Motherhood and Self-Realization in the Four Waves of American Feminism and Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction

by Julia Hillenbrand (Author)
Thesis 391 Pages


The author examines motherhood and female self-realization in feminist discourse and Joyce Carol Oates’s recent fiction. While the first and second wave of feminism repudiated motherhood, the third wave claimed the right to enjoy it. The present fourth wave is now reviving the reservations about motherhood of the first two waves. This book demonstrates how Oates’s writing reflects these shifts and how Oates takes up and transforms feminist standpoints in her work without writing conventional feminist literature. Literary criticism has only marginally dealt with Oates’s mother figures. Drawing on Gender Studies and, in particular, on the transnational relation between French and American feminism, this book fills this gap.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 State of Research
  • 2.1 Joyce Carol Oates
  • 2.2 The Waves of Feminism
  • 2.3 Literary Criticism of Oates’s Work
  • 3 Literary Criticism
  • 3.1 Feminist Criticism of Oates’s Work: 1970 until Today
  • 3.1.1 Early Criticism during the Second Wave
  • 3.1.2 Criticism from the Onset of the Third Wave until 2000
  • 3.1.3 Criticism since 2000
  • 3.2 Self-Realization in Oates’s Fiction
  • 3.2.1 Early Reception during the Second Wave
  • 3.2.2 Reception since the Onset of the Third Wave
  • 3.3 Motherhood in Oates’s Work
  • 3.3.1 Early Reception during the Second Wave
  • 3.3.2 Reception around the Onset of the Third Wave
  • 4 Motherhood and Self-Realization in the Four Waves of Feminism
  • 4.1 First-Wave Feminism
  • 4.1.1 First-Wavers’ Starting Point: The Victorian Ideal of Womanhood
  • 4.1.2 The New Woman
  • 4.1.3 Kate Chopin: Literary Discussion of the Conflict between Self-Realization and Motherhood in The Awakening
  • 4.1.4 Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • 4.1.5 Emma Goldman
  • 4.1.6 Margaret Sanger
  • 4.1.7 Virginia Woolf
  • 4.2 Second-Wave Feminism
  • 4.2.1 Simone de Beauvoir
  • 4.2.2 Betty Friedan
  • 4.2.3 Alix Kates Shulman: Literary Discussion of Women’s Fall into the Trap of the Feminine Mystique in Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen
  • 4.2.4 Adrienne Rich
  • 4.3 Third-Wave Feminism
  • 4.3.1 The Generation Gap between Feminists
  • 4.3.2 The Death-of-Feminism-Proclamation
  • 4.3.3 The Alleged Conflict between Feminism and Motherhood
  • 4.3.4 The Media and New Mother- and Women-Stereotypes
  • 4.3.5 Third-Wave Issues
  • 4.3.6 Betty Friedan: The Change of Perspective
  • 4.3.7 Rebecca Walker
  • 4.3.8 The New Momism
  • 4.4 Fourth-Wave Feminism: Elisabeth Badinter
  • 4.4.1 Elisabeth Badinter’s Early Criticism
  • 4.4.2 From the Third to the Fourth Wave of Feminism
  • 5 Work Interpretations: Motherhood and Self-Realization in Joyce Carol Oates’s More Recent Fiction
  • 5.1 I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990)
  • 5.1.1 Structure and Narrative Perspective
  • 5.1.2 Intertextuality in I Lock My Door Upon Myself
  • 5.1.3 Calla’s Development of a Need to Realize Herself
  • 5.1.4 Calla’s Claim for an Identity Apart from the Traditional Female Roles
  • 5.1.5 Calla and the Freilicht Children: The Duty of Motherhood
  • 5.1.6 Calla’s Pregnancy from Tyrell: Voluntary and Self-Actuating
  • 5.1.7 The Ambivalent Meaning of the Attic
  • 5.1.8 The Importance of Connection
  • 5.1.9 Oates’s Literary Feminism
  • 5.2 The Rise of Life on Earth (1991)
  • 5.2.1 Structure and Narrative Perspective
  • 5.2.2 The Cold Biological Mother
  • 5.2.3 Mrs. Miriam Chesney – The Well-Meaning Foster Mother
  • 5.2.4 Kathleen – The Psychopathic Abortionist
  • 5.3 Middle Age. A Romance (2001)
  • 5.3.1 Structure and Narrative Perspective
  • 5.3.2 Marina Troy – The Female Artist
  • 5.3.3 Camille Hoffmann – The Overindulgent Mother
  • 5.3.4 Abigail – The Dominant Mother
  • 5.3.5 Augusta – The Sexually Active Mother
  • 5.3.6 Lee Ann – The Man-Fixated Mother
  • 5.3.7 Naomi – The Surrogate Mother
  • 5.3.8 Joyce Carol Oates’s Feminist Criticism and Vision
  • 5.4 Missing Mom (2005)
  • 5.4.1 Structure and Narrative Perspective
  • 5.4.2 Gwen Eaten – The Epitome of the Happy Housewife Heroine
  • 5.4.3 Clare Chisholm – The Depressed Housewife and Mother
  • 5.4.4 Nicole Eaton – The Sexually Active Single Woman
  • 5.5 Mudwoman (2012)
  • 5.5.1 Structure and Narrative Perspective
  • 5.5.2 Marit Kraeck – The Murdering Mother
  • 5.5.3 Livvie Skedd – The Tough Foster Mother
  • 5.5.4 Agatha Neukirchen – The Emotionally Manipulating Mother
  • 5.5.5 The Protagonist – The Career Woman
  • 6 Conclusion
  • 7 Bibliography

