Motherhood in Margaret Atwood’s novels

Motherhood and Feminism in "The Handmaid’s Tale", "Cat’s Eye" and "Oryx & Crake"

Bachelor Thesis, 2018

59 Pages, Grade: 1,3



0. Abstract

1. Introduction

2. An Overview: Feminist Perspectives on Motherhood

3. An Overview: Motherhood in Margaret Atwood’s novels

4. Motherhood in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx&Crake and Cat’s Eye
4.1. Reproduction
4.1.1. Reproduction in Feminist Discourse Feminist Perspectives on Abortions Rights Assisted Reproductive Technologies
4.1.2. Reproduction in The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye and Oryx&Crake Pregnancy and Abortion in Cat’s Eye Reproductive Rights in The Handmaid’s Tale Reproduction in Oryx&Crake
4.2. Mother figures and mother-daughter relationships
4.2.1. Blaming and Idealizing Mothers in Feminist Theories
4.2.2. Mother figures and mother-child-relationships in the novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye and Oryx&Crake Mother figures and mother-daughter-relationships in Cat’s Eye Mother figures and mother-daughter-relationships in T he Handmaid’s Tale Mother figures and a mother-son-relationship in Oryx&Crake

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

0. Abstract

The aim of this bachelor thesis is to contribute to research on how feminist perspectives on motherhood are portrayed in North American fictional writing. For this purpose, I will use close reading techniques to analyze Margaret Atwood’s novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye and Oryx and Crake to show that all three foster a feminist view on motherhood. I will argue that in the novels Atwood recognizes motherhood as both a source of oppression and a source of empowerment. Additionally, I will demonstrate how she dismantles the myth of perfect motherhood by portraying disrupted mother-child relationships, authentic maternal experiences and the subjectivity of mother figures that would traditionally be regarded as “bad” mothers.

1. Introduction

It has only been in the last couple of years that leading newspapers and magazines titled: “I Do Not Like Being a Mother” (Bannon), “Love and regret: Mothers who wish they never had children” (Otte) or “The Mothers who regret having children” (Mackenzie). Desperate and regretful mothers hit the headlines. This, of course, was new. Since the cultural notions of motherhood mystify it as filled with all-embracing love and bliss, regretting motherhood is still an explosive taboo in most societies, including the United States and Canada. Naturally, such news pushed the boundaries of the maternal discourse and stimulated new discussions on motherhood, reproduction and the experience of mothering. More and more media contributions shed light on the negative aspects of motherhood and challenged the presumption that every woman would develop the wish to mother at some point in her life. (Kingston, Yuko)

However, the debate on motherhood as such is not exactly new. Quite the contrary, it has been high on the agenda of the feminist movement ever since its onset. Naturally however, the different waves of feminism took different stands in the maternal discourse. So, the first wave, which is generally considered to have emerged with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, fought passionately for equal rights and thus already questioned the prevailing gender roles, that see the female at home mothering the children. Nevertheless, motherhood would not yet be one of the main concerns addressed by feminism. As its principle aim was to obtain full citizenship by suffrage, the first wave movement is often considered to have ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. (Gilley 188, Kroløkke 3-6, Laxmidevi 41-42)

The second wave began in the early 1960s, was dominant until the 1980s and continues to exist to this very day. Whereas the first wave was mostly concerned with gaining legal rights, the second wave focused much more on inequalities in women’s personal lives. They argued “The Personal is Political” (qtd. in Laxmidevi 42) and concentrated on issues like domestic violence, rape, family structures and the female sexuality. Accordingly, motherhood and reproductive rights, too, became essential subject matters of the feminist movement. (42)

It is due to this that I will primarily consult theories of the second wave feminist movement and only give a brief summary for the third wave. In addition, I will forgo without distinguishing explicitly between the various strands of second wave feminism, and will restrict myself to demonstrating some of the most influential theories. That is, the term “second wave feminism” functions here as an umbrella term, which implies various related but still diverse, and at times even opposing, feminist approaches with respect to motherhood (Tolan 2).

