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The Lonely Voice: 'The Doll' by Edna O’Brien

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Joanne O'Brien
Edna O’Brien

Our protagonist in Edna O’Brien’s short story “The Doll” has a favorite doll — one that she must somehow surrender to her teacher for a small role in a Christmas play. The mystery surrounding why the teacher kept the doll after the “fiasco” of that school play or why the teacher never seemed to like her haunts her even after she’s left home and made her life elsewhere an adult.

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In the essay “My Father’s Gloves,” Peter Orner describes the “soul-defining” episode of having stealthily taken a pair of expensive lamb-skin leather gloves his father loved. Orner takes the gloves with him to the new house where he lives with his mother and brother after his parents’ divorce. He takes them to college. He takes them to Namibia where the desert nights were very cold. But Orner never actually wears the gloves. Not once. He imagines many scenarios — all the opportunities he could have seized to return the gloves. When he comes to the part in the story where he has to explain his motivation for taking them in the first place, “the story kept collapsing.”

“Well-made things eventually deteriorate,” writes Peter Orner, and shares that the “gloves are no longer baby-soft. All the handless years have dried them up.” He admits at last that he “never wanted the gloves.” Not the gloves. It was never about the gloves.

In O’Brien’s “The Doll” when the protagonist must return home to see to a relative’s funeral, the protagonist has occasion to visit the teacher’s home. The teacher is dead, but the “confiscated” doll remains in her china cabinet. O’Brien writes, “if dolls can age, it certainly had. Gray and moldy, the dress and cloak are as a shroud and I thought If I were to pick her up, she would disintegrate.”

The teacher had treasured it so much, the doll sat in the same spot for decades. Or maybe she didn’t really care about the doll itself and that’s why it sat frozen in the same space for all that time — untouched and unappreciated.

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Traci Griffin
Peter Orner

Peter Orner writes that “our imaginations sometimes fail us for a reason. Not because it is cathartic to tell the truth, but because coming clean may be a better, if smaller, story. A scared and angry and bewildered kid takes his father’s gloves and ends up carrying them around with him from place to place, rented apartment to rented apartment. Sometimes he takes them out and feels them, but never puts them on.”

For the protagonist lamenting the loss of the doll in O’Brien’s story, the reason for her feeling bereft becomes the mystery of the story.

What else was lost back there—in the hometown of childhood, that place of the stresses and slights of a front hall of a family home in Chicago or a small schoolroom in Ireland, those spaces where raised hands signal that we want to be seen, accepted, or loved in some way.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.