“Take me stitch by stitch”: of Embodiment and Violence in Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

In 2013, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Eimear McBride’s debut novel, was published. In a contemporary patriarchal and catholic society, a young Irish girl, whose name is never mentioned, grows in a household where abuse prevails and under the shadow of her older brother who, as a kid, miraculously survived a brain tumour which leaves him with sequels that their mother does not want to face. Bearing this, while the protagonist is growing up, and already since she is in her mother’s womb, she is embedded in a discourse where the female figures are subjugated to their masculine counterparts. Amongst the various types of violence exerted on her, the most important one is the sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of her uncle when she is 13 years old, an experience upon which she begins exploring her body and its boundaries in damaging ways that result in her suicide by drowning on a river. Divided in five parts, each separated in chapters, the narrative is conveyed by a fragmentary stream of consciousness that blends full sentences with phrases, repetitions with silences, and, at its climax, lower-case letters with upper-case ones.

Amidst the multiple qualities that are to be recognized in this novel, the one I find most remarkable for the construction of female bodies—one of McBride’s preoccupations in her corpus—is the relation established between embodiment and the language as a vehicle of its representation. As a starting point, I understand body “as a natural, physical entity and as produced through cultural, discursive practices” (Pilcher y Whelehan 9). Since my intention in studying McBride’s narrative is to abstract her proposal for the representation of female bodies, in this brief essay I analyze three ways in which fragmentation articulates the rupture of the protagonist’s identity—fragmentations that, paradoxically, construct her: the relationship with her sibling; the contraposition of her own discourse to that of her grandfather; and the language crisis reached during two instances of sexual abuse.

The novel begins before the birth of the protagonist and with the unexpected reduction of the brother’s tumour. In fact, it starts with a phrase, “For you” (3), followed by an incomplete sentence, “You’ll soon” (3). These are connected with a third clause, “You’ll give her name” (3), which is the axis—and decree—by which the girls is constructed. The lack of concretion that we behold in this introduction is what characterizes the whole narrative. For this family, the father’s departure means that the son will take his place as “the man of the house”, but his vulnerability does not allow him to fit into the normativity that this role demands. The aforementioned vulnerability is one of the consequences of his survival, which is made explicit, physically, by the scar on his head and his spasms (49) and, psychologically, by a cognitive disability that is judged as “brain-damaged” and “handicapped” (49). After the girl is born, their mother forces both of her children to process the world by means of a seemingly inescapable dependence on each other; they are supposed experience each of their individualities through each other’s eyes. Specifically, Mammy strengthens this dependency in statements such as the following: “I’m so glad your brother’s lived. That he’ll see you. It’ll all be. But” (5). By considering this, it is possible to conclude that the protagonist exists in relation to this specific male figure and, thus, is condemned to a lack of individuality.

The link between these two characters is visible in the sensations that the girl experiences when perceiving her surroundings. For example, the knowledge of her own body is conveyed by the type of language used in her brother’s medical treatment: “Feeling limbs feeling. Pins and. Needles” (42). Besides, their bond is found too in the impossibility of uttering the family trauma, since they are supposed to “Hide all the memory” (39). Even if Mammy insists on the brother being the protector of the protagonist, it is this younger sibling who takes the responsibility of his later (social, emotional, and physical) survival due to her awareness of his vulnerable condition, as the next three instances indicate it. First, during her teenage years, she deviated the harassment her brother was getting from their male schoolmates by having intercourse with them, an attempt to channel her anger, detrimentally. Second, when she moved to the city, she keeps thinking of “you”, her brother, sometimes with guilt and sometimes as a comfort, but always depicting him as an incomplete entity. Lastly, on the brother’s deathbed, she is the one who comforts and accompanies him:

My. lllllllllllllllll. Love my. Brother no.
He’s gone. He’s gone. Goodbye. (188)

Her sibling’s death is one of the multiple emotional fractures that the protagonist has to endure. In the previous quote, the articulation of the girl’s experiences is found in the fragmentation of words and sounds—that painful “l” that prolongs the lament of her loss. In clear contrast to this broken discourse, Mammy’s father is introduced; even if his appearance is not constant in the narrative, the weight of his words is latent. Granda arrives to this household “like bolts out of the blue” (13) to judge his daughter’s reality, one that does not fit his herteronotmative, religious, and harsh teachings. An allegedly reformed alcoholic, this male character establishes a doxal discourse whose authority is demonstrated in the two-page-long sermon that the girl witnesses. Granda’s speech begins with an imperative—“Sit down youngster and tell me what have you been at since I was here last” (14)—and ends with a demonstration of his power upon Mammy: “Because I’m her Daddy so if I say it she has to give you a smack” (15). In opposition to the protagonist’s enunciation, the grandfather’s is in full sentences. Throughout these two pages, McBride does not allow any other voice to intervene within this male figure’s discourse, which reinforces the catholic and patriarchal doctrine by which the protagonist is supposed to live: “Your body is a temple for Christ” (14).

