Mothers & Daughters: The Myths We Live By

Elissa Gelfand

Remarks for Mount Holyoke College Donors and Shareholders Dinner, May 7, 2005, by Elissa Gelfand, Dorothy Rooke McCulloch Professor of French

Many of us in this room are the daughters of mothers; and, among those, many are also the mothers of daughters. No surprise, then, that we are drawn to stories that spring from this crucial relationship. For nearly two decades, I have taught a seminar on French and Francophone women’s novels that compel us to think about the mother-daughter bond over time and across different cultures. I have come to understand that, although the institutions of motherhood and childhood have changed greatly through western history,some of their founding myths are still very much with us.

As mothers and as daughters living in particular societies, we at once choose and are chosen by these enduring narratives of a female life. In my brief comments this evening, I will be addressing three questions: What myths underlie our way of conceiving mothers and daughters? How have those stories been contested by contemporary feminist critics? And, how can these critiques help us read women’s family fictions? I will end by connecting important features of these narratives to women’s experiences at Mount Holyoke.

There are three classical myths from western culture that, I believe, have had the most potent influence on our conceptions of mothers and daughters. The best-known development story is that of Oedipus (and, it is no coincidence, of course, that Freud chose this model as his basis for theorizing human maturation and identity formation). You will remember that in Sophocles’s "Oedipus The King, a terrifying prophecy – that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother - leads his parents, Jocasta and Laïus, to cast out their son. Unaware of his past, the adult Oedipus goes in search of his origins. In the process, he fulfills the dreaded prophecy: he kills Laïus and marries Jocasta. Jocasta derides the oracle, saying, “God keep you from the knowledge of who you are,” and thereby stands in the way of Oedipus’s quest. When the truth is revealed, she kills herself.

The psychoanalyst Christiane Olivier, one of many who have reread the Oedipus myth critically, raises several important questions: Why did Jocasta have to be killed off? What if she denied the prophecy because she knew the truth but did not wish to relinquish her desire? Why do mothers effortlessly say their sons are going through the Oedipal stage but never think to themselves, “I’m going through my Jocasta stage?” The conventional reading of Oedipus views the powerful mother from the son’s point of view only; it gives us no hint of Jocasta’s feelings when she gave up her son or when she discovered her second “husband”’s true identity. All that matters is that this destructive figure be silenced so that order can be reestablished. As Olivier urges, “We must revive Jocasta and understand the mother according to her own needs and desires”; we must “desacralize” the mother so she can at once be a mother and a woman.

The second myth whose archetypes have informed our thinking is that of Electra, daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and sister of Iphigenia and Orestes. In Sophocles’s version of her story, Electra’s mother, Clytemnestra, orders her lover, Aegisthus, to kill Agamemnon so that they can rule together. Although Clytemnestra’s motive is revenge for Agamemnon’s having sacrificed their other daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods, Electra instead sees sexual betrayal and a thirst for power as her mother’s true reasons.

For Electra, Clytemnestra is “my outrageous mother, if mother she is/When she lies down to sleep beside that man.” Once again, the desiring mother is condemned. Further, it is her brother Orestes, not Electra, who kills Clytemnestra, so that order can be restored – Electra exercises no agency here. What has most troubled critics in this story, however, is that the mother-daughter relationship is, by definition, one of hatred and misunderstanding: in Electra’s words, “My own mother who bore me has become/My worst enemy.” As we know, Freud embraced this mother-daughter conflict as the cornerstone of normal female development. Even in his relatively late essay, “Femininity,” he asserts that “the [necessary] turning away from the mother is accompanied by hostility; the attachment to the mother ends in hate.” Well we might ask: do daughters really hate their mothers?

Nowhere in the stories of Oedipus and Electra is there a maternal legacy of life, happiness, or efficacy. For that reason, contemporary theorists who are re-reading the mother-daughter relation seek to rescue the forgotten mothers, Jocasta and Clytemnestra, from oblivion, and to recognize both the mothers’ and the daughters’ power and agency. These theorists also insist upon the importance of the pre-Oedipal stage, when it is usually the mother who dominates the child’s experience.

These critics draw on a third, much less often cited myth, one that has been crucial to current re-interpretations of female development. I am referring to the story of Demeter and Persephone. If you remember nothing else from what I say this evening, please hold on to this, the only tale from Mediterranean civilization told entirely from a woman’s point of view. In the Hymn to Demeter, Demeter, the goddess of fertility, and her daughter Persephone, enjoy a life of warmth and closeness together until Hades, the god of the underworld and brother of Zeus, erupts above ground. He abducts the adolescent girl and marries her. When she hears her daughter’s cry, “grief seize[s] [the mother’s] heart”; she searches the earth in vain for Persephone.

At the same time, Persephone, a “shy spouse” to Hades, resists him “through desire for her mother.” The “raging” Demeter rebels against the other gods by casting drought and famine upon the world. In the end, she crafts a compromise with Zeus in which Persephone is to spend two-thirds of the year with her mother and one-third with Hades. When the two women are reunited, “Their minds are one, they soothe/each other’s heart and soul in many ways.”

