Beyond the archetype: female agency in Mary Lavin’s “A fable” – Eloísa Dall’Bello

Beyond the archetype: female agency in Mary Lavin’s “A fable”

Eloísa Dall’Bello[1]

Mary Lavin


“A Fable,” written by Irish writer Mary Lavin and published in her debut short story collection entitled “Tales from Bective Bridge” (1943) displays a different approach to and portrayal of the female protagonist – mainly comparing with how she portrayed such women in other stories in the same collection. Instead of placing the main character within the family unit, Lavin resorts to the motif of a newcomer in town and the community’s inability to accept this woman – supposedly for her exceeding beauty – as a means of discussing women’s agency. The young woman, ostracized by the dwellers, suffers an accident which leaves deep scars on her face, leading to a change in the villagers’ perception of her person. In this story Lavin presents harsh irony as regards Irish society, represented by this entire community.

“She was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen and so they hated her.” Mary Lavin’s opening sentence to “A Fable” (LAVIN, 2012, p.112), eighth story in “Tales from Bective Bridge,” raises the discussion about the hate towards women, female bodies and femininity. Bowen has observed Lavin’s ability to define the topic of a story in its very first sentence, which is precisely the case of “A Fable.” To begin with, one may pose relevant questions: Who is she? Who are they? Did they hate her merely for she was beautiful? One may also go further into the implications of such impressive opening revelation: did she know they hated her? If so, how did she feel? Did she display any reaction? Did she hate them back? Perhaps, the most appropriate question in such case is: did they hate this woman because her beauty did not reflect theirs?

The idea of beauty, although extensively discussed by philosophers, is difficult to define and is still subject of debate. Whereas some believe that beauty is an “objective feature of beautiful things,” others take it as “subjective . . . ‘located in the eye of the beholder’” (SARTWELL, 2016, n.p.). Crispin Sartwell analyzes the question of beauty from a more intertwined perspective, arguing that it is precisely the interaction between the object – the one who possesses the beauty – and the subject – the one who admires it, what makes its achievement possible. According to him, beauty would not exist if it were not for the subject’s capability of contemplation, inasmuch as one’s ability to “celebrate the real world” (2016, n.p.) would not be possible, if there were no such things to be contemplated. Beauty, then, “emerges in situations in which subject and object are juxtaposed and connected” (2016, n.p.).

Scholars such as Elke D’Hoker, Angelina Kelly and Richard Peterson, who have written critical pieces on Lavin’s work, have only approached “A Fable” in terms of its explicit content including the conflicts between an outsider and the villagers, who (un)welcome her, supposedly because she was “so beautiful as to be quite perfect” (D’HOKER, 2013, p. 163). Elke D’hoker, for instance, has highlighted the impact of such beauty on the lives of ordinary people, who could not deal or live with it (p. 163-164). I decided, thus, to start this analysis establishing a parameter related to the idea of beauty and its fulfillment in everyday life. I will not, however, approach exclusively the matters related to the metaphorical implications of beauty, as embodied in the figure of the female protagonist, and its impact on the lives of people – those who dwelled in the village in which the main character moved to. More than that, I will follow Augustine Martin’s advice: “one will get no value at all from the stories of Mary Lavin by grasping the expository material, rapidly skimming the middle and attending closely to the end. The reason is that she is not concerned with telling a ‘story’ but with mirroring life” (1963, p. 396). I will, then, assume that Lavin is not merely telling us a fable – as the title itself suggests – but is indeed using the tale as a means of conveying a much broader message: to what extent did society have power over women’s bodies and choices?

“A Fable,” a third-person narrative, deals with the dense and conflicted relation between a whole community and a newcomer, who so thoroughly differed from the villagers, to the point of arousing their most negative and invidious feelings. Seemingly, what bothered those people the most was this woman’s extreme beauty, for not a single flaw to their eyes she had – thus how could they possibly find any means of relating to her? The community’s attitude only changed when her face got scarred – which happened after an accident that left the villagers in chock and pity for her unfortunate fate. The irony Lavin presented here is precisely the difficulty of people to take others for who they are, for they only really embraced her after – even by an accident and against her will – she became a little more like them, a bit more human.

The young woman whose flawless beauty so strongly affected people’s feelings, to the point of provoking “resentment and hostility” (PETERSON, 1978, p. 31), belongs to a group of characters in Lavin’s oeuvre whose position as “outsiders” granted them ostracism. In “A Fable,” the protagonist’s placement as an outsider works both literal and metaphorically. Not only was she raised out of the valley, but she also represented the outer world, which was not shared by the locals – presenting a double challenge in terms of that community’s ability to accept her. Although the setting was unspecified, the narrator did reveal to us that this woman moved from the city to this unnamed place in Ireland’s countryside, “to live in the house of her fathers that had been shut up for nearly a generation” (LAVIN, 2012, p. 112). The woman who so quietly arrived to inhabit a place which had belonged to her own family, was received by suspicious eyes and hateful demeanor of the villagers. Subsequently to the abrupt revelation that opened the story, the narrator gives a clue about people’s inner concerns towards this young woman: “The women feared that she would dim their own glory, and the men disliked her because they felt she was inaccessible, even to the strongest and most fierce of them” (p. 112).

