Mothers Voicing Mothering?

The Representation of Motherhood in the Novels and Short Stories of Marie NDiaye

by Pauline Eaton (Author)
©2021 Monographs XII, 260 Pages


Mothers and mothering are significant features of contemporary women’s writing in France and mothers are narrators and key protagonists in nearly all Marie NDiaye’s novels and short stories. These mothers rarely strike the reader as attractive personalities and, in their mothering role, are portrayed as inadequate, abusive or even murderous. A pattern of maternal failure is passed on from mother to daughter and the relationship between mothers and daughters is one of rejection and suppression.
This book explores what this negative representation tells us about mothers and about how mothers represent their own mothering to themselves. Close readings of text and intertext are at the centre of the analytic approach, embracing references to existing commentaries on the author and to the psychoanalytic, mythological, religious and literary background against which NDiaye’s mothers demand to be read.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Mythologies and Models of Motherhood: Medea, Madonna and More
  • Chapter 2 The Good Mother, the Bad Mother and the Ordinary Devoted Mother
  • Chapter 3 Mothers and Daughters: Suppression and Subjectivity
  • Chapter 4 Counterpoint: Joy, Ambivalence and Success
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

←viii | ix→


The seeds of this book were sown very many years ago when Alison Fairlie and Odette de Mourgues, my teachers at Girton College, University of Cambridge, gave me the confidence to express what I heard a text say to me and to trust myself to do so.

Much more recently, I want to thank my PhD supervisor at Birkbeck, Andrew Asibong, for stimulating conversations and endless patience and Akane Kawakami for providing a shot of encouragement when it was needed. Gill Rye’s explorative seminars on Contemporary French Women’s Writing and friendly encouragement at conferences from Shirley Jordan and Cornelia Ruhe played a huge part in helping me belatedly find a small place in the academic world. I thank them very much, also Geoff Brown and Maureen Watkins for peer companionship and lively lunchtime conversations.

Thanks to Laurel Plapp for her encouragement and support and to Ann Mason for generous and meticulous editing assistance.

For sharing the first experience of motherhood with me I thank my friend Elizabeth Kearns.

I also thank my children, Patrick, Anthony and Josephine, for opening a whole new world of stress and joy to me, and, of course, my husband Paul, who has always taken it for granted that my NDiaye project would come to fruition and has given me his total support as I have laboured to birth this book.

←x | xi→


Works by Marie NDiaye


Tous mes amis


Autoportrait en vert


Comédie classique


La Cheffe, roman d’une cuisinière


Mon cœur à l’étroit


La Femme changée en bûche


Rosie Carpe


La Sorcière


Trois femmes puissantes

All translations in this book are my own unless otherwise stated.

←xii | 1→


Why Marie NDiaye?

No one who reads the novels of Marie NDiaye can fail to notice their population of extraordinary mothers. Most of her key protagonists are mothers who act in that role and also identify keenly, though rarely happily, as the daughters of their own mothers. Yet they are certainly not role models for joyful and successful mothering. What first prompted me to look closely at NDiaye’s mothers was a certain brief passage in her 2001 novel Rosie Carpe.1 Rosie is a single mother, astonished to find herself with a baby but apparently coping well, until her breast milk suddenly fails. She attempts to resolve the problem by giving her baby son Titi a bottle, but she meets a furious and unexpected resistance. When she brings the teat of the bottle towards the baby’s lips, he refuses to open his mouth and throws himself backwards with such force that he nearly falls from Rosie’s lap. This particular movement, made by a small baby, but showing such conscious determination and such force that it is shocking, is one I recognized from my own early days as a mother. I can remember warning others holding my first son that such a potentially dangerous movement might occur – it was a particularly acute problem in my parents’ house as the chairs in which people sat with my baby had threateningly hard wooden arms. This tiny detail awoke the memory of a uniquely stressful and difficult time in my life, when I was discovering what being a mother might mean to me. At this point in my initial reading of the novel I identified completely with Rosie. I probably also leapt to the conclusion that NDiaye must have shared my experience and that she wrote as a mother. I wanted to explore what ←1 | 2→I meant by this and what it was about her writing that had produced this sense of personal affinity. Perhaps I hoped that by using my own experience to open up her texts I would be able to disperse some of the mists of prevarication which both idealize and deny the worth of a mother as she mothers. Perhaps I hoped to find an authoritative validation of myself and how I had mothered. This book sets out what I did in fact discover from my reading of NDiaye – a reading which focusses on her mothers and might be seen as a quest to find a representation in literature of the voice of the mother as she mothers, and as she reflects on her experience of mothering. My quest sought the mother as she represents herself to herself, not as she is seen by the eyes of others, nor as she is interpreted through the world view of others.

