Within the context of issues raised within ‘Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory,’ ‘Sister Imelda’ by Edna O’Brien explores some, though not all of the issues raised. The chapter entitled Secrets explores the issues of theoretical literature and how we as readers may miss, or discard, certain elements of the novel which actually shape the novel, and our impressions of it. The chapter title Secrets comes from Frank Kermode in an essay entitled Secrets and Narrative Sequence. A novel will follow a usual path, having a structured sequence which makes it easy to read. Novels with ‘secrets’ are ‘at odds with sequence’ and in turn create mystery within the reading of the novel. Sister Imelda follows this mysterious narrative sequence.
O’Brien’s story does follow a conventional path with mystery, as do all novels in the sense that secrets are concealed and may come to light, as the author cannot reveal everything on the same page, and so a narrative sequence must follow a logical pattern. In this novel, this does occur in the sense that there are secrets, but these will remain so. ‘Every narrative can be defined as a process of unfolding and revelation. It is precisely because there are things that remain hidden from us and because we want to know what these things are, that we continue to read.’ In one sense, this is exactly why we continue to read this story, but on a deeper level, the secrets and mysteries held within the text due to language and repetition of patterns are also what drive us to continue reading. This form is also known as the ‘hermeneutic code’ and this is associated with the creation of an enigma within a text. We ask why our narrator is so interested in Sister Imelda; the language that is used conveys a mystery across to us. We know as we continue through the text that the nun is an object of affection to our narrator, but questions rose, which will eventually be unanswered, keep us reading and keep that sense of mystery which is a central pull on this story.
A critical issue is that of the omniscient narrator. Our narrator hints at times of knowing the future, leaving us to ponder her fate. Speaking of Sister Imelda, she states that ‘I had no idea how terribly she would infiltrate my life.’ This is an older narrator reflecting on the effect the nun would have upon her, but to add to the mystery she continues to say she would be ‘rather a special one almost like a ghost who passed the boundaries of common exchange and who crept inside one, devouring so much of one’s thoughts, so much of one’s passion, invading the place that was called one’s heart.’ What does she mean by this? These are the questions the secrets allow you to ask, this is precisely what an omniscient narrator wants you to ask, it is at once a provocative statement which will not be answered within the novel. In relation to this, and to a critical issue discussed, is J.Hillis Miller’s statement that ‘a true secret, if there is such a thing, cannot ever, by any means be revealed.’ So we are never to know the true meaning of the relationship between the narrator and the nun. This is only exacerbated by exchanged notes between the characters, with verses written
‘Twice or thrice had I loved thee
Before I knew thy face or name.’
Do we take this literally and think they loved each other, or only in a platonic sense? This will never be clarified and we continue to ask questions about it, but will only have our own opinions as to the reality. To juxtapose the former statement, there is an idea that secrets within the text are not actually secret at all, they are laid bare on the surface for all to see and interpret at our leisure, language within the text will demonstrate what is actually happening and that is that. If we are to take our short story in this latter context, then everything you think is occurring is actually occurring. This then can be argued on a personal point of view as to what secrets there are.
A critical issue of secrecy can be discussed with the title in mind. The title Sister Imelda is a secret, a mystery in itself. Why is this nun so popular over the other nuns? Why do the girls adore her, as is suggested by their constant questioning of her likes and wishes after a game of rounders. Secrets of the nun on a literary level come in the form of secrets about her hair colour and the secrets of her personality. Secrets on a deeper level can be conveyed through the choice of title; why two words, why not more. Why state the nun’s name at all? These again are critical theory issues that tie in with the notion of secrecy.
Finally, the last major critical issue put forward is that the notion of secrecy allows us to think about the secrets hidden within ourselves that are brought forward because of those hinted at in the story. The narrator says that ‘In me then there came a sort of speechless tenderness for her and I might have known that I was stirred.’ While wondering what ‘stirred’ exactly means to the narrator, this sentence, and key word may cause the reader to remember a time when they themselves were in a similar situation, and this allows us not only to picture the scene, but to identify with the narrator. Textual patterns will also allow us to associate events in the text with events in our own lives. Words and images used will continue to do this within the story, using the theory of ‘secrets’ as an anchor for this.