Mother, Interrupted

The Argument

Marilynne Robinson's 1980 classic, 'Housekeeping,' questions the nature of that most basic of human relationships


December 26, 2004|By Elaine Tuttle Hansen | Elaine Tuttle Hansen,Special to the Sun

The recent publication of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead has drawn attention to that unusual but not unprecedented phenomenon: the great first novel that becomes an instant classic and awakens our appetite for more, only to be followed by years of silence.

We who loved the miraculous first book, Housekeeping (1980), have been left in a state of suspended longing and need, just like the characters in the novel. In the intervening decades Robinson has written essays, book reviews and two non-fiction books, Mother Country (1989), decrying nuclear pollution at Sellafield in England; and a collection of essays on modern ideology and Christian theology, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998). But none of these satisfies our craving for another novel as powerful as Housekeeping.

Although still the subject of academic dissertations and critical commentary, Robinson's first novel is not as well known among younger readers and today's general reading public as it should be. A recent re-reading convinces me that it stands the test of time, so I hope the publication of Gilead (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 256 pages, $23) will prompt a new generation to discover the joys of Housekeeping for themselves. It is a book that continues to speak in a timely way to enduring problems of human consciousness and the narrative imagination. Although often compared to 19th-century greats like Dickin-son or Wordsworth, Robinson's voice can now more easily be understood as part of a continuing conversation among contemporary women writers. Among Housekeeping's central concerns, perhaps none seems more urgent today than Robinson's complex understanding of motherhood.

In the United States, our level of confusion about maternal rights and responsibilities has never been higher. The bonds between a mother and her children still carry a weight of psychological and material investment that bears on daily lives, innermost fantasies and public policies. But cutting-edge reproductive technologies have undermined even the once-firm biological definition of motherhood. Who or what is the real mother, when one child can easily have a genetic mother, a gestating mother and a custodial mother? Social changes as radical and contradictory as abortion rights and fetal rights add to the mix, while economic disruptions challenge the material well-being of so many families.

Our norms of good mothering were largely invented in the 19th century, when for the first time many Western mothers could assume that the majority of their children might survive infancy. But Victorian ideals can't address the reality of many people's experiences today. In a divided nation, we seem further than ever from developing a shared sense of how to understand and meet the current needs of both mothers and children.

In such circumstances, novels like Housekeeping should remain essential reading. Before the late 20th century, mothers were almost never the speakers or the writers; most stories were told from the child's point of view, the mother idealized or demonized. But at last, more women are telling their own stories, both in fiction and in nonfiction. From the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo and other motherist movements in Latin America to a host of English language novelists including Atwood, Erdrich, Head, Morrison, Munro, Piercy, Walker, Weldon and so many others, women are inventing different strategies to dispute old ideas.

One key new motif in both real and fictional women's stories is the figure of the "mother without child": a woman who has lost her child, murdered her child, had her child stolen or taken away from her. She may be a slave mother, a surrogate mother or a woman who refuses or is unable to bear children. These stories of mother without child look unflinchingly at the fear and inevitability of losing one's child that every mother, every parent, experiences. The mother without child undermines the categories into which women are often divided -- bad mother vs. good mother, or criminal vs. victim -- by fitting into neither or occupying both at the same time. Moreover, both "mother" and "child" are relational words, each defined only in relation to each other, and problematic to conceptualize because they mark a partial, shifting part of an individual identity. When this relational aspect of maternal identity is disrupted or thwarted, the meaning of motherhood is thrown into relief and our understanding can be expanded.

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