MA Thesis: Literature Review

Photograph taken by Karl Blissinger
Maeve Brennan – Photograph taken by Karl Blissinger

My thesis will focus on ideologies of marriage as represented in Maeve Brennan’s stories of the Derdon and Bagot families in her collection The Springs of Affection (Counterpoint, 1998). My argument is that Rose and Hubert Derdon and Martin and Delia Bagot often seem to be the same couple, speaking the same words and utterances and enacting a similar relationship. The central focal point will be sociohistorical ideologies of marriage and how they affected Brennan’s writing about marital relationships. There has already been an analysis of siblings, exile, and Irish domestic servants in her Brennan’s New York stories, as well as of the autobiographical elements, yet the marriages in her Irish stories have not yet been thoroughly examined.  My thesis will constitute an enquiry into the extent to which a ‘marriage plot’ exists in her fiction, and will aim to reveal the complexities that exist in her often sardonic and melancholy portraits of marital relationships. James M. Cahalan’s Double Visions: Women and Men in Modern and Contemporary Irish Fiction (Syracuse UP, 1999) will be used to elaborate on the marriage plot and its alternatives.

The introduction to my thesis will detail the autobiographical elements as they relate to the marriages in her fiction. I will draw on Angela Bourke’s Maeve Brennan: Homesick at the New Yorker (Random House, 2004) as my main source for her life and indeed much of my thesis as it remains the only book written about her. There has also been a documentary made about Brennan which I will draw on for further information about her life and works, titled Maeve Brennan: A Traveller in Exile by Araby Productions in 2005. Following her upbringing in Ranelagh, Dublin, Brennan moved to Washington and was therefore exposed to an entirely different set of ideological values. Using the reference point of Ireland and the Americas. Culture, Politics and History edited by James Patrick Byrne, Philip Coleman and Jason King (ABC-CLIO, 2008) I will examine the effects on Brennan’s view of marriage as portrayed in the Derdon and Bagot stories which were written in New York in her later years.

The first chapter will place Brennan’s short stories into their sociohistorical context using texts such as Anne McClintock’s ‘Family Feuds: Gender, Nationalism and the Family’ (Feminist Review, 1993), Doreen Massey’s Space Place and Gender (Minnesota UP, 1994), Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (Ballantine, 1970) and Chrystel Hug’s and Jo Campling’sThe Politics of Sexual Morality in Ireland (St. Martins, 1999). These are largely interdisciplinary texts in order to inform my thesis sociologically, historically and through a feminist theoretical lens. They will colour my understanding of the contextual framework within which these stories operate. Other texts I will draw upon to detail this further include Ellen McWilliams’ Women and Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Gerardine Meaney’s Gender, Ireland, and Cultural Change. Race, Sex, and Nation (Routledge, 2010) and the Irish Women’s Studies Reader edited by Ailbhe Smyth (Attic Press, 1993) looking particularly at Frances Gardiner’s chapter ‘Political Interest and Participation of Irish Women 1922-1992: The Unfinished Revolution’ in order to illustrate the widespread disappointment with the failed national ideal and the re-domestication of women following the revolutionary period. I will also incorporate an understanding of Linda Connolly’s The Irish Women’s Movement. From Revolution to Devolution (The Lilliput Press, 2002) to further this aspect of my argument. Caitríona Beaumont’s essay ‘Gender, Citizenship and the State in Ireland, 1922-1990’ from Scott Brewster’s Ireland in Proximity: History, Gender, Space (Routledge, 199) will also be beneficial in this regard.

Crucially to my thesis, her stories frequently convey the repressive nature of Irish society. Treating it chronologically, I will explore Éamon de Valera’s endorsement of gender roles in 1937 and Brennan’s disillusionment with the nationalist ideal. In order to contextualise the role of Catholicism in the Derdon’s and Bagots’ marriages I will reflect on Tom Inglis’ Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland (UCD Press, 1998).

As regards the short story form, I will consult Heather Ingman’s A History of the Irish Short Story (Cambridge UP, 2009) to illustrate how the form lends itself to these snapshots of unhappy domestic life which infer so much about marital relationships more generally.

Chapters Two and Three will consist of a close analysis of the Derdon and Bagot short fiction, featured in order of their appearance in the collection. The Derdon related fiction consists of, ‘A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances’ (1962), ‘A Free Choice’ (1964), ‘The Poor Men and Women’ (1952), ‘An Attack of Hunger’ (1962), ‘Family Walls’ (1973) and ‘The Drowned Man’ (1963). As for the Bagot stories, I will examine, ‘The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary’ (1966), ‘The Carpet with the Big Pink Roses on it’ (1964), ‘The Shadow of Kindness’ (1965), ‘The Sofa’ (1968), ‘The Eldest Child’ (1968), ‘Stories of Africa’ (1968), ‘Christmas Eve’ (1972), ‘The Springs of Affection’ (1972). My analysis of these stories will be interwoven with the sociohistorical context and Brennan’s own life, as informed by the texts detailed above.

Affect theory is also something I’m interested to explore within my reading of these texts. I will use Sara Ahmed’s understanding of the concept in her work The Promise of Happiness (Duke UP, 2010). She combines philosophy and feminism in her argument that people often undertake what is deemed ‘good’ in order to meet expectations, presuming that it leads to happiness. This can be applied to Brennan’s characters who marry under the weight of societal expectation, often to their own detriment as is the case in the stories I am examining. Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings (Harvard UP, 2007) will also be employed in a consideration of how negative emotions such as anger and irritation (frequently exhibited by the Derdons and Bagots) are non-cathartic states of feeling which prevail in claustrophobic, stifled situations such as an unhappy marriage.

In conclusion, my thesis will be heavily focused on comparing the Derdon’s and Bagots’ marriages, relying chiefly on textual evidence. Brennan’s own life will be consulted as offering insight into these marriages, but not informing them entirely. It is the system of marriage and gender roles within them that I am interested in.

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