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New Hibernia Review 9.3 (2005) 107-122
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The Fiction of Anne Enright
From Stoker's Dracula, to the Circe episode from Joyce's Ulysses, to Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman Irish fiction presents a range of doubles. Anne Enright's "The Portable Virgin" (1991), The Wig My Father Wore (1995), and What Are You Like? (2000) also use grotesque doubles to depict disturbing fears and longings. Doubles dramatize the instability of identity and its consequent unpredictability. As a result, they are particularly apropos to Enright's vision of an Ireland in the throes of cultural change, yet still measuring itself against its former nemesis, Britain. In "The Portable Virgin," which won the Rooney Prize in 1991, a wife's discovery of her husband's affair intensifies her fear of aging. Sharing the name of Mary with the Madonna of the story's title, the other woman is the wife's, also named Mary, double too. Doubling wife and mistress against their Biblical prototype, Enright exposes the ludicrousness of women's attempts to construct an eternally youthful identity that pleases men.
Enright's first novel, The Wig My Father Wore, moves beyond the critique of femininity seen in "The Portable Virgin." The Wig is a darkly comical novel about death and eternity. In The Wig My Father Wore, one of the heroine's doubles is a supernatural being. Having an angel for a double highlights the conflict between religious ideals and the technophiliac materialism of the contemporary Ireland. A television producer, Enright's protagonist works within the shifting, shallow milieu of popular culture. Enright's juxtaposition of her protagonist's trivial context with her metaphysical conflicts creates black humor and unresolved questions.
Like "The Portable Virgin" and The Wig My Father Wore, Enright's What are You Like? uses uncanny doubles to investigate how identity relates to the universal fear of death. What Are You Like? employs doubles who dramatize the impossibility of stabilizing identity or answering ontological questions. In Enright's second novel, the doubles are twins who do not know of each other's existence. A sense of the uncanny arises not through an identification between a supernatural being and a person, as in The Wig My Father Wore and "Virgin," [End Page 107] but between genetic identicals who are the same, yet different. The double is uncanny because of its unexpected likeness to the subject; in its disturbing way, the double symbolizes the subject's socially unacceptable yet universal fear of death.1
The narrator of "The Portable Virgin" cannot stop thinking about her husband's mistress. Even though the wife realizes that the mistress is unhappy, and, therefore, not to be envied, her image is inescapable. To explain why her husband would desire them both, she imagines the mistress as her opposite. For example, the wife thinks that her husband Ben regards her as a "sofa," but his mistress as something breakable. The mistress's fragility enhances her husband's passion, so his wife speculates. Whereas the wife is contented when Ben is away, the mistress depends on his presence: "Happy? Definitely not. Except when he was there. Ben makes me too sad for words. I finished the row, put away my needles and went to bed."2 That her husband makes her unhappy suggests that the joy derived from new or forbidden relationships has passed. The wife implies that she envies the mistress for feeling obsessed with Ben, for the wife is obsessed with her rival instead. The wife stresses her domesticity through mentioning knitting, the pastime of the stereotypical matron.
At the beauty salon, the wife turns herself into her double by bleaching her hair until it is brittle: "I want it to break," the wife tells the stylist (PV 86). The wife's action implies her hope that, if she transforms herself into her opposite, her husband will not need the other Mary. The wife's epiphany is that all the women in the salon are her doubles, since they likewise awkwardly try...