Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Mothers and the novel

In a salty and unsparing examination of her vampire romances, Mario the Epicurean gives Stephanie Meyer her due (“Twelve-year-old girls could do worse than Twilight. They could also do better—try Wuthering Heights, for Christ’s sake!”). The Meyer phenomenon is “nothing new,” he concludes, and not worth getting worked up over.

Along the way, he mentions my “effective dismissal” of Nina Baym’s theory that the “basic American story” melodramatizes the plight of men “beset” by women who seek to constrict and destroy them. In an interesting addendum to my refutation, Mario argues that Baym was seeking to distance herself from a feminism that, by elevating “great female achievement or exceptionality,” implicitly downgrades motherhood. Since mothers are women, Baym insisted that “gender is only the ground of the analysis,” and she had to locate—or to invent, in my view—the source of hostility to the feminine and maternal in American novels by men, since she was not about to blame it upon feminism.

Mario is having none of it. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again,” he declares, throwing down a gauntlet: “there are good reasons to be hostile to mothers.” After criticizing the concept of the mother in Freudian psychoanalysis, Mario lowers the boom:

The mother is an authority figure, every bit as much of one and as forbidding a one as the father. Successful individuation means overthrowing maternal as well as paternal authority, and these two forms of authority may in the end be more similar than dissimilar.I am not qualified to comment upon psychoanalysis, and my firsthand experience of mothers, although cutting against Mario’s assertions, is limited to two of them—my own mother, a coal miner’s daughter from southern Indiana, and my wife, the mother of our four children—and personal experience, therefore, does not provide a large enough sample from which to generalize. In my field of expertise, though, there are abundant counter-examples. Mario is a far more rewarding critic than anyone who rushes to “update” Baym’s rusted-out thesis (and a better writer too), but about mothers in the novel, at least, he is just plain wrong.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have praised novels by women—Cather’s My Ántonia and Cynthia Ozick’s two-part novella The Shawl—in which motherhood is represented as a moral category. In Cather, a country is defined by its mothers, who stay on and “maintain it as a home to which the exiles can return.” They are, in short, the source of patriotism. In Ozick, meanwhile, they are “the source of consciousness, of conscience, the ground of being. . . .” The words are Ozick’s. It is the mother who remembers the past, the fond moments that subside, the terrible losses that remain, and memory is “the ground of being.” Thus the mother is the basis of culture.

One of the best novels ever written about a mother is Janet Lewis’s wonderful Against a Darkening Sky (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1943). It is the story of Mary Perrault, a young woman originally from Scotland, who came to the town of South Encina in California’s Santa Clara valley, married a warm and unpretentious man who earns his living as a gardener and breeder of rabbits, and raises four children with him. As the novel opens, the two oldest—seventeen-year-old Melanie and two-years-younger Duncan—are emerging from adolescence; or, as Mario might say, they are about to seek their success at individuation.

Her mother approves of Melanie’s eagerness for independence, but she is also worried about “the heartaches and loneliness” by which youth “arrives at self-sufficiency.” Coming home from the beach with her boyfriend one afternoon, Melanie sprawls on the sofa in front of him. Appalled by her manners, Mary is more brusque than she means to be, because she is unsure whether to interfere. After the boy has gone home, she scolds Melanie for exposing “quite so much of yourself.” Melanie accuses her of being as bad as the old Italian woman in the neighborhood who “thinks I’m going straight to Sodom and Gomorrah because I don’t have sleeves in my dresses.” Mary wishes she hadn’t interfered. And besides, Melanie is “no city child.” She knows the facts of life:But it was not of the facts that her mother had wished to speak, but of an emotion stranger than the facts, sometimes noble, sometimes ignoble, lifting and changing the spirit, sometimes overwhelming it, a dangerous and magnificent force, the source of life. Of this she had not been able to say a word.To show Melanie that she trusts her, Mary says nothing further about the subject. It is the “one effort of hers to educate her daughter.” From then on, she remains in the background, influencing Melanie without interference. But influence her she does.

One day Melanie comes home to find the house deserted. The stillness makes her more acutely aware of things she had always taken for granted. She studies her mother’s wedding portrait, when Mary was hardly older than she:She suddenly recognized her mother as an individual, a person distinct from the family which had grown up about her, and she began to realize from the reserve in her young mother’s eyes the knowledge of a deeper passion than she yet knew herself. . . . [Later] that evening as she lay in bed, waiting to fall asleep, she reached back through her memories, searching, and trying to set in order those recollections which would give her some picture of her mother as a young woman, and felt, somehow, in this effort, a new kinship with her mother, their common womanhood. She thought of herself as following her mother in a series of common experiences, of which the first was this restlessness and effervescence, this desire of bestowing herself, of being gracious and tender.So Mary had been able to speak of “an emotion stranger than the facts” after all—by not saying a word. Melanie begins to achieve “successful individuation” by recognizing her mother as an individual and not by throwing off Mary’s authority. Except for once, Mary has not tried to exercise authority over Melanie. Her quiet trust has the surprising effect of promoting her daughter’s individuality, which Melanie begins to come into by feeling a “common womanhood” with her mother.