← 8 | 9 →

1   Introduction

Aim of the Dissertation

The dissertation Motherhood and Self-Realization in the Four Waves of American Feminism and Joyce Carol Oates’s Recent Fiction will examine motherhood in the context of female self-realization in the feminist discourse and Joyce Carol Oates’s more recent fiction. The dissertation will interpret five exemplary novels and novellas: I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990), The Rise of Life on Earth (1991), Middle Age (2001), Missing Mom (2005), and Mudwoman (2012).1 It will analyze these works in dialog with the four waves of feminism, focusing on the third wave, which set in around the Nineties.

The twentieth century contains a significant change: while the first and second wave repudiated motherhood because they considered it an obstacle to women’s self-actualization, the third wave claims the right to joy in motherhood. The doctoral thesis aims to find out whether this development is reflected in Oates’s writing with the help of the exemplary works published around the time of this shift. It will reveal how the author takes up, transforms, and questions feminist standpoints on the correlation between motherhood and personal fulfillment. The analysis will show with which concepts of life Oates, who defines herself as a feminist,2 equips her female protagonists and how she ties these concepts to their self-realization. Although Oates has communicated her advocacy of female emancipation through her work from the start, her fiction and the criticism of her characters suggest that she refuses to let herself be roped in by feminists for propaganda.3 The dissertation wants to reveal how Oates expresses her standpoint without writing conventional feminist literature. ← 9 | 10 →

Literary criticism of Oates has only marginally dealt with her mother figures, let alone with the question if the concept of motherhood evolved and changed throughout her work, which is surprising considering the high number of studies of her fiction. The dissertation will fill this gap by drawing on Gender Studies and by particularly throwing light on the transnational relation between French and American feminism. The doctoral thesis assumes that there is an interaction between Oates’s fiction and the feminist discourse and thus believes that Oates contributes to the women’s cause. Since the fiction to be analyzed shows a high degree of intertextuality, referring to philosophy as well as to European painting and music, the analysis goes beyond the American literary discourse.

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most prolific American writers of this time. Her immense output started in high school; her first novels were never published, however.4 Oates was publicly acknowledged for the first time in 1959 when she won the Mademoiselle Fiction Contest with her short story “In the Old World.”5 Since 1963, she has brought out more than fifty novels and eleven novellas, published thirty-eight short story collections, and authored nine plays as well as numerous poems. She has also written a great number of young adult fiction and children’s books.6 In addition, Oates, who graduated from Syracuse University and got her master from Wisconsin University,7 is a well-known and respected reviewer of uncountable works by other authors. Since 1974, she has edited the literary journal Ontario Review, which comes out twice a year and features rising ← 10 | 11 → talents.8 She also founded the Ontario Review Press9 and was the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor at Princeton University where she taught creative writing10 until she retired in 2015. For years, critics have been expecting that she will be given the Nobel Prize of Literature.11 Her reception of the National Book Award for them12 brought her wide literary reputation.

