Bodies of Shame and the Shame of Bodies: Reading the Gendered Shame Complex in the Fiction of John McGahern and Edna O’Brien

  • Laura Schlüter

Student thesis: Phd


Critical analysis of the representation of shame in modern Irish fiction is noticeable only by its relative absence from the field. Indeed, there is a marked scarcity of scholarship that even acknowledge the presence of shame as a theme, and fewer still that explore its role and function. This project seeks to address this deficit by interrogating the place of shame in a modern Irish context, with specific reference to the work of two of Ireland’s pre-eminent twentieth-century novelists, John McGahern (1934-2006) and Edna O’Brien (b. 1930). This thesis argues the following: that, firstly, shame – both political and personal – represents a key element in the evolution of the postcolonial Irish cultural imagination; secondly, an approach to the modern Irish novel in terms of shame – or, to be more precise, a gendered shame complex – can lead to a new understanding of the relationship between gender, sexuality and nationality in the country’s cultural and political consciousness; and thirdly, in order to imagine a literature in which the postcolonial residue has been overcome, the concepts of ‘shame’ and ‘postcolonial existence’ must first be uncoupled. This project examines the presence and function of a shame complex in the works of McGahern and O’Brien using a gendered framework. It analyses both how shame is constructed and instilled in the psychological identity of characters, as well as the political and social utilisation of this transmitted shame complex by prevailing hegemonic power structures. In so doing, this thesis traces what I will argue is a transgenerational shame complex which indicates, on a literary level, a nation already bearing internally generated national scars. It additionally argues that intersectionality – that is, the tendency to accrete multiple power relations such as nation, sexuality and gender – must start to be troubled. Using a gendered approach, this project examines the different workings of shame in both male and female characters in the work of McGahern and O’Brien. It traces how these differences, however subtle, complicate the stereotypical fixed gender roles promulgated by twentieth-century Irish patriarchal, political, religious and educational discourses. This thesis is principally interested in how the shame complex is employed by both patriarchy and Catholicism to produce and transmit a gendered ideology, and how the characters are portrayed as responding to, subverting or conforming to this ideology. Shame plays a particularly prominent and powerful role in the regulation and self-regulation of the body to conform to fixed gender roles. In order to examine the militancy with which slippages and non-conformity are persecuted in order to privilege the heteronormative values of the hegemonic discourse, the instability of these roles is probed in order to unpack the culturally elusive but powerful phantom of ‘normal’ which starts to emerge in this period.
Date of Award1 Aug 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorLaura Doan (Supervisor) & Liam Harte (Supervisor)


  • ireland
  • hypermascuulinity
  • postcolonial
  • modern ireland
  • sexuality
  • john mcgahern
  • failure
  • affect theory
  • shame
  • edna o'brien
  • gender

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