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Mary, Mary

James Stephens


Sixteen-year-old Mary Makebelieve shares a small room with her mother, a charwoman, in the tenements of early twentieth-century Dublin. While Mrs. Makebelieve is at work cleaning the houses of the wealthy, Mary wanders around the city and its parks absorbed in daydreams. Her encounter with a policeman who appears to signal romantic interest in her is the beginning of Mary’s coming-of-age story, which combines elements of folk- or fairytale with a complex vision of human psychology and the relations between various social groups: mothers and daughters, men and women, the rich and the poor, the young and the old.

Written in 1910 and first published the following year as a serial in the short-lived Irish Review (a periodical co-founded by Stephens himself), Mary, Mary was his first published work of prose fiction. According to critic Augustine Martin, it’s the first novel written about Dublin’s slums, the squalor and despair of which Stephens had experienced first-hand in his youth.

Martin suggests in his critical study of Stephens that it’s this novel, of all Stephens’ works, that most clearly articulates the driving idea of his literary career: the gap between the hard reality that human beings must endure, and the aspirations of reverie whose realization we seek through imagination.

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