The third wave of feminism has its beginnings in the mid-80s, when former feminists were criticized for concentrating solely on the maternal experiences of white, upper middle-class women. Third wave feminists fought for a movement that could stand on behalf of all women – regardless of their ethnicity and class. They emphasized multiplicity and celebrated females’ diversity as a source of empowerment. (Gilley 188-189, Laxmidevi 42)

Despite their differences, all strands of feminism share at least their starting point as well as their overall goal when it comes to motherhood. As a starting point, they criticize the traditional notion of motherhood that is closely linked to the construct of the nuclear family, in which gender roles are defined very clearly: While the father is responsible for the family’s financial situation, the mother is supposed to manage the household and nurture the children. As a result, women have traditionally been restricted to the domestic sphere and were totally dependent on the husband. In modern times, this problem remains. Although women today often continue working after bearing a child, they still provide most of the childrearing work and are thus limited in their professional mobility and potential income. Hence, it is such gender inequality what feminist movements strive to alter. Particularly since the 1960s they aim to ensure that all women can freely decide whether and how many children they want to mother, and to what extent they want to be involved in their upbringing. Generally, the consensus is that the well-rounded life of a mother involves more than just mothering and is not totally child- centered. (Kaplan 121, Frazer et al. 4, Tucker 1-2)

Naturally, it is not only feminist theories as such that engage in the maternal discourse but also literary texts of all genres. So does, for example, the writing of Margaret Atwood, which is often said to boast a dynamic relationship between fictional writing and feminist discourse. Born in 1939, the novelist has become Canada’s best-known contemporary writer, can even be considered a literary superstar. So far Atwood has published over forty literary works, which have been translated into more than forty languages and won her various literary awards. Besides several short story collections, volumes of poetry, non-fictional and children’s books, Atwood’s work currently includes seventeen novels. (Bouson 2010: 1)

What makes Atwood especially suitable for showing the dynamics between the theoretic feminist discourse on motherhood and fictional writing, is the fact that she is a writer who engages herself in political, ethical and sociological theories to quite an extent and, subsequently uses, promotes and/or questions them in her fiction. Among other cultural and political topics, she is especially concerned with feminist theories. So, she regularly deals with issues such as “the social construction of female identity” and “power politics inherent not only in male-female relations but in mother daughter relations and female friendship” (2), and generates new, highly original contributions to the maternal discourse (3). (Tolan 1)

But although many have urged Atwood to openly declare her support for feminism, the novelist has stressed repeatedly that she prefers to be recognized merely as a writer, not a feminist (Davis 81). Also, she has explicitly denounced the 70s feminists’ idea of women as flawless ideals who are not to be criticized (Chakravarty 2000: 110). But although Atwood has expressed such reservations about categorizing herself as a feminist writer, there is no doubt that she is aware of the maternal discourse and appreciates its achievements. For instance, she praised the fact that feminists have finally made it possible to say what has been kept unsaid so far (Atwood 1990: 24). Apart from that, it is striking that her writing persistently concentrates on women’s experiences and their exclusion from male discourse (Chakravarty 2008: 144, 146). Therefore, Howells labels Atwood “the best known feminist novelist writing in English” (qtd in Bouson 2010: 8) despite her refusals to classify herself as a feminist.

This work shall concentrate on the question how feminist perspectives on motherhood are portrayed in Margaret Atwood’s fictional novels. I consider this crucial since, unlike highly theoretical discourses, fictional writing is, indeed, able to reach the general public and, thus, can stimulate new far-reaching debates on the issues of motherhood at all levels of society. Therefore, Margaret Atwood’s novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye and Oryx and Crake will be examined with respect to their presentation of motherhood when it will be analyzed in how far they foster or challenge a feminist view on motherhood.

I have chosen precisely these three novels, firstly, because Atwood’s best-selling dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale famously offers great feminist potential with its special concern with female’s reproductive abilities. Secondly, because the postapocalyptic Oryx and Crake features a particularly intriguing mother figure and is, at least until then, Atwood’s only novel to feature a male protagonist and a mother-son relationship. Finally, I have decided to analyze the female bildungsroman Cat’s Eye that presents a great number of maternal figures and offers a shift of perspective on motherhood when the daughter Elaine becomes a mother herself.

In order to provide adequate background knowledge, I will first present some of the most vital second wave feminist theories on motherhood. Here, I will restrict myself to giving an overview without any claim to completeness to keep the scope of this thesis to a manageable proportion. Subsequently, I will briefly demonstrate how the subject of motherhood is represented in Margaret Atwood’s novels in general; before I will use close reading techniques to analyze The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye and Oryx and Crake in order to provide a closer examination of the portrayal of motherhood in Atwood’s fiction . Here I will pay special attention to the issues of reproduction, abortion rights and Assisted Reproduction Technologies. Subsequently the depiction of various mother figures will be addressed. Here I will closely analyze the novels’ mother-child relationships and their impact on the child’s development, while I will simultaneously examine whether, and if so, to what extent, the mother’s subjectivity is considered in comparison to the child’s. All the main analysis’ chapters will be preceded by additional theoretical background, which is useful to ