History, Topic of the Past

How the Social Construct of Motherhood is Deeply Shaped by Literature

familiy life stories

“Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way around.”

–David Lodge

Prior to the 21st Century, literature was dominated by the male perspective. Female writers, in order to be published, have often had to adopt male pen names. This practice has been both common and necessary throughout literary history and despite progress in women’s rights, continues to this day. Just as 19th century writer George Sand was actually Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, 21st century writer Robert Galbraith is actually Joanne, or J.K., Rowling.

Consequently, the perspective of women and children has been vastly under-represented in literature.

An article on motherhood in literature points out that the topic has often been portrayed in a negative light by male authors. Novels such as “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina” have served to present society’s definition of a “good mother” versus a “bad mother”. Female protagonists that were deemed bad mothers in these family life stories were usually punished, often by death. At the very least, they were socially shunned and relegated to poverty and obscurity.

Even today, mothers in the family life stories of literature are still judged according to modern social criteria. A recent BBC article celebrating motherhood in literature compiled a list of the best, as well as the worst, mothers in literature. One writer contributed their own list of the ten worst mothers in literature.

Feminists such as Nancy Chodorow have written about the extent to which women’s personal identities have been formed as a response to the social construct of motherhood. Others have pointed out that that most mothers in fiction are objects of their husbands’ or daughters’ narratives, rather than having narratives of their own.

Feminist literary critic Luce Irigaray argues that under a system of patriarchy, mother/daughter relationships are often transformed into rivalries. In such rivalries, the daughter emerges the victor, while her mother’s personhood is subsumed by the role she plays as a mother. Alison Fell presented an analysis of motherhood in the works of French female writers like Simone de Beauvoir, while Adalgisa Giorgio‘s work examines motherhood in 20th century Western European literature.

Family life stories in literature

Family life stories in literature in which women were portrayed as achieving moral goodness through motherhood, such as the mother in “Little Women” were far more common than the portrayal of women who rebelled against male authority. For example, in Anne Brontë’s second novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall“, written under the male pseudonym Acton Bell, the heroine escapes her alcoholic husband to protect her son.

This novel dared to suggest that sometimes being a good mother meant challenging the patriarchy and breaking the law. At the time the novel was published, 1848, women were permitted no way to legally exist independently, and fleeing a marriage with a child was viewed as the crime of kidnapping. The novel was so controversial that after the author’s death, her sister Charlotte prevented it from being republished. However, in 1913, women’s suffragist May Sinclair said that

“the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.”

Happily, a greater number of family life stories told from the perspective of women and children are being published and gaining a wider audience than at any other time in history. Diana Secker Tesdell, who has edited a number of Everyman’s Pocket Classic anthologies, has assembled a collection of family life stories that feature motherhood. “Stories of Motherhood” features some of the finest and most well-known female writers of this century including Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, Amy Tan and Alice Munro . However, it also features some lesser known writers, such as Colm Tóibín and Anita Desai.

One review in the Guardian praised the collection, but pointed out that with the exception of one author, all the writers featured are from the United States. Despite this criticism, family life stories from a number of different ethnic cultures within the larger culture are vividly portrayed. This collection contributes the valuable perspective of mothers caring for infants such as Lydia Davis’s “What You Learn About the Baby” as well as the perspective of children, as in Ernest Gaines’s story “The Sky Is Gray“.

In life, as in literature, children represent both continuity and change, the past as well as progress. Their parents’ actions serve to illuminate the path towards posterity. By presenting family life stories in which mothers are portrayed not as good or bad, but as fully human, modern literature is helping to reshape destiny towards a more humane future.

familiy life stories
Daughter of Niobe (one of the 14 children killed) bent by terror, Niobe room in Uffizi gallery
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