IV The Absent Mother as Expendable, or a Threat
A Side of Family, Hold the Mother: Dare Wright and Her Fictive Kin in the Lonely Doll Series
How inextricably tied to the family paradigm in our cultural imagination is the figure of the mother? I argue that it is not only linked but implicit. Even so, a missing, absent, dead, or omitted mother figure in a text which has the framework of the household and its family as the anchor only matters insofar as the presence of a mother and the backdrop of family matters. Indeed, they are more than correlated facts of life; they, together, occupy a colossally privileged and symbolic role in the global framework of our society. My claim here is that a close reading of twentieth-century Canadian-American children’s author Dare Wright’s (1914-2001) rendering of family, motherlessness, and kin in The Lonely Doll series essentially renders absence visible. That is, the very thing that the stories seem to work to evade ends up sifting toward the top of each narrative. As it turns out, mother is somewhat present in Wright’s dedication of The Lonely Doll, the first book in the series, but she is not identified as such. Instead of using one of the many monikers common for mother, ‘mom’, ‘mommy’, or ‘mother’, her shortened first name is used instead, Edie.
H. Brown-Hudson (*)
Gender Studies, Lindenwood University, 209, South Kingshighway, St. Charles,
63301 Missouri, USA
B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_10
She thanks Edie for introducing her to the series’ main characters, Edith and the Bears. This is arguably one of the more revealing moments, as it is suggestive of how Wright may have regarded her mother, as a means to an end in a sense, not as her mother, void of any endearing qualifiers which are often so typical of these dedications, but instead, as the conduit to her beloved doll and bears.
Despite the shadowy footprint of some long lost, missing, dead, absent, or nonexistent maternal force in Wright’s stories, the narratives do resist the urge to perpetuate the maternal as something knowable, nameable, or even effable. This is significant because Wright’s most notable work spans two decades, the 1950s and 1960s, whereby, before the heyday of second-wave feminism, the ideals and roles of the mother in the family were tremendously prescriptive. As Russell Kirkscey claims, in his essay ‘The Cycle of Omission: Oppressive and Oppressed Gender Roles in Recent Children’s Literature’, ‘relationships and role models confirm the continuation ofmale domination and female submission that play out in examples of contemporary children’s literature’ (2011, 96). Further, the omnipresence of the ‘absent, yet caring father’ figure that menaces just about every one of Wright’s books will prove to be the main cause of much of the havoc that is wreaked in the stories, making the absence of a mother even more intriguing (2011, 100). Among the ten books that are still in print from the series, I narrow my focus to three of Wright’s children’s picture books, respectively entitled The Lonely Doll (1957), The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson (1961), and Edith & Mr. Bear (1964). Due to the lack of page numbers in her books, when quoting from the texts, I reference the quotation parenthetically, citing the year ofpublication and counting the pages myself, beginning page one where the text begins. To theoretically ground my analysis, I employ three of Roland Barthes’ five narrative codes, as outlined in his work S/Z(1974). In addition, I make use of some recently written criticism on Children’s Literature, in addition to the one biography on Wright, written by Jean Nathan and entitled The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll. Exploring how the non-fictional elements of Wright’s own domestic space web their way into her children’s stories, I maintain, is both essential and controversial. It is important to note that, while Nathan’s biography will not be at the forefront of my analysis, it will play a role in some of my claims. As Maria Nikolajeva notes, ‘in children’s literature the role of the author may be considered different from that in mainstream literature. For one thing, due to the overall didactic purpose of children’s literature, children’s fiction may by definition be viewed as more intentional than general fiction’ (2005, 1). All this, she suggests, will enable the reader to exact the author’s unique aesthetic. As such, Wright’s life, as filtered through an obsessive and negligent maternal influence, will ooze onto the pages and into the life of her cherished companion, Edith, the very lonely doll. Through three characters, Edith, her ever mischievous but unfaltering friend and companion Little Bear, and their well-intentioned watchman of sorts, Mr. Bear, Wright ushers her readers into the peculiar and mother less domestic cadre of The Lonely Doll book series while simultaneously suppressing her own rather mother full existence.
