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All human beings spend the first nine months of their lives in their mother’s womb. From the moment of birth, we wrestle with the notion of “mother”: we love this woman and feel intense connections to her, and yet we inevitably need to separate ourselves from her. At some point we must all cut the proverbial umbilical cord, and this is often an extremely painful process for both ourselves and our mothers. In Tar Baby, Lucy and Brown Girl, Brownstones, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid and Paule Marshall address this issue of the “maternal problematic” the human need to wrench free from the maternal bond and to create a set of values, expectations, and desires for oneself independent of the maternal. Jadine, Lucy and Selina go through very different processes in these novels, but what connects them is their struggle for freedom, and to establish selves beyond the scope of the mother. In this sense then, these are all coming-of-age novels, for they trace the progress of three Black women trying to carve a space for themselves in the world. In the following pages I will discuss how each of these protagonists negotiates this powerful “maternal problematic” their rebellions against it, and the effectiveness of their respective strategies.
Jadine Childs’ mother died when she was twelve, but this does not exempt her from the maternal problematic, for Jadine is haunted by images of the maternal. This is established from the start of the book, when Morrison tells us of the “mother/sister/she” whom Jadine encounters in a Parisian supermarket, “with eyes whose force had burnt away their lashes.” (Tar Baby p. 46) This woman in yellow is the supreme representation of womanhood and motherhood, with “too much hip, too much bust,” and symbolic eggs in hand. Jadine is made intensely uncomfortable by this woman, and yet she also falls in love with her; this tension defines her attitude toward the maternal. Later, we learn that Ondine and Sydney, her aunt and uncle who had become “her people” since the death of her mother, “mattered a lot to her, but what they thought did not.” (p. 49) Jadine has conspicuously distanced herself from “her people” and the notion of motherhood, and this alienation will come back to haunt her, quite literally, as the book progresses.
For Jadine, as for many people, the notion of the maternal often manifests itself in forms other than that of a mother per se, such as tradition, history, the notion of home, and feelings of responsibility towards others. Jadine rejects all of these, and in so doing, rejects the maternal and the idea of family. Her professed appreciation of Picasso over Itumba masks and “Ave Maria” over gospel music are examples of her renunciation of her cultural roots. And in Eloe, an all-Black town, Jadine feels intensely alienated from Son’s friends and relatives; she is unable to relate to members of her own race. As Therese observes, Jadine “has forgotten her ancient properties.” (p. 305) She is uncomfortable with her heritage as a Black woman, and feels alienated from the culture of her mother and her mother’s mothers; this is a thus a way of rejecting the maternal. Jadine’s relationships with the people in her life are also indicative of this struggle with the notion of the maternal.
While Jadine is affectionate towards Sydney and “Nanadine” her surrogate mother of sorts, she is not very respectful or considerate; her decision to leave L’Arbe de la Croix with Son without informing them illustrates her stance toward her family. Jadine is unappreciative of the hardship that Sydney and Ondine have faced to support her, and her constant reminders to Son that Valerian “put her through school” make it clear that she credits Valerian with her education and opportunities, not her aunt and uncle. Jadine’s rejection of any responsibility toward “her people”is itself is a form of rebellion against the maternal. Jadine’s relationship with Son is another form in which she deals with ideas of the maternal. Morrison writes that Son “unorphaned her completely” Son became a home for her, and “gave her a brand-new childhood” (p. 229) Yet Son also confronts her with her own failures and weaknesses; at one point in the novel, he tells her “you don’t know anything, anything at all about your children, and anything at all about your mama.” (p. 265) Jadine cannot accept being so vulnerable to someone, compromising for him or being held accountable to him, and she eventually leaves Son; this, is part of her rejection of the maternal.
In Eloe, Jadine confronts Son’s home and eventually rejects it, too. Jadine has never had a home, and she is disquieted by being called “daughter” by an older woman. This discomfort manifests itself in the form of mother ghosts, who haunt her at night. These women, including her own mother and the “mother/sister/she” of the supermarket, expose their breasts and eggs to her, taunting Jadine with their maternal prowess. She exclaims, “I have breasts too,” but they don’t believe her, and neither does the reader. These women represent the force of the maternal which constantly haunts Jadine, and which she herself can never possess. Interestingly, in this scene we learn that Jadine normally dreams of hats; this is significant because of her tearful disclosure to Son earlier in the novel about the “awful hat” she had worn to her mother’s funeral. Thus, while Jadine is constantly absorbed in the maternal problematic, it is only in Eloe that it rises to the level of consciousness. Yet Jadine is still not aware of the meaning of these mother ghosts, for she thinks to herself, “what did they have in common even, besides the breasts”. She is unable to recognize the tension within herself with regards to the issue of motherhood.