For more than thirty years now, Oates can be found in college syllabi as well as numerous anthologies.13 Her predominantly lengthy books are demanding14 not only for their implicit moral purpose but also because of their rich intertextuality.15 However, opinions on the author diverge: while some critics praise Oates’s style, others claim that her works lack quality because of the quantity by which she produces them.16 In 1990, Oates’s alma mater has started to collect the immense material on Oates in an archive. It houses Oates’s correspondence, drafts of her work, unpublished novels, as well as her personal journal by now.17 ← 11 | 12 →

Joyce Carol Oates as Feminist Critic

Joyce Carol Oates is often described as a social critic18 who wants to improve American society.19 Since the beginning of her career, she has been praised for her ability to recognize injustice and reveal it in her fiction.20 Oates has a particular sympathy for women, whom she believes to be oppressed in society. According to feminist and literary critic Elaine Showalter, Oates has “a tragic sense of femininity [as she feels] … that women are often mistreated for being feminine, beautiful, or not beautiful enough.”21 Her attitude is perceivable in many interviews: when talking to Leif Sjoberg, for instance, Oates states that she feels strongly about the issue.22 She criticizes double standards for men and women of which she feels to be a victim herself. In a conversation with Lawrence Grobel, she states that the fact that she is a woman has an influence on others’ judgment of her work.23 The way in which she approaches female oppression and female struggle for self-realization expresses her deep alliance with women. Oates has repeatedly drawn mentally disturbed protagonists to illustrate the effects of gender inequality, for instance. In a correspondence with Dale Boesky she explains that she perceives neuroses in her female characters as “a normal and desirable straining against the too-close confines of a … social ‘role’ too restrictive… .”24 She sees their mental disorder positively, believing it to be a protest against their oppression.25 According to Greg Johnson, Oates has also inspired others, for instance Patricia Hill ← 12 | 13 → Burnett, to fight for the women’s cause.26 Moreover, she has dedicated her novels them and Do With Me What You Will to feminist friends.27

Oates has been holding a feminist standpoint since adolescence. Greg Johnson writes that even before the onset of the second wave, she had problems with accepting “the other girls’ unconscious but slavish adherence to patriarchal codes of female conduct.”28 Years later Oates comments on being different from her contemporaries, referring to herself as a “feminist … much too early in history.”29 Yuan Wen Chi agrees with Johnson on the point in time at which Oates began to write against female oppression.30 Their observations suggest that her early works already included a political message. Oates’s identification with the women’s cause was enhanced by her proximity to her Princeton colleagues Elaine Showalter and Sandra Gilbert as well as to friends like Lucinda Franks, Leigh Beinen, Alicia Ostriker, and Eleanor Bernstein.31 Johnson believes that they, in particular Elaine Showalter, “prompted [Oates] toward a clearer articulation of her own feminism, in both essays and fiction.”32

Oates’s novels and novellas are primarily character studies of women. Greg Johnson asserts that there is hardly a contemporary American author who has explored their situation from as many angles as Oates.33 His statement points to Oates’s intention to push emancipation ahead through her fiction, particularly when considering her conviction that literature is able to influence society. In a letter she tells him: “I write because I’m fascinated by the world … . And of course you can take the world a step or two beyond its present condition – attempting ← 13 | 14 → to prophesize the future, a little.”34 At the same time, Oates refrains from polemic and propaganda. She communicates her standpoint rather through stylistic devices such as parody, mimesis, or the deconstruction of conventional, misogynist plots.35 In an interview that appeared in Contemporary Literature, she explains: “I am very sympathetic with most of the aims of feminism but cannot write feminist literature because it is too narrow …”36 Greg Johnson states that although Oates is supportive of feminism, she does not want to sacrifice her creativity to articulate a political standpoint.37 Oates has stuck to this opinion until today. In an interview for this dissertation she explains: “I don’t think of the novels as being sociological commentary but rather stories about individuals. Of course, the fiction does reflect a social reality, but it doesn’t make any effort to [do so].”38

Oates’s refusal to produce such kind of fiction has excluded her from the canon of feminist literature.39 At the same time, her re-imagination of classical feminist works like The Awakening40 or “The Yellow Wallpaper”41 in I Lock My Door Upon Myself shows Oates’s explicit incorporation of feminism into her fiction. References to Naomi Wolf in Middle Age or to Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born by the title Mudwoman further underline this point. Mary Allen believes that literature, with its subtle messages, is a highly effective means to fight sexism.42 More recent critics like Chi value Oates particularly because she does not communicate her standpoint openly.43 The dissertation will examine whether Oates has stuck to this principle or if there has been a change in her fiction. ← 14 | 15 →

Controversies between Oates and Feminists

Oates’s interest in female emancipation does not prevent a controversy between her and feminists. As Eileen Bender, professor of English at Indiana University, observes, Oates has evoked the criticism of second-wavers, feminists active in the Sixties and Seventies, because she challenged some of their main convictions.44 Oates explains that by not being overtly anti-male in her writing, she was excluded from them.45 She further provoked second-wavers by naming mostly male writers as her literary models.46 In addition, her representations of women greatly differed from feminist ideals of women and thus challenged many second-wavers’ opinion that fiction should comprise role models and express feminist standpoints: Oates’s protagonists hardly realize themselves at the workplace, which particularly irritated second-wavers. Feminists have also been uncomfortable with Oates’s portrayal of female victimization. They fear that the issue takes up too much focus in Oates’s work while they want to stress women’s strength. One example is Susan Koppelman Cornillon who complains about Loretta’s depiction in them.47 Oates’s works also do not put all blame on men while glorifying women, which her sometimes evil female protagonists show.

Instead of living up to feminist expectations, Oates has pursued her own idea of literature that aims to draw convincing representations of real-life human beings in the sense of a psychological realism that examines the characters’ inner life. Oates states: “a serious author deals only with ‘real’ experiences and ‘real’ emotions, though they are usually assigned to people with fictitious names.”48 Presumably, by combining positive and negative traits in her characters and by writing about their contradictory feelings, Oates has created protagonists who differ from feminist ideals. The dissertation will examine whether her images of women are more liberated than feminist female representations, particularly when it comes to motherhood. Moreover, it will analyze how the literary and cultural discourses intersect and how Oates contributes to the feminist discourse by her unconventional representation of women. The doctoral thesis understands ← 15 | 16 → Oates as a complementary voice in the feminist discourse that uses the channel of fiction to articulate a political standpoint.

Self-Realization and Motherhood in Oates’s Fiction

A person’s quest for self and the accompanying process of maturation have always been among Oates’s central themes. Rose Marie Burwell states that her first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), already dealt with self-realization and the pursuit of psychological wholeness.49 Oates’s fascination with spiritual growth has continued since then as observations by G. F. Waller50 and Greg Johnson some years later indicate. According to Johnson, Oates’s main interest is to represent the self and identity, “the phantasmagoria of personality,”51 and her characters’ change throughout the story.52 He believes that the interaction between the individual and its social environment is of fundamental importance in Oates’s fiction.53 Johnson explains that Oates is particularly interested in writing about female identity as several critics have acknowledged.54

Adrienne Rich once said: “the vast majority of literary and visual images of motherhood comes to us filtered through a collective or individual male consciousness.”55 Joyce Carol Oates’s work represents an exception to this rule as motherhood has always played a central role in her fiction. Her deep interest in motherhood also shows in the fact that she has edited works like Snapshots: Mothers and Daughters – An Outstanding Vibrant Collection of Stories from Internationally Acclaimed Women Writers.56 Oates’s fiction contains a wide range of mother figures comprising the physical absence of the female parent,57 child ← 16 | 17 → neglect or abuse,58 and dominant mothers.59 In addition, some of her characters seem to be fictional representations of the ideal of motherhood but are deconstructed in the course of the action.60 The exemplary works of this dissertation comprise all of these versions of mothers. It seems as if joy in biological motherhood is non-existent in Oates’s oeuvre. The study at hand is going to ask whether positive feelings are aligned with having children in the exemplary novels and novellas, and if so how Oates represents happiness in this context.

Motherhood and Self-Realization from the First to the Third Wave

The dissertation follows the three-wave classification of feminism since the allegory well comprises the diversity of the several stages of the discourse. The surface of a wave is never smooth but contains numerous splashes that go into different directions while the wave on the whole makes a linear movement overall. Similarly, each wave of feminism is determined by various and sometimes even contrasting standpoints but reveals a trend by the basic ideas the majority of activists agree upon. Moreover, the wave does not end at a fixed, single point but often results in another wave and is sometimes even nourishing it. Therefore, the allegory shows how each phase of feminism is influenced by its predecessor and immanent in its follower. Historically, feminism was determined by an alternation between rising and subsiding activism, which is illustrated by the ups and downs of the water.61 ← 17 | 18 →

Recently, there has been a public debate about the adequate upbringing of children, particularly about the question to what extent a mother should intervene in raising children. It was triggered by Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom in 2011.62 The fierce discussion of the book in the US hints at the fact that conceptions of motherhood have remained an emotionally charged issue for many Americans even after the first and second wave of feminism have challenged maternal ideals. The newest film adaptation of the 1972 novel The Stepford Wives in 2004 is another example of the topicality of traditional ideals of womanhood in contemporary society. Historically seen the relation between motherhood and self-realization has undergone an important shift, which the dissertation will illustrate by analyzing feminists that influenced the concept of motherhood: the first wave of feminism rebelled against the Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house” around the turn of the century. It claimed women’s right to the public sphere and a female identity apart from the family. Margaret Sanger’s commitment to birth control and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s support of childcare are exemplary for first-wave attempts to provide women with greater freedom. Together with Virginia Woolf’s claim of personal time and space in “A Room of One’s Own” (1929)63 they represent the repudiation of motherhood as an obstacle to self-realization of that time. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) reflects the conflict between having children and personal fulfillment on a fictional level.

The negative attitude towards having children re-emerges in the Sixties: the second-wave androcentrism resulted in the conviction that only the pursuance of a traditionally male concept of life, i.e. fulfillment at the workplace, leads to equality. The discourse foremost addressed the white middle-class married woman who did not need a job for survival in contrast to the working-class woman. Motherhood was regarded as a disruptive factor concerning the desired assimilation despite the greater self-determination through the pill. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique sees the cause of female depression in a life reduced to raising children.64 Friedan herein follows the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who believes that mothers who are denied self-actualization functionalize their offspring. De Beauvoir, who influenced US feminists like Shulamith Firestone ← 18 | 19 → as well as Juliet Mitchell,65 and Friedan revived the criticism of momism, which means a motherhood defined by exaggerated care and maternal fixation.

The third wave replies to the gender binarism of its predecessors by accepting and even welcoming a greater complexity of women’s concepts of life as well as of its members’ ethnic and cultural background. As a consequence, activists refrain from the ideal of the emancipated (working and childless white middle-class) woman. As a counterweight to the first and second wave, they claim the right to joy in motherhood on the basis of essentialist argumentation. This shift shows in Rebecca Walker’s criticism of her mother Alice Walker in Baby Love (2007), for instance.66

Recent discourse breaks with the ideology of “essential motherhood,” which defines the maternal as women’s biology and stylizes it as the core of female identity. The French philosopher and sociologist Elisabeth Badinter takes up her compatriot Simone de Beauvoir’s social constructionist standpoint “On ne naît pas femme, on le devient” and negates the existence of a maternal instinct. She believes that behavior is learned instead of congenital. The frequency with which she appears in established American newspapers like The New York Times reveals the significance she has gained in the United States and her influence on the American discourse.67 She has also given talks at US elite universities such as Princeton, the very institution at which Oates teaches,68 which suggests that Oates is familiar with her. Badinter’s recent publication The Conflict (2010)69 intervenes against an idealization of motherhood and a retreat into essentialism as it takes place in Rebecca Walker’s work.

