Murderous Mothers

Late Twentieth-Century Medea Figures and Feminism

by Claire E. Scott (Author)
©2022 Monographs XII, 218 Pages
Series: German Studies in America, Volume 78


«Murderous Mothers is both an homage to and a critical reflection on the multiple Medea figures that populate late twentieth-century German literature. Claire Scott artfully demonstrates how feminist politics and women’s issues – from abstract questions about the power of women’s bodies and voices, to concrete matters like abortion and sexual violence – speak through this ancient myth, transforming it into something vital and urgent. Scott’s own voice is crystal clear throughout, which allows the layers of productive critique to shine through. With its sophisticated literary analyses, its deep engagement with feminist and postcolonial theory, and its lucid and accessible style, Murderous Mothers will interest and provoke a range of readers and critics.» (Kata Gellen, Duke University)
«Murderous Mothers explores the ambiguities of literary Medea adaptations in beautifully written, engaging prose. For anyone interested in the aesthetics and politics of contemporary literature, this book offers brilliant examples of how literary adaptations of classical myths can contribute to contemporary political discourses on motherhood, reproductive rights, gender, and rage.» (Maria Stehle, University of Tennessee, Knoxville)
This book explores German-language Medea adaptations from the late twentieth century and their relationship to feminist theory and politics. Close readings of novels and plays by Ursula Haas, Christa Wolf, Dagmar Nick, Dea Loher, and Elfriede Jelinek reveal the promise and the pitfalls of using gendered depictions of violence to process inequity and oppression. The figure of Medea has been called many things: a witch, a barbarian, a monster, a goddess, a feminist heroine, a healer, and, finally, a murderous mother. This book considers Medea in all her complexity, thereby reframing our understanding of identity as it relates to feminism and to mythological storytelling.

This book project was the Joint Winner of the 2020 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition for German Studies in America.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • CHAPTER 1. Medea as Witch and Colonial Subject: Provocative Female Bodies in Freispruch für Medea
  • CHAPTER 2. Can Medea Speak? Voice and Victimhood in Medea Stories by Dagmar Nick and Christa Wolf
  • CHAPTER 3. Performance and Gender Performativity in Dea Loher’s Manhattan Medea
  • CHAPTER 4. A Forcible Return to the Womb: Elfriede Jelinek’s Melodramatic Medea
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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The idea for this book began as I was searching for a dissertation topic. I found my way to Medea amid representations of reproductive healthcare, including abortion. Although I ultimately wrote about violence in my dissertation, this interest in Medea has never waned. My research for this book, at least seven years in the making, is the result of numerous support systems, some of which I want to acknowledge here.

I am grateful for the financial support that I received throughout my time in graduate school including a Duke Graduate School Summer Research Fellowship, the Robert K. Steel Family Graduate Fellowship at Duke University, and the Duke Women’s Studies Dissertation Fellowship. The dissertation that started this process was also awarded the Coalition of Women in German’s annual dissertation prize in 2017. Most recently, I received a Provost Faculty Research Award from Kenyon College to support the final editing stages of this monograph. I am honored that this book won the 2020 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition for German Studies in America and thankful for the team that helped me through the publication process, especially Laurel Plapp.

I am extremely grateful to the colleagues and friends who have generously given me feedback on this book: Kata Gellen, Stefani Engelstein, Maria Stehle, Vanessa Plumly, Sara Jackson, Priscilla Layne, Dick Langston, Holly Yanacek, Rebekah Slodounik, Steffen Kaupp, BethAnne Dorn, and Ian McLean.

I especially want to thank Kata, who was there from the very, very beginning and who I can always count on to ask the tough questions. You convinced me not to write my dissertation only about Medea and I am glad that you did, because this book is so much richer since I started somewhere else.

Special thanks also go to Stefani. Being around you helped me to understand the type of scholar and teacher that I want to be. I am grateful ←ix | x→for how you let me bring all of myself into our conversations and how you always get to the heart of the matter.

I am also deeply grateful to my creepiest friend, Steffen Kaupp, for his loyalty, unwavering support, and (most directly) for the hours spent double-checking German quotations and translations.

I want to thank the students in my mythology seminar at Kenyon College, Katie, Hayden, Elena, and Israel, for putting up with my overly enthusiastic discussion of some of these texts and for teaching me to look at them with fresh eyes.

Much gratitude to my official copyeditor Sam Brawand for her attention to detail, and to my favorite copyeditors, my parents Lori and Tom Scott. Thanks also to Steve Moore for assistance with the index.

To the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Dissertation to Book Writing Group: thanks for helping me across the finish line.

I wrote this book during some very difficult years. This project was a beacon of hope within a great deal of uncertainty, and I would be remiss if I did not also acknowledge some of the people who lifted me up during these challenging, yet rewarding, times.