Jadine flees Eloe, and in so doing flees the maternal apparitions, as well as the idea of home. Eventually, she runs from Son, too, and the vulnerability which she allowed herself to reveal to him. Jadine is entirely unable to give herself to someone, and it is to this that Ondine refers when tells her niece, “a girl has got to be a daughter first. She have to learn that. And if she never learns how to be a daughter, she can???t never learn how to be a woman.”(p. 281) Jadine disrespects her aunt and uncle, leaves Son and runs away from the United States, all because she cannot face the issue of the maternal. It is a very fine line between dependence and independence, especially between parents and children, and this is the line which daughters must walk. Jadine is too afraid to walk this line, and this fear ensures that she will be perpetually alone.
Lucy, of Jamaica Kincaid’s novel by the same name, deals with many of the same problems as Jadine. She too is constantly running from her mother Annie, and rebelling against all which her mother represents. Annie is a constant presence in Lucy’s life, despite the great distance between them, and there is hardly a chapter in the novel in which Lucy’s mother is not mentioned. Lucy is aware that she is haunted by her family; she calls them “the millstone around your life’s neck,” and questions “if ever a day would go by when these people I had left behind, my own family, would not appear before me in one way or another.” (Lucy p. 8) Yet like Jadine, Lucy’s attempt to escape from the maternal is ineffective, for Annie still dominates her life. The first mention of Lucy’s mother is associated with her letter to Lucy about the danger of the subways; even from thousands of miles away, Annie is able to incite fear in her daughter’s heart and thereby control her.
Lucy’s relationship to her mother is highly complex; she has very ambivalent feelings about her. She is cruel to her, but also loves her deeply; she hates her and admires her at the same time. Although Lucy constantly discusses her anger toward her mother and Annie’s inadequacy and failure as a mother, she also peppers the novel with tender stories of their interactions. Lucy describes her mother’s large hands, and her love of plants; she tells us of Annie’s lessons to Lucy about sex, men, and abortion, and of sitting on Annie’s lap as a child and caressing her face. Lucy also proudly shares stories of her mother’s life and her various triumphs. Despite Lucy’s anger toward her mother, she still feels a deep connection to her and identifies with her in many ways.
Yet for Lucy, what seems more potent is her fury. She is angry with her mother for numerous reasons: her devotion to an unworthy husband, her failure to encourage Lucy as much as she encouraged Lucy’s brothers, and the fact that “my mother would never come to see that perhaps my needs were more important than her wishes.” (p. 64) Lucy thus flees her home and becomes an au pair, substantiating her past claim that “when I turn nineteen I will be living at home only if I drop dead.”(p. 112) Yet what Lucy chooses instead is to live and work in someone else’s home, and this creates interesting conflicts for her.
Lucy’s relationship to Mariah, her employer, parallels this mother/daughter dynamic, and Lucy states that “Mariah was like a mother to me.” (p. 110) Interestingly, Lucy writes, “the times that I loved Mariah it was because she reminded me of my mother. The times that I did not love Mariah it was because she reminded me of my mother.” (p. 58) She is thus as ambivalent about Mariah as she is about her mother. And just as Lucy runs away from her mother, she also flees Mariah at the end of the novel.
Lucy’s rejection of her mother extends beyond her physical location; she rebels against the maternal in other ways, such as refusing to open her mother’s letters, and not going home when she learns of her father’s death. Yet this rebellion does not bring Lucy any fulfillment, for like Jadine, in rejecting her mother so categorically, she is also rejecting herself. Even as a child, Lucy tells us that she was “a direct imitation”of her mother, and she says at one point in the novel that she was her mother. Hating her mother is thus a form of self-loathing. And although Lucy seems to hate her mother, she also longs for her, and she sadly recalls being “at the age where I could still touch my mother with ease,” (p. 61) and the time “when she loved me without reservation.” (p. 155) Of her time with Mariah, she says “his was the sort of time I wish I could have had with my mother, but, for a reason not clear to me, it was not allowed.” (p. 60) Lucy is completely dominated by thoughts of her mother; her attempt to reject the maternal has thus backfired.
Lucy’s biggest problem is the extremity of her thoughts and actions; she is unable to successfully negotiate the maternal problematic because her reactions are too severe. She states that in her past “I was my mother,” (p. 90) while today “I am not like my mother. She and I are not alike” (p. 123) Lucy puts everything in black and white terms; rather than acknowledging the complexity of her relation to her mother, she classifies it strictly. This leaves no room for the give-and-take of successful daughtering.
