Mothers in Short Fiction

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Encompassing such themes as the mother’s role in the domestic sphere, procreation, the vocation of the writer, child-rearing, gender prejudice, social activism, social conformity, identity, and sexuality, short stories involving the experience of the mother also delve into such subject matter as patriarchal structures, the myth of the “ideal” mother, and preoedipal desire for the mother-figure.

Among the earliest short stories to evoke critical debate over its depiction of motherhood is American writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s tale “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” (1890). Considered a powerful narrative, the tale centers on beleaguered New England farm wife and mother Sarah Penn, who for forty years has waited for her husband, Adoniram, to build the family a spacious, new home. When Adoniram constructs a new barn instead, Sarah, in his absence, relocates the family and its possessions to the barn. Upon his return, Adoniram is shocked at the living arrangements, though he agrees to convert the barn into a suitable living space for the family. Stressing that the tale spurred a closer examination of the hardships experienced by American farm women, a number of critics contend that “Revolt” drew attention to the then-prevalent debate over disparate spending on farms, with the bulk of finances on turn-of-the-twentieth-century farms being invested in crops, livestock, and property rather than in family homes. In fact, the plight of the farm woman became so identified with Sarah’s situation in “Revolt” that “by 1910,” as Ellen Gruber Garvey (see Further Reading) points out, “the title phrase [the revolt of “Mother”] had become something of a touchstone.”

In addition to emphasizing gender-specific finances, many critics read “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” as an empowering feminist challenge to patriarchal conventions and the subordination of women. Brian White, for instance, emphasizes the numerous allusions to Biblical texts in the tale, pointing out that these references to justice, hypocrisy, faith, truth, and obedience support the mother’s actions in attacking patriarchal beliefs and behaviors. Michael Grimwood contests this notion.

Focusing on issues of architecture and gender politics in the story, Grimwood argues that “Revolt” constitutes an autobiographical lament for a lost patriarchal society, and he links the story to Wilkins’s own unstable family history that included a father who as a failed house builder could not support his family, and a husband who drank excessively and ended up in a mental institution. Analyzing the tale as a longing for an authoritative father, one who resists being dominated and emasculated by women, Grimwood further purports that the “Mother” of the story is not a “real” mother, as a “real” mother would neither rebel against nor tyrannize her husband.

Several critics describe Nina Sutherland Purdy’s (1889-1952) tale “Mothering: The Story of a Revolt” (1916) as a revision of Wilkins’s “Revolt,” in which the former moves away from the notion of defiance toward the idea that improved living conditions on the farm lead to a more pleasurable and loving family environment. Concentrating on the audiences of early-twentieth-century farm women’s magazines, which consisted in large part of farm women who had begun to seek better lives in cities and towns, or who were looking to ameliorate the difficulties of their rural lives, critics have documented how these publications made their readers appealing to advertisers.

The magazines ran stories painting farm families as well-to-do consumers who could block the mass exodus of young women by making their farmhouses aesthetically pleasing and fashionable. This transformation would inevitably lead to renewed love between mother and children and inspire the children to remain at home. “Mothering,” according to Garvey, fits precisely into this narrative vein, as it features Mary Dingman, a lonely farm wife and mother who hopes desperately that her daughter will remain on the farm into adulthood. While her daughter is absent from the home for an extended period of time, Mary, with the help of a neighboring farm woman, transforms the family farmhouse by redecorating and painting it, and acquires new, feminine clothes for herself. The stylish beauty of the family’s refurbished home results in a more pleasurable and companionable mother-daughter relationship and inspires the daughter to decide against leaving the farm for the city.

Two late nineteenth-century short story collections, Keynotes (1893) and Discords (1894), overturn conventional Victorian notions of motherhood. Considered “shocking” and “immoral” by late nineteenth-century- critics, the tales center on female characters who rebel against societal constraints regarding morality, motherly duty, marital obligations, sexuality, and financial transactions.

Written by Australian writer George Egerton (the pseudonym of Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright), the stories are often spoken of as emanating out of the author’s own unconventional experiences, which include living out of wedlock with a man who had already had two wives. “New Woman” sympathizers and supporters of the women’s suffrage movement embraced the tales, celebrating their frank sexuality and their candid expression of women’s emotions. Considering “Egerton’s status as a trailblazer in the 1890s,” critic Nicole M. Fluhr contends that in her stories Egerton also reconceptualized the relationship between motherhood and the vocation of writer, which, by Victorian standards, were considered to be two utterly conflicting occupations. According to Fluhr, Egerton’s stories present maternity and artistic/intellectual labor as not only a harmonizing and complementary relationship, but also as preferable to an either/or existence.

