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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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In my exploration of mothers in NDiaye I started with a sense that her project was not to represent monstrous mothers but to test the behaviour of ordinary mothers in difficult circumstances and to reveal how extreme and how puzzling their behaviour might seem to those of her readers who had not been mothers themselves and whose concepts of what it meant to mother were limited to their own experience of being mothered or of watching others mother.

My original uninformed sense that mothers represented as mothers were absent from literature, and that scholarly comment on mothers in literature rarely came from those who might have inside knowledge of it (mothers having only very recently been able to find time to forge academic careers and to climb the academic tree) was soon revealed to me not to be a novel insight, but to be a realization shared by others and on which work was already being done. I came to realize too that the absence from literature of mothers as moral and significant agents in their capacity of mothers was mirrored by their, now well-recognized, absence from psychoanalysis, despite the universally acknowledged importance of the relationship of a mother to her child. Psychoanalytic texts have focussed on the mother as an (often faulty and inadequate) instrument for the production and development of a child. Where mothers were, and are still, most potently present was in Christian iconography and its cultural offshoots, where their presence and their very existence...

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