Historic Specificity and Socio-Cultural Influences
Patriarchy and family structures inform, for example, Natalie McKnight’s readings of Dickens. She sums up Dorothy Dinnerstein’s analysis as arguing ‘that patriarchy is the result of mother-dominated childrearing’ (1997, 41), which could be interpreted as that women are the creators of their own oppression. Whilst suggesting that such a claim ‘may seem too essentialist’ (41), she nonetheless views it as a credible explanation for absent mothers in mid-Victorian literature, since it would make ‘female power something against which to fight’ (42). Thus, the novels which feature dead or absent mothers reflect a patriarchal reaction against the too powerful mother, what Isaac D Balbus has referred to as a ‘culturally universal fear and loathing of the female’ (1988, 142-141).
Some scholars discuss the use of the trope as a result of political and religious changes in society and the way these conflict with established, patriarchal practices. Mary Beth Rose, for example, suggests that the lack of mothers in Shakespeare should be understood, not as an effect of maternal death in childbirth or constraints within the Elizabethan theatre, but as a response to early modern changing perceptions of motherhood, and the role of the mother, where conflicts are ‘center[ed] on paternal power and authority’ (1991, 206.) She argues that Protestant valorization of marriage shifted the balance between the extended family and the immediate family, which favoured mothers. They were given greater influence over their children’s physical and spiritual wellbeing, which lead to a cultural anxiety about their power (313). Rose interprets Shakespeare’s missing mothers as a result of this anxiety, a preference for ‘more traditional discourses’ and a desire to return to older familial structures (313).
In addition to psychoanalysis, Ruth Bienstock Anolik looks to legal factors and in particular the practices of ‘couverture’ and primogeniture when analyzing Gothic novels. According to the law, upon marriage a woman’s identity was subsumed into that of her husband. Anolik refers to it as ‘civil death’ and suggests that a woman did not only lose property and custody of her children, but also herself (2007, 97). She reads the absent wives and mothers in the Gothic novels as a criticism of that system.
Cultural and societal anxieties towards mothers and motherhood are viewed as a factor in a number of analyses of narratives. In her investigation of the Disney Princesses-franchise (films, online material, toys and other forms of merchandise), Marjorie Worthington reads the dead or absent mother as a result of societal fears of maternal power (2009). Although the princesses span a period of at least 60 years, they are similar not only in aspirations and behaviours but also in their lack of mothers (30-31). Commenting on the ‘heterosexist marriage plot’ and the ‘patriarchal messages’ of the franchise, Worthington claims that it reflects ‘a contemporary cultural anxiety’ that mothers are not fit to raise their daughters and communicates a message that it is best for girls to ‘grow up without a mother and outside any feminine community’ (41).
In an investigation of dead mothers on television, I too discuss cultural anxieties (Astrom 2015). Using Gaye Tuchman’s phrase ‘symbolic annihilation’ (1978, 8), which is how she describes the elision ofwomen in US broadcasting in the 1970s, I discuss the various functions of the dead mother in different types of programmes, with a particular focus on melodrama. I argue that the narratives present family happiness as predicated on the death of the mother, and that the onscreen depiction of maternal death is an ‘escalation of the symbolic annihilation of mothers in popular culture’ (Astrom 2015, 603).
Svetlana Ristovski-Slijepcevic discusses ‘cultural understandings of mothering’ in her analysis of films in which young mothers die from cancer (2013, 629). She posits that the narratives impose certain behaviours on the mothers, requiring them to subordinate their own suffering to the wellbeing of others. Noting that ‘Ailing women often become catalysts for male psychological transformation’, Ristovski-Slijepcevic claims that ‘film portrayals simultaneously devalue mothers as they sanctify the institution of motherhood’ and that this holds true also for films representing dying mothers, where ‘motherhood is synonymous with self-sacrifice’ (631, 635).
A more physical explanation for the lack of mothers in narratives is the suggestion that the stories reflect a historical reality - the mothers really were dead. Marina Warner, for example, discussing fairy tales, points to the high rates of death in childbirth in earlier periods. The absent mother in the fairy tale is simply a reflection of historical fact, Warner argues; she is ‘a feature of the family before our modern era’ (1996, 281).6 However, as Carolyn Dever points out, sometimes these historical facts are exaggerated. Women die in childbirth to a much greater extent in Victorian novels than they ever did in real life: ‘it is far more dangerous to give birth in a fictional world than in any region, under any conditions, within any social class in Victorian Britain’ (1998, 11).
Turning to historical and socio-cultural factors for explanations of the dead/absent mother-trope thus gives an insight into what concerns the narratives might be addressing. However, such an approach may also obscure the historical continuity of the trope.