There is nothing novel about the representation of mothers in art of course. Indeed, there is a long tradition of the representation of mothers in Western visual art and literature. It is, however, fair to say that until quite recently most representations of mothers (and all those which come down to us from the literature of Ancient Greece, a prime source of intertextuality for European writers since the Renaissance) have been composed by men. Men, by definition, have no experience of what it means to be a mother other than from observation, aided perhaps by imagination. They have shaped their representations by their own ideas of what motherhood ought to be like, and the prevailing Western ideology of motherhood is still heavily dependent on a key human (male) construct, Mariology. In addition, political and economic expediency, often aided and abetted by philosophers and researchers, has long dictated how mothers should behave and the degree of devotion they owe their infants. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century elevated an ideal of maternity in which women, as virtuous citizens, were the guardians of social mores and of honour, but this at a time when increased fecundity was required to produce more soldiers for a France under threat. John Bowlby’s concept of infantile attachment to the child’s mother or to a permanent mother substitute helped keep women in the home after the Second World War and return their place in the labour market to men. Scholarly attention to motherhood has inevitably been dominated until relatively recently by male scholars and patriarchal attitudes.←2 | 3→

In recent years, though, women who are mothers have found the time and the energy to write novels which draw on their personal experience, and scholarly commentaries now come not just from men but from women who make a point of their attempt to think independently outside the historically male-dominated academic tradition. Some of these women are mothers and their commentaries, however apparently objective and impersonal, are surely likely to be informed to some degree by their own experience of maternity. Indeed, such writers often openly acknowledge that this is the case, as I have already made a point of stating my own partiality. Women writing from a feminist point of view have, of course, sometimes been more concerned to detach maternity from what it means to be a woman, than to argue for it as essential to womanhood. Motherhood has sometimes been represented as an obstacle to or as a breach of a woman’s subjectivity rather than as an opportunity. To designate motherhood as a crucial part of the experience of being female may risk criticism for putting feminism into retrograde motion.

At the beginning of my relationship with Marie NDiaye, and before I had read Marianne Hirsch’s seminal work on mothers and daughters,2 which I discuss later in relation to NDiaye, I was surprised, as Hirsch reports having been, by how unconsciously resistant people were to the idea that there might be something unique about mothers and to the idea that the experience of mothers might matter. When I first began to discuss my thoughts on NDiaye with others it was suggested to me that I should refer to mothering by a more general term, parenting, as there was no real basis for a distinction between the mothering and the fathering of a child. The position that the exclusion of fathers is politically incorrect has become even more of an issue, of course, since the developments in alternative modes of parenting that have been a feature of the twenty-first century. People also asserted to me with confidence that there was no distinction to be made between the role of a biological mother and the role of an adoptive mother, and that people who had not mothered, whether they were men or women, could easily approach and grasp what was involved in being a ←3 | 4→mother through the exercise of the imagination. While not denying the tensions in the issues that informed these various comments, my intention in this book has been precisely to analyse what NDiaye’s protagonists can tell us about the experience of the woman who becomes the biological mother of and caregiver to a child.

I have been careful to make the source of my analysis the text itself and the close readings I offer are in themselves an attempt to challenge prejudices. While my book reads NDiaye’s mothers against different theoretical backgrounds, it is the words of the narrative and NDiaye’s literary manipulation of them to which I have endeavoured to be true. I cannot dismiss my own experience of the challenge of mothering, but I have tried not to impose it on NDiaye’s text, as I have tried not to mould her narrative to fit a predetermined theoretical context.

Marie NDiaye and Her Novels: Overview

Marie NDiaye was born in Pithiviers in France in 1967 and her first novel was published in 1985. She has written novels, short stories for adults, children’s stories, plays, autofiction, a screenplay and an opera libretto. I focus on her novels and short stories for adults, which are noted for their qualities of strangeness, their atmosphere of alienation, and their use of the fantastic – this latter characteristic having become less noticeable in more recent times. The presence of mothers as central characters in her novels has rightly attracted much attention. The voice of the struggling new mother, which called to me from Rosie Carpe, has been joined in later texts by the voices of other mothers, with concerns wider than the survival of their babies. The protagonist mother may be struggling to forge for herself an identity which will free her from her background, from the determinism she sees as imposed by the colour of her skin and perhaps from her maternal subjectivity too. She might have a career outside the domestic sphere. In narratives incorporating several generations of women, the mother is often represented through the eyes and words of ←4 | 5→her daughter, in a seemingly traditional reprise of what Hirsch christened the mother/daughter plot.

Most female characters in NDiaye’s works are mothers and in many ways the picture of mothers and mothering that emerges from her narratives is very rich. It is also often uncompromisingly bleak. Her depiction of the maternal experience first demands attention because of the insight it offers into the early stages of motherhood, as experienced by the mother. NDiaye’s texts invite the reader to add this inner, often raw, perspective on motherhood to the perspectives of mythology and religion, psychology and psychoanalysis, and to the societal and cultural norms through which the representation of motherhood has been mediated over the years. Reading motherhood from the viewpoint of the mother can be a challenging experience – it raises questions about the existence and the nature of maternal love and invites a sharing of the darker side of maternity, where maternal attention and duty slide into abuse.

NDiaye’s mothers, when they are the central protagonists in her novels, are generally also represented as daughters whose mothers also feature significantly in the narrative, which thus provides insights into mothering and its reproduction over two, sometimes three, generations. Mothers are represented through their own consciousness, through the eyes of their children, and through the eyes of their menfolk, relations, lovers and acquaintances, and occasionally through the eyes of professionals. Mothering techniques are counterpointed within different characters and within the same character.

