Analyzing the Dead/Absent Mother-Trope
The mothers in the narratives investigated in this anthology are dead or absent, but, as the scholars demonstrate, dead does not always mean absent, and physically present sometimes means emotionally absent. In some cases, the narrative requires that the mother is made absent. The diverse material demonstrates that there are many meanings and functions of a dead or absent mother, and that the stories participate in an ongoing cultural conversation that spans the centuries, and moves across genres and media. As the chapters show, the trope is employed to articulate and debate, for example, questions of politics and religion, social and cultural change, as well as issues of power and authority within the family, and indeed what constitutes a family.
In the first section, in the chapter ‘The Lady Vanishes: The Rise of the Spectral Mother’, Marilyn Francus contextualizes the trope of the dead/ absent mother in Western literary history, with a particular focus on eighteenth-century novels.7 Looking to generate a theory of the specialization of mothers in literature, and to make a case for recuperating maternal voice and perspective, she debates what the spectral mother, as she comes down to us, may tell us about ideas of mothering in the future.
The second section of the book comprises analyses of older material, which in various ways represents the dead or absent mother as an advisor or protector. In ‘Saintly Protection: The Post-Mortem “Mothers” of Medieval Hagiography’, Mary Beth Long analyzes three saints’ lives: a twelfth-century vita of St Wenefrid, a thirteenth-century vita of Christina mirabilis, and a fourteenth-century vita of Mary Magdalene. All three narratives feature what Long refers to as ‘postmortem maternity’, women who lactate or perform other maternal functions after death and resurrection. Reading these stories in relation to Marian standards of motherhood, Long suggests that the post-mortem maternity is a way of negotiating problematic notions of body, sexuality, motherhood and spirituality, affording the women power and agency they did not have whilst living, but also restricting them by requiring them to take on the role of protector, ‘at the mercy of sinners who demand their intercession’.
Restriction and agency are evidenced in Amanda Bohne’s ‘“Be War Be My Wo”: Gaynor and Her Mother in The Awntyrs off Arthure’. In her analysis of this fourteenth-century romance, Bohne focuses on the relationship between Gaynor (Guinevere) and her dead mother, showing how the mother's ghost acts an advisor to her daughter, helping Gaynor to make politically sound recommendations to her husband, thus preventing war. In this narrative, dead does not mean absent. In what Bohne terms an exchange of ‘memory for prophecy’, Gaynor receives advice in exchange for a promise of the saying of masses for her mother. Thus the dead mother's agency allows her to protect and advise her daughter, which in turn gives Gaynor the power to influence court politics, as well as shorten her mother’s time in purgatory.
In Katarina Labudova’s chapter, ‘Dead Mothers and Absent Stepmothers in Slovak and Romani Fairy Tales’ , the function of the trope of the dead mother is shown to be quite complex. Referencing Marina Warner’s and Maria Tatar’s discussions of the interconnectedness of dead mothers, wicked stepmothers, witches and evil mothers-in-law, Labudova investigates how these figures, in various ways, function as enablers, allowing the children’s transition from childhood to adulthood.
Advice is at the centre of the seventeenth-century mothers’ legacies Ailsa Grant Ferguson discusses in ‘“A dumme thynge”: The Posthumous Voice as Rhetoric in the Mothers’ Legacies of Dorothy Leigh and Elizabeth Joscelin’. These advice books, written for the benefit of the authors’ children, were published posthumously. Ferguson reads the books as prosopopoeia, arguing that the posthumous rhetoric developed allows the mothers a greater authority than was usually afforded women writers.
The chapters in the third section all revisit the question of missing mothers in Shakespeare’s works. In ‘“Born in a tempest when my mother died”: Shakespeare’s Motherless Daughters’, Jess Hamlet turns to Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, Prince of Tyre and The Winter’s Tale and discusses the absence of a mother as an enabling factor. Although Beatrice, Marina and Perdita relate to the absence of the mother in different ways, and, in two of the plays regain their lost mothers, Hamlet shows how growing up without motherly advice gives these characters the agency and power to make their own decisions.
The lack of motherly advice can thus allow a daughter to shape her own destiny. Rebecca Potter and Elizabeth Mackenzie, on the other hand, trace the absent mother through her influence on her daughter. In ‘Ophelia’s Mother: The Phantom of Maternity in Shakespeare’s Hamlet’, they study Ophelia’s absent mother through her influence on Ophelia, through what they call the ‘imprint of the mother’, borrowing Cordelia Kahn’s phrase. Demonstrating how the absent mother is continually evoked and contrasted with other, inferior, maternal figures, Potter and Mackenzie link Ophelia’s mother’s imprint with the imprint of nature-as-mother.
