jouissance it yields.
However, as addictive as the displaced reenactment of childhood (sexual) abuse may prove for its victims, like Caithleen, it is aversively, even repulsively so. And the ambivalence it arouses can only be exacerbated when this reenactment takes the form of likewise taboo sexual practices requiring concealment, like the erotic revelry of two young girls. It is therefore to be expected that Caithleen might seek to forswear without divulging (i.e., to disavow in the Freudian sense) her liaison with Baba, even as she prolongs their perverse romantic friendship. Immediately after reporting her sexual ties to Baba, she finds occasion to tell Hickey, “I’m going to be a nun when I grow up; that’s what I was thinking” (11). Hickey’s rather cryptic reply suggests that perhaps “the greatest secret of all” wasn’t so secret after all, or was rather an open secret, an intuited if unadmitted understanding of the abrasive intimacy the two might share: “A nun you are in my eye. The Kerry Order—two heads on the one pillow” (11). Caithleen’s visceral reaction to his words, “I felt a little disgusted,” signals not just an unease with Hickey’s suspicions or his snarky way of expressing them but an unease with herself, a momentary breach in her wall of disavowal.
The word tickled forms a brick in that wall, as a part of its enigmatic function. Indeed, in this context, the word tickled marks the point at which the enigmatic signifier and the open secret meet, tenor to vehicle. To use the word tickled to describe her closeted intercourse with Baba is to leave open an anerotic, or at least less transparently erotic, interpretation thereof, something along the lines of “just play,” tickling pure and simple. With the ambiguous tickled, Caithleen introduces a patina of undecidability to her narration: does she or does she not have sexual relations with that girl, and does the answer to that question hang on what the meaning of sex is? How determinate or elastic is the range of its application? The effect on the reader is to render the event portrayed a little more equivocal, a little less categorical, and hence seductive rather than graphic. We know but cannot be entirely sure. We are in on the “greatest secret” but with its final gist suspended. Or, to put it another way, the enigmatic signifier, tickled, transforms a closed case into an open secret for us as well.
The secondary sense of tickle (paradoxically its primary denotation), to touch lightly causing laughter and bodily twitching, has its own distinct emblematic value as pertains to the reenactment of primal seduction. Whereas the metaphorical application of tickle places emphasis on sexual gratification, this literal sense also entails a significant measure of discomfort, sufficiently intense to induce queasiness, nausea, and dread. That is to say, whereas the figural tickle imparts enjoyment, the literal tickle incorporates a traumatic admixture.8 Ironically, then, in deploying the euphemism of tickling to soft-pedal the sexual nature of her secret encounter with Baba, Caithleen winds up making allusion to the innermost nature of their secret liaison, its trauma-roticism, the distal reverberations of her filial abuse.
Predictably, in keeping with her vexatious role in Caithleen’s embattled bildung, Baba brings to the fore the traumatic dimensions of the tickle by exploiting it for bullying purposes. When Caithleen first enters into a pedophilic relationship with the village toff, Mr. Gentleman, her display of bliss—“I want to sit here all night and dream” (68)—provokes Baba to jealous inquisition as to the name of her conquest: “‘Tell me, or I’ll tickle it out of you,’ and she began to tickle me under the arms” (69).9 In a neat reversal of her earlier strategy of extortion, Baba’s gambit in this instance keeps in play the ambiguous sense and enigmatic force of the tickle.
Having previously threatened to divulge information about their pleasant erotic tickling in order to extract amorous tokens from Caithleen, she now threatens unpleasant, anerotic tickling in order to extract the name of Caithleen’s new amour. Further reinforcing the layered affective duality of the tickle, Caithleen herself initially feels her erotic attraction to Mr. Gentleman as “an odd sensation, as if someone were tickling my stomach” (16), and she ultimately capitulates to Baba’s demands on the grounds that “I’d do anything not to be tickled” (69). The tickle thus encapsulates in a single complex of sensations what Caithleen desperately wants, what Caithleen desperately wants to avoid, and what Caithleen cannot avoid repeating, thus affording Baba the perfect fulcrum of manipulation. By the same token, the tickle affords O’Brien a perfect fulcrum of representation. Compressing in its different modalities of sensation the warring affects associated with a loss of control—the ecstatic and the agonizing, the torturous and the titillating—it proves an apposite narrative metonymy for the effects of primal seduction, abusively renewed, on child victims like Caithleen.
According to Caithleen, this incident of Baba’s bullying “had broken my heart, destroyed my life,” and permanently severed the bond between them: “‘We will never speak again, ever,’ I kept repeating, under my breath” (68). The remainder of her narrative, however, not only belies this assertion, it shows the very opposite to be true. What Caithleen keeps “repeating” is, in fact, a reconciliation with (which is always a conciliation of) Baba herself. Indeed, far from severing the relationship between the two girls, this quarrel proves a decisive stage in its continuation. It represents the point at which the forbidden homoerotic intimacy explored earlier in the relationship is sublated into a more socially approved homosocial sodality and rivalry. Caithleen’s surrender of the name or pseudonym in question sets off a current of triangulated desire between the two girls, with Mr. Gentleman at the mediating vertex.