The narrator gives us no plausible reasons or references that could lead to an agreement with such thoughts from the villagers. In fact, throughout the narration one may get closer to the community’s mindset than to the woman’s thoughts and feelings about who and what surrounded her. All we know is the dwellers’ viewpoint, and all information provided about her is the villagers’ perception of the facts. That is, actually, appropriate for the kind of social critique Lavin resorts to; the impersonal treatment given to the dwellers, with no provision of names or characterization – they are referred to as “the schoolmaster,” “the postmistress,” “the clergy,” “the farmer’s boy,” or simply as “the villagers” – allowed her to treat this whole community as a character in itself. Likewise, information regarding the protagonist’s physical and personality traits are given by the dwellers, which one must not necessarily rely on, given their biased and probably distorted view of her:

“She was reticent, but that was quickly translated into ungracious. She was going to have the house redecorated. That meant, to the minds of the people in the valley, that she was a spendthrift. They further decided that, as like as not, she would give big parties when the house was ready and that they would be attended by young and very gay people. That meant that she was fast. And so the legend grew that this exquisite creature was hateful in mind and heart”. (LAVIN, 2012, p. 113)

The previous quote is a clear example of the prejudicial and narrow-minded view the townspeople nurtured towards the newcomer. That can be explained, although not justified, considering the fact that as she did not belong to their community, she clearly did not share their social codes of behavior and morality, nor was she willing to fit into the contended molds of conduct followed by them. That is, there was more to bother them than merely her extreme beauty. She did not really care about differing from them, for she apparently was living the life as she pleased, regardless of the villagers’ approval. She did not seem bothered by being different from them, but they did. They also hated her for not conforming to their provincial mindset, and for clearly diverging from them in terms of following pre-established social rules which were not part of her reality.

Maurice Harmon has addressed the strength of Lavin’s social critique, especially in her early stories (2013, p. 12), written during the period in which Ireland was struggling to establish its identity as a nation, after experiencing conflicts such as the Civil War and the Anglo-Irish War. In 1943, when “Tales from Bective Bridge” was first published, World War II was at its climax, affecting even for countries that had declared neutrality, as the Republic did. The “Emergency” years, referring to the war period from 1939 to 1945, are considered by many a lost period in Irish history, for Ireland’s isolation caused “economic depredations” (BROWN, 2004, p. 164) and decline, leading to fuel shortage as well as food and energy rationing by the government. Many and huge were the challenges Irish people faced at this time, which certainly contributed to the maintenance of a conservative and provincial mindset, instigated by the Church’s enterprise in an attempt not to lose its force in nearly partitioned Free State.

Lavin’s first movement towards being a creative writer, thus, dives deep into the social structure set in mid-century Ireland, and her debut volume can be regarded as a “social response to implementation of the 1937 Constitution, the condition of Irish neutrality in the war, the relationship between religious and family authority and patterns of emigration,” as observed by Wray (2015, p. 239). Maurice Harmon also highlighted Lavin’s restlessness with the rigidity of the social system the Irish were immersed in, as well as the Church’s influence over people’s lives: “what she most resented was the way in which the Church kept people in ignorance, preferring passive obedience to the freedom that knowledge bestowed” (2013, p. 12).

“A Fable” makes use of “the language of legend” (D’HOKER, 2013, p. 163) to disclose how much strongly rooted beliefs and ideologies can impair people’s ability of truly acknowledging the world and people around them. The villagers, so immersed in their own prejudiced thoughts, acted as if a legion of domesticated zombies, unable to perceive that reality, and human beings, could harmonically coexist even if they do not share exactly the same background, beliefs, and history. Therefore, people’s hostility to this outsider might ultimately have been provoked not by her supposed flawless beauty, but because of her unwillingness to fit into their stereotypes, and for them not recognizing on her their own reflection.

The impersonal character construction in “A Fable” corroborates the idea that Lavin is actually employing such technique to refer to much broader aspects within Irish society, as embodied in the actions of a whole community. Bowen ponders that Lavin’s characters need to deal with “an inflexible social order and caste system, so well defined and predictable that Lavin can often treat a town collectively as a character” (1975, p. 24). Likewise, D’hoker points out to the villagers’ inability to accept this outsider precisely for their contrasting nature and behavior, and concludes saying that “the villagers attitudes and gossip are somehow universal” (2013, p. 164), that is, the place nor the people needed to be specified, for that was the mindset likely to be found in any place in Ireland.