The dissertation will point out the main standpoints concerning motherhood and self-realization of the various waves of feminism. It will further analyze in how far the different generations of feminists have influenced each other. For this ← 19 | 20 → purpose the doctoral thesis will reveal common standpoints and controversies concerning the correlation between motherhood and self-realization. It will then examine whether Badinter is possibly a forerunner of a fourth wave of feminism. The analysis of the various waves of feminism with regard to motherhood and self-realization raises several questions for the interpretation of Oates’s fiction. The study will examine how far Oates takes up feminist standpoints, agrees or disagrees with them, or uses these standpoints to develop her own.

Of particular interest is Oates’s opinion on essentialism and social constructionism and thus such controversies as between feminists like Rebecca Walker and Elisabeth Badinter. The dissertation will examine therefore whether nature or nurture determines the characters’ behavior and personalities. In accordance with feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Elisabeth Badinter, the analysis will differentiate between motherhood and the ideal of it. It will point out which characteristics of the ideal of motherhood occur in the respective novel or novella, i.e. what is expected of Oates’s mothers by their social environment. It will then reveal how far the demands imposed upon them infringe on their personal freedom.

Body of Literature

The dissertation will focus on novels and novellas because they provide rich material for analyzing Oates’s standpoint and her dealing with ideas of the feminist waves. As Oates claims, the novel is her favorite literary form for “[s]hort stories are like snapshots[, while the] novel is a sustained vision of a complete world.”70 Since the doctoral thesis wants to examine if Oates’s fiction portrays the recent development of feminism, it will deal with works that have been published since the onset of the third wave. More than twenty of Oates’s novels and novellas have been read beforehand and analyzed. In this way, it was possible to compile a body of literature that contains a wide range of different mother figures. Moreover, this groundwork led to the decision to neglect novels based on true incidents and works published under the pseudonyms Lauren Kelly and Rosamond Smith. Oates does not deal with the topics to be examined in this dissertation as thoroughly in them as she does in her other fiction. The doctoral thesis also leaves out works like We Were the Mulvaneys which deal with motherhood but have already ← 20 | 21 → been widely discussed by literary critics. The dissertation wants to contribute to literary studies by exploring Oates’s more unknown fiction instead.

For these reasons, I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990), The Rise of Life on Earth (1991), Middle Age (2001), Missing Mom (2005), and Mudwoman (2012) have been chosen for the analysis; moreover, some of the works contain direct references to the feminist discourse. I Lock My Door Upon Myself represents Calla’s indifference towards the children from her marriage and her contrasting joy about her pregnancy from her lover. The analysis will reveal how the protagonist tries to retain her self-determination as a mother and how this affects her children. The novella thoroughly shows others’ reactions to and possible reasons for child neglect. The Rise of Life on Earth is particularly radical. It includes an abortion the protagonist Kathleen performs onto herself after the end of her affair although she wants to have children. Kathleen’s fate is much determined by her abandonment by her own mother. The analysis will discuss in how far her being a nurse’s aide signifies a way of self-realization to her and if it influences her decision to abort the fetus. Middle Age comprises a number of different mother figures: first, Marina who becomes a mother for her lover’s child; second, Camille, who sacrifices herself for an ungrateful family and then has to find out what makes her happy apart from it; third, Abigail, who loses her son Jared because of manipulating him; fourth, Augusta who perceives motherhood as a prison; fifth, Lee Ann who is overburdened with her child; and sixth, Naomi who refuses to have an abortion and sells her new-born. Significantly, several of the mothers in the novel have foregone a career for raising their children. The analysis will particularly analyze how they live with this decision. Missing Mom deals with single Nikki’s self-discovery after the murder of her mother Gwen, who seemed to be the epitome of the ideal of the happy housewife. Nikki is contrasted with her sister Clare, who tries to emulate Gwen but then rebels. Mudwoman describes the life of the childless career woman Meredith. It begins with her early childhood in which she suffers abuse by her biological mother after which event she is raised by a foster and then an adoptive mother. In contrast to most protagonists in Middle Age, Nikki of Missing Mom and, especially, Meredith of Mudwoman have pursued a professional career instead of becoming mother.