As Eve Sedgwick (1985) has adduced in her landmark study, Between Men, English literature abounds in examples of male same-sex desire accommodating the mandates of compulsory heterosexuality and the corresponding stigma of homosexual dissidence by positioning a female figure as simultaneously a love interest and a channel of eroticized identification between her competing male admirers. The “between (country) girls” ménage bears the same structure as the erotic triangles that Sedgwick unpacks, only with the genders flipped. However, given the asymmetrical power relations between men and women in the comprehensively patriarchal society of modern Ireland, this gender transposition itself makes for a corresponding reversal in political agency and effect. The traffic in women central to male homosocial relations, Sedgwick remarks, serves to facilitate the promotion of men’s individual and collective self-interest, the enhancement of men’s privilege, and the consolidation of their authority (1985, 3–4). It is, if you like, the sexual-romantic cell of the modern patriarchal system. By contrast, the nascent competition of Caithleen and Baba over Mr. Gentleman conduces to his aggrandizement, both individually and as the allegorical representation of gentlemen tout court. The homosocial dynamic conducted by The Country Girls, accordingly, accedes to the heterosexual imperative as part of a more general submission to the system that its opposite number, male homosociality, sustains and reproduces.
The patriarchal Symbolic Order, of course, has effectively sponsored Caithleen’s filial experience of abuse, if only by sanctioning her father’s disciplinary authority, enabling his brutality, and conniving at its sexual overtones. Moreover, obligatory heterosexuality constitutes the cardinal mandate of the Symbolic Order; it is the predicate and guarantor of the traffic in women, and its specific embodiment in modern Irish society at once determines and mystifies the course of Caithleen’s traumatic bildung. We might say, her submission to the heterosexual imperative obscures and mitigates what we have identified as her “queer” masochistic sexual affinity for figures of authoritative aggression, irrespective of gender. Although her same-sex flirtations continue in the gender-segregated space of the convent school, her expulsion from its corridors, based on a blasphemously heterosexual sketch of its officers, inaugurates a fully, resolutely heteroerotic organization of her mid-to-late adolescence around the Gentleman/Gentlemen.
During this period, post-Famine economic anxieties and changes in the rules of inheritance had normalized exaggerated age differences in agrarian Ireland between prospective grooms (preferably established on the land) and prospective brides (preferably still fertile for years to come). Extending well into the twentieth century, these rural marriage arrangements camouflaged and capitalized on the sorts of daddy issues with which filial trauma encumbers Caithleen. Her social habitus encourages a sexual development, an itinerary of desire, that will in the future incline her toward older men, paternal surrogates in the Imaginary and Symbolic registers, in imago as well as function. But more significantly, and more scandalously, the social habitus encourages her to gravitate in the present moment, as a fourteen-year-old, toward paternal surrogates as potential mates, and to conceive of herself as available to them, at least notionally, for flirtatious foreplay pointing in that direction. Indeed, what we earlier adjudged Mr. Brady’s grooming of Caithleen by/for proxy can be so readily actualized only in a context where sexual trifling with the local girls, by kith and kin, is a regular and seemingly normalized occurrence. Consequently, although unwitting on Brady’s part, the effects of his grooming prove so consistent with the casually predatory ambience of the town as to seem collectively intentionalized.
The workman, Hickey, is the first of the socially sanctioned paternal substitutes to adopt an inappropriate attitude of seduction or solicitation toward young Caithleen. Hickey represents her first girlhood crush, toward which she bears a deeply conflicted attitude, as one might expect, considering its fraught transferential basis. She breathlessly informs her icon of the Blessed Mother, “I love Hickey” (6). But under the Virgin’s icy stare, “from a gilt frame,” she partially retracts her declaration: “‘Yes, I love Hickey,’ I thought, but what I really meant was that I was fond of him” (6). Lurking in the passage is the enigmatic signifier prompting the sudden qualification of her fervor: the single word, gilt, describing the frame from which the Virgin hears Caithleen’s incessant prayers of “penance.” The implicit pun on guilt—underscored by the fear of hell driving her nightly vigils—marks an unconscious sense of the untoward implications of her long-standing wish to marry Hickey and its likewise muted or repressed connection to her paternal “dilemma.” Sure enough, Caithleen immediately proceeds to retract not only that wish but her assertion of romantic love as well, by reference to Hickey’s unsavory physical features and unhygienic habits. Over a very short span, Caithleen espouses toward Hickey an attitude of unreflective ambivalence that aligns with his role as an avatar of the mimetic, which is to say amnesiac, sexual elements of her filial trauma.