I am grateful to Ann Marie Rasmussen for being one of the best listeners I have ever known and for giving me professional and personal advice that will stand the test of time.

To Anne Schaffer for being there through all the highs and lows. You understand me better than almost anyone and consequently, you do not let me get away with anything. Knowing you connects me to the person that I was and to the person that I am becoming.

To BethAnne Dorn for reminding me that I am capable of many things and that I am enriched by, rather than defined by, my work. Thank you for always believing in all of me.

To the Changelings: Brianna, Liana, and Kelly. You are amazing people, scholars, and teachers. I learn from you every day and you make me happy to just be myself.

To Flora and Bill McCormick for helping me to live out my dreams and for convincing me that this was possible.

←x |

Finally, my thanks and love go to Mom, Dad, Eric, and Tommy for going through this process alongside me. You inspire me every day to be the best version of myself by giving me a space where I can just be myself. Writing a book is no small thing. Finishing the writing of a book amid precarious situations of all kinds—professional, personal, and physical—is a feat that requires love. My deepest thanks to everyone who provided the love that got me here.

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“Auf ihren Leib jetzt schreibe ich mein Schauspiel”

—Müller 78

[“It is on her body that I write my play”]

—Weber 131

In Heiner Müller’s post-dramatic theatrical text Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten (Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts) (1982–1983) the mythological figure of Medea casts herself as an author. Although Medea is probably best known for killing her children—as a destroyer of life, of legacy, and of family—it is essential to remember that Medea also creates. She has children, heals disease, and in this case, even makes art. This juxtaposition of positive and negative forces is deeply gendered. Because of their physical and symbolic reproductive functions, women’s bodies often bear the responsibility for nurturing life (as mothers) and for inspiring art (as muses). Furthermore, Müller’s Medea makes it clear that men are not the only perpetrators of violence against women and that establishing solidarity between women is a difficult undertaking. In this moment of authorship, Medea describes in graphic detail how she will burn her ex-husband Jason’s new wife alive. The play that Medea will write is notably an affective one, in the sense that her extreme violence has intertwined physical and emotional consequences. In Murderous Mothers I seek to articulate and better understand the connections between women as bodies and women as subjects within the Medea story as it was employed in response to contemporaneous feminist theory and politics. I analyze Germanophone adaptations of Medea from the late twentieth century to ask what kind of plays women create when they write Medea stories, and on whose bodies such texts might be figuratively transcribed.

The Medea stories I discuss in this book offer an alternative vision of agency and power, one that aligns more with classicist Mary Beard’s vision ←1 | 2→when she describes how feminist power “means thinking collaboratively about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb […], not as a possession” (87). Instead of power existing as something that one has, I argue that Medea’s feminist power is something that she becomes through the process of repeated, polyvocal storytelling. In her analysis of Christa Wolf’s Medea story, Helen Bridge describes how “myth is no longer just a political tool, employed deliberately to influence the way others think; it is now also a layer of unconscious self-deception. Wolf’s interest has shifted from the effects of myth to the human needs which enable it to exert power” (38). Germans in the postwar and eventually the post-Reunification periods certainly had a collective need for myth, for stories that defined or redefined their identities. In this book, I trace one specific piece of this much larger process by analyzing the role that Medea stories played in defining German women and their relationship to feminism.

During the last few decades of the twentieth century, German women authors turned to the Medea story as a means for working through their own uncertain feelings within the developing feminist political landscape of the New Women’s Movement in West Germany, and later the unified Federal Republic of Germany. In Murderous Mothers, I look closely at how authors adapted the Medea story, arguing that German feminist Medea adaptations provide space for engaging with contradictions and ambiguities within feminist ideas, especially feminist conceptions of language and of narration. The aesthetic representation of these Medea figures generates nuanced conversations about reproductive rights, intersectionality, bodily autonomy and empowerment, colonialism, racism, gender performativity, and numerous other topics that continue to hold relevance for feminist movements well into the twenty-first century. Ultimately, Medea stories by Germanophone women generate a feminist form of Gewalt (a German word meaning both violence and power) that simultaneously dismantles and reconstructs understandings of gender identity and literary representations of violence.


XII, 218
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (August)
German literature Medea mythology feminism Murderous Mothers Claire E. Scott
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XII, 218 pp.

Biographical notes

Claire E. Scott (Author)

Claire E. Scott is currently Senior Lecturer in German Language in the Department of German, Russian, and East European Studies at Vanderbilt University. She received her PhD in 2017 from the Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies, with a Certificate in Feminist Studies from Duke University. Scott has published and presented on a wide range of topics in twentieth- and twenty-first-century German culture. Their research interests include gender and sexuality studies, film studies, melodrama, affect theory, and narratology.


Title: Murderous Mothers