In this understanding, the girl associates sexuality with guilt. Granda deems her as immoral because she “intentionally” shows her underwear—even if she was only two years old at the time. The mother, as a consequence, physically unravels her violence and frustration on the infants, causing a nosebleed in her daughter. As a narrative strategy, these physical impositions on the body and its bleeding are later linked to the rape of the protagonist—which is also her first sexual experience—when her uncle prompts her to reflect on “lust” (51) and leaves her feeling “lost” (53) afterwards. This sexual abuse is expressed in the following manner:

Fuck me if he could and I and I and I. … He did not get me after all.
Oh but he did. I’m lying. I am not I am. … Pull my skirt down by my ankles. Shed. And it was so quiet that I could hear him open me. … Oh God. It hurts me take it out. It. … It hurts me. And kissing and choking me. Almost too much of my body taken up. (57-8)

Hurt and shocked, the girl ponders her virginity—another one of the social constructs imposed on female bodies—and concludes, consequently, “He rip me” (59). This fragmented condition is visible in the repetition of words, for it alludes to an emptiness of meaning, and the short phrases; this condition is, too, the one constant that permeates her posterior sexual encounters. The protagonist begins looking for “something” from this moment onwards, a noun that, in itself, does not have a specific referent. She continues facing predators, including the uncle, up to the point to which she is confronted with the recognition of “These are my bits. My pieces” (152). In the following paragraphs I synthetize the two moments of sexual abuse that best depict the girl’s incapacity to articulate these experiences and, therefore, her inability to recognize herself as a whole, autonomous, individual.

When a resentful predator hunts her as a form of revenge on her uncle, who had previously hit him, the incomplete phrases of the protagonist lose the logical grammatical sense that they suggested before: “You’re hurt me” (192); “Rips the I think dig them through my leg he” (193). Even the sound is distorted, alluding only to probable words, as is evidenced in “Doos the fuck the fuckink slatch in me” (192). The spelling in these changes as well given that the girl does not manage to understand what she is being forced to: “Kom shitting ut h mith fkng kmg” (193). Her physical pain increases, and this can only be demonstrated by altering lower-case letters with upper-case ones in the speech particles that had elicited coherence once: “Soon I’n dead I’m sre. Loose. Ver the aIrWays. Here. mY nose my mOuth I. VOMit. Clear. CleaR. He stepS up gETs. Look. And I breath. And I breath my” (194). Although this is the climax of the novel, after scarcely surviving this atrocity, the torture is extended by Mammy’s rejection and judgement of her daughter—making an assumption about what had happened and blaming her for it. To add to the already almost-unbearable tension, the uncle takes advantage of this in order to sexually rape the protagonist again, which terminates in an agglutination, full of inversions, that signals the ultimate loss of sense: “Stick it ionthe don’tinside wwherhtewaterisswimming htrooughmynoseandmouth throughmysense myorgands sthroughmythrough” (197).

That “something” that the protagonist was trying to turn into concreteness since the moment she is forcefully awakened to her sexuality remains intangible, while her corporeal reality is heightened by a very delimited pain: “I’m only here in my bones and flesh” (198). As it is possible to observe in these three instances of fragmentation, the girl’s identity is constructed by the ruptures produced by the different types of violence that are exerted upon her. Said types of violence emanate from the impositions dictated to her due to her physical condition—being a female body—and the cultural and social mandates enforced on her. Her grandfather is the character that represents the dominant discourse in this narrative since he establishes the catholic doctrine that the protagonist tries to fight against, failing. Based on the guilt taught in the catholic religion, the girl attempts to purify herself in the river, which ultimately leads to her suicide. On the same note, since Mammy is the one who subjugates the protagonist to the figure of the brother, the girl understands her reality only in a hampered way, which is then utterly lost when the sibling, her counterpart, dies. Lastly, the sexual abuses to which the protagonist is victim are translated into a complete loss of her sense of identity and language, visible in the fading of her name in the sentences that closes the oeuvre: “My name is gone” (203). All that has been said supports the paradoxical nature of McBride’s artistic representation: the author creates a painfully specific experience of female embodiment by means of her gradual decomposition. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the title of the novel signals to a scarcity of wholeness; we are, indeed, in the presence of a half-formed girl.

Carolina Ulloa

McBride, Eimear. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Londres: Faber & Faber, 2013. 1-205. Print.

Works Cited

McBride, Eimear. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Londres: Faber & Faber, 2013. Print.
Torras Francés, Meri. “Embodiment (embodimén)”. Barbarismos queer y otras esdrújulas. Eds. R. Lucas Platero Méndez, María Rosón Villena y Esther Ortega Arjonilla. Barcelona: Ediciones Bellatera, 2017. 161-167. Print.
Pilcher, Jane e Imelda Whelehan. “Introduction”. Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies. Londres, Thousand Oaks y Nueva Deli: Sage Publications, 2004. PDF.