In order to suggest why this myth has been so important to critical re-visions of women’s life stories, let me point out a few of its notable features. First, this extra-ordinarily rich mother-daughter paradigm recognizes and expresses the robust full range of maternal emotions. Second, it presents a mother who is powerful and effective.

Third, it gives precedence to the initial mother-daughter intimacy that is broken by the violent intervention of a man, Hades. Fourth, it reunites mother and daughter who, at the end, maintain their closeness but are two different women with distinct identities. Finally, the principal structure of this story is a circle: the circle of the return to the mother, the cycle of the seasons, the recurrence of life and death. This complex structure rejects simple narrative resolution and affirms multiple relationships; it refuses the linear shape of conventional plots in which the laws of the male/female couple – the “Hollywood” ending - win. I hope you see how useful this myth can be for rethinking the mother-daughter relation in our own lives, as well as in fiction. This story sets up a woman-centered life-course that resonates with women’s knowledge of how ambivalent and complicated our relationships really are.

To give you a sampling of the many frameworks in which critics are currently working, I draw on three thinkers whose ideas I find especially illuminating. In her study/cum/memoir, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich claims “motherhood” is a social institution anchored in the nuclear heterosexual couple that separates women from one another. The term “mother” itself is, therefore, a problematic cultural construction that needs to be redefined according to women’s own understanding and experience. For Rich, a mother is “a woman who is devoted to other women”; as such, “mothers” can be biological, adoptive, lesbian, creative, or metaphorical.

Moreover, echoing Persephone’s longing for Demeter, Rich underscores the maternal body as a source of knowledge and self-knowledge for the daughter; contrary to the mysterious “dark continent” of Freudian theory that supposedly elicits the daughter’s disgust, women’s bodies are precisely where their stories have survived the centuries of forgetting. Perhaps most pertinent for my own teaching, Rich connects the mother-daughter relation to women’s writing: women’s narratives bear witness to “the great unwritten story,” the mother’s, that was killed off when western civilization was founded on the myth of paternal authority.

Luce Irigaray, one of France’s most influential theorists, follows the French psychoanalytic penchant for abstraction by focusing on “the maternal,” rather than the mother. It is important to note that, unlike American thinkers, French critics such as Irigaray insist upon the controversial notion of “difference,” where feminine specificity is a source of a positive female identity. Irigaray rejects the traditional psychoanalytic model in which the foundational opposition between the masculine and the feminine – between self and other, between subject and object, between the paternal and the maternal – aligns the absent or passive term of the binary with the feminine.

As the absent “Other,” the maternal is the object that arouses masculine desire; in seeking to satisfy that desire, the paternal subject acts, speaks, and creates – whence the founding of western culture. In Irigaray’s view, the site where this cultural struggle between the masculine and feminine plays out is the maternal body. To put this all another way: as we saw with the silenced Jocasta and Clytemnestra, the prohibition of maternal desire brought with it the repression of the maternal voice. For that reason, says Irigaray, it is essential that women express their desire, thereby liberating this repressed voice. By writing and speaking fully as themselves, women will not only recognize maternal power, they will redefine relations between women, and between women and men, as life-affirming.

One less well-known critic I would like to mention is the British sociologist Steph Lawler. In her important book, Mothering the Self, Lawler bridges the gap between ahistorical, universalizing stances such as Irigaray’s and the actual experiences of flesh-and-blood women. She asks, “What does it mean, in…early twenty-first-century Euroamerican societies, to be a mother? To be a daughter?” Using the Foucauldian premise that “knowledges about the self,…about the mother-daughter relationship is produced and reproduced in specific relations of social and political power,” Lawler examines data from interviews with British women who are simultaneously mothers and daughters.

What she finds is that the women’s differing experiences are rooted in class and gender-based expectations of the roles they should perform. Throughout western history, women have been held responsible for the physical and emotional development of their offspring. Even the so-called “good-enough mother” has to meet exacting standards. While Lawler’s research suggests that mothers bequeath these demanding expectations to their daughters, they also transmit messages of resistance. For Lawler, to resist cultural prescriptions cannot be simply to reject current social codes governing female behavior. This false notion of resistance presupposes there is such a thing as total individual “freedom, actualization, and fulfillment,” all of which Lawler sees as illusions. For her, to resist is to acknowledge “the sheer impossibility of living out the subject positions offered within the discourses of mothering and daughtering.” To resist begins with the understanding that “mothers” and “daughters” are not pre-existing identities we simply adopt, but rather the ongoing products of gendered social and political dynamics.

In this last part of my talk, I would like to turn briefly to three women’s novels from French-speaking cultures in which the mother-daughter relation is central. When read through the prism of these re-visionings of motherhood and daughterhood, these fictions offer models of female strength and efficacy. In that way, they contest not only the enduring negative myths about women but also the constricting attitudes toward female development of the societies from which they arose.

