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Psychoanalysis - Maternal Power, Individuation and Matricide

The impact and importance of mothers informs many psychoanalytically grounded analyses, albeit in a more general sense. Rather than focusing on the author’s own mother, studies drawing on psychoanalysis often interpret the texts as reflecting the needs of any growing child. One such reading is Bruno Bettelheim’s widely referenced The Uses of Enchantment (1976). This study of how fairy tales3 can help children ‘master the psychological problems of growing up’ (6) interprets dead mothers and evil stepmothers as a mechanism for the child to come to terms with the fact that the mother will not always be good (67). The fairy tales allow the child to split the mother into two characters: the good, missing, mother and the wicked, present, stepmother. When the mother angers the child, she is simply the evil stepmother. This removes any guilt the child might feel about being angry with his or her mother (69).4

The child’s emotional relationship with the mother informs Claire Kahane’s analysis of Gothic literature in a similar way (1985). Making use of the seminal studies by Dorothy Dinnerstein (1976) and Nancy

Chodorow (1978), she discusses the ‘symbiotic relation’ between mother and child, particularly a daughter, which makes it difficult for the daughter to become a separate individual (Kahane 1985, 336, 337). Kahane describes the dangers of ‘merging with a mother imago who threatens all boundaries between self and other’ (340). The daughter must thus escape the ‘uncanny mother of infancy’, who will continue to ‘haunt’ her and threaten her individuation (351). The threat of the too powerful mother is dispelled through the idea of the dead/absent mother.

Nancy Chodorow is similarly referenced in Coppelia Kahn’s analysis of the absent mother in King Lear (1986). Looking for the ‘imprint of the mother on the male psyche’, the effects of mothering on men regardless of whether mothers are present or not, Kahn analyzes Lear’s identity construction, ‘the hidden mother in the hero’s inner world’ (35). In contrast to Kahane, however, Kahn reads the closeness between mother and daughter as positive rather than threatening: a girl’s gender identity is ‘reinforced’ (37) through her identification with the mother. It is the boy who is in danger, ‘threatened by union and identification’ (37) and who must form his identity by rejecting the mother, and femininity (27).5

Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection is often employed by scholars reading dead mothers as a result of the child’s need to separate from the mother. Ruth Bienstock Anolik, for example, quotes Kristeva’s claim that mothers are abjected in ‘attempts to release the hold of maternal entity’ (Kristeva qtd in Anolik 2007, 96, original emphasis). According to Anolik, in Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance, the absent mother ‘emblematizes the maternal absence that lies at the centre of the Freudian and Lacanian narrative of individuation’ (2007, 100). The missing mother character is thus a reflection and result of the child’s individuation process.

Reaching a similar conclusion, Karen Elizabeth Tatum turns to Kristeva in her analysis of Oliver Twist. She uses the theory of abjection to locate ‘triggers in patriarchal thought processes that lead to violence against women’ (2005, 241). These triggers are found in Dickens’s writing, she postulates, because he never managed to ‘settle the attraction/repulsion aspects of abjection’ caused by his problems with his mother (244). Having failed to perform the ‘psychic matricide [which] is often necessary to maintaining individuality’ , he instead performed literary matricide in his texts, including the death of Oliver’s mother, an unnamed mother, and Nancy (242).

Lacan’s theories of the Symbolic order and the Law of the Father, as well as Julia Kristeva’s claim that matricide is a ‘biological and psychic necessity’ thus inform many analyses (Kristeva 1989, 27-28). Gal Ventura, for example, in her study of dead mothers in art, argues that ‘matricide is a vital necessity’ in Western culture, not because the mother is irrelevant, but because ‘her comprehensive power requires her symbolic homicide’ (2015, 28). Referencing Bracha L. Ettinger’s refutation of the claim that ‘subjectivity requires matricide’ (27), Ventura instead suggests that matricide is necessary because it can transport ‘the mother into the symbolic realm’ (28). To Ventura, matricide is thus a way to ‘strengthen the relations’ with the mother, to restore the mother to her rightful place (28).

Other scholars turn to Luce Irigaray in order to question the necessity of matricide altogether. Irigaray has famously claimed that ‘the whole of our western culture is based upon the murder of the mother’ (1991, 47). she construes the matricide as a patriarchal bid for power, not a natural result of the child’s maturation process. This bid for power is the entry point for Lynda Haas’s discussion of the mother’s position in the cultural imaginary as reflected in a number of Disney animated and live action films (1995). Suggesting that it is possible to make films which are not based on the murder of the mother, she nonetheless notes that a number of films represent ‘an installation of the patriarchy on the foundation of matricide’ by ‘excus[ing] the mother figure in order to replace her with a kindly - and often more competent - patriarch’ (1995, 197). The mother is removed to make way for the father.

The idea of matricide and the theories of Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinnerstein also underpin Judith Kegan Gardner’s analysis of five novels featuring dying mothers, suggesting that they ‘gratify our matricidal rage by plots that painfully murder the heroines’ mothers’, but in such a way that the deaths seem natural, and do not cause guilt (1978, 147). Referring to Adrienne Rich’s concept of matrophobia, the ‘fear...of becoming one’s mother‘s she suggests that as opposed to the Oedipus myth, where the son kills the father to take his place, in twentieth century literature, ‘the daughter “kills” her mother in order not to have to take her place’ (146, original emphasis).

Psychoanalytical theory thus generates readings which do not focus solely on the experiences and emotions of the author, but take into account other factors. In some cases, however, there is the risk that the dead/absent mother is normalized and reduced to a natural phenomenon, a stage which the individual must go through. A psychoanalytical approach may thus foreclose discussions of any societal or cultural influence. Analyses grounded in feminist psychoanalytical theories, however, tend to look also at societal and cultural factors, when they position themselves in relation to patriarchy.

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