When exploring the significance of the absence of mother in the texts, it is necessary to consider not only how and why this absence matters, but also how multiple other textual functions matter, including character creation, storylines, narrative voices, and the photographic images at work. And while the motherless texts in question can easily be discussed on numerous theoretical grounds, I choose to treat this as a transdisciplinary study of sorts, blending literary analysis with Barthes’ theory of narrative codes, history and biography to demonstrate what these texts unearth about a motherless family portrait.
About Wright and her texts, the question must be asked—how can a body of work about a lonely little girl and her chosen kin, completely void of mother, add to the understanding about the collective cultural conscience of the maternal? Without indication of the maternal, there appears to be no plot-based evidence for analysis, whether theoretical or actual, of relationships fostered (mother/daughter, mother/father, etcetera) or roles played. After all, the plot of a motherless child navigating daily life and foraying into unknown, often dangerous territory, under the watchful eye of an omnipresent and, at times, malevolent force is far from original. From Charles Perrault’s version of Cinderella, to Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, to Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the grouping of a young person, ennui, peril, and adventure, is nothing new. Unique to this study is the setting in each book, which is the home, a fixed backdrop of domesticity and calm, where adventures are embarked upon, but after which direct and punitive consequences to any transgression of behavior takes place. Not only, then, does this nuance the feeling of home for the readers, but it also adds dimension to the family portrait coming into view. Could these motherless texts possibly be treated as an alternative to the overly prescriptive representations of mothers in literature? Might Wright be opting out of suggesting that there exists any normative maternal model? As Vanessa Joosen has done in her essay ‘Look More Closely,’ Said Mum: Mothers in Anthony Browne’s Picture Books’, I will rely on the convergence of ‘narratological perspective, visual point of view, and intertextual references’ to explain how looming and significant the absence of the maternal is in the texts (2015, 1). The books themselves, rather large in size, range from 8 % x 11 У to 8 У x 12 inches. The front and back covers are gingham patterned, in pink, purple, red, or blue. The photographs inside are all black and white. Each hardback cover includes a photograph of Edith the doll, either alone or else with Mr. Bear. Given that Edith is a doll, with a fixed expression, it is quite astonishing how suggestive of emotion the photographs are. In each one, she looks worn with worry and sadness. The importance of the visual aesthetic certainly continues throughout the book series.
While in all three of these children’s stories, a family portrait is depicted, it is one that seems to hang askew on the wall. Written from the same narratological perspective as fairy tales and fables, Wright’s stories do seem to inherit some of the same functions. That is, if fairy tales offer up social metaphors, we must inquire about the impact of such an endeavor as Wright’s. Here we have a multi-book series about a little girl, void of parents or any related kin for that matter, who occupies a big house all by herself and is plagued with loneliness until two bears show up and enact the quasi-Lacanian cycle of lack, desire, and void fulfillment, only to be muddied with the tropes of Edith’s self-deprecation, poor judgment, and subsequent punishment. What is more, there is not even any context against which to examine the absence. No death, no outright abandonment, nothing. As Judith Mishne posits in ‘Parental Abandonment: A Unique Form of Loss and Narcissistic Injury’, ‘death has a finality about it which abandonment does not’ (1979, 15). But what can be said about the nature of omission? The personification of Little Bear and Mr. Bear offers some interesting clues about what kinship is for Edith and by what standards she is held to by the sole authority figure in the house, Mr. Bear. But it is not Mr. Bear whose presence merits pages of scrutiny. It is instead an absence worthy of question. It is the neon flashing missing link—mother.