The dissertation will reveal if the protagonists have to abandon their desire to become mothers if they want to realize themselves as the second wave advised women to do. It will examine whether the level of education or the economic class affect Oates’s women’s willingness to have children and it will analyze traditional gender roles and the ideal of femininity in the context of motherhood. The analysis will especially trace out Oates’s opinion on aspects such as the special ← 21 | 22 → bond between mother and child, breastfeeding, shared parenting, women’s double burden, and the work-life-balance. It will ask which role family planning plays in Oates’s recent work and examine what it says about contraception, abortion, and abstinence. Among other things, the dissertation will ask whether the female protagonists make use of these means to realize themselves. It will also analyze which consequences maternal conduct has on the offspring, particularly the daughters. As it examines different generations at a certain period in time, the analysis brings in a second, vertical axis of time. The thesis will examine how Oates explains her mother figures’ at times highly destructive behavior as well as whether, and if how, Oates judges it. The dissertation will also question whether there is a shift in Oates’s dealing with motherhood and self-realization in the works from 1990 to 2012.

As some critics have lamented, Oates writes about the same issues again and again. Mary Kathryn Grant sees a danger in Oates’s limited variety of plots and characters, for instance, stating: “[s]he has richly exploited the resources of her thematic concerns and of her choice of characters, and unless she moves on, she will become derivative of herself.”71 Exactly this fact enables Oates, however, to show cultural and social developments in her work as she re-imagines details and endings.72 As Ellen Friedman states: “One of Joyce Carol [O]ates’s great accomplishments as a contemporary writer presenting the American landscape for almost half a century is her rich documentation of cultural shifts in the US.”73


The dissertation will analyze Oates’s novels and novellas in relation to the feminist discourse over the last decades to find out if they provide an additional feminist voice to the political and cultural debate on gender equality. Following the assumption that Oates’s work and the feminist discourse interact, the analysis is not reduced to uncovering first-, second-, and third-wave standpoints in her fiction. On the contrary, Oates’s non-conformity suggests a higher complexity of literature. It raises the question of how the author criticizes and transforms ← 22 | 23 → feminist ideas in her novels and novellas concerning motherhood and self-realization. The study will ask whether she proposes alternative solutions to female oppression or even discusses aspects in her literature that feminists have neglected so far. To this end, the analysis will set Oates’s works in relation to the respective feminist wave that was prevalent at the setting of time of the novel or novella.

To categorize Oates’s work, the dissertation starts with an analysis of what feminists value and criticize about her fiction. It will serve as a basis for working out the special quality of Oates’s feminism as articulated in her novels and novellas. The doctoral thesis will continue with an examination of the literary criticism on her female characters with regard to motherhood and fulfillment. The results will help to put the novels and novellas to be interpreted in this study into the larger context of her work. Furthermore, the analysis of the literary criticism will allow statements of whether Oates’s characters have evolved and gained a deeper sense of fulfillment since her early publications.

The analysis of the various waves of feminism serves as a theoretical background for the interpretations. The dissertation will work out the main ideas of each wave concerning motherhood and self-realization and also consider the mutual influence of European and American feminists. The scope of the doctoral thesis does not allow a thorough examination of the idea of the child or ideals of fatherhood although both influence the concept of motherhood as Badinter has pointed out, for instance.74 The doctoral thesis will rather reveal the conflicts feminists detect concerning motherhood and self-realization as well as the suggestions they make for reconciling them. The theoretical part aims to give an overview of the shifting opinions since the onset of the first wave and wants to demonstrate how each stage has influenced the next. It will also refer to the controversies between feminists of different generations. The goal of the dissertation is to give an idea of the direction into which the discourse might proceed in the near future.