For example, in Ancien Régime France, among the privileged orders, marriages were usually made for reasons of wealth, politics, and lineage, rather than love. Children were sent away to convents or pensions when young and did not return until the age of marriage. In the 17th century in particular, as the historian Jacques Gélis puts it, moralists and educators deemed “mignotage,” or excessive affection toward children, unreasonable, and therefore dangerous.

As a result, intimacy in families was rare. Except for some widows and artistic patrons, women generally did not function in the public realm from which written stories and histories arose. How remarkable, then, that the first great novel in France, Mme de LaFayette’s The Princess of Clèves, published in 1678, should center on an unusually close mother-daughter relationship. Mme de Chartres, who is her daughter’s confidante and who takes the unusual step of educating her daughter herself, teaches the Princess that she must above all be unique: unlike the other women of their society, her daughter must not fall prey to the amorous games that prevail at the court; she must, instead, remain faithful to her husband. Even while the mother insists upon her daughter’s virtue, the novel makes clear that it is difficult for a woman to maintain her honor amid the pressures of gallantry and intrigue.

All a virtuous woman can do is flee the court, which Mme de Chartres herself had done when she was widowed and which the Princess, too, ultimately does. Since this is a novel, there is, of course, a love story. The princess falls passionately in reciprocated love with the Duke of Nemours. And, it is here that the mother-daughter bond prevails: unable to reconcile her personal happiness with the expectations of female virtue she has so thoroughly embraced, the princess ultimately renounces her passion; in doing so, she heeds the maternal lessons, in effect returning to her first love, the mother.

Thanks in large part to the 18th-century writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who attributed to mothers the supreme mission of civilizing the young (and thereby weaving the moral fabric of society itself), a cult of idealized motherhood began to take hold in the late 1700’s. Most bourgeois women embraced this exalted function, whose features hardened in the 19th century and became enshrined in the Napoleonic Code’s infamous article: “A wife owes obedience to her husband.” It took until the early 20th century for healthy and positive representations of the mother-daughter relation to appear in French literature.

The wonderful writer Colette painted many admiring portraits of her mother, Sido, most compellingly in her novel, The Break of Day. The book is Colette’s hymn to her mother’s talent and strength. Like Demeter, Sido’s domain is nature. Though she has been dead for many years, she bequeaths her reverance for living things to her daughter and remains a creative model for her. Further, like Persephone, the fictional Colette holds fast to her primary love object, her mother, even while she engages with men.

There is one other important parallel: in the end, Colette returns to her mother. Though less literal than Persephone’s 8-month stays with Demeter, Colette’s return takes the form of her reenacting her mother’s life choices, similar to the Princess of Clèves. Like Sido, the aging Colette opts to spend her last years in productive solitude. Like her mother, she devotes her energies to observing the creatures around her, writing fiction from her own vision of the world. In this sense Colette, like Sido, becomes a creative foremother for future generations of women artists. Finally, by writing this novel, the daughter gives life to the mother – Colette closes the circle and gives birth to Sido.

There is a novel from the French-speaking world which, more than any other, pushes against the damaging assumptions of the core western myths of Oedipus and Electra. Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, published in 1972, is a glorious and painful saga of generations of Guadeloupian women. Written from outside of the European tradition, the story itself takes on the power of a founding Caribbean legend. In Guadeloupe, as in other Antillean islands, slavery was the crucible in which families were destroyed and from which they re-emerged newly-configured: since men were forcibly taken or driven away, it was women who forged and sustained family and community ties.

In the novel, the young heroine, Télumé, is raised by her grandmother, Toussine – the mother-daughter bond is thereby expanded, and the western nuclear family model is contested. Toussine and her close friend, Man Cia, a healer and sorceress, bequeath to Télumé the essential legacy that has kept Guadeloupian women alive for centuries: the gift of storytelling. As Toussine puts it: “With just one word, you can keep a person from breaking.” Through their poetic evocations of both the horrors of slavery and the joy of love, all of Télumé’s “mothers” weave her into the cultural web of female imaginativeness and survival.

The concepts “mother” and “daughter” have always encompassed multiple contradictions. They have functioned as vehicles for opposing views of women’s rights, women’s roles, and women’s education, and it is here that I would like to end my remarks by evoking Mount Holyoke. The theorists and authors I have discussed this evening open the mother-daughter relationship to include bonds with metaphorical and creative precursors. These connections across time and place make for rich “inter-textualities” between women’s stories. That is, we can read in the plots of our own lives references, implicit or explicit, to those of inspiring women who preceded us.

As with literal mothers and daughters, young women both accept and reject certain features of their predecessors’ narratives; this process brings them anxiety as well as exhilaration. The experiences of Mount Holyoke alumnae and faculty have been echoed in those of succeeding generations of students; by writing, experimenting, painting, inventing, dancing, teaching, nurturing, talented young women connect imaginatively to their College foremothers. In that sense, the women – and, one could argue, the men – we honor this evening are models of “maternal” inventiveness and generosity. I hope that, as thinking, reading, and writing daughters, we will continue to acknowledge the legacy of all our mothers.