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The Author’s Mother - Revenge, Fear and Longing

As can be gleaned from online comments on, and speculations about, Walt Disney, an author’s life seems a natural place to turn to for the reason a narrative includes a dead or absent mother. This is certainly the case with Charles Dickens. In the words of Natalie J. McKnight, he chose to ‘silence, maim, kill, or exclude mothers in every novel of his career’ (1997, 42). She argues that this treatment of mothers reflects ‘his desire to wreak vengeance on his own mother’ (38). Noting that Dickens’ characters of course are more than simple retaliations against his mother, McKnight still suggests that his childhood experiences in the blacking factory where his mother placed him, as well as the embarrassment she caused him in later life (39), makes him take revenge on the literary mothers he creates.

In her 2005 study of Oliver Twist, Karen Elizabeth Tatum also uses the biography of Dickens as a way to understand the violence visited on maternal characters. Referencing not only Dickens’ feelings towards his own mother but also his revulsion towards mothers in general, including his own wife, Tatum argues that he felt a particular distaste towards sexually active, mature women: ‘he cannot forgive them for sexual transgressions, for growing up and becoming women and mothers’ (2005, 244). Dickens’ way of coping with this distaste is to torture and kill maternal characters, Tatum suggests.

Revenge is also invoked in Mark Axelrod’s discussion of Walt Disney. Suggesting that it has become a ‘Disney trademark’ to undermine or remove mothers in the animated films (2003, 32), Axelrod asks the question why Walt Disney would choose to present mothers as ‘either absent or evil’ (32). He finds the answer in Disney’s conflicted relationship with his mother, which would be played out in the films as the theme of ‘the abandoned child and the nonexistent mother' (original emphasis, 32). According to Axelrod, Walt Disney created a motherless universe because of a childhood filled ‘less with joy and nurturance than with confusion and abuse’ (36).

If Walt Disney’s’ anger towards his mother is seen as an explanation for his films, Deborah D. Rogers reads Ann Radcliffe’s fear of losing her mother as a key to understanding her novels (2007). Noting that Radcliffe’s mother was ill for many years, Rogers suggests that ‘Fears of maternal death probably plagued’ her and that these fears ‘manifested themselves in the actual or supposed death’ of the central mother character in most of her novels (19).

sharon L. Joffe focuses on longing in her analysis of Mary shelley (2007). shelley never knew her mother, idolized her father and hated her stepmother, all of which Joffe sees as reflected in Frankenstein (122), Mathilda (123) and, particularly, in Valperga (124), in which three characters lose their mother during the course of the narrative. Thus Joffe posits that shelley tried to come to term with the loss of her own mother by exploring maternity in its various forms - ‘present, absent, silent or ineffective’ - in her writing (117).

Focusing on an author’s or filmmaker’s relationship with her or his own mother can thus yield insights into the narratives analyzed, but such an approach may suggest that the dead mother character is solely a result of the idiosyncrasies of one individual, and it does not address the fact that those idiosyncrasies resonate with the reading and viewing audience.

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