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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Mother and daughters in twentieth century women’s fiction Johnston, Sue Ann


Twentieth century women's novels dramatize the daughter's conflicting desires to merge and to separate. Daughters are pulled between the passivity implied by attachment and autonomy they may construe as isolation. A psychoanalytic approach helps to illumine the struggles of daughters to reconcile the need for independence and the need for autonomy. In the struggle to define her own identity, a woman must learn to accept both her kinship with the mother and her separateness. In twentieth century women's novels, heroines have been moving away from the typical Victorian solutions to female identity—marriage and self-sacrifice. In an early novel such as May Sinclair's Mary Olivier, the heroine sacrifices her chance for marriage and remains tied to her mother's side; spiritually, however, she escapes into a mystical detachment. In Edith Wharton's novels, heroines are often caught in a love triangle, unable to reconcile their needs for mother love and sexual love; usually they end up alone. In later novels such as Doris Lessing's, the heroine leaves home to discover her own identity, but because she remains so closely identified with the mother, rejection of the mother means self-rejection. She struggles, then, to accept ambivalence toward her mother and toward herself, finally gaining a vision of integration through fantasy. Finally, in three recent novels—Lady Oracle, Jerusalem the Golden, and Earthly Possessions—the daughters learn that they cannot deny their mothers and their past in order to create themselves anew; they must re-discover the bond with the mother, but this time as adults rather than children. In Lady Oracle and Jerusalem the Golden, daughters struggle with guilt and self-hatred before they learn to recognize their underlying love for the mother. In Earthly Possessions, the heroine moves through emotional recognition of the mother-bond to discover a capacity for both intimacy and separateness.

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