As it happens, Hickey exhibits those attributes particularly attractive to Caithleen, authoritativeness and aggressiveness, in a markedly eroticized fashion. While Hickey tends to deflect Caithleen’s pleas for him to protect her from her father’s unhinged wrath, he does step in to perform the classically oedipal function of disrupting the intimate mother-child dyad that she and Mrs. Brady share until the end: “‘Old mammypalaver,’ Hickey said. I loosened my fingers that had been locked on the nape of her soft white neck, and I drew away from her, slyly” (8–9). On a related note, Hickey assumes the traditional paternal role of disciplinarian, threatening corporeal chastisement à la Mr. Brady: “Be off, you chit, or I’ll give you a smack on your bottom” (12). The scandalized phrasing of Caithleen’s answer, moreover, suggests that with her sexual maturation the proposed spanking has gathered a libidinal as well as a punitive aspect: “‘How dare you, Hickey.’ I was fourteen and I didn’t think he should make so free with me” (13). Hickey proceeds to confirm as much by importuning Caithleen for a “birdie,” his “private name for a kiss” (13), indicating an abashed desire to keep the kiss itself private.
Here again, the discomfort caused by Hickey’s coded solicitation has more to do with the stage of Caithleen’s sexual growth than with a lack of precedent; Caithleen points, somewhat indignantly, to the fact that she “hadn’t kissed him for two years” (13). But the incident she invokes with these words is, if anything, far more unseemly than the present contretemps. On that occasion, Mrs. Brady bribes Caithleen with sweets to kiss Hickey ten times as a reward for his having purchased a heifer on the cheap. If we consider the following items—
- Mrs. Brady has, in the vernacular, effectively pimped out her daughter, traded her favors of affection in compensation for material services rendered;
- The transaction occurs under quasi-incestuous circumstances: Hickey clearly stands in as both provider and head of household for the convalescing Mr. Brady, whose absence is said to license the frivolity; and
- Mrs. Brady is the very same woman who shares an intense bond of identification with Caithleen as joint survivors of eroticized domestic abuse.
—then we can begin to grasp just how systemic, how familiar, how normalized is the sexualization of young girls in the rural Ireland of O’Brien’s experience and imagination. So endemic and accustomed is the practice that it does not seem to register in that moment as unacceptable. Even for Caithleen, Hickey’s attentions register as inappropriate only in the mode of nachträglikeit or deferred action, what Laplanche calls “afterwardsness” (Laplanche 2016, xi). Paradoxically, it is only when Caithleen has traversed the gap between childhood and pubescence (precisely and not accidentally the two-year gap between Hickey’s kisses) that the intimations of pedophilia in Hickey’s fatherly affections come dimly to view, casting their shadows backward in time.
The second socially sanctioned paternal substitute to adopt an unseemly posture of seduction and solicitation toward Caithleen is the shopkeeper and family friend, Jack Holland. Caithleen bears him the same sort of traumatic ambivalence as she does Hickey, only in reverse. Whereas she repeatedly professes her devotion to Hickey only to withdraw from his blandishments, she repeatedly takes exception to Holland and his advances yet circles back to his shop over and again, unconstrained and sometimes unbidden. Caithleen first encounters Jack directly after the “birdie” incident with Hickey, and his own paternal surrogacy is immediately established: “Jack Holland was waiting for me. . . . At first I thought it was Dada. They were about the same height and they both wore hats instead of caps” (13). The backstory of Jack’s connection to the Brady family further solidifies his place as a perverse father figure to Caithleen, a père de jouir. Mr. Brady has already caught Jack fondling his wife, and Caithleen suspects that his suit in this area is ongoing. Rather than invalidating his interest in Caithleen, however, his continuing ardor for Mrs. Brady serves to introduce a second, parallel line of transference to this extended family romance. Just as Jack stands in for Mr. Brady in Caithleen’s abusively contoured unconscious fantasy, so Caithleen stands in for Mrs. Brady in Jack’s pedophilicly inflected unconscious fantasy.
In a subtle, highly literary, autoethnographic version of a Freudian slip, Jack discloses, to the alert ear, his romantic conflation of mother and daughter. By way of corroborating Caithleen’s suspicions about her mother, Jack abruptly, and apropos of nothing in particular, pays Mrs. Brady a fulsome compliment drawn from the miraculous conclusion to W. B. Yeats’s nationalist tour de force, Cathleen ni Houlihan: “There are kings and queens walking the roads of Ireland . . . ploughing the humble earth, totally unaware of their great heredity. Your mother, now, has the ways and the walk of a queen” (16–17). The subliminal import of Jack’s paean—what is in his words more than what they mean to say—lies in the precise outlines of the traumatic tableau they invoke. The eponymous heroine of Yeats’s sovereignty drama acquires “the walk of queen” only upon undergoing a generational metamorphosis from old woman to “young girl,” from mother (Ireland) figure to daughter figure. Witness—
PETER. Did you see an old woman going down the path?
