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Mothers Voicing Mothering?

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


Pauline Eaton

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.

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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...

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