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There seems no more “nature” image than that of a loving mother and this iconic concept of good mother has permeated nearly very society. In western culture, as in most cultures, the powerful grand culture promotes the instinctual character of motherhood, generalizes the mothering experience and projects “an idealized model of motherhood” as universal. But feminist historians have long pointed out that this iconic concept of good mother is anything but natural and “there is no essential or universal experience of motherhood.” Indeed it is a social construction enveloped with cultural expectations and norms. Adrienne Rich describes it as the “institution” of motherhood.
According to feminist critics, conventional motherhood ideology, “presuming the institution and image of the idealized white, middle-class heterosexual couple and their children,” internalizes and reinforces traditional gender roles that have kept women in a subordinate position. Motherhood is also presented by the patriarchal society as women’s route to ultimate fulfillment. In most case, women are define through being mothers. Therefore, motherhood helps ensure the continuity of patriarchal line if descent on the one hand and regulates female behavior on the other. It narrows the definition of femininity and renders woman to the “object” position and as a result, female subjectivity is denied.
While some feminists reject motherhood as it is believed to be the ultimate acceptance of patriarchal oppression, more feminist scholars in recent decades such as Julia Kristeva have realized that “liberation of women cannot proceed by condemning child bearing” and what they need is to constitute a new discourse of maternity. For one thing, they continue to criticize the constraining and monolithic definition of motherhood, for another, they endeavor a maternal discourse that offers breadth and diversity and more importantly highlights mother’s perspective and subjectivity.
What is even more revolutionary is that maternity has been recognized as an empowerment for women. Adrienne Rich is one of the first feminists to articulate the potential empowerment of maternity. In her milestone work, of woman born Motherhood as experience and institution, she makes the distinction between the concepts of motherhood and mothering by pointing out the former as a restrictive patriarchal institution and the latter as an individual experience. Also she sees this individual experience of mothering as a source of power, which is termed “empowered mothering” by Andrea O’Reilly. This idea is echoed by Julia Kristeva in her connection of the maternal with the formation of subject. She argues that maternity, as an embodiment of alterity or otherness within, forms “the heretical ethics of love” that “binds the subject to the other through love” and as a result, upsets the law of the father.
Lessing begins her story by showing the patriarchal construction of the angelic motherhood. David is introduced as an ambitions architect with “what he was working for was a home.” He is old fashioned and conservative with the conventional notion of family life centered on the idealized motherhood. So he marries the right woman and sets out to fulfill his dream. Soon the couple buys a “large Victorian house” and fills it with children. David chooses his wife as part of his dream of future and the guarantee of the patriarchal order. “If Harriet has seen her future in the old way, that a man would hand her the keys of her kingdom, and this as her birthright,… His wife must be like him in this: that she knew where happiness lay and how to keep it.” It is David, as the head of the family, who decides the value of woman in light of a patriarchal standard of the ideal motherhood, one of self-sacrifice and fertility. The romanticized notion of motherhood is indeed the projection of the male aspiration. Kaplan points out that the promotion of this powerful ideology of romanticized motherhood, “a prevailing cultural discourse of the ideal ‘angel’ Mother” has functioned to manipulate women so as to maintain the patriarchal order.
According to David’s standard, Harriet is indeed a perfect choice. She is presented as a traditional woman with a maternal nature who also believes in domestic happiness based on the stereotyped division of labor. Harriet quits her job after getting married and the question “whether to be or not to be a career woman” has never bothered her, for she takes for granted that “family life was the basis for a happy one.” She happily embraces the social role with which patriarchy endows her and she is so absorbed in this conventional stereotype that she judges her own value totally in view of her function as a mother. Right from the beginning of their marriage, Harriet’s life is all about pregnancy, giving birth and nurturing. Compressing six years into a couple pages, Lessing narrates the births of the couple’s four children and their early stage of marriage. The Lovatts have built up a little kingdom, one based on the ideal mother-child relationship. It’s a society governed by the dominant patriarchal values with David as the head of the power structure. However this social order is interrupted by the birth of the fifth child Ben, whose presence proves that this patriarchal construction of the maternal ideal is nothing but a fantasy.
Ben is defined in terms of differences. His presence shatters the maternal ideal held by the Lovatts. The interruption made by this different child is where Lessing turns to examine the unpleasant even horrific side of mothering. When he is in his mother’s womb, he causes her extraordinary agony with his ceaseless battering and striving. This overly energetic baby seems to be tearing his way out of her stomach, leaving her unable to sleep or rest. The unpleasant experience of mothering is especially highlighted in the birth scene, which is almost as terrifying as that of the monster in Frankenstein. Unlike the previous four children with “wispy fair hair and blue eyes and pink cheeks”, Ben comes out large, ugly and malformed. With his big, muscular body, heavy shouldered hunched look and greeny yellow eyes, he is “not like a baby at all”. The atmosphere is not one of festival or achievement, but of strain and apprehension. Raising Ben proves an even more painful experience for Harriet. He is always wrestling and crying, so taking care of him leaves her exhausted. Feeding his is also very painful as his stomach seems never to be appeased. Harriet’s breasts are always “bruised black all around the nipple”. Lessing highlights the difficulty of mothering through a dilemma: as trying to be a good mother for Ben takes all her energy and time, Harriet fails to be a good mother for the other four children
This is the detailed description of a woman’s terrible experience of motherhood: one full of stress, fatigue, and loneliness. The sharp contrast serves as an attack on the idealized notion of motherhood projected by the patriarchal tradition. Here Lessing tries to bring a more realistic picture of maternity by delineating the mother’s subjective feelings and thoughts on being a mother. It is totally against the narrow portrayal of maternity as promoted by the dominant culture. In a word, this individualistic discourse on motherhood serves as a confrontation with the patriarchal myth of motherhood.