PATRICK. I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen. (Yeats 1953, 57)
On the analogy mooted by Jack’s allusion, the mother and older woman, Mrs. Brady, attains to the “walk of a queen” strictly by identification with and incorporation by the “young girl,” the daughter figure, who by no coincidence whatever happens to share the name of Yeats’s Mother Ireland. Caithleen thus emerges as the secret object or alloy of Holland’s desire; she embodies unto herself the essential splendor he finds in the mother. Jack’s subsequent, oxymoronic reference to Caithleen, “a juvenile lady friend” (17), underscores this generational fusion, while his allusion to Padraic Colum’s poem “The Drover” highlights the supersession of the older figure by the younger that Yeats stages in his play. Those who set about “plowing the humble earth,” in Holland’s phrase, are concentrated into the single figure of the Drover, whose thoughts likewise focus on a single figure, “my thoughts on . . . the King of Spain’s daughter” (17), her mother, and his queen, having been elided as surely as the old woman in the sovereignty myth and Yeats’s revivalist adaptation. In aligning the unrequited Jack with the famously unrequited Yeats, who notoriously attempted to replace the recalcitrant Maud Gonne with her daughter, Iseult, O’Brien calls to mind the ongoing eroticized fungibility of mothers and daughters in the Irish Imaginary. Beyond Jack’s ken, but well within O’Brien’s, finally, the allusion brings the preeminent nationalist iconography of Yeats’s rural drama into libidinal, even scandalous alignment with the pervasive sexual abuse anatomized in The Country Girls. The call to a noble martyrdom for Ireland, effected through the transformation of the sovereignty goddess (Cathleen) in Yeats’s drama, plays on the same motive force that drives the ignoble behavior of a Jack Holland—the eroticized figure of the “young girl” (Caithleen).
O’Brien foregrounds the operation of this lust for youth along more quotidian lines in the very next encounter between Holland and Caithleen. Jack uses the necessity of informing an anxious Caithleen that “your mam is gone on a little journey” to solicit kisses from her and her companion, Baba (23). The latter side-steps Jack’s overture “airily,” but Caithleen, following her, “tripped over a mouse-trap” in a literal Freudian slip—that is, an active expression of an unconscious self-punitive desire sabotaging the conscious will (23–25). Caithleen effectively traps herself alone with the insistently amorous shopkeeper, and she is forced to confront the sort of harassment that she would, yet seemingly cannot, avoid. At this point, her only recourse is to plead the simple truth that rather gives the game away: “‘I’m too young, Jack,’ I said, helplessly” (25). She thereby calls attention to a sociosexual regime that is not just precipitate when it comes to young girls (“I’m too young”) but pressurized, if not predatory (“I said, helplessly”). Indeed, the most significant narrative property of Jack’s advances is the fidelity with which they mirror Hickey’s a short time earlier; for taken together, their targeting of Caithleen for “favours” looms over the early stages of the novel and suggests an everyday atmosphere of open season on pubescent females. O’Brien thus establishes an uncanny synchrony between the individual configuration of Caithleen’s paternal trauma, “the crux of her dilemma,” and that of the Symbolic Order in which she struggles to survive and resolve it—not least in the way her own mimetic tendencies, her repetition in lieu of remembering, unfold under a social dispensation that reproduces as a matter of course certain sexual elements of the trauma.
Jack Holland turns out to be more serious and persistent in his suit than Hickey, with an upshot at once telling and ironic. Instead of comforting a stricken Caithleen upon the news of her dear mother’s drowning, he pulls her aside and apologizes for being unable to indemnify the Brady family estate against their creditors. His mea culpa, however, is but prologue to machinations whereby he would not only take over the property himself but also leverage it in an importunate bid to secure Caithleen’s consent to marriage. His gambit reveals how material dependency is a necessary, instrumental condition of child sexual harassment and abuse. The insolvency of Mr. Brady proves a key supplementary factor in the dynamics of predation-by-proxy that we have outlined, and Caithleen’s oft-noted romancing of economic security proves a predictably double-edged plan of campaign: seeking to escape the financial constraints that leave her prey to the harassment of older men, she must put herself at the disposal of just such older men.
At the symbolic level, Jack’s gambit introduces a perverse twist on the sovereignty drama he cited in extolling Mrs. Brady’s virtue. A letter to Caithleen at convent school reiterates the imagined restoration of the mother/ni Houlihan figure in the daughter Caithleen, only this time with the express hope that the native Brady lands might be restored to her as well. The “full implication” of the letter, as Jack subsequently makes clear, is that “in time to come I hope to marry you” (103), her repossession of the Brady property being contingent on his taking possession of her. In the “full implication” of the Yeatsian intertext, Jack promises to play the role of Irish patriot, to win back Caithleen’s “beautiful green fields” by marriage (Yeats 1953, 53), but only after having expropriated them in the first place, in the manner of the “strangers in the house” whom Cathleen ni Houlihan rails against in the play (Yeats 1953, 53). Thus, the “young girl,” Caithleen, would come to live again on her native land only after she has been incorporated in an Act of (connubial) Union with the comprador, Jack Holland. In other words, Holland attempts to engineer a localized, native version of the metropolitan marriage.