In order to determine whether Oates reflects recent feminist shifts in her work or is even a precursor of new social trends, the doctoral thesis will ask if there is a development concerning motherhood in the novels and novellas Oates has published since the beginning of the third wave. The dissertation will analyze whether her female characters feel guilty for their performance as mothers or their denial of motherhood in the period from the early Nineties until today. ← 23 | 24 → The answer will give clues to whether Oates criticizes essentialism similar like Badinter. It will also analyze if there is a change in the way the characters live motherhood and realize themselves apart from, despite of, or even in it. The doctoral thesis further clarifies whether they increasingly refuse to have children as they seek self-realization elsewhere.

The work interpretations will focus on the protagonists’ self-realization in relation to motherhood. It will examine their struggle for equality and personal freedom and reveal in how far the characters are oppressed. It will describe whether, and, if so, how the characters realize themselves against traditional women ideals and how they protect themselves against oppression. The question by which means they overcome their confining frames is of crucial importance here. The results will reveal Oates’s vision of a fulfilled female life. They will also shed light on whether Oates believes there can be happiness in biological motherhood and how having children and personal fulfillment can be reconciled. In the thesis, maternal love will be used to describe a voluntary feeling while maternal instinct indicates an ideal that is imposed upon women and enforced through social pressure. The dissertation wants to fill a gap by focusing on the interrelation between motherhood and self-realization in both the feminist discourse and Oates’s fiction. It is also innovative because of setting Oates’s literature in dialog with the various waves of feminism.

1 Joyce Carol Oates. I Lock My Door Upon Myself. 1990. Princeton: Ontario Review, 2002. Print. (In the following: Oates, 1990); Joyce Carol Oates, The Rise of Life on Earth. 1991. New York: New Directions, 1992. Print; Joyce Carol Oates. Middle Age. A Romance. 2001. New York: Ecco, 2002. Print; Joyce Carol Oates. Missing Mom. 2005. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print; Joyce Carol Oates. Mudwoman. London: Fourth Estate, 2012. Print.

2 Lawrence Grobel. “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates.” Playboy Nov. 1993. Joyce Carol Oates. Conversations 1970–2006. Ed. Greg Johnson. Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review, 2006. 142–72. 150. Print. (In the following: Grobel, 1993)

3 Oates claims that she is a feminist but finds feminist literature too restrictive. Leif Sjoberg. “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates.” Contemporary Literature (summer 1982). Joyce Carol Oates. Conversations 1970–2006. Ed. Greg Johnson. Princeton: Ontario Review, 2006. 105–24. 111. Print. (In the following: Sjoberg, 1982)

4 Frank McLaughlin. “A Conversation with Joyce Carol Oates.” Writing! Sept. 1985: 21–23. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Ed. Lee Milazzo. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989. 123–27. Print. 123; Greg Johnson. Invisible Writer. A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998. Print. 52. (In the following: Johnson, 1998)

5 Johnson (1998) 71.

6 Among the novels are also works under her pseudonyms Rosamond Smith or Lauren Kelly. See “The Books of Joyce Carol Oates. Full List.” Celestial Timepiece. The Joyce Carol Oates Homepage. Ed. Randy Souther. The University of San Francisco. Web. 26 Oct 2014.

7 Joyce Carol Oates. “Birnbaum v. Joyce Carol Oates.” The Morning News 3 Febr. 2005: n.pag. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. (In the following: Birnbaum, 2005)

8 Johnson (1998) 231; Greg Johnson. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1987. Print. 7. (In the following: Johnson, 1987)

9 Greg Johnson. “Fictions of the New Millennium. An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates.” Michigan Quarterly Review 45.2 (2006): 387–400. ProQuest. Web. 22. Apr. 2014.

10 Johnson (1998) 342; Birnbaum (2005)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Missing Mom Mudwoman Middle Age
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 391 pp.

Biographical notes

Julia Hillenbrand (Author)

Julia Hillenbrand studied American Studies and Book Studies in Mainz and Middlebury (USA). She completed her PhD at the Department of English and Linguistics of the University of Mainz.


Title: Motherhood and Self-Realization in the Four Waves of American Feminism and Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction
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393 pages