Unlike Jadine, however, Lucy does not reject her heritage and in this sense is at peace with who she is. She describes her mother as “godlike,”and “something from an ancient book” (p. 151) this creates a striking parallel to Jadine’s “ancient properties.” Although Lucy struggles with her mother daily, she is embraces her mother’s culture and this gives her a measure of fulfillment. Lucy’s regret and shame are over her actions rather than her identity, and this is an important distinction. There is thus more hope for Lucy than for Jadine, for while she has perhaps behaved badly, she has not broken ties to her people. Indeed, in a letter to Lucy Annie writes “that she would always love me, she would always be my mother, my home would never be anywhere but with her.” (p. 128) Lucy may fight this- she burns this letter- but she cannot deny it.
Lucy leaves the novel crying with shame over her wish to “love someone so much that I would die from it.” (p. 164) Lucy does love someone that much, but she has thrown that love away because she could not adequately create a space for herself within it. When her mother tells her “You can run away, but you cannot escape the fact that I am your mother, my blood runs in you, I carried you for nine months inside me,” (p. 90) Lucy interprets that as a prison sentence. Yet this is a prison sentence that all human beings must face, and Lucy’s way of dealing with it leaves her empty and ashamed at the end of the novel. Indeed, she states, “I was now living a life I had always wanted to live. I was living apart from my family… The feeling of bliss, the feeling of happiness, the feeling of longing fulfilled that I had thought would come with this situation was nowhere to be found inside me.” (p. 158)
By contrast, at the end of Brown Girl, Brownstones, Selina Boyce is a confident, mature woman with high hopes, who has accepted her lifelong connection to her mother without allowing it to dominate her life. For this reason, Selina is the most successful of these three characters at negotiating the complex maternal problematic. While Selina struggles violently with her mother, she is able to emerge from this “war” a whole person, with happiness and fulfillment almost visible on the horizon.
Like Annie, Silla is a powerful woman who inspires awe in her daughter. And like Lucy, Selina both hates and adores her mother; she aspires to be like her in some ways, and scorns her in others. Part of Selina’s struggle is related to her identity as the child of two very different parents: is she Deighton’s Selina, or Silla’s Selina? During the first part of the novel, she tries hard to be Deighton”s Selina. But later in her life, after wrestling with these issues for years, she is able to own up to her connection to her mother, and tells Silla “I’m truly your child.” Indeed, her name, Selina, derives from the name “Silla,” and this is no coincidence. While Selina does resemble Deighton in some ways, for the most part she is Silla’s Selina: she is confident, defiant, articulate and determined, and she refuses to capitulate to anyone or anything. She is also hard-working, passionate and strong; these are qualities which she inherited primarily from her mother, and qualities which she embraces within herself.
Like all mothers, Silla imposes her value system on Selina, and tries to make her daughter a close replica of herself. And Selina, like Lucy and Jadine, rebels against this; her behavior with the Association is a major component of this rebellion. Selina refuses to cater to Silla’s desire to make money and “buy house;” her values are simply different, and she refuses to compromise.
Part of Selina’s success in negotiating this conflict is her openness with her mother. When Silla strikes out at Selina, Selina strikes back; when Silla has Deighton deported, Selina calls her “Hitler” and beats her violently. This is not a covert battle; it is waged in the open, and this makes it easier on both parties. Another factor which contributes to Selina’s success is the fact that she does not flee her problems with her mother the way Jadine and Lucy do. Selina leaves her mother when she is ready, after she has already waged and won her struggle for independence. Indicative of this is Silla”s reaction to Selina”s departure: “G’long! You was always too much woman for me anyway, soul.” (Brown Girl, p. 307) By giving Selina her blessing, Silla shows that she is at peace with Selina’s wresting free from her, and she understands that Selina’s journey is necessary and inevitable.
When Selina does leave her mother, she does so on her own terms, and with optimism and hope for the future. Unlike Jadine, Selina has not rejected her heritage; she is going back to Barbados, the birthplace of her parents, and in so doing she is embracing her family’s past. And by confronting Silla and telling her of her plans, Selina does not leave any loose ends. Thus, when Selina finally casts off her gold bangles at the conclusion of the novel, she is symbolically casting off the “millstone” around her life’s neck. Selina will go to Barbados, but she will go as an individual. She has managed to carve a space for herself within the complicated mother-daughter dynamic, and she leaves the novel a whole person, with a complicated past and bright future.
Thus, the “maternal problematic” is a vital component of these novels. These three women deal with this dilemma in their own ways, and some are more successful than others. In this sense, Brown Girl, Brownstones seems more complete than the other two novels, for while Selina has successfully completed her struggle for independence, Lucy and Jadine are still rebelling against the powerful force of the maternal. Neither of these women has quite learned how to be a daughter, and for that reason, neither is yet a woman. The reader can only hope that Lucy and Jadine are able to eventually deal with this issue, and create a space for themselves in the world as mature individuals, free of the burdens of guilt, shame and regret. Only when they come to terms with the maternal problematic can they be at peace with themselves and the world around them.
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