The Department of English
Student Essay of the Month
You Can't Avoid the Rain
“Irish Revel” rejects social mobility by having character perceptions and expectations regarding their social status appear dishonest. Edna O’Brien emphasizes the inherency of physical and behavioral characteristics, characteristics that she suggests should coincide with the socioeconomic status of the individual for authenticity’s sake. The favoring of realness (“real” as in “keeping it real”) is paralleled with the earthly, ancestral appeal of nature. Not only does this encourage the use of naturalness as a measure for authenticity, but it also suggests the inescapability of the qualities that define social status. This contrast between the authentic/natural/class-acceptors and fake/unnatural/class-deluders is engendered as well; the former is conveyed as a masculine quality and latter is conveyed as feminine.
By identifying nature derivation as the common factor among people, “Irish Revel” argues that the means of ascending the social hierarchy requires us to be something we are not, and thus argues against the lure of social mobility. _________________
The author forms a distinction between the characters’ thoughts and the “reality” of the story through the narration. The narrator is able to describe the setting, as well as the internal processes of the characters. This distinction allows the reader to compare the two and see how they often differ. What adds to the objectivity of the narrator’s descriptions is that he can only describe the thoughts or settings relevant to that specific moment; if the story were a play with visible thought bubbles, the narrator only mentions what he sees. Early in the story, the narrator says, “She does not remember exactly how it happened, but after a while he walked into the kitchen…” The narrator does not fill in the missing part of the memory and goes strictly by what Mary remembers about her encounter with John Roland. Even in descriptions of past events, the narration seem like summaries of dialogue occurring at the moment, such as the unquoted passage about the pig being run over; Hickey, as if continuing an unheard conversation, says “Never heard such a roarin’ in all me born days,” referring to the pig mentioned in the previous paragraph. Narration that integrates the cognitions of characters, dialogue, and the events taking place invite us to see contradictions between characters thoughts and what’s really happening.
One of the first contradictions involving an overvaluing of oneself is Mary’s invitation to the party. Serving almost as an anti-thesis to the Cinderella story, Mary is forced to come to terms with her role as the industrious mountainy girl doing all the chores, and as a prop for “pleasant and decorative atmosphere.” Her black lace dress is a constant source of insecurity; not only is it mocked by Doris and Eithne, who realize Mary wore it with the notion that she was a guest, but it’s also in danger of “getting caught in a splinter of wood.” In effect, Mary is humbled for believing that John Roland would come back for her. Another contradiction is Mrs. Rodgers’ attempts at making her party more chic. The “fork supper” may be used to demonstrate how even the silliest of practices could be imitated if thought to be an indicator of a higher social status. Despite implementing the dining habits of Dublin posh houses, Mrs. Rodgers fully exposes her true, more crude methods only a few lines after when she tears the goose with her hands and wipes her fingers with a tea towel (a towel used to dry dishes). Lastly, there’s the hypocrisy of Doris and Eithne who deride Mary for all the flaws they have themselves. Their jealousy for Mary’s better looks, prompted by their unattractiveness and an overpopulation of females, provokes them to perceive Mary as culturally deprived and of lower social standing due to her rural upbringing. Doris compares Mary’s hair to a gypsy’s, which may be a conscious effort to group “mountainy people” with nomads, thereby labeling Mary as backwards or primitive. Yet Mary seems more civil when it came to discussing private matters; Doris openly verbalizes her need to urinate and does so in a pot, while Mary prefers to go “behind the hedge” unannounced and is too classy to be seen doing so. These are examples of how conflicting perceptions and behaviors depict the characters as delusional, rejecting any notion that they are better-off than they actually are.