A number of stories about mothers revolve around the notion of the “ideal” mother. Discussing Irish writer James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners (1914), whose tales depict in harsh, realistic detail the lives of the Dublin proletariat, Linda Rohrer Paige explores what she sees as Joyce’s ambiguous, contradictory portrayals of mothers. On the surface, Paige proposes, these characters are seen as superlative models of motherhood—thoughtful, kind, and protective of the interests of their children.

On a deeper level, however, particularly as evidenced in stories told from the perspective of offspring or spouses, the mothers are revealed as repressive, self-centered, manipulative, and sexually perverted, with a paralyzing hold on the emotions and sexuality of their children. Margot Norris adopts an opposing point of view in her assessment of “A Mother” (from Dubliners), which turns on Mrs. Kearney’s involvement in a dispute over a breach of contract regarding her daughter’s piano accompaniment for several Dublin concerts. Reading against conventional analyses that regard Mrs. Kearney as “unfeminine,” boorish, tyrannical, and ambitious, Norris claims that Joyce’s intent in telling the tale from the gender-prejudiced perspective of the narrator (who creates in the reader’s mind a harsh picture of Mrs. Kearney before the woman even enters the narrative) was to expose the unjust condemnation heaped upon women activists when they attempt to negotiate in the legal, artistic, or financial worlds.

In another twist on the notion of the “ideal” mother, Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg’s “La Madre” (1948) tells of the estrangement and isolation experienced by a young, widowed mother in a post-World War II Italian family. Forced to work in order to provide for her children, the mother eventually commits suicide, while her children, two boys, are seen as adjusting easily to her death and subsequently living lives of contentment. Critic Adalgisa Giorgio expounds on how the perspective of the children provides the conduit through which dominant, traditional patriarchal attitudes regarding “ideal” motherhood flow.

However, Giorgio maintains, the author’s ironic use of a third-person narratorial presence allows a separate, “covert” viewpoint to emerge, one through which societal prejudices are exposed. Among these prejudices are the failure to regard the mother as an individual with her own physical, emotional, and psychological needs, and the expectation that the mother provide a nurturing and safe environment while at the same time being alienated from this source of comfort (which is reserved for the children). Offering a parody of the idea of the “good-enough” mother is Spanish writer Almudena Grandes’s “Amor de madre” (1996), about a mother who embraces an intensely authoritarian posture in the only context in which she can claim some power—as the mother of her daughter. In the story, the mother, whose only satisfaction lies in her daughter’s complete dependence on her, is driven to alcoholism when her daughter rejects her forceful insistence on assimilation to patriarchal ideology. The daughter’s complete passivity is achieved only after a devastating accident, when she becomes an invalid addicted to painkillers due to her mother’s “help.” Linking the philosophy of the “good-enough” mother to patriarchal attitudes and white domination, Christine Arkinstall explores how in “Amor de madre” Grandes relates the “good-enough” mentality to the sociopolitical environment of Spain during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, as well as to modern-day Spain, where patriarchal norms and male oppression are seen as perpetuating the notion that women are obliged to serve society by raising moral children and remaining at home in order to attend solely to their children’s needs.

In other stories centered on the relationship between mothers and daughters, hostility, identity, and storytelling figure as prominent themes. The connection between violence—particularly that inflicted by mothers on their daughters—and the patriarchal mores of the Arab-Muslim world informs a number of Algerian writer Assia Djebar’s stories collected in Oran, langue morte (1997; The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry). In particular, reviewers have addressed Djebar’s incorporation into her short stories of the contrasting figures of the “mother-executioner” and the “mother-liberator” in a culture in which a daughter represents a threat to the mother, both because the daughter represents the failure of the mother to fulfill her role of producing a son, and because the daughter can bring shame and disgrace upon the entire family by engaging in what Muslim society deems “unacceptable” behavior.

Also Read:  Adultery in 19th-Century Literature

American writer Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” (1989) treats cultural identity as it turns on the conflict between a Chinese immigrant mother and her lofty expectations for her daughter, whom the mother believes is not doing her “best.” As Kirsten Dinnall Hoyte reflects on whether or not the daughter deliberately sabotages her mother’s expectations of her, the critic relates the tale to her own struggles as the daughter of immigrants, whose entire life has been defined by her efforts to straddle both African American and West Indian culture. Celebrating the self-effacing humor and flair for oral storytelling exhibited by her mother, the daughter-narrator of Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother” (1983) centers on the domestic sphere, drawing attention to the female source of the family’s storytelling tradition. Observing how the stories span everyday events in the mother’s life from when she was a youngster until she has grown children, critic Reingard M. Nischik emphasizes how the story reflects the transformation of the narrator into a writer/storyteller, as the stories move from recapitulations of events recalled by the mother to aesthetic creations crafted through the imaginative capabilities of her daughter.

