The will to truth : an exploration of modern motherhood in contemporary literature

Palmer, Vanessa (2011) The will to truth : an exploration of modern motherhood in contemporary literature. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This thesis was inspired by a perceptible increase and change in depictions of motherhood in fiction and memoir between the years 19952010. It traces a body of intense motherhood literature that grew steadily throughout the twentieth century and culminated in an explosion of such writing at the turn of this century. The study contends that a significant body of these texts were directly reacting to inequalities still inherent in the social and cultural demands made on mothers. It also suggests a correlation between these inequalities and the increase of deeply ambivalent feelings about motherhood evident in this turn of the century literature. The first chapter considers the intensification of maternal ambivalence in this fiction and memoir and investigates the growing desire to establish this ambivalence as a normal reaction to the transition to motherhood. It also explores the resistance to historical narratives that imply the necessity for maternal sacrifice. By looking at seminal texts from the twentieth century, it considers where and how the myth of the ideal mother was constructed, demonstrating how such ideals came to influence contemporary writers, Hence, chapter two engages with the work of Michel Foucault and illustrates how certain postmodern ideas have coalesced with post or third-wave feminism to affect depictions of the mother in literature. This chapter argues that the lack of certainty in the mothering experience arises from notions of good mothering that have been patriarchically constructed and are, therefore. politically manipulative and suspect. As a consequence, writers have been inspired to re-imagine motherhood in a world without meaning. Chapter three considers the depiction of motherhood's pleasures that sit outside the construction of the ideal mother. It focuses on literary portraits of transgressive mothers, in particular those displaying problematic motherchild physical intimacy and mothers who are sexually active outside their relationship with their children's father. This chapter identifies both significant changes in the representation of mother-child intimacy and a surprising stasis in the fictional treatment of adulterous mothers. Finally, the thesis concludes with the ethical nature of motherhood and the duty of care parents owe to their children, This concluding chapter considers how certain twentieth-century discourses, including those influential in certain aspects of literary criticism, have contributed to an impoverishment of the motherhood experience which is strikingly evident in this particular body of fiction and memoir of motherhood written between 1995-2010.

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