For her part, Caithleen remains very much focused on the erotic “threat that the chapped, colorless lips would endeavor to kiss mine” (103–4), and as if to show just how thoroughly Holland has twisted the whole abuse scenario, Caithleen actually conjures up her “waiting” father as protection from him. On the logic of traumatic repetition, however, her desperate flight on this occasion still does not deter her from visiting Jack once more before she leaves town, exposing herself, yet again and unnecessarily, to his unwanted liberties.
Mr. Gentleman is the most significant, enduring, and overtly pedophilic of Caithleen’s socially sanctioned paternal surrogates. Only Mr. Gentleman’s presence and influence spans the entirety of The Country Girls. Only Mr. Gentleman’s interest in Caithleen can be accounted truly scandalous by the social mores of their small town, and this owing to its adulterous rather than its pedophilic tenor. Only Mr. Gentleman plots a long-standing yet noncommittal and disposable affair with Caithleen, crossing the (always implicit) line from harassment to outright grooming, from seduction to violation, from morally reprehensible sexual “interference” to legally actionable child sexual abuse. (The relationship between Mr. Gentleman and Caithleen begins early in her fourteenth year and grows more serious during her fifteenth year. The age of consent in Ireland at the time was sixteen.) Only Mr. Gentleman possesses and aggressively exerts a personal authority recognized not just by the Brady circle but by the town as a whole, greatly increasing his stature in Caithleen’s eyes. Only Mr. Gentleman, correlatively, is able to secure and hold Caithleen’s enduring affection. Whereas the ambivalence attendant to traumatic mimesis manifests as a conflict between attraction and repulsion (or vice versa) with regard to Hickey and Holland, her ambivalence remains internal to her devotion to Mr. Gentleman, a conflict between its determinants, which leaves her an especially exploitable resource for his ego and sexual gratification.
As befits its central role in Caithleen’s development, the narrative thread involving her liaison with Mr. Gentleman is among the most tightly structured in the novel. It unfolds in three distinct segments corresponding to three stages in Caithleen’s infatuated submission to Mr. Gentleman’s predatory designs. Each stage contains an explicit identification of Mr. Gentleman with Caithleen’s father, thereby referencing the fatal origins of the affair; each stage identifies Mr. Gentleman’s gaze, or mien, with sorrow or disappointment, thereby presaging the fatal end of the affair. Each is punctuated, finally, by Mr. Gentleman’s removal. The stages are thus linked metonymically by the progressive narrative and metaphorically as microcosms of the whole. In this respect, the form of this narrative thread encodes the aporia of traumatic reenactment: progress toward redress ensnared in the toils of re-dress.
The first stage (54–64) is that of grooming. It commences by proxy, with just a hint of the traffic in women: Caithleen’s father sends her to cajole a loan out of Mr. Gentleman, instead of pleading on his own behalf. Mr. Gentleman follows up in a classic predatory scenario; he hails his mark from his luxurious automobile as she waits for a bus, and he proceeds to arrange an assignation. Consenting, Caithleen observes, “There was something about him that made me want to be with him” (61). While she cannot say exactly what the attraction might be, her comment is sandwiched between two telling references to the remarkable sadness of his eyes. The first and most compelling in a persistent series of nonverbal harbingers of gloom and rue, his eyes signify from the start the doom that hangs over their romantic prospects and, more importantly, the doom that positively magnetizes Caithleen’s traumatized desiring apparatus and impels her to pursue those futile prospects on account of their very futility.
At the ensuing luncheon appointment, Mr. Gentleman pulls out the full battery of conventional grooming devices. He seeks to impress Caithleen with his wealth and refined taste. He orders her the finest items on the menu, aggressively plies her with wine, despite her “Confirmation pledge,” and inquires after her sexual innocence. More pointedly, he exerts his authority by instructing her on what men like in “young girls” (“Men prefer to kiss young girls without lipstick, you know”; 62–63). By adducing the taste of men en masse, he seeks to normalize his otherwise illicit pedophilic ardor, yet those collective proclivities just happen to match his own: “‘The next time we have lunch, don’t wear lipstick,’ he said. ‘I prefer you without it’” (64). Finally, he caresses her with his “wistful” gaze and “settle[s]” on her neck, which is just that physical attribute of which Caithleen seems most self-satisfied (64). Nothing galvanizes his grooming technique, however, like the leaving off. In proclaiming, “You’re the sweetest thing that ever happened to me,” before he “slipped away from [her]” as if nothing had happened, in giving her a look “which seemed to be saying ‘Don’t go,’” only to go himself, Mr. Gentleman establishes himself as her “new god” by reviving the terms of primal seduction: he frustrates the desire he arouses and compromises the enjoyment he induces (65).
