Good Mother, Bad Mother. The Depiction of Mother Figures in Agnès Desarthe’s "Un secret sans importance and Mangez-moi"

Seminar Paper, 2015

13 Pages, Grade: 68



Good Mother, Bad Mother: The Depiction of Mother Figures in Agnès Desarthe’s Un secret sans importance and Mangez-moi


Good Mother, Bad Mother: The Depiction of Mother Figures in Agnès Desarthe’s Un secret sans importance and Mangez-moi

Agnès Desarthe, winner of the prestigious prix du Livre Inter (Olivier: 1996) and writer of adult and children’s fiction alike, examines a variety of themes in her works, including one of the most perennial in writing by women: motherhood. Francesca Counihan (2004, p.373) discusses the fact that more and more French women authors have “come to prominence [including] more discreet presences such as Agnès Desarthe.” When her second novel Un secret sans importance was published in 1996, Desarthe was indeed “une quasi-inconnue” (Dalila: 1996) but with several more novels published in the intervening years, a good number of which were translated into English, Desarthe’s works were more frequently disseminated and discussed by the time her seventh novel, Mangez-moi, was published in 2006.

At first glance these two novels may not appear to be a harmonious pair but with regards to the theme of motherhood they offer both stark contrasts and startling similarities when one considers the characters Sonia and Myriam in Secret and Mangez-Moi respectively. Though both Jewish, introverted, and somewhat isolated, the two women seem to have little else in common. With regards to style, differences in narration and subject matter may set the novels apart but certain aspects provide numerous points of comparison. Elements of the fantastic and the supernatural are spread throughout the narrative, which in turn promote evidence of a concept termed la femme sorcière in relation to the female characters and specifically when it comes to motherhood. The role of mother figure is also called into question: both Sonia and Myriam involve themselves in the lives of others, to whom they are not related, in a decidedly motherly fashion. Their relationship with their own children is not, however, forgotten; maternal instinct is pitted against male pragmatism and the reader is constantly faced with a difficult question: on what grounds is a woman judged to be a good or a bad mother?

“Mothers are an omnipresent force in literature but we do not often hear them speak as mothers. They are, overwhelmingly, objects of the narratives and discourses and of the fears and fantasies of others.” Here Gill Rye (2009, p.15) explores the idea that up until quite recently, mothers as subjects of literary works were a rarity and authors, be they male or female, concentrated on narratives whose protagonists had mothers but who were not mothers themselves. While it seems odd that such a fundamental part of the human experience has not been granted the literary presence it deserves, Rye (2009, p.34) points out that nowadays mothers are increasingly “to be found as narrative subjects in literature by women.” From this one can infer that mothers are not yet common subjects in male-authored literature but critics point out that women are more likely to write about what they know from their own experiences and to embellish or build on events from their own lives. Damlé and Rye (2013, p.5) further the gap between men and women’s writing when they claim that French women writers in particular “have tended to focus on [...] or to harness the specificity of female experiences such as adolescence, sexuality, marriage and motherhood within sociocultural contexts rather than to look back to collectively experienced historical events.” In this way, Desarthe belongs to a large and growing group of women writers in France who are turning to the mother as subject, possibly using their own experiences as they do so. Who is better qualified to judge a mother than a mother? It is interesting, therefore, that her characters Sonia and Myriam have, in some ways, entirely different experiences of motherhood.

Almost immediately the reader of Secret is made aware of Sonia’s general character and maternal instincts. When Émile Hortchak visits the house of his friend and fellow linguist, Dan Jabrowski, Sonia is merely described as “sa femme” (Desarthe: 1996, p.11) and Émile sees her “assise au salon, les mains croisées sur les genoux, le visage baissé...”. Initially she seems shy and almost submissive; the reader is unaware thus far of the character’s significance and she in fact appears to be merely a secondary character with little individuality or obvious personality traits. The first thing the reader is made aware of, other than Sonia being Dan’s wife, is that she is most likely a mother. Her hand gesture is likened to something one might to in order to “éloigner un enfant trop turbulent” (p.12) and on leaving the house a short way into the narrative, she is said to smile at the children chasing pigeons in the park (p.14). Sonia sits on a bank and overhears a conversation between two new mothers who confess that their feelings towards their children are sometimes “haine-amour” (p.14) to which Sonia cannot help but sputter disapprovingly. Just then one of their children trips and starts crying, and Sonia immediately gets up to go to him, seemingly instinctively, without pausing to think. The sight of the child seems to comfort Sonia in some way – she returns home in a better mood (p.15). Though no explicit reference to her own children has yet been made, Sonia seems to fit the role of caring female the reader would come to expect from a mother figure.