More than the outsider’s non-conformity to the moral codes of behavior and conduct shared by the villagers, what really “get[s] on the nerves of the whole neighbourhood” (LAVIN, 2012, p. 114) is her seemingly disinclination and lack of effort to fit into their molds. Her beauty might have struck them, but her demeanor shocked them to the core, and so did the way she dressed: “She was wearing trousers like a man and the lines of her lovely body were seen in silhouette against the blue breast of the sky” (p. 113).  The people she got along with and the parties she threw at her place – with the presence of even more outsiders: “Her own friends came from the city, and the windows in the big house on the hill were lit all night and patterned over with the passing and repassing of human figures” (p. 114). Presumably, that was not the demeanor that an “ideal” Irish woman should show in mid-century Ireland. The ruling systems – the State, with the 1937 constitution which confined women’s role merely to the functions of wife and mother (BEAUMONT, 1997, p. 563-575); and the Church, with its overt influence upon legal decisions, the cult of the Virgin Mary and the ideal of motherhood, moral behavior and purity it represented (O’CALLAGHAN, 2002, p. 125) – exerted ideological power on important instances of societal construction. These were forces that guided Irish people’s lives and actions. It is, thus, not surprising that the ones who somehow subverted such ideals would suffer sanctions and moral punishments.

There seems to have been an agreement amongst scholars in terms of Lavin’s harsh critique of post-revolutionary Irish society. Her less idealistic viewpoint contributed to a sort of narrative which did not necessarily need to rely on the “rebellious hero” (HARMON, 2013, p. 11); its focus was indeed on the ordinary lives which, apparently, were not sufficiently worth of attention for her male contemporaries. Lavin did not seek to understand how and why society functioned in certain ways, but how and why individuals were impelled to act in certain ways because of that society. Fogarty considers that “the nondescript provincial lives that Lavin depicts may be seen as mirroring the insular and inward-looking nature of Irish society under Éamon de Valera” (2013, p.55), whereas Bowen refers to it as “Lavin’s imagined but not-so-fictive world” (1975, p. 34). Likewise, Wray points out to the author’s employment of “hostile natural environments” as a means of externalizing her uneasiness with “the status quo” (2015, p. 250).

In distinct ways, the protagonists who are the focus of this thesis do precisely what Lavin did in her writing: they defy the dominant societal norms and subvert them in particular and adjusted fashions, which correspond to the diverse and specific relations of power, hierarchy and social construction they are inserted in. The fabulously beautiful outsider of “A Fable,” whose demeanor so strongly differed from the villagers to the point of provoking hostility and hate, challenges the “status quo” in keeping her way of life in spite of people’s judgment. She displays a type of “individual agency,” as pointed by D’hoker (2008, p. 421): one’s own responsibility towards her choices and actions.

D’hoker’s assessment of Lavin’s female characters offers a plural account of motif, character construction, and social critique. She argues that Lavin’s stories are not so much concerned with placing women as naturally victimized individuals, but with putting put them in a position of equality if compared to men. Although the relations of power exist, it is not surprising to see domineering women outnumbering domineering men, for “Lavin’s women are not simply victims of a given system or of its embodiments but individuals who are given both the power and the responsibility to think and to act for themselves” (2008, p. 421).

The fact that the protagonist in “A Fable” does not give in to the community’s constrictive and repressive mores, depicts in itself an act of resistance or, as put by McNay, “a subversion from within” (2016, p. 40). Akin to D’hoker’s idea of “individual agency,” McNay observes the various means in which agency can be displayed, and singles out the creative and innovative modes one may resort to: “a creative dimension to action is the condition of possibility of certain types of autonomous agency understood as the ability to act in an unexpected fashion or to institute new and unanticipated modes of behavior” (2000, p. 22). Such acknowledgement of diverse strategies used to depict one’s emancipatory potentials meets the need of the reconfiguration that the concept of agency has been suffering, mainly due to transformations in gender relations.