What is more, Mr. Gentleman previews the longer-term rhythm of a seductive method that plays on Caithleen’s personal traumatic history: intense emotional contact followed by extended periods of separation and radio silence. Indeed, after the first grooming encounter, Mr. Gentleman disappears without a word and does not correspond until they meet again the following Christmas. Riding to convent school with her father, Caithleen refuses “to acknowledge him” but rather envisions, almost hallucinates, Mr. Gentleman as a replacement (72–73). And indeed, Mr. Gentleman comes to embody the same traumatic contradiction as her father, the oscillation between Leys’s mimetic and anti-mimetic modalities. On the one hand, her conjuring of Gentleman’s powerful gaze represents the first time that Caithleen consciously and explicitly entertains a paternal transference onto one of her gentleman callers. On the other hand, in true mimetic fashion, she remains drawn to what she cannot apprehend, the reenactment of her father’s traumatizing habit of dereliction and disappearance in Mr. Gentleman’s like pattern of unannounced withdrawal and abandonment.
The second stage of Caithleen’s entanglement with Mr. Gentleman is that of the seduction proper (89–101). After a long, uncommunicative parting, the two reunite at Christmas to much kissing and many professions of love. At the heart of their holiday rendezvous is an impassioned automobile excursion, described at feverish length:
Softly the flakes fell, softly and obliquely against the windscreen. It fell on the hedges and on the trees behind the hedges, and on the treeless fields in the distance, and slowly and quietly it changed the colour and the shape of things . . . and I knew that before the flakes began to show on the front bonnet Mr Gentleman was going to say that he loved me . . . and very solemnly and very sadly he said what I had expected him to say. And that moment was wholly and totally perfect for me; and everything I had suffered up to then was comforted in the softness of his soft, lisping voice; whispering, whispering like the snow-flakes. . . . He kissed me. (99)
In a brilliant exercise of dramatic and intertextual irony, O’Brien has Caithleen construct a quintessential Hallmark card moment—the heavily romantic atmosphere, the first and climactic proclamation of love, sealed with a kiss—and filters it through a stylistic pastiche of the famous peroration to James Joyce’s “The Dead.” That scene, also at Christmastime, centers on the breakdown, the routing, of Gabriel Conroy’s romantic fantasies about his marriage to Gretta, and as such it provides a frame of reference that subverts Caithleen’s fantasy of true love. This subversion operates on multiple levels simultaneously. At the simplest level, the Joycean frame indicates that Caithleen has completely misrecognized the depth and nature of Mr. Gentleman’s feelings, much as Gabriel has misjudged Gretta’s feelings that holiday evening. The careful blending of Mr. Gentleman’s whispers of love with the whispering of the snowflakes from “The Dead” reinforces this level of irony. More complexly, the Joycean frame indicates that Caithleen misapprehends the nature and the direction of her intimate relations with Mr. Gentleman. Her sense of a “wholly and totally perfect” moment, in which they have finally come together, is expressed in a vocabulary that raises, like a revenant, the already ghostly scene from “The Dead” in which Gabriel and Gretta are coming apart. The ghost in Caithleen’s phantasmatic machinery, of course, is her traumatic relationship to Dada, which, like any revenant, and like the repressed, perpetually returns. Caithleen’s sense of being “comforted” in that “wholly and totally perfect” moment for “everything that I had suffered” both sharpens and complicates this level of dramatic irony. If Caithleen does indeed find comfort in this moment for the pain of Gentleman’s unexplained severance of all communication in the past, his alternating pattern of truancy itself, of which this moment is but a part, renews the more profound, unconscious suffering begotten by her father’s abusive desertions.
At the same time, her evident masochistic attachment to that suffering supplies a final, most intricate layer of irony. It is crucial that Gentleman’s profession of love, the key to that “wholly and totally perfect” moment, is delivered “very sadly,” at once recalling and anticipating the sadness of his eyes on virtually every occasion of their intimacy. In this case, these embodied signifiers of misgiving and foreboding herald the foundering of their relationship at this, its very founding, which is precisely what, from the vantage of Caithleen’s traumatic mimesis, gives the moment its warped perfection. The Joycean palimpsest infiltrating Caithleen’s great love scene, then, not only undercuts the perceived fulfillment of her conscious romantic desires but also encodes the unconscious, traumasochistic desire that is already coming to fulfillment.