The inherency of physical features or characteristics that indicate the character’s “true” class is best summarized with the line, “that was the luck of the draw,” where Mary insinuates that Eithne’s appearance is congenital and something she must live with. Eithne looking as if she was “put together in a hurry” suggests the involvement of a higher power, one that literally shapes our reality. Characters frequently behave in ways that seem honest, such as in the aforementioned cases of Mrs. Rodgers and Doris, that expose their incongruence with a higher social status. The departure from inherent features is usually done by applying something onto them. Many female characters are concerned with changing their hair style, the significance of which will be discussed later. In addition, gifts are never used as they are intended and their sentimental value is completely neglected. This brings attention to the fact that an object being designated and viewed as a gift is more of a formality than an actual feature. There are two examples of this: the use of John’s drawing of Mary as a dust collector and the cream that serves as O’Toole’s play-thing. Distinguishing an object’s intended and actual use coincides with a character’s perceived and actual place in society; the favoring of the drawing’s physical features (that allow it to collect dust) over its sentimental application supports the story’s preference of “working with the hand you’re dealt.”
The preference for nature and naturalness is also prevalent in the text. Whether one character likes another is often based on genuineness and transparency; O’Toole prefers Mary over the other girls because of her long, black hair and “simple mind.” Despite facing no hostility from Crystal, Mary prefers Eithne to her and Doris because she is a “noisy, sweaty girl.” Mary compares Eithne’s appearance to a “moulting hen,” which may symbolize Eithne’s spotty shedding of her superficial layers to expose her inner, true self. This is paralleled with “the ditches of blood-red” that are found on the hills and cornfields. Blood is commonly referred to with Mary; her cheeks filling with blood indicates her inability to hide her embarrassment, adding to her transparency. Her eyes are also compared to “bloody bog holes.” Thus, blood is used as a marker for genuineness. The Commercial Hotel represents a man-made space, separate and in contrast to the countryside, where formalities and etiquette dominate. Mary is able to distinguish the dirt found on cattle and pigs to that found inside the Commercial Hotel. There are also two occasions in which porter is spilled in the Commercial Hotel: once in response to the young bullock entering the hotel and again during O’Toole’s drunken rampage. The young bullock scene represents the invasion of a societally-determined (or constructed) enclosure by an unbound, natural element, eliciting the unfavorable response of dirtying the hotel. O’Toole’s submission to his feral, sexual desires causes the same beer-spilling response. This equating of nature and acting naturally suggests that the urbanity that is used to indicate social status only measures the extent of departure from the “real” self.
To add to the discussion of authenticity, the author presents femininity as a societal construct by depicting the most feminine character, Crystal, as the least genuine. Primped hair is conveyed as a distortion to one’s natural appearance. Being a hairdresser and having to change her name as a result, Crystal is immediately associated with a false, manipulated identity. In addition to her girly profession, Crystal indulges in “dainty” delicacies and dances only when asked to, making her awfully feminine. Thus, it can be argued that Crystal’s character is a deliberate effort to suggest that girly-ness is an applied, rather than an inherent quality. The opposite to Crystal is Long John Salmon, the silent, single-minded, and socially-inept stoic. He is portrayed as being both the most masculine and most authentic of all the characters. He only thinks about swimming, making him “simple” as O’Toole describes Mary. This links Long John Salmon and Mary by personality, the latter being a mountainy girl acquainted to doing a “man’s work.” If transparency indicates authenticity, his fishy name corresponds with his obsession over swimming. In relation to swimming, a common symbol found throughout the text is water and its cleansing affect. Long John Salmon obsesses over the word “ablution” which means to wash oneself. Mary leaves a bucket of rain water for John Roland to wash himself with. Ironically, both of these characters are named “John.” The snow covers the dung-laden roads, making it “white and clean.” The connection between water and cleansing represents how a natural product such as water rids the body of external coverings and reduces one to an original, bare state.
By identifying nature derivation as the common factor among people, “Irish Revel” argues that the means of ascending the social hierarchy requires us to be something we are not, and thus argues against the lure of social mobility. Whether the author makes a case for the importance of authenticity is unexamined; she may just assume her readers automatically associate “natural” with “good.” Her deterministic outlook may even be interpreted as being pessimistic; the story, which was published in 1968, could be a product of the growing awareness of sexism and its seemingly irrevocable effects of repressing women.
(This essay was originally submitted for a class in Twentieth Century British Literature)