The tyranny of the patriarchal power is revealed in its treatment of the aline child. Some critics take Ben as an evil force that destroys the perfect family, yet to view the same situation from another perspective, he is actually a victim of the estrangement by the dominant society. Because of his differences and abnormality, he is denied a real identity. The whole family takes him an alien and calls him a “troll”, “goblin”, “something” or even “yeti”. David is the worst of all. He simply evades his responsibility as father and later disowns the baby, when Harriet refers to Ben as our child, he responds, “well, he certainly isn’t mine.” His responsibility is for the “real children”. Eventually, the family decides to send Ben away to a nightmarish institution where he is going to be drugged to death.
The family can’t put up with Ben, but the local drifters all get along well with him. Here the contrast poses a question: is Ben really abnormal or is he made a stranger by the dominant culture? In the novel it is the “little kingdom” built up by the father that represents the dominant society. It is the father, as the head of the power institution, who defines what is normal and acceptable. And Ben, with his unusual strength and behaviors that are deemed by the dominant culture as animalistic instinctive and uncivilized, represents the social unfit, the outsider, and the “other”. Because his “otherness” threatens and destabilizes classifications which are fundamental to the patriarchal order, the family rejects and attempts to remove him. It is through exclusion of the “other” that patriarchy maintains its order.
It is also through the treatment of the child that Lessing reveals its restriction and manipulation of the mother. In order to get rid of Ben, the family coerces Harriet into abandoning Ben. At first, David and his parents try to convince Harriet to give him up, later he even resorts to threats “it’s either him or us”. And when the family reaches the agreement to send him to the institution “everyone but Harriet laughed”. As Ben is to be picked up by the car, David stays so as to “handle” her, “with the same hard set face, and put his arm around her,” he actually force her into her decision. In this case, the father stands for patriarchal power while the mother represents the weak, the powerless and the loss of maternal subjectivity. Soon normality begins to fill the house again. Listening to the laughter of her husband and children, Harriet gradually persuades herself into believing that giving Ben away is the right thing to do. It is through forsaking the alien children that she resumes her title as a “good mother” to the other children and thus is subject to the orthodox maternal paradigm. This can be viewed as her submissive participation in the dominance of the patriarchy.
The awakening of the mother is initiated with her conflicting reflection on her relationship with Ben and the meaning of motherhood. Indeed the existing social structure has distorted the mother child relationship and the mother has been influenced by the values of the dominant society so much that when she thinks of Ben being sent away she even feels relieved. But at the same time, she can’t banish Ben from her mind and is overcome with a sense of guilt and responsibility. Harriet’s conflicting feelings have its origin in what Julia Kristeva explains as the mother’s simultaneous unity with and division from the child. Despite her husband’s strong opposition, she rescues Ben from the hellish institution and takes him back home. Her decision to save Ben emphasizes the natural bonding between the mother and the child, which is again echoed by Kristeva in her elaboration of “herethics”, a mother child bonding of love that precedes the symbolic order or the law of the father. By rescuing Ben, Harriet transgresses the masculine oriented norms and thus indicates her rejection of the traditional maternal paradigm and the establishment of her subjectivity.
Harriet takes Ben back home and somehow manages to raise him so that he learns to control himself. She also insists on his right to live with his “otherness” and ensures he can function on his own. She attempts to help him gain a space in the family but she fails. With Ben coming back, her other four children drift away and David keeps a longer and longer distance with her. Finally the family disintegrates. Her failure, as suggested by Lessing, is the fault of a society that maintains its stability through excluding the different other. To look at the same situation from another angle, the mother actually destroys the family that relies upon her as a perfect mother and provides no place for his goblin child. From this perspective, the rest of the story actually examines how the tensions between the maternal ideal and the mother’s growing rejection of that role contributes to the destruction of the institution of the family.
Here Lessing also suggests that the mother’s search for identity is based on her redefinition of motherhood and her relationship with the alien child. When she assumes the responsibility of taking care of Ben, she occupies the position as the subject. In defending her son’s right to live a normal life, she is seeking to evolve a sense of self. At this stage, Harriet’s role as a mother is defined outside the orthodox maternal model and has become an empowerment for her. As an ally of her son, who represents the other, the mother is the “dissident” by virtue of her sexual difference. She also represents the unassimilable. To some extent, the monsters child represents the mother’s emerging self which will also be rejected by the hegemonic culture.
The ending of the story does not portray a rosy picture of the mother’s attempt to build an alternative reality. For Lessing, being a mother and a subject does not lead to a feminist utopia; instead it ends with the collapse of the family and the disillusionment of the mother. Harriet manages to bring Ben up but she is powerless in building up a family that will respect him. As he spends less and less time at home and refuses to take nurturing from her, she feels helpless and frustrated. Finally she finds the balance of her life by allowing Ben to drift with the teen thugs. In this way, she fails to be a responsible mother to Ben; at the same time, she is positioned in the “bad mother” paradigm to the other four children. She also suffers strong criticism from relatives and friends and is condemned as the destroyer of the family. Realizing that she is made a scapegoat, she expresses her anger, “I have been blamed for Ben even since he was born. I feel like a criminal. I have always been made to feel like a criminal.”
As the story ends, the mother feels confused and disillusioned as she is trapped in a dilemma. She has aged so greatly that hardly anyone recognizes her. Here Lessing shows the limitations of the female subject in constructing an identity through motherhood. Harriet’s final disillusionment seems to suggest that an over reliance on motherhood is what prevents the construction of a multiple and dynamic female identity. In other words, only when women stop to take advantage of their reproductive body and find their value outside the role of mother can they construct a real identity.
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