Mother’s Death as Narrative Device
Another way of accounting for the absent mother is to read her as a convenient narrative device, what Don Hahn referred to as ‘story shorthand’ (Radloff 2014). Although Natalie McKnight chooses to interpret Dickens’ absent mothers mainly as a reflection of his own maternal relationship, she also notes that a mother’s ‘absence becomes a great motivator and instigator’ (1997,18). The absent mother ‘creates a vacuum that destabilizes the protagonists and therefore incites their development’ (18). In particular, she notes, heroines who do not have ‘the protection and guidance of a mother’ may ‘assert their independence and adventurousness more freely’ (18).
Susan Peck MacDonald makes a similar observation in her analysis of Jane Austen’s novels, arguing that a ‘supportive mother is potentially so powerful a figure as to prevent her daughter’s trials from occurring, to shield her from the process of maturing and to disrupt the focus of and equilibrium of the novel’ (1980, 58). In fact, MacDonald argues, the dead/absent mother- trope is not a sign of ‘impotence or unimportance’, but of the ‘almost excessive power of motherhood’ (58). Because of the central role a mother plays in her child’s life, she must be removed for there to even be a story.
Carolyn Dever does not discuss the power or importance of the mother character, but notes that in Victorian literature the absent mother ‘creates a mystery for her child to solve’, where as in eighteenth-century literature the absent mother generates ‘a range of comic possibilities’ such as ‘incest plots engineered by comic family mysteries’ and ‘battles over inheritance and paternity’ (1998, ix, 23-24). The resultant plots of the trope thus vary over time, but the trope remains a convenient way of getting the story going.