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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination : Missing, Presumed Dead
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Mothers in Scholarly Research - Present and Absent

Many critics have pointed out that ‘maternal thinking and practice [are] grounded in specific historical and cultural realities’ (Scheper-Hughes 1993, 356); mothering and motherhood, as separate from the biological experience of giving birth, are cultural constructions responding to people’s lived experiences (Ruddick 1980, 348). The various societal, political, psychological, economic and scientific constructions of motherhood and their effects on women’s lives in the past have been investigated in, for example, Ann Dally’s Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal (1982), Patricia Crawford’s ‘The Construction and Experience of Maternity in Seventeenth-Century England’ (1990), Susan C. Greenfield and Carol Barash’s Inventing Maternity: Politics, Science and Literature 1650-1865 (1999), Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women (2005), Rima D. Apple’s Perfect Motherhood: Science and Childrearing in America (2006) and Virginia Langum’s ‘“As a Kinde Modur Schulde”: Mary and Natural Maternity in the Middle Ages’ (2015), to name but a few.

Twentieth and twenty-first constructions of motherhood have been analyzed and critiqued in, for example Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976), Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978), Shari L. Thurer’s The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother (1994), Sharon Hays’ The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996), Aminatta Forna’s Mother of All Myths: How Society Moulds and Constrains Mothers (1998), Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels’ The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood andHowItHas Undermined All Women (2005), Bracha L. Ettinger’s The Matrixial Borderspace (2006) and Angela Davis’ Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England 1945-2000 (2012).

Another way of analyzing and critiquing the construction of motherhood is through its representation in cultural texts. Such studies include, for example, in literature, Marianne Hirsch’s The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (1989), Marjorie McCormick’s Mothers in the English Novel: From Stereotype to Archetype (1991), Natalie McKnight’s Suffering Mothers in Mid-Victorian Novels (1997), Susan C. Staub’s The Literary Mother: Essays on Representations of Maternity and Child Care (2007), Elizabeth Podnieks and Andrea

O’Reilly’s Textual Mothers/Maternal Texts: Motherhood in Contemporary Women’s Literatures (2010) and Marilyn Francus’ Monstrous Motherhood: 18th-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity (2012); in drama, for instance, Janet Adelman’s Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Origins in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (1992), Kathryn M. Moncrieff and Kathryn R. McPherson’s Performing Maternity in Early Modern England (2007) and Felicity Dunworth’s Mothers and Meaning on the Early Modern English Stage (2010); and in cultural studies and film and media studies, for example, E. Ann Kaplan’s Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama (1992), Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan’s Representations of Motherhood (1994), Lucy Fischer’s Cinematernity: Film, Motherhood, Genre (1996), Heather Addison, Mary Kate Goodwin-Kelly and Elaine Roth’s Motherhood Misconceived: Representing the Maternal in U. S. Film (2009), Rebecca Feasey’s From Happy Homemaker to Desperate Housewives: Motherhood and Television (2012), Elizabeth Podnieks’ Mediating Moms: Mothers in Popular Culture (2012), Sarah Arnold’s Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood (2013), and Heather L. Hundley and Sara E. Hayden’s Mediated Moms: Contemporary Challenges to the Motherhood Myth (2016).

The absent or dead mother has received far less critical attention. She tends to slip by unnoticed. As Elisabeth Bronfen has stated in her study of female death in art, ‘Narrative and visual representations of death...can be read as symptoms of our culture’, yet when it comes to the death of women, ‘what is literally represented.often entirely escapes observation’ (1992, xi). The beautiful female corpse, as an aesthetic representation, disappears as a dead person. I would argue that a similar process often affects dead mothers in cultural texts. Their deaths or disappearances escape observation, are dismissed as unimportant, reinterpreted as something else, or simply not noticed. To my knowledge there is, so far, only one book-length study on the subject, Carolyn Dever’s Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (1998). However, a small number of articles and book chapters have been devoted to the topic, often focusing on the question why. The answers, as in the online discussions, tend to fall into four categories: the author’s own mother, psychoanalysis, society and culture, and narratological constraints. This previous research is here presented thematically, grouping the texts according to explanatory model. Such an organization will inevitably lead to some overlap in terms of both narratives and scholars, but showing how the various explanations group themselves can generate useful insights, not only into how scholars have approached the dead/absent mother-trope, but also into the transhistorical character of the trope itself.

 
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