Essay: Daughter Mother

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Mother Daughter

The mother-daughter relationship is central to Toni Morrison's novel Sula as well as Jean Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea. In both these books, the role of mother is explored for its symbolic and functional content. Likewise, the role, symbol, and function of daughter is also a major theme. The mother-daughter relationship becomes the lens through which other female characters perceive themselves, and present themselves to society. It is a defining relationship, in that neither mother nor daughter can possibly imagine an identity that did not include reference to the other. The relationship between mother and daughter is therefore wrought with psychological baggage and turmoil. This baggage and turmoil can be analyzed using Freudian discourse, as Adalgisa shows. However, it can be equally as fruitful to apply sociological tenets related to race, class, gender, and power to the mother-daughter relationship. The mother-daughter relationship is the cornerstone of all other female relationships in both Sula and in Wide Sargasso Sea, highlighting the importance of this relationship as reflecting broader social and political realities. In fact, both Morrison and Rhys address systems of social power based on race, ethnicity, and social class in addition to the overarching theme of gender. In the case of both Toni Morrison's Sula and Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea," the wedge between mothers and daughters has been forged externally -- in a cauldron of racial, sexual, and social oppression.

Motherhood is a patriarchal construct, but one that can potentially be re-appropriated, or taken back, by women. The taking back of Motherhood by women is not necessarily easy, and nor is this a conscious choice. In Morrison's Sula, motherhood emerges as a quintessentially patriarchal institution that seems at times to trump the issue of race that affects the lives of the novel's main characters. In Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, the patriarchal components and construct of motherhood is as much, or even more apparent perhaps, than it is in Sula. Both these novels show that the mother-daughter relationship is constrained by patriarchy. Patriarchy potentially comes in the way of a powerful female-oriented society, and powerful female relationships that might serve eventually to challenge the core concepts of patriarchy. If the mother-daughter relationship were to thrive outside of the context of patriarchy, then it is possible that patriarchy would dissolve.

The ideal of dissolving patriarchy is not one that is shared by the conservative characters in Sula and in Wide Sargasso Sea. In these novels, the only characters that are consciously aware of patriarchy and their ability to subvert it are Sula, Hannah, and Eva. Sula, Hannah, and Eva symbolize a matriarchal, matrilineal society that could supplant patriarchy if enough women were willing to challenge and disobey the norms of a patriarchal social structure. In Sula, the title character learned her worldview from her mother and grandmother. This multigenerational powerhouse of feminism does not, however, lead to any appreciable changes in their communities. Sula's life and role in Nel's life might have impacted Nel personally, but not to the extent that Nel or anyone else in The Bottom becomes interested or remotely willing to change the status quo. Thus, Morrison seems to be saying that patriarchy is unfortunately immutable, given the complicity of women like Helene, Rochelle, and Nel in perpetuating patriarchal gender norms and roles for women. As long as there are Nels willing to participate in patriarchy, there will never be a mutually supportive idealized sisterhood that could replace patriarchy as the dominant social organization and political structure. The mother-daughter relationship is therefore integral to the creation of political and social structures and institutions. When mothers and daughters support each other and each other's independence and freedom, as with Sula and Eva, only then does it become possible to rethink the structures that make the mother-daughter relationship potentially pained and strained.

Race is as important a component of personal identity as gender, which is why race cannot be ignored in the mother-daughter relationship. Sula and Nel of Sula, and Antoinette of Wide Sargasso Sea are all impacted by race and racism. The mother-daughter relationships in these novels are strongly affected by the social, economic, and political hierarchies that are based on race. This is why Morrison starts off her novel by explicating the past, and the role of Shadrack in the creation of The Bottom, and it is also why The Bottom is slated for destruction. Communities are headed symbolically by their mothers, and the destruction of The Bottom is an extension of the patriarchal and racist social system in America.

Racism is a dimension of patriarchy, and a direct extension thereof. This is true even for the white Creole women in Wide Sargasso Sea. For Antoinette and her mother, racism permeates their lives. Race, class, gender, and power converge in the mother-daughter relationship. In Wide Sargasso Sea, the "mother-daughter trauma narrative" is "encrypted within the outer framework of the white creole historical trauma," (Burrows 27). It is impossible to understand Annette or Antoinette without understanding the social, economic, and political context in which their relationship takes place. There is an inherent tension between being "part of colonialism and of the resistance to it," which tarnishes their identities and sense of self (Burrows 27).

Their relationship with one another is strained because they have trouble forging their own identities in the changing political and social structure of Jamaica. As whites are no longer in power, the former plantation owners have to forge and navigate new social paths. This proves difficult, especially for women like Annette and Antoinette, because patriarchy has never given them the tools by which they could create and manifest their own unique identities and futures. Annette remarries suddenly, and without any sign that she loves Mr. Mason. This act symbolizes patriarchy. Annette needs a man to be the "mason" of her own life. Antoinette is likewise a victim of patriarchy, given that her husband was actually paid to marry her as if he were getting paid to take out the garbage. Antoinette's name is significantly similar to that of her mother's too, showing that Rhys intends to highlight the fact that gender roles, norms, and behaviors are inherited from one generation to the next. Antoinette was destined to go down the road of insanity just as her mother did, as she never learned effective coping mechanisms for overcoming patriarchal or social oppression. Sula also inherits her strong and rebellious traits from Eva and her mother, highlighting the theme of intergenerational knowledge that gets passed on from mother to daughter.

The concept of surrogate motherhood, which is explored in Wide Sargasso Sea in particular, underscores the salience of the symbol of mothering. Motherhood is not just a biological event or condition, any more than gender is biological. Just as gender and biological sex are two different things, so too are motherhood and the acts, roles, and social status of mothers. As Rich points out, there is a myth that nurturing comes naturally to mothers. "Learning to nurture…does not come by instinct" (Rich 12). A mother nurtures in part because of social pressures to do so, as she finds herself trapped by the patriarchal system. The woman might not have considered a life without children, in the way that Sula is able to explore due to her inner strength but also to her having had a strong and independent role model as a mother. It is essential to differentiate the institution of motherhood, which is a patriarchal construct, from the acts that comprise biological motherhood. Although Eva is portrayed as a strong mother, she is also shown to subvert the patriarchal norm for what a "mother" should be. Her children see this too, and their identities are torn between Eva's example as a feminist being, and the conventional push to conformity. The comfort of conformity is pitted against the unknown variable of feminism. Yet Morrison urges readers to choose Peace over Wright, using symbolic names to stress the difference between the two families and two worldviews. Whereas Eva does not believe in traditional motherhood as it is formulated in patriarchy, Helene certainly does. Helene passes on her traditional patriarchal family values to Nel; Eva passes on her rebelliousness to Sula. Sula emerges the spiritual victor in this battle over identity and status.

A mother and daughter may have an ambivalent relationship, which does not preclude the mother from fulfilling her ultimate duty. In Sula, Eva tells Hannah harshly that she does not need to deign to use formulaic phrases of love like "I love you." This is because Eva knows her actions speak louder than words. She angrily states, "what you talkin' 'bout did I love you girl I stayed alive for you can't you get that through your thick head or what is that between your ears, heifer?" (Morrison 69). Ironically, Eva exhibits the core characteristic of motherhood, which is self-sacrifice. The difference is, Eva does not sacrifice herself because she feels she has to in order to conform and be a righteous (or Wright-like)… [END OF PREVIEW]

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