As far as Mangez-Moi is considered, however, the reader is aware of Myriam’s status as a mother comparatively early on in the narrative. As the main protagonist this is not entirely surprising and it still takes a full two pages of interior monologue before she refers to “l’époque lointain oú j’étais mère de famille” (Desarthe: 2006, p.10). She has already confessed to being a liar and informed the reader of her cooking prowess, citing her experience as a mother and her time with the circus as her training. The reader must take on a lot of information about the character all at once but it is possibly the use of the past tense and the word “lointain” which stand out the most. The fact that this part of her life is ‘distant’ and apparently over evokes many questions. In addition, the first mention of the Santo Salto circus introduces the elements of the carnivalesque which will continue throughout the narrative, just as the reader will continue to slowly gather information about Myriam’s ‘distant’ past life as a mother.

Myriam is already a clear contrast to Sonia: the reader is aware of her talents, her experiences and she appears a much more complex character. What the two have in common, however, is that the complexities of their characters will be developed as their narratives go on and the reader may discover that they are not so different after all.

Through a conversation she has with her neighbour, the florist Vincent, as well as later comments, the reader may infer that Myriam is Jewish (p.89) but outside of these references religion is not necessarily a central theme. Sonia is much more openly religious and Desarthe concentrates on this aspect of her character, as Thomas Nolden (2005, p.152-153) confirms: “Desarthe dedicates long passages to characterising Sonia’s intimate relationship to God, whom she continues to trust, even though her illness will take her away from her many children.” Though she is first and foremost a mother, Sonia is willing to give up her role as carer if it is God’s plan, for she trusts that it will be for the best. She is, in fact, proven right, as confirmed later in the narrative. Sonia’s close connection to the spiritual extends into her everyday life and could be said to have an effect on her particular style of mothering, which in turn causes clashes with her more logical and practical husband, Dan. A certain similarity can now be seen in Sonia and Myriam’s lives, for Myriam and her husband Rainer also differ in their approaches to their son, Hugo, though the reasons behind the couples’ differing parental styles contrast noticeably.

Nathalie Morello (2002, p.108) describes a “division sexuelle de la psychologie et des comportements humains: le masculine dominé par la raison, le féminin par l’intuition et l’imaginaire.” Dan is a scientist, a linguist rather than a biologist or physicist, but a character dominated by reason and logic nonetheless. His relationship with Sonia is loving and supportive but there are instances of disagreement because he cannot understand her belief in practices outside the scientific domain. In the midst of her dream sequence, or what may even be hallucinations as she becomes delirious in the moments before her death, Sonia remembers how her mother would lick her when she was ill, and how she did the same for her own children: “Sonia léchait souvent le visage de ses enfants quand ils étaient petits, mais Dan, qui, pour une raison mystérieuse, n’appréciait pas cette pratique, avait convaincu son épouse d’y renoncer.” (Desarthe: 1996, p.148) Sonia is merely applying her experience of childhood to her own parenting but the nature of it disturbs Dan so much that he has to convince her to stop.


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Good Mother, Bad Mother. The Depiction of Mother Figures in Agnès Desarthe’s "Un secret sans importance and Mangez-moi"
University of Birmingham
BA Modern Languages
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good, mother, depiction, figures, agnès, desarthe’s, mangez-moi
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Laura Smith (Author), 2015, Good Mother, Bad Mother. The Depiction of Mother Figures in Agnès Desarthe’s "Un secret sans importance and Mangez-moi", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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