As for Duncan. His mother also makes just one effort to educate him, but it is decisive. When her son puts on his jacket one evening to go with a friend to watch the lynching of two murderers, Mary announces that she will not have it. “I’ll not have you joining any gang of speakeasy drunks to help kill any man, no matter how bad he is,” she says. “And break the law, whatever little law there is left unbroken in this country.” Duncan protests that he and his friend are not going to kill anybody: “We’re just going to see the fun. You said yourself they ought to be lynched.” Mrs Perrault flies up at him:It’s one thing to say it and another to do it . . . and you know me well enough to know I’d not let any one of you have anything whatever to do with a killing. Fun! I’ll not have you standing and gawping at a murder. I’ll not have you a part of any crowd that does any such thing. I’ve never before, since you were in long pants, forbid you to do any single thing, that I mind, but I forbid you now. You’ll not go out of this house for any such purpose this night or any other night.Although she regrets the display of authority, she does no more than to reveal to Duncan the moral content of his own character. As he stands by the back door, trying to hear through the distance what is happening miles away, Duncan realizes that “[h]e had not wanted to participate in any action against the men in the jail. He knew now that he had not wanted to be in the mob at all.” His mother has given voice to the “dreadful uneasiness” that had possessed him since the murderers’ arrest and the discovery of their victim’s body. As the novel ends, Duncan looks up and sees his mother “mending a pair of old corduroy pants, her head bent forward, the greyed brown hair brushed back loosely from the clear, lined forehead.” It is an image of steadiness and reassurance, not an authority that must be thrown off, and these are exactly the qualities that a young man requires for “successful individuation.”

I could heap up other examples: May Welland in The Age of Innocence, who raises her son Dallas to believe, as his father does not, that marriage and family are rooted in a deeper passion than turbulent desire; Genya Schearl in Call It Sleep, who defends her beloved son David from his father’s brutal authority; Bigger Thomas’s mother in Native Son, whose inconsolable wretchedness in her son’s jail cell stands in stark and dignified contrast to the voluble authority of the men who file in to counsel and hector him; or Ellen Fairchild in Delta Wedding, who influences her children by remaining an outsider to their Jim Crow ways.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: American literature does not give good reasons to be hostile to mothers, because it does not give many mothers at all. Every now and then, however, you will stumble upon a book that reminds you that mothers represent the ordinary successes in life, including the success of being an individual. Without them no individuality is even possible—at least if Janet Lewis, and a very few of her peers, are to be trusted.


R. T. said...

This does not advance your thesis, but your comments remind me of the curious failures and singularities of mothers throughout Flannery O'Connor's fiction. Some critics argue that O'Connor's approach to characterizations of mothers was influenced by her relationship with her own mother Regina. That is, I think, simply proffering a much too simple and too narrowly focused explanation. Instead, I think, O'Connor hardly ever encountered (and never created) any woman who could measure up to the Madonna figure that dominated her religious devotion; with that archetype hovering in the author's consciousness, it would have been surprising (and even heretical in her own mind) if O'Connor had created any earthly counterpart in her fiction (almost all of it mostly functioning as parables in furtherance of her religious "message"), so she was content to create temporal, one dimensional opposites to the complex Marian model.

D. G. Myers said...

Brilliant, Tim! I suspect that you’re right. I’ll have to think deeply about the influence of the biblical matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah) on Jewish conceptions of motherhood—Portnoy’s excepted, of course!

Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

Following R.T's post and your response, I quickly skimmed my shelves and found a few examples.

"A New Life", "More Die of Heartbreak" and "Herzog" all contain unflattering portrayals of mothers. I'm curious if you see these as examples of a hostility to mothers in American Literature, as expressions of a Jewish sensibility, or instead isolated examples that support neither?

Oh, I forgot Marilynne Robinson - her depictions of motherhood (especially in Housekeeping) appear to fit with R.T.'s comment on O'Connor - although I wonder if for the same reasons.


D. G. Myers said...

On Robinson. Probably not for the same reason. She is a notorious Calvinist.

On Malamud and Bellow. Although I need to think about your excellent examples, my instinct is to say that they are (in your fine phrase) “isolated examples that support neither” a claim that American fiction in general is hostile to mothers or a generalizing claim about the Jewish sensibility.

I was thinking of Francine Prose’s Changed Man before reading your comment, Jonathan. Bonnie is a “helicopter parent,” constantly worrying about her two sons and unable to connect with them, until Vincent Nolan comes into their life. He ends up making Bonnie a better mother—is that an odd message for a woman novelist?

Jonathan said...

Although it might be an odd choice for a "woman" novelist, for a good novelist it seems reasonable. I think it as puzzling as Robinson writing Gilead - not too much.

I mean, I hope women authors (as, too, any other identifiable group) wouldn't undermine their fiction by insisting it further a political end. If a novel is political so be it, but it shouldn't need be.

R. T. said...

Ah, I don't know about the word "brilliant" being appended to anything I may have thought or written, but I'll bask for the moment in the warmth of your praise, and then I will need to go ahead with a little research. As far as I know, though my memory could be flawed, no one writing about O'Connor has spent much time on the the "Holy Mary, Mother of God" theory. Yes, much has been written about the influences of Jesus Christ, sacramentalism, Catholic doctrine, and Catholic saints (Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, and others), but I'll do some digging around and see if my "theory" has been elsewhere explored. I'll let you know.

Chrees said...

After reading your post late last night, my first thought was that some of the better examples of the “ordinary successes” occur negatively, such as the loss of the mother and the moral vacuum that swallows the family. I should have posted then because I had a few examples but all I can recall now is “Saint Maybe” by Anne Tyler.

Jonathan said...

I forgot Asa Leventhal's sister-in-law in "The Victim". Another unflattering depiction from Bellow.