While rich in such ways, NDiaye’s motherhood narrative is in other respects strangely sparse, and is deficient in features the reader perhaps expects to be represented. The specific sexual act which has produced the mother’s children is not described in any of the novels. Further, with very few exceptions, notably Clarisse and Richard Rivière in Ladivine,3 and Khady Demba and Lamine in Trois femmes puissantes [Three Strong Women],4 when women in the novels do have sex the act is set in a context ←5 | 6→of pornography or abuse. The experience of pregnancy, that extraordinary time in a woman’s life when her identity and sense of self enter a phase of ineluctable and irreversible change, is described only in passing, with brief reference to the symptoms of nausea and fatigue and to the absence of menstruation. Pregnancy in middle-age is depicted as grotesque. While abortion is mentioned, and one miscarriage is described, there is no narrative of a protagonist giving birth successfully. The moment at which, or the process through which, a woman becomes a mother is absent from NDiaye’s texts.

The technique of veiling or silencing, applied to certain aspects of motherhood, is also widely deployed in the narrative generally. Indeed, NDiaye has referred to her dislike of tying up the ends of a story, saying, for example, in an interview with Alfe Jocksan, ‘Un livre ne doit pas forcément être bien bouclé. C’est un peu ça, la vraie vie’ [Rather like in real life, a book doesn’t have to have all its ends tied up].5 This technique goes further than simply leaving a reader wondering what might have happened next. Crucial events in the plot of a novel may be unexplained or, especially in her earlier works, the plot may develop through the intervention of the fantastic in an otherwise banal narrative. The unexpressed and inexpressible haunt the relationships between characters, including the relationships between mothers and their children. These silences or spaces are integral to NDiaye’s work as a novelist and open up a range of critical perspectives and prejudices. The reader may be drawn, in an unconscious act of projection, to fill the silence with his or her own experiences and preconceptions, which may sometimes overwhelm a voice within the text which only close attention can make audible.

The maternal voice, which is there to be heard in NDiaye’s writings, occasionally expresses itself in direct speech (not necessarily audibly) but is more often subject to oblique commentary. The commentary may come from the mother herself as she attempts to analyse her own position, her own emotional state and her feelings about her child. This commentary, proceeding from the mother’s consciousness, not infrequently uses language ←6 | 7→whose eloquence and elegance exceeds what the reader has come to expect the mother to be capable of. The reader must then question the source of this unacknowledged commentary and its relationship to the maternal voice. It may introduce the viewpoint of the author, of society, or of cultural norms which are not those of the character, but, whatever its source, it functions to open up the inner world of the mother to critical interpretation. Further, NDiaye represents mothers within an intertextual tapestry woven from theology, myth and folktale. The use she makes of intertextuality is neither consistent nor allegorical and is sometimes ludic or merely decorative. At other times and importantly, as I shall discuss, intertextual references demand recognition and insert themselves into the narrative so as to interrogate a maternal protagonist or the reader’s response to her. They contextualize the diegetic mothers within a universe of diverse approaches to motherhood. NDiaye’s use of mythological intertext can also engage the careful reader in a two-way exploration both of the diegetic mother and of the world which it references.

Just as the voice of inner maternal experience is overlaid within the narrative by views of what mothers are, how they feel and what they do, so this maternal voice is often overlaid by the natural prejudices of those who comment on NDiaye’s work. Many of us will have views about the nature of motherhood which we rarely pause to consider. Everyone has had a mother so has perhaps a tendency to believe that they have an intimate knowledge of the subject from their own perspective, this being the one that matters. Not everyone has been a mother, though, and few mothers have spoken through artistic representation of the experience of maternity free from the cloak of romanticism, cultural expectations, tradition or interpretation. This still, small ‘unadulterated’ maternal voice can however be detected in NDiaye’s writing when the author represents the unsupported, raw experience of motherhood from within, or apparently from within, the consciousness of the mother who is, as it were, trapped within the experience. In pursuing my quest to identify the maternal voice within the broader representation of mothers within NDiaye’s work I have not been seeking something essential or universal that only mothers access; rather, I have been seeking to hear the voice of the diegetic mother as she experiences motherhood. Something of that experience may resonate with my ←7 | 8→own, but I have tried to avoid projecting myself into NDiaye’s text when interpreting it.


XII, 260
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Mothers as models: Medea and the Madonna Good mothers, bad mothers and ordinary devoted mothers Mothers and daughtersand the mother/daughter plot The representation of motherhood in the novels and novellas of Marie NDiaye Pauline Eaton
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XII, 260 pp.

Biographical notes

Pauline Eaton (Author)

Pauline Eaton holds a PhD in Modern French Studies from Birkbeck, University of London, for her work on Marie NDiaye. The focus of her studies has been a search for the literary representation of motherhood from the point of view of the mother. Published articles include «Rosie Carpe and the Virgin Mary: Modelling Modern Motherhood?» in Religion and Gender and «Three Strong Grandmothers» in Studies in Gender and Sexuality.


Title: Mothers Voicing Mothering?
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
274 pages