The Ante-Room by Kate O’Brien

Set in Ireland in 1880 The Ante-Room is an interesting story about a woman torn between her duty as a devout Christian and her love for an inaccessible man. Agnes Mulqueen is a beautiful, bright, unmarried woman who lives with her mother, father, and brother. Her mother is dying of cancer and her brother has syphilis and is thus doomed to a life under his mother’s watchful and protective eye without the hope of marriage. These situations set the dark and weighty tone of the novel.

Agnes gets news that her sister Rose-Marie is coming for a visit. Agnes misses her sister deeply and is resentful that she has married and moved away. She is immediately excited about the visit but her inner thoughts are just as quickly trampled by the thought that her brother-in-law Vincent may accompany Rose-Marie. Agnes is in love with Vincent though she knows that her love can never go anywhere. In an attempt to refresh her soul, prepare for the visit, and prepare to pray for her mother’s recovery Agnes attends confession. She is immediately relieved but is worried that it may not last.

    She must prepare herself to give that help-for what it might be worth. But for honesty and safety in attempting it she knew that, even at this short notice, she must face and overcome that which against all her will had in the last three months begun again to luxuriate and flower in her spirit. For some reason of fatigue and recklessness, she had allowed her rigorous conscience a little sleep of late, and her forbidden love a space, though small, to move and turn and hurt her.

The story centers on Agnes of course but also on other couples in the novel, particularly how their outward appearances are shockingly different from their inward feelings and hidden actions. Agnes seems to be the only one that can see those around her from the inside out. Other extreme contrasts are the fine furnishings and adornments throughout the house and on the players as draped against such a gloomy and dark situation. The cover of my copy evokes this gloom and even the photo seems a bit blurred.

Agnes is an interesting character, she is extremely selfless and is desperate to do what is expected of her, but it seems that expectations in her home and her life are suffocating her. I think the fight between what is morally right by society’s concerns versus intense desire is a common conflict but I don’t think I have ever read a story where the character was so torn and fought so hard to remain true to her beliefs, or rather society’s beliefs. Agnes is resolute and is determined to fight her desires. At confession she urges herself to remain cold and unfeeling.

    Her heart contracted in pain, and simultaneously she thought that this calm which she was enforcing upon agitation was probably very like the calm a murderer would assume. She was going to murder the only thing which could be said to live in her heart.

I wondered throughout the novel if Agnes’ actions were influenced more by her religion or by her role as a woman in society. If she were to act on her emotions she would be disgraced and her reputation and purity ruined. I don’t think a man would have to worry so heavily about these same issues.

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6 responses to “The Ante-Room by Kate O’Brien

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