“Mightier than the Sword”: Feminism, Modernism & Dissidence in The Land of Spices
The subject of this paper is Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices. It will endeavour to locate O’Brien’s novel in relation to various strands in the Irish literary tradition; more specifically, the Gaelic Revival, the Counter-Revival and Modernism. Although dismissed by Frank O’Connor as ‘a piece of sentimental Catholicism’, this paper will illustrate the extent to which O’Brien’s work reveals the political aspirations of a dissident writer determined to deconstruct the negative images of feminine identity constructed by the literature and drama of the Gaelic Revival while simultaneously disregarding the stylistic demands of the Counter-Revival with a view to demythologising the dysfunctional power structures of the newly formed Irish State. While paying particular attention to the fluidity of the novel’s temporal and spatial structure, to its engagement with the emergence of mass media, and to the exact nature of the spiritual mode of existence awakened in O’Brien’s young protagonist, this paper will show that both the socio-political ideology and aesthetic values promoted by The Land of Spices place O’Brien’s novel in close alignment with those of her modernist predecessors such as Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Indeed, this paper will conclude that it is precisely the unconsciousness with which the pervasive gendered discourse indicative of revivalist rhetoric makes its presence felt within the writing of such an ardent counter-revivalist as Frank O’Connor that underlines the absolute necessity for the critical consideration of twentieth-century Ireland offered by O’Brien’s literature.