Finally, Anna Mackenzie analyzes the present mother rendered absent or silent in ‘Missing Mothers on the Page and Stage: Hamlet and Henry V’. Problematizing the concepts of genre and gender, Mackenzie interrogates the representation of Gertrude and Queen Isabel, in the plays as well as in editorial and directorial decisions. Showing how the characters, present on the page, are reduced, silenced or removed, in later editions of the text and in present-day adaptations, Mackenzie questions the received perception of mothers as absent in the plays, suggesting that what is required is an adjustment of the ‘critical lens... to recognize the impactful absence and the very present missing mother’.
The chapters in the fourth section investigate texts that construct the dead/absent mother more critically. In her study of a series of 1950s and 1960s Canadian children’s picture books, ‘A Side of Family, Hold the Mother: Dare Wright and her Fictive Kin in the Lonely Doll Series’, Heather Brown-Hudson traces how the books simultaneously evoke the mother and render her absent. Brown-Hudson argues that the texts and photographs explore a new type of family structure, which calls into question whether a mother is needed at all.
Kirsten M0llegaard’s chapter ‘Dead, But Not Gone: Mother and Othermother in Holly Black and Ted Naifeh’s The Good Neighbors is also an investigation of visual narratives, a trilogy of graphic novels: Holly Black and Ted Naifeh’s The Good Neighbors. M0llegaard analyzes how the narrative script of the missing mother in these novels intersects with race and gender performance to re-work the mother-stepmother- daughter dynamic, nuancing both the role of the absent/present mother and the stepmother. In doing so, M0llegaard argues, the novels present ‘an alternate image of motherhood that questions the foundations of traditional marriage and gender roles’.
Joanna Wilson-Scott, in her chapter ‘Victims and Villains: The Legacy of Mother Blame in Violent-Eye American Literature’, interrogates what she terms ‘violent-eye’ narratives, novels written in the first person, which feature a violent protagonist. Analyzing three such novels, A. M. Homes’s The End of Alice (1996), Chuck Pahlaniuk’s Fight Club (1996) and Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004), she challenges the claim that mother-blaming in the US ended in the 1980s. Wilson-Scott demonstrates that mothers are still constructed as pathogens, as the cause of the children’s deviance, and that the dead mother is used as a ‘means of explaining the actions of men and minimizing their culpability’.
In his analysis of horror films, ‘Symbolic Matricide Gone Awry: on Absent and - Maybe Even Worse - Present Mothers in Horror Movies’, Eike Trager engages with pathogenic mothers and mother-blaming in relation to the gender of the children. He focuses on how the narratives create a situation where the mother must be made absent. Using Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection and the idea that a symbolic matricide is required for the child to achieve social membership, Trager analyzes how films such as Psycho (1960), Carrie (1976) and Black Christmas (2006) present actual matricide as the only viable result when symbolic matricide fails.
The fifth section continues the investigation of dead or absent mothers in visual texts, discussing potential future developments of the trope. Rebecca Feasey, in her chapter ‘Television and the Absent Mother: Why Girls and Young Women Struggle to Find the Maternal Role’, contextualizes the missing mother in situation comedy, where viewers are ‘frequently and comically reminded that mothers do not matter’, before broadening the scope to urban fantasy, telefantasy and US teen drama. Feasey argues that these narratives present ‘the message that mothers are unavailable, unnecessary and unwanted in the life and life stages of the average teen’ and reflects on what the result might be of such representations.
The final chapter of the anthology, my own ‘Marginalizing Motherhood: Postfeminist Fathers and Dead Mothers in Animated Film’, charts the changing parental representation in animated films from the 1990s to 2014. Using Hannah Hamad’s concept of postfeminist fatherhood (2014), which claims that fatherhood is increasingly becoming a defining factor of male protagonists and heroes in mainstream film, I argue that animated films in the new millennium are not only continuing the marginalization of mothers of earlier periods, but that the death of the mother has become more important as a means of forging paternal identity and strengthening the father-child bond. I read the films as a postfeminist response to cultural debates about equality between parents, a response that constructs the father as the only parent a child needs.
As the chapters in this anthology demonstrate, the dead or absent mother is evoked in a great variety of narratives, in many different periods, for many different purposes, with many different outcomes. Studying the trope in its various iterations, this anthology not only illuminates its complexity, making visible what is so often invisible,8 but may also tell us something about why it has fascinated, and continues to fascinate, listeners, viewers and readers, as well as authors and film makers.