What are Wright’s readers to make of this omission? Maria Nikolajeva thinks it can be useful to consider the asymmetry in the writer/reader power relationship in order to unpack the didactic leanings of the text. She states, ‘Children’s literature is written—with very few exceptions—by adults for children, who have less life experience and therefore different reference frames, and whose vocabulary and other linguistic skills are generally less developed’ (2005, 2). As Roland Barthes posits in Writing Degree Zero (1977), all writing, regardless of genre or era, is subject to the margins of discourse, as determined by time and place. In this way, Wright’s consistent vision of family and kin, sans mother, is a total upheaval of the standard family structure in 1950s’ and 1960s’ America. As suggested above, the family structure during those decades was rather narrow, and usually took the form of an oft absent breadwinning father, a stay-at-home-mother who performed the entire range of domestic duties, and more than one child. Wright’s own family, however, looked nothing like this. She was the only child of an ambitious, resourceful, overbearing, extroverted portrait painter mother. As a young girl, Wright lost almost all contact with her father and brother after her parents’ divorce. So while it is not a far stretch to imagine Mr. Bear as the father- by-proxy and Little Bear as a sibling in the Lonely Doll series, it is the total evasion of any mother or maternal mention throughout the entire book series that is not only a curious phenomenon; it is loaded one.
Choosing to depict no mother at all does relieve Wright of the burden of offering up a representative model for motherhood, whether good, bad, or so-so. What it does not do, however, is write the mother entirely out of the script. That is, Wright’s version of family deftly avoids the minefield that is the romanticizing or vilification of the maternal and the traditional prototype of family. But it proves a Sisyphean task to maintain suspension of disbelief that Mr. Bear, the seldom home, authoritative controversial parent substitute, who is almost never seen performing any actual caretaking tasks, is managing the household all alone. And the task only gets more difficult with consideration of the photographs. The choreographed positioning of the dolls in the pictures puts on display the significance of the visual aesthetic that Wright possessed. Often, what we are expected to do with the genre of children’s fiction, is to believe what we see and hear. And I suppose many do, with no questions asked. However, nothing demonstrates how much dust and dirt has built up on the walls like removing a picture frame and laying bare the perfectly discernible clean spot where the frame once hung. The question of ‘mother’ in The Lonely Doll book series is this visible void. What is most significant, however, is that she is only visible relative to the bare walls beside her. At the risk of overdoing my metaphor, those bare walls are the pillars of Wright’s stories. They are the family, the household, although male (or bear) dominated, and all the traces of mother that she reveals as the stories progress, notably the adult sized vanity, with full display of makeup, onto which Edith sneaks to play, as well as the dresses, shoes, and jewelry in the closet. In this fashion, Wright works towards, not necessarily a rewriting of the maternal/family script, but rather an investigation into the stakes of what such a script contains when mother is not in the family portrait, but still appears to exist and persist in the fissures of the text, as well as in the cultural imagination of the readership.
A case in point is when, in The Lonely Doll, Edith and Little Bear, stricken with a case of ennui one day, decide to go exploring the house. We are told that ‘they discovered a beautiful dressing room with a big mirror’. Later, Little Bear discovers a whole closetful of clothes and suggests that they both play dress up. And dress up they do. Edith adorns herself with hats, jewels, a petticoat, and make-up, while Little Bear encourages her. These are the most pronounced moments when the absence of the mother presence is visceral. The trail of maternal bits and pieces abruptly ends, though, when Mr. Bear appears in the background; he is enraged. Scolding Edith for being ‘too young for lipstick,’ he also states that he knows ‘when a naughty little girl needs a spanking’ (1957, 38).
The Lonely Doll series speaks to a symbolic reimagining of the significance ofthe mother precisely because she is never included, but sometimes alluded to, in the portraits. My claim is that these texts do more than omit; they also reflect a deliberately motherless portrait, as they eerily echo Wright’s real life traumas. While this portrait asks more questions than it provides answers, I suggest that the representation of family in Wright’s texts communicates more about the potentially consequential stakes of maternal influence than any actual presence might imply. What can reveal these stakes of prescribed maternal behavior is an exploration of more of these moments where we bear witness to some of the disparate and off- kilter productions of motherlessness and fictive kinship.
