Gender Fiction and Maternal Self-Sacrifice
Amanda,11 in her double other/mother role, represents traditional maternal self-sacrifice. Yet, what parades as her selfless care for Rue also justifies her liaison with a married man. in mothering Rue, she also mothers Thaddeus. Significantly, it is Amanda, neither Nia nor Thaddeus, who explains to Rue why her parents’ marriage has deteriorated: ‘Your dad got older, got a gut, and silver hair. Nia never got plumper or grayer or any different at all. His desire for her cooled as his discomfort grew’ (Black and Naifeh 2008,113). Amanda’s explanation validates Thaddeus’ rejection of Nia, but says nothing about her own desires. Yet, although Rue is mourning Nia’s absence, she understands that being liberated from her marriage vows through Aubrey’s geas sets Nia free to transition from the domestic constraints of motherhood in a human community into the public sphere of political leadership amongst the fairies. Meanwhile Thaddeus remains weak and indecisive as he vacillates between the two strong women of his life, Nia and Amanda, and offers no strong support for Rue’s quest to recover her lost mother.
The trilogy’s combination of mother myths and neo-gothicism, which unifies the themes of death, horror, and romance with the narrative script of the missing mother, is akin to the cinematic representation of motherhood in melodrama. The portrayal of motherhood in melodrama is typically uncanny since the ‘good’ mother must die, sacrifice herself, or renounce her daughter ‘because of the threat that deep female-to-female bonding poses in patriarchy’ (Kaplan 2000, 475). Feminist film critic E. Ann Kaplan argues that classic Hollywood cinema supports the patriarchal myth of the ideal mother as all-nurturing, self-abnegating, and essentially absent, thus naturalizing the narrative script of the missing mother. Within melodrama’s narrative structure, the missing mother helps to foreground the daughter as focal character because ‘the Mother-figure, despite her actual psychological importance, has been allotted to the margins’ (Kaplan 2000, 467). In this process, the physically absent mother becomes a spectral presence, a ghost, ‘a figure of unruliness pointing to the tangibly ambiguous’ (Blanco and Peeren 2013, 9), leaving space for the physically present, but socially marginalized othermother to usurp her place, while simultaneously evoking the fear of the double, the substitute, and the neogothic fascination with maternal abjection (Lloyd-Smith 2004, 94-108). Maternal abjection can also be interpreted as an extension of the daughter’s rebellion and attempt to assert her own identity by overriding her mother’s power within the family. Neo-gothic literature involving unnatural families, for example the proliferation of vampire tales of the Twilight variety, ‘challenge the power relations of the traditional family unit, and question the stereotypical qualities associated with each gender and their corresponding parental roles’ (Mitchell 2014, 106). In these ways, Rue as innocent, persecuted heroine is embroiled in dark, archetypical conflicts that challenge her perception of self and her own place in the family.
It is characteristic of young-adult works in this literary genre, for example Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child (2007) and Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder’s Except the Queen (2010), that boundaries between real and imagined realms are slippery, and that the search for identity takes a pivotal role as the young female protagonist navigates the sudden transition from childhood to adulthood when her mother disappears. The magical land of the fairies represents enchantment, material rewards and utopian bliss, but also social death and forgetting. With the mother being the center of gravitas in the child’s world, her supposed abduction by fairies and her shifting of loyalties from the human to the fairy world powerfully impact her daughter’s sense of self and force her to search for her missing mother, essentially in order to find her own identity. This type of narrative script presumes that without the mother as mirror and guide, the daughter is lost and must, for better or worse, rely on surrogate mother figures.
Narrative scripts map out story versions according to schematic relationships and sequences of events that are embedded in social discourses on race and gender. Cognitive narratologists like David Herman argue that scripts contain categories of world knowledge (stereotypes and biases) that generate reader expectations about narrative sequences. Herman (2002) states, ‘the need for narrative innovation stems from the dominance of certain kinds of world knowledge that... have been reinforced, consolidated, and generalized’ (108). When we think of the social construction of motherhood, the term ‘certain kinds of world knowledge’ becomes an umbrella term for the cultural cliches, gender stereotypes, and popular perceptions of motherhood. Lindal Buchanan (2013) states,
Motherhood is contextually defined, contingent, and changeable, its associations forever in flux rather than fixed. The maternal body, likewise, lacks
stable, inherent meaning and is, instead, constantly (re)formulated through
scientific, medical, legal, political, and popular discourse. (xix)
Buchanan’s statement echoes Michel Foucault’s exposition of the ‘gender fictions’ of masculinity and femininity in The History of Sexuality (1978) where he analyzes the powers governing and produced within heterosexual marriage and the social codes of reproduction and sexual desires. According to Foucault, women’s sexuality has historically been regulated by religious and political discourses, which framed ‘maternal instinct, domesticity, sexual disinterest, empathy, morality, and self-sacrifice as “natural” female characteristics’ (Buchanan 2013, 15). Under the yoke of this entrenched patriarchal discourse, women’s fertility and sexuality were harnessed within what Adrienne Rich refers to as the ‘institution of motherhood’, where women’s relationships to their ‘powers of reproduction and to children... remain under male control’ (quoted in Buchanan 2013, 20). But when a mother goes missing, she is no longer under the direct control of her husband and the powers invested in his social role. Her absence leaves a gap in the social fabric of matrimonial domesticity. The narrative script of the absent mother destabilizes the gender codes defining the mother’s role as a loving, nourishing, altruistic protector of moral virtue. The Good Neighbors trilogy with its neo-gothic blurring of generational boundaries shows that Nia, the missing mother, becomes empowered and rejuvenated in the absence of a husband and in fact looks more like Rue’s sister in some of the illustrations, thus gesturing towards the postfeminist concept of girlhood as a site of female empowerment.
As The Good Neighbors shows, illustrations can operate in counterpoint to narrative scripts that rely on stereotyped sequences of events. This neogothic graphic novel trilogy forces readers to visually acknowledge that race plays a determining role in experience of motherhood. The narrative script of the missing mother is anchored in patriarchal myths of the mother as a site of self-sacrifice and domestic virtues. Such myths prescribe as natural social codes of what ‘good’ mothers are supposed to be like and assign to the maternal body an aura of unconditional love, nourishment, and nonpleasure seeking procreativity. The missing mother is an enduring, widely popular narrative script in legend and literature, appearing both as tales of abduction and abandonment, but rarely as tales of empowerment. The Good Neighbors features two strong female other/mother figures and emphasizes women’s right to forge their own destiny, thus offering contemporary young-adult readers an alternate image of motherhood that questions the foundations of traditional marriage and gender roles.