After their snowbound tryst, Gentleman holds to his seductive pas de deux of assertive advances and self-protective retreats. He bestows a “small gold watch” on Caithleen, “so small that [she] had expected it to be a toy,” but then tells her she must “put it away” and hide it from everyone. He moves to finish his presentation with a kiss, but then “he drew back from [her], guiltily.” He whispers, “I love you,” but then tells her, “We’ll have to be very careful,” and “I can’t see you too often, it’s difficult” (106–7). When Caithleen inquires, “Can I write you?” he says no, “firmly” (107). Gentleman’s temporizing and equivocation become so patent that Caithleen grows sensible that her “suffering,” far from being comforted or compensated by endearment, as she believed, is actually being exacerbated. She even stages a muted rebellion. She admonishes him to “show more feeling” and wonders mopishly, to his noticeable irritation, “And will I ever see you?” Yet so answerable, so commensurate, so complementary is Gentleman’s seductive method to Caithleen’s insensible need to repeat as well as repair her traumatic history that she not only accepts but embraces a long-term dalliance shaped by Gentleman’s perennial detachment and periodic disappearance (107).
The denouement of the seduction stage sees Caithleen settling for irregular assignations with Mr. Gentleman, one of which features the single most chilling transaction in their entire association:
In the summer Mr Gentleman took me out in his boat. We rowed to an island far out from the shore. . . . It was a happy time and he often kissed my hand and said I was his freckle-faced daughter.
“Are you my father?” I asked wistfully, because it was nice playing make-believe with Mr Gentleman.
“Yes, I’m your father,” he said . . . and he promised that when I went to Dublin later on he would be a very attentive father. (110)
Having won Gentleman’s accession to his role as father figure, Caithleen immediately subjects that title to a Freudian disavowal: “because it was nice playing make-believe with Mr Gentleman.” “Make-believe” here functions to invert the logic of transference that actually defines the place of Gentleman in Caithleen’s psychic universe. Her notion of make-believe fatherhood is not just a knowing pretense but a wish-fulfilling fantasy that elevates Mr. Gentleman to the status of fairy-tale hero. Psychic transference, on the other hand, is a make-don’t-believe—that is, a making, a psychic projection of reality, by way of a failure of recognition, the erection of a psychic reality without the awareness necessary to belief. Instead of a knowing play-act, Caithleen’s transference issues in an unknowing reenactment of the reality of paternal abandonment in her “new god.” In this context, Mr. Gentleman’s pledge to be “a very attentive father” when she moves to Dublin can only remind her of his habits of detachment and defection in the past, while reminding the reader of his impersonation of Mr. Brady in this regard, hence of the unconscious source of Caithleen’s attachment to him. It was also, of course, just such a pattern of delinquency that drove Caithleen’s mother to seek a replacement for her husband in Tom O’Brien, with whom she embarked on a doomed nautical adventure, which, at another level of transference, Caithleen here rehearses with Gentleman.
Caithleen’s stay in Dublin with Baba contains the longest stretch of the story without an appearance by Mr. Gentleman, belying his promise of much attentiveness. He fails to even send Caithleen a “postcard” from his travels. When he does arrive, beginning the stage of abandonment (166–88), he offers to repay Caithleen’s patience with a trip to Vienna, where, he promises, “We’re going to be together. I am going to make love to you” (172). He strangely envisions the sexual consummation of their liaison, however, in terms of evacuation, saying, “We have to get this out of our systems,” and its telos he envisions in terms of separation upon return (173). In other words, he imagines the apotheosis of their love as inseparable from the dissolution of their relationship. Abandonment is inscribed in the very proposal of seduction. For her part, Caithleen does not take his proffer at its romantic face value; she is well aware of his propensity for estrangement and of how it has always made her feel: “And already I was sad. No one would ever really belong to him. He was too detached” (178). She is by no means fooled or bamboozled by his gesture. That she goes along with his plan—from their mutual disrobing and fondling in her room to their orchestrated meeting at the quays—is a testament not to her naivete but to a compulsion to repeat born of a life history where wound and want, trauma and enjoyment, are inextricable, each secreting (hiding/exuding) its complementary other.
Her particular history with Mr. Gentleman gives her no reason to believe that he will act to break, as opposed to renew, this cycle of affective violence. Certainly, her history of being neglected by him gives her no reason to believe that he will show up for an expedition so equivocally projected in the first place, and the immediacy with which she grows anxious at the quays evinces as much. By the same token, without such heartfelt expectation, it would seem that deep down she is not really waiting for him at all, as evinced by her continuing to linger long after she has dismissed any possibility of his arrival: “I knew now that he wasn’t coming; but still I sat there. An hour or two later I got up” (186). What she does await is the inevitable, that which her grooming has taught her will come. She waits, precisely, to be abandoned, to see that mode of abuse through to the end. Or, as Caithleen tells a passer-by, with greater symbolic significance than she apprehends, “I’m waiting for my father. . . . We’re going away somewhere” (185). Consciously, of course, she refers here to Mr. Gentleman as her make-believe father. But on an unconscious level, the reference to her father acknowledges his place as the foundational and summary figure, her epitome, of a patriarchal dynamic of authority and aggression, entitlement and predation, abuse and abandonment, inherited on both a local and national scale by men like Hickey, Holland, and, above all, Mr. Gentleman. The latter bears witness to this fact, metaphorically, in attributing his final act of desertion and betrayal primarily to the influence of Mr. Brady. His telegram explaining his default on the excursion begins, “Everything gone wrong. Threats from your father” (187). Giving them their most general range of application, these words—Everything. Wrong. Threats. Father—might well be taken to encapsulate the assault on Caithleen’s adolescence that is virtually coterminous with her bildung in The Country Girls. The crux of her dilemma, indeed.