McNay advocates for an idea of agency which enables individual’s particular strategies to overcome strongly rooted social impairments. Although agency is a universal potential, it needs to be situated within a specific cultural and social context (2016, p. 42) – which leads to the account of agency and emancipatory potentials also as an active mediation within social intercourse, thus establishing a “critical awareness that arises from a self-conscious relation with the other” (MCNAY, 2000, p. 5). Butler’s treatment of the question of agency – through performativity theory – also addresses the issue of one’s acknowledgement of constraining events to the extent that, once aware of such structure, a possibility for agency is outlined. Insofar as gender and gender relations are a result of performed acts, ingrained in cultural norms of behavior, if one ceases to perform and perpetuate those acts, a space for subversion is created. For Butler “all signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat; ‘agency,’ then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition” (1990, p. 185). Considering that the protagonist in “A Fable” did not correspond to society’s expectations, for the choice of not abiding to that community’s pre-established norms portrayed a means of disrupting such construction, one may affirm that she does demonstrate awareness regarding her agentic potentials, therefore she depicts an attitude of active mediation and individual agency in face of the villagers’ hostile demeanor towards her.

One day, riding down the hill, under the watchful eyes of the dwellers, the lovely woman in a sudden move stumbled over the ditch, and “a branch of brier switched her face and its thorns tore into her flesh . . . she lay where she fell, silent, still, face-upwards, in the grass-tangled ditch” (LAVIN, 2012, p. 115). Stunned by the accident which scarred that lovely and flawless countenance, the villagers changed their posture utterly, and so did she: “for two years she lived quietly in the valley, beloved by all those who dwelt in it with her” (p. 116). If once she threw parties at her place and received the visits of stunning male and female friends – arousing the community’s contempt and envy for the ones who could properly relate to her – that changed after “the branch of brier switched her face” (p. 114).

Once she could no longer carry on with the life she had been living, and had to adopt a more recluse life, for the sake of her recovery, the townspeople could finally “love and admire her” (D’HOKER, 2013, p. 164). Even when she decided to go through plastic surgery in a foreign country, in an attempt to heal the scars, “they were glad, and they lit candles for her safety in the chapel” (LAVIN, 2012, p. 117), but did not truly believe her face could turn to be perfect as it once was. The narrator clearly satirizes the villagers’ behavior, for their narrow-mindedness and selfishness prevented them from genuinely bonding with her: “The whole village felt that life was very cruel, and so they lined themselves up as allies of its most pitiful victim” (p. 116). The seemingly supportive behavior of the townspeople in regard of the healing surgery, actually, discloses the ironic and contradictory nature of their supposed acceptance. They prayed for her safety, “but for her return to beauty and perfection they did not pray, because they did not believe that such a thing was possible, and furthermore they did not remember what she looked like when she was perfect, and still furthermore they had loved her as she was” (p. 118).

Unable to truly embrace her, the dwellers acted with ignorance and revulsion for this woman’s real nature. When she was back in town, “completely cured” (LAVIN, 2012, p. 119), they still believed that eventually the scars would “show out through the new skin again” (p. 120). As time passed by, and the lovely woman with that lovely face grew old, faint lines appeared on her porcelain skin, making the ones who knew about the accident – which so badly scarred her – believe that “the prophecies of their fathers [had] come true” (p. 120), that the scars were not healed, that she has never been completely cured after the accident which had chocked them all.

The inhospitable village of “A Fable” works as much as a representative of Irish society’s conservative mindset as it works as an embodiment of mid-century Ireland ruling systems. The female protagonist, who caused such fuss because of her beauty, functions as a representative of those individuals “wandering about the fringes of society,” or the so-called “lonely voice” to which Frank O’Connor (1985, p. 19) famously referred to. Accordingly, if “the short story represents . . . our own attitude to life” (O’CONNOR, 1985, p. 13), the argument that Lavin’s fiction is too restricted to private issues falls apart, for it is precisely the public framing of people’s demeanor, and its consequences in one’s life, that is the driving force of “A Fable.” Thus, beauty, which seems to be the protagonist’s main inconvenience, is merely a reflection of society’s incapability of welcoming anything which differs from its idealized viewpoint of human, and more specifically, women’s demeanor. The “psychological complexity” of Lavin’s fiction, as remarked by Ingman (2009, p. 184), is well exemplified in “A Fable,” once the seemingly simplistic view of its plot merely as the impact of exceptional beauty upon ordinary people may seem to disregard its emblematic portrayal of individual, and most importantly, female agency within an ingrained system ruled by patriarchal norms.

As observed and carefully explored in other stories by Lavin, particularly in her early career, when she presented a stronger social critique, be in the private or public realms, individuals who did not conform to society’s inflexible and ruthless patterns were doomed to ostracism and marginalization. Therefore, one may come to the conclusion that women whose lives held an alternative position within a very strict societal construction – that was mid-century Irish society –  left them dispossessed of any sort of mercy from part of the community. These women, however differently, found a way to cope with reality and exercise and attitude of agency.




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[1] Doutoranda do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Inglês na Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, com apoio do CNPq. Sua pesquisa aborda a representação feminina em contos de autores irlandeses modernos e contemporâneos. Florianópolis-SC, Brasil.