Wright’s refraining from any verbal or visual consideration of the maternal is a matter of literary, cultural, and narratological significance, but even more so when examined vis a vis three of Roland Barthes’ narrative codes. In order to situate a nonexistent mother in the discourse of The Lonely Doll series, it is imperative to dismantle the codes of discourse at work. The three codes I employ here, the hermeneutic, proairetic, and referential codes, reveal a great deal about what Dare Wright may have wanted her readers to recognize. The hermeneutic and proairetic codes are two ways of creating suspense in a narrative. The hermeneutic code creates suspense by narratively suggesting unanswered questions, and the proairetic code creates suspense by means of actions, advancing the plot while increasing the intrigue and subsequent queries on the part of the reader. First, Edith’s mysterious life circumstances envelop her in the hermeneutic enigma, mysteriously alone and steadily oscillating between the plot parts—Mr. Bear and Little Bear—and its who/e, ending each story with the ever enigmatic happy ending for the family at large. The volleying from part to whole, void of any narrative anchoring force is what advances my query about Edith and her opposition to maternal influence. Next, the proairetic code is useful for making something of the many moments that take place after Edith acts. Very often, Edith’s whimsical actions result in more consequential actions. And finally, the referential code is evoked by the overall framework of domesticity, family life, and of the activities in which Edith often engages. Even without much detail, this framework is often suggestive of a maternal influence (sewing, playing dress up, etc.).
From the onset of The Lone/y Do//, evident is the main character Edith’s ardent desire for attention and affection. The book’s frontispiece portrays Edith the doll standing with her head against a wall and her arms folded and crossed over her forehead in a state of despondency. Likewise, the first few pages of The Lone/y Do// are rather heartbreaking, portraying a very well groomed Edith the doll in complete crisis mode. By page three, she has asked three different times for relief from her loneliness, for ‘somebody to play with’, ‘friends’, and ‘company’ (1957, 3). This theme of stark loneliness and worry, despite the fact that she is seldom alone, haunts Edith in each story. Similar to Edith, Wright, in her own life, sought refuge from loneliness and spent a great deal of time seeking companionship. She remained almost literally by her mother’s side for decades and decades. She was truant for most of the first three years of elementary school, playing companion to her mother, sitting for portraits, playing dress-up, and traveling the world. During her childhood, Wright’s ‘self-sufficiently was assumed’ (Nathan 2004, 50). And since companionship never just showed up to the door, as was made possible in her books, she had to invent it. Following her parents’ divorce in 1919, Wright and her beloved brother Blaine were separated. After a tumultuous marriage marked by transience, instability, and financial strain, Wright’s mother, Edie, had filed for divorce in April of 1919, seeking ‘sole charge and control’ of Dare but making no mention of her other child, Blaine. ‘By default, custody of [Blaine] would go to
Ivan. The divorce was handed down at the end of October, granting all of Edie’s stipulations’ (Nathan 2004, 38). The siblings, once very close, were not to reunite until well over a decade later. Nathan suggests that in her world of make believe, Wright ‘was not the child abandoned by her father or the sister who had lost her brother’ (Nathan 2004, 46). The loneliness that Wright felt in life may indeed have contributed to the creation of the character of Little Bear, Edith the doll’s only steadfast companion, yet it is the absence of a mother figure in the domestic world on display in The Lonely Doll series that speaks not only to the problem of maternal authority but also to the imperative nature of Wright’s maternal exclusion and subsequent a-non-traditional reinvention of a family script. That is, given the overbearing and at times oppressive circumstances of Wright’s upbringing by her mother, one might regard the absence of mother in the book series as a literary emancipation of sorts. In Edith’s world, not much more matters than love, affection, companionship, and family cohesion. But as evidenced by the struggles she encounters, family unity for Edith, Mr. Bear, and Little Bear, is often conditional and always fragile. Might this perhaps be part of the stakes of Wright’s motherless stories when reflected against such a motherfull existence?
