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  • “To Say No and No and No Again”: Fasting Girls, Shame, and Storytelling in Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder
  • Molly Ferguson

Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel The Wonder places a young woman’s refusal to eat at the center of highly charged narratives about fasting as resistance to oppression and women’s bodies as repositories for shame. Set in 1858 Ireland, the novel tells the story of the English nurse Lib Wright, who is hired to conduct a fortnight-long watch of the so-called “fasting girl” Anna O’Donnell either to determine her a fraud or prove her “a magical girl who lives on air.”1 She uncovers instead how young women’s bodies become canvases for projecting shame experienced by the community, while silencing the woman’s own histories.

A range of patriarchal institutions—including the Catholic church, the nascent Irish nation, the medical establishment, and the family unit—intersect in The Wonder to produce narratives, infused with a colonial worldview, about Anna’s fast. These include fasting as a path to religious purity; fasting as resistance against a colonial oppressor; fasting as evidence of a nervous condition common to women; and fasting to cover up a family secret. In response to the narratives emerging from these institutions, Donoghue’s novel explores how folk legend has the ability to subvert misogyny and colonialism through its coded resistance to patriarchal authority.

In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture (1993), Joan Radner contends that the “essential ambiguity of coded acts protects women from potentially dangerous responses from those who might find their statements disturbing.”2 Susan Sellers, writing of Marina Warner’s scholarship on fairy tales, insists that we must pay attention to archetypal tales because “fairy tale is an inherently feminist genre,” which exerts influence because “the enchantments of the tales act as camouflage, wrapping brilliantly seductive images around the [End Page 93] harsh truths or daring utterances they speak.”3 Both fairy lore and fairy tales assign women negative roles that reflect cultural anxieties about gender, but these legends can also signal resistance to colonial efforts to control perceived Irish excesses—of emotion, religion, and supernatural belief.

Angela Bourke argues that “the whole Irish tradition of fairies is preoccupied with boundaries, including those of the human body.”4 When fairy legend is interpreted as interrogating boundaries—of nation, ideology, and bodies—it becomes essential to an Irish model of identity formation. Contemporary readers of The Wonder would do well to view the fast as an act of “fasting against” rhetoric by Irish institutions that posits women’s bodies as a source of shame (W 190). “Irish feminist debates have taken shape and form in the context of Ireland, and cannot be separated from its laws, history and culture,” as Claire Connolly argues. She adds, “This has been most painfully experienced at the level of women’s bodies.”5 Hunger strikes are a physically devastating, yet symbolically potent, statement against patriarchal and colonial authority. Fasting has a history and a politics, particularly in Ireland; notably, Anna’s behavior appears to be a willed decision to fast and not a case of anorexia nervosa, which is a medical diagnosis.6 Withholding can be a subversive strategy suited to women, who often possess few resources for resistance.

For Maud Ellmann, an Irish woman’s hunger acts “as a form of speech . . . entangled in the rival ideologies of nation, gender, and religion.”7 Indeed, hunger in an Irish context goes beyond a state of lack; hunger, in an Irish context, also recalls traumatic periods of oppression in Irish history. These include instances of both powerless and intentional starvation, most notably the Great Famine (1845–1852), hunger strikes by Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington (1913) and republican Thomas Ashe (1917), hunger strikes during the civil war (1922–23), and the hunger strikes by Irish Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland (1980–1981). George Sweeney explains the history in Irish hunger strikes as a tactic for obtaining redress, adding that “this method of drawing attention to both one’s grievance and one’s debtor was a tactic usually [End Page 94] employed by the powerless against the powerful.”8 Inanition—exhaustion as a result of...


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