Effectively the last word in The Country Girls, the telegram proleptically enfolds into the text a signifier of the cultural logic of scandal at work in its reception. In the father’s outrage, expressed in threats, we have the source and morally responsible agency of the most reprehensibly traumatizing and scandalous conduct in the novel proclaiming himself scandalized by its subsequent manifestation in the romantic career of his daughter. In the outrage of the Irish Catholic Church at O’Brien, catalogued in detail at the outset of this chapter, we have the source and morally responsible agency of the most reprehensibly traumatizing scandal (the ongoing sexualized abuse of children) in the nation’s history proclaiming itself scandalized by its manifestation in the bildungsroman of The Country Girls. The telegram itself then functions as an envoi, a message to the future, the ultimate import of which could only be appreciated in full once the child sex scandals of Ireland seeped into public view. In this respect, Caithleen’s bildung in The Country Girls is written to completion not in the latter installments of the Trilogy but rather in O’Brien’s later novel of the X case, Down by the River (1997).
1. O’Brien herself took to calling The Country Girls “my wicked book.” Quinn (1986, 141).
2. Quoted in Kernowski (2014, ix). O’Brien remarks that readers from her home county, Clare, find her works not caricatures at all but “too revealing” (McCrum 2014, 64).
3. In her 2013 memoir, Country Girl, O’Brien makes it altogether clear that her own father and Caithleen’s are one and the same. In the chapter “The Doll’s House,” O’Brien recalls her mindset as she wrote The Country Girls, enumerating a series of images and feelings that came to her in dreams and memories of a “former world” that was returning “before [her] eyes . . . infinitely clear” (139). Following her graphic account of a sexual dalliance with a local girl with whom she recalls committing acts of painful mutual penetration with stalks of wild iris, O’Brien shifts abruptly to “the novel’s opening paragraph,” which “centered on the fear of my father” (140), an affective state of decisive relevance to our reading of the novel.
4. O’Brien amazes no less a mnemonic novelist than Phillip Roth: “I was struck . . . by the vastness and precision of your powers of recall” (Roth 2014, 43).
5. For a compatible view of the social and psychoanalytic operations of sadomasochism, see Hinton (1999).
6. Caithleen’s father’s threat conjoins violence and sex to an unusual, even a grotesque degree—particularly when we remember that he is not threatening to “debag” her, as Buck Mulligan playfully offers to do to Haines in “Telemachus,” but rather to kick her knickers off. The idea of violently pulling or even kicking someone’s trousers off foregrounds violence and humiliation while its erotic implications remain latent, as with “a kick in the pants.” In this case, however, sex is explicitly conjoined to violence, with each merging seamlessly into the other. That Edna O’Brien was by no means exaggerating the conjuncture of mutually inciting sex and violence that simmered close to the surface in her hometown is confirmed with a vengeance by the postmistress who remarked to O’Brien’s father that she regretted his daughter had not been “kicked naked through the town.” Since O’Brien knew this story, her father must have enhanced the atmosphere of eroticized violence by recounting this sadistic fantasy to his own daughter.
7. It should be noted that Caithleen’s mother’s disappearance is announced in the midst of a performance of East Lynne, when Caithleen is first informed that her mother has gone off on a boat with Tom O’Brien (41). As with East Lynne, sex and death are notably contiguous in the story that is told to explain Caithleen’s mother’s disappearance, and, moreover, there is a real possibility that the immediate and insistent promoting of death as the more definite import of Mrs. Brady’s absence serves primarily to obscure the far more scandalous and also far more definite evidence that exists for her having gone off on a tryst and failed to return.
8. The tickling episode derives from a real-life event reported in Country Girl: “One summer Sunday, a girl with ringlets lured me in for an ‘op,’ short for operation. It was quite dark, and we were hidden by the low-lying branches as we took off our knickers, then pulled up the stalks of the wild iris that grew in a swamp and stuffed the wet smeared roots into one another, begging for mercy. Our cries flowed together and were muffled by the drones of bees and wasps that swarmed in and out as we swore eternal secrecy.” This incident quite remarkably interfused the erotic and the anerotic, trauma and enjoyment, agony and ecstasy, in a single bundle of sensation (E. O’Brien 2013, 140).
9. Baba’s blackmail likewise has its roots in that real-life incident of mutual penetration (n8). Having “lured” O’Brien, her ringletted friend said that she would “tell unless I gave her my most prized possession, which was a georgette handkerchief with a pink powder puff stitched into it. And so I did” (E. O’Brien 2013, 140).