Part of what Roland Barthes’ referential code does is to consider a discipline and look at wider cultural understandings, morality, ideology and shared knowledge about the way the world thinks. I am referring to the widely shared body of knowledge of how mother/mothering/the maternal persists as being part of the matrix comprising the family, the home, and child rearing. This referential code about the presence and role of mother, vis a vis Mr. Bear’s role, Edith’s involuntary loneliness, quest for love, friendship, and self-worth, when coupled with the visual staging of the dolls and ominous third person fairy tale like narration, perfectly sets the stage for the remaining two code applications, the hermeneutic and proairetic codes, which, as stated earlier, often work in tandem to advance the story’s interest. The application of these three codes in the selected texts of Wright’s can reveal two different aspects of the texts. The first is the texts’ ability to demonstrate characteristic features of a narrative without direct reference to the creator/author. The second is the text’s ability to render visible the embedded subtext which, perhaps latently, inspired their design.
In the three texts discussed here, The Lonely Doll, Edith and Mr. Bear, and The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson, the hermeneutic code is at work throughout the stories. The narrator of The Lonely Doll informs the reader about half way through that ‘One rainy day Mr. Bear left Edith and Little Bear home by themselves’ (1957, 22). Inexplicably, Mr. Bear leaves the house and the two friends are all alone for what appears to be an entire day. Similarly, in Edith and Mr. Bear, the first page of the story shows Edith and Little Bear sitting at the foot of the stairs ‘waiting for Mr. Bear to come home from a trip’ (1964, 1). Finally, in The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson, on page 30, just about half way through the story, after it is clear that Edith and Little Bear are alone, the action-based, tension-building proairetic code is evoked in both texts. Reading the characters’ actions and examining their behavioral patterns through the lens of this proairetic code builds up both the reader’s interest and suspense, while limiting discursive flexibility. That is, when the reader is informed that Edith is sitting at the foot of the stairs, there is a logical sequence of assumptions that follow. After Edith waits, the thing for which she waits naturally arrives. Likewise, through the narrator’s informing the reader that Little Bear and Edith are home alone, the reader can imagine what may be in store for them, therefore advancing the narrative tensions in the text. In this particular story, Edith comes down with chicken pox, and after a doctor comes to see her and prescribes bed-rest and staying indoors, away from Little Bear and the rest of the house, Mr. Bear leaves both Little Bear and Edith home alone. In a direct transgression of orders given, Little Bear enters Edith’s room and climbs up onto the bed, informing her that ‘Mr. Bear’s gone out, and I came to see you’ (1961, 30). What is fascinating to note is that most of Edith’s attention-seeking, ennui-ridding behavior is provoked by two main actions, those being the departures and arrivals of Mr. Bear. More telling, though, are the actions that take place during these absences of Mr. Bear. These are not only moments when Edith’s sense of adventure, boredom, slight recklessness, and self-deprecation hit a high note, leading to poor judgment, which in turn leads to punishment. Just a couple of pages later, after a scuffle with Little Bear, Edith, and a pair of scissors up on her bed, Edith’s hair is accidentally cut. At the very moment when Edith howls, Mr. Bear coincidentally arrives home and goes up to the room to catch them in the act. He tells Edith to ‘stop that noise at once’ (1961, 33) and continues cutting her hair, in order to repair the damage Little Bear did. But the further cutting devastates Edith. These are moments where Wright has Edith engage in play with Little Bear, directly resulting in a furthering of her self-denigration. In fact, in the abstract, Wright has Edith feel guilty about and seek punishment from Mr. Bear for the attention she seeks, craves, and deserves. All of the aforementioned take place in the home. The home, then, is not as safe or welcoming a space as we might expect it to be. The texts’ narratives, particularly in The Lonely Doll and Edith and Mr. Bear, set Edith up to fail by offering her enticing situations, punishing her for partaking, and then reaffirming authority and restoring order. But at the same time, Edith sets Mr. Bear up to fail as well, as she refuses to accept the parts of his character that manifest nurturance and forgiveness. It is as if she insists upon punishment, rejecting leniency. As such, I claim that she refuses to see him as capable of playing the role that, hitherto, may have most often and most traditionally been played by the mother. I explain this in greater detail below.