In contrast to this portrait of an artistically rich relationship between mother and daughter, dominating and suffocating mothers populate a number of stories featuring mother-son relationships. In the semi-autobiographical “Soldier’s Home” (1925) by American writer Ernest Hemingway, battle-weary U.S. Marine Harold Krebs returns home from the Western front of World War I to an overbearing mother who treats him like a child. As critics J. Gerald Kennedy and Kirk Curnutt contend, though Krebs desires to detach himself from this domestic authority figure, he is depicted as a confused, estranged, and almost clownish figure who cannot break from dependence on his mother. Through a reference in the tale to American writer Gertrude Stein’s 1922 piece “Accents in Alsace,” Kennedy and Curnutt also speculate that the story points to Hemingway’s resolve to sever his artistic dependence on Stein and break psychologically from this substitute mother-figure.

Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas dealt with a controlling and oppressive mother in an allegorical manner in his 1989 story “El Cometa Halley” (“Halley’s Comet”). Opening in 1891, the tale is seen as supposing a humorous conclusion to Spanish writer Federico García Lorca’s play La casa de Bernarda Alba, in which a sexually repressive and domineering mother confines her five daughters to their home. Arenas’s story has the daughters rebel and escape their mother’s tyrannical rule by moving to Cuba. There they experience what is characterized as liberating sexual revelry involving both a large-scale orgy and an incestuous relationship between one daughter and her illegitimate son. According to Jorge Olivares, the idea of women being consumed by sexual relations with a man mirrors the author’s own homosexual desires for the same, while the narrative revolving around a mother who sexually frees and initiates her son into sexual ecstasy reflects a pre-oedipal fantasy in which an idyllic and pleasurable mother-son bonding is achieved.

Reinaldo Arenas

  • “El Cometa Halley” 1989; published in Exceso; published as “Halley’s Comet” (translated by Dolores M. Koch) in Hopscotch 2000

Margaret Atwood

  • “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother” 1983; published in Atwood’s Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories

Julio Cortázar

  • “Cartas de mamá” 1959; published in Las armas secretas
  • “La salud de los enfermos” 1966; published in Todos los fuegos el fuego
  • “Historias que me cuento” 1981; published in Queremos tanto a Glenda
  • “Deshoras” 1982; published in Deshoras; published as “Unreasonable Hours” (translated by Alberto Manguel) 1995

Assia Djebar

  • Oran, langue morte (short stories) 1997; published as The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry: Algerian Stories (translated by Tegan Raleigh) 2006

George Egerton (pseudonym of Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright)

  • Keynotes 1893
  • Discords 1894

Jacques Ferron

  • “Le petit William” 1961; published in L’information médicale et paramédicale; published as “Little William” (translated by Larry Shouldice) 1971

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

  • “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” 1890; published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine; published in revised form in Wilkins Freeman’s A New England Nun and Other Stories 1891

Natalia Ginzburg

  • “La Madre” 1948

Almudena Grandes

  • “Amor de madre” 1996; published in Grandes’s Modelos de mujer
  • “La buena hija” 1996; published in anthology Madres e hijas

Ernest Hemingway

  • “Soldier’s Home” 1925; published in anthology Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers

Nellie F. Jolly

  • “Millie Waters’s Declaration of Independence: Self Respect Creates Respect from Others” 1913; published in Farmer’s Wife

James Joyce

  • Dubliners 1914

Alice Munro

  • “Goodness and Mercy” 1990; published in Munro’s Friend of My Youth: Stories
  • “My Mother’s Dream” 1998; published in Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman: Stories
  • “Save the Reaper” 1998; published in New Yorker; published in revised form in The Love of a Good Woman: Stories 1998

Tillie Olsen

  • “I Stand Here Ironing” 1961; published in Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle: A Collection

Grace Paley

  • “Faith in a Tree” 1974; published in Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

Nina Sutherland Purdy

  • “Mothering: The Story of a Revolt” 1916; published in Woman’s World

Clara Sereni

  • “La figlia buona” 1995; published in Eppure

Amy Tan

  • “Two Kinds” 1989; published in Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

John Updike

  • Olinger Stories: A Selection 1964
  • “His Mother inside Him” 1992; published in New Yorker

Eudora Welty

  • The Golden Apples 1949

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