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Mundane Doubles: Anorexia in Stories by Anne Enright and Colum McCann

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 18. Number 1, Spring/Earrach 2014
pp. 120-135 | 10.1353/nhr.2014.0008

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Two contemporary Irish short stories, "Sisters" by Colum McCann and "Little Sister" by Anne Enright, describe the progression of anorexia nervosa on central characters who meet gruesome endings. Both authors create sister protagonist characters as narrators of their siblings' disordered eating. In each story, the doubling of an anorexic sister with a healthy sister as protagonist allows the author to portray women in "horizontal" relationships with other women, rather than with men or with parents and offspring.

In creating such doubled relationships, Enrigh and McCann also reveal a narrative strategy for dealing with characters who suffer silently. The textual supplement of a doubled character gives voice to women whose autonomous choices to refuse food and to die—without reproducing—disrupts the narratives of continuity that are traditionally ascribed to women in Irish short fiction. In these stories, the surviving double bears the weight of explaining and contextualizing a choice neither to create the next Irish generation, nor to sustain their own bodies for any socially acceptable alternate role that might transmit Irish culture into the future.

In both short stories, and in research and policy documents about anorexia in Ireland, eating disorders (and anorexia nervosa, specifically) are constructed as mental and physical disorders that place victims at significant risk. In a sense, this article undertakes another sort of doubling, analogous to the joining-together of disparate siblings in these fictions; it attempts to establish links between the textured, personal stories of McCann and Enright and the dispassionate observations of social scientists and clinicians. Working with medical and policy documents in tandem with literary texts creates a thick cultural seam of information, allowing both scholars of literature and others "to recognize interrelations between different kinds of cultural productions, specifically literature and science." Such interrelations provide a way of "understanding ourselves as embodied creatures living within and through embodied worlds and embodied words." Her approach to cultural production through comparison of shared tropes and subjects in fiction and scientific documents provides a useful way to consider cultural and embodied phenomenon like anorexia nervosa.

Although the behaviors in the fiction do not entirely correspond with clinical anorexia, the actual incidence of anorexia in Ireland creates a backdrop for a study of its fictional portrayals. In a 2001 article, "Trends in Anorexia Nervosa in Ireland: A Register Study," Rosemary Shinkwin and P. J. Standen report the number of new cases of anorexia nervosa from their assessment of hospital records from 1977 to 1985 at 1,510 cases. The number reflects only the documented in-patient treatment for anorexia nervosa collected from the National Psychiatric In-Patient Reporting System (NPIRS) and the Hospital In-Patient Enquiry (HIPE); the absence of out-patient data indicates the need for more comprehensive record-keeping on this affliction. The writers conclude, "while the aim of this study was to review trends in anorexia nervosa in Ireland, the process highlighted the limitations of nationwide registers in epidemiological research" The paucity of statistics about anorexia in Ireland belies the severity of consequences for some sufferers, including severe malnourishment, hospitalization, and death.

McCann and Enright's emphasis on sisters relating to each other suggests a willingness to develop women characters outside of the expected contexts. Because of the rapid pace of the short story genre, and because the relationships portrayed are of siblings, rather than of parents and children, the fictional representations of anorexia seem to offer a different context for female characters. This contrasts with many influential Irish texts that address intergenerational conflict, especially parent-child relations. In Joyce's Ulysses, for example, part of Stephen's journey is dealing with his mother's death and another part is searching for an appropriate father figure, and Bloom's quest involves seeking for a replacement for his dead son Rudy. Edna O'Brien's fiction famously returns to the mother and daughter relationships she began describing in The Country Girls trilogy, or turns to even more troubling father and daughter relationships. John McGahern, too, investigates parent child associations in novels like Amongst Women (1990), and in his memoir All Will be Well (2005). In short fiction, one popular anthology published by Penguin in 1980 and still used in many survey classes, Modern...



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