For Wright as well as for her adored main character Edith the doll, art plays a formative role in working to dislodge the mother as the definitive force in the family portrait. But at what cost? Wright operates with what seems to be an already firm understanding that mother is not atop the pedestal of domesticity. That is, when Wright held her camera, arranged her photo shoots, dressed her doll, and devised her storylines, deliberately omitted was any demonstrable maternal influence. Edith the doll has not, however, as it may seem, circumvented the mother question. While Edith is a young, lonely, yet in many respects privileged little girl who resides in a well adorned home, eats, plays, does chores, and operates within the realm of the private, domestic sphere, entirely without a mother, the mystery of Edith’s existence is a pang that persists. In short, this omission is a symbolically flashing neon sign, whose suggested route, when followed, entices the reader with a reverse game of maternal whack-a mole all series long. Is she there? Is that her lipstick? Who taught her to sew? Once we begin the journey into Edith’s own world, it is clear that Wright’s unique brand of family portraiture, void of mother, serves to intersect history and culture in a way that surpasses compliant gestures of social grace and unpacks assumptions related to the family paradigm and to the ideas about the role of mother therein.
Wrenched largely from pages of Wright’s own life, the book series is equal parts utopian and dystopian tropes, translating into a re-imagining of what family might look like when mother, omnipresent in life, is narratively excluded but nonetheless aesthetically and visually preserved. Since we can safely assume that maternal behavior can be exhibited by anyone, it makes sense to wonder if Mr. Bear is then a kind of maternal proxy. To the contrary, as the above examples suggested, my reading of
Mr. Bear is that his role is mostly didactic, limited to brief exchanges consisting of reprimands and lectures. As such, whatever one makes of Mr. Bear’s role in the text, his behavior is certainly parental in nature, reasonable and often even kind, but could never be identified as what is culturally understood as, and by current dictionary definition, maternal. His typical modus operandi is punitive; he is absent for several pages and reappears just in time to catch both Edith and Little Bear post-transgression to teach lessons and dole out the penalties.
In the three The Lonely Doll stories at issue here, the character of mother could seamlessly fit in. She might appear just as Edith is mid make-up application or when Edith is in the kitchen trying to cook and playing with matches. These are events which, under Barthes’ hermeneutic code, might constitute a quasi-confirmation or unraveling of the maternal enigma. She is largely expected, yet she is never mentioned nor appears. She is not lost, missing, or dead, but instead boldly absent. But what explanation is given for what and who is there? That is, what explains the sudden presence of the bears?
The deus ex machina like arrival of Mr. and Little Bear in The Lonely Doll is easily read as an insta-remedy for Edith’s loneliness. Wright’s notion that Edith ‘had everything she needed’ on that very first page, yet with no mother in sight, boldly interrogates the very inclusion, assumption, and utility of mother. Further, Mr. Bear’s way of operating creates an angst-ridden Edith who is plagued with fear and anxiety that her insatiable demands for attention and unacceptable behavior might drive them away. In Edith & Mr. Bear, for example, Edith accidentally breaks a clock that Mr. Bear had bought on a trip, and when confronted about it, she lies. For the remainder of the book, she is so fraught with worry and on edge about what she did that she cannot concentrate on anything. She gets into an argument with Little Bear about some painting they are doing, and then kicks over the pot of paint onto Little Bear’s work. Little Bear exclaims ‘I don’t like you. You’re horrid’ (1964, 25). Edith, now alone in a room, laments, ‘it was all my fault... I am horrid. I get horrider every day. Pretty soon nobody will like me. Maybe I should run away’ (26). Edith, with no nurturing reinforcement or contrary force to manage her fears, peel back the insecurity, or help redirect her feelings in a less perilous way, decides to run away, saying ‘I’ll go right now’ (27). Edith then runs and runs until she ‘fell and skinned her knee ... was cold and tired... cried herself to sleep beside an ash can, and woke wondering where she was’ (29). Mr. Bear only realizes she is missing the next day at lunch time. He calls the neighbors first and then decides to call the police. But Edith is already at the river pier about to board a giant ship. She reasons, ‘if I could sneak on board it would take me far away, too, and I would never, never have to tell Mr. Bear that I was the one who broke his clock’ (1964, 33). But before she does so, she breaks down and decides that she actually wants to go back home. The story ends with Edith finding her way home all by herself, taking a hot bath, and confessing her transgression to Mr. Bear, who replies, ‘I wouldn’t have punished you for an accident. If you had only told me the truth’ (41). Instead of allowing herself to be comforted by Mr. Bear’s rare words of reassurance, Edith still cannot let the issue rest and get to bed. Edith refuses, perhaps unknowingly, to acknowledge Mr. Bear as being able to play the role of anything except that stern authoritarian. She demands to know, in a flagrant expression of her self-deprecating and masochistic tendencies, ‘how are you going to punish me ... I’d feel better if you punished me’, to which Mr. Bear oddly replies, ‘I know you would’ (43). She goes to bed happy, vowing ‘I’ll never do anything bad again’ (1964, 44). Predictably, just two pages later, Edith and Little Bear are playing with matches. Mr. Bear catches them and swiftly delivers punishment. The full page photograph accompanying the story depicts Edith bent over in a position that suggests that she is holding up her skirt, waiting her turn so that the spanking can be properly executed and punishment swiftly delivered.
In an act of life contrasting art, throughout her entire childhood, unlike Edith the doll in this way, Wright was obedient and compliant, existing almost as an accessory to her mother. And after the painful separation from her brother Blaine, after her mother and father’s divorce, it was clear that Wright’s mother Edie’s chief task was her portrait painting, not caretaking. Financial strain played a large role in this, but nevertheless, Edie’s brand of mothering left her daughter a very timid and fearful adolescent. Wright never maintained a social life and was unable to reach any level of emotional stability, even in adulthood. With every ascetic stroke of her brush, Edie seemed to have created a beautiful portrait, a living doll, if you will, out of her daughter. If Edith the doll was Wright’s muse, this was congruent to the part played by Wright for her own mother. As such, by the time Wright was in her early adulthood, it would seem that Edie had completed her finest piece, her living chef d’oeuvre. If Wright could in some ways be appreciated as a literal and artistic creation of her mother’s, so can we correlate the creation of Edith the doll as friend, companion, and muse to Wright.
Art may not have truly liberated Wright in her own life, but it did leave a curious and traceable legacy of maternal exclusion. The staging of her fictive family portraits, without mere mention, verbal or visual, of a mother or any figure who could be comparable to the symbolic mother figure, not only warrants critical consideration, but it also plays a part in laying bare the esoteric and maturing fruit of this century’s brand of feminism. That is, a mapping of the absent maternal in a text where the exclusion appears at once intentional and, to a point, liberating, takes the text beyond questions of voice, identity, and subjectivity into the discourse of necessity and electivity. The notion that mother is optional for the reason that her presence is either dispensable or may be detrimental is not only interesting, but radical. As such, Wright’s texts, perhaps beginning with my own shelf, shall henceforth be categorized as contributing to feminist maternal theory, suggesting that there is implication for the cultural imagination in mother’s omission, helping to upend, not how mother is conceived, but if she is to be conceived at all.
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Nikolajeva, Maria. 2005. Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction. Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
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Wright, Dare. 1961. The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson. New York: Random House.
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Heather Brown-Hudson a Philadelphia native, is Associate Professor of French, English, and Gender Studies at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. She is also Chair of the Gender Studies Program. Dr. Brown-Hudson received an M.A. in French Literature from Middlebury College and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Her recent scholarly pursuits interrogate unorthodox representation of the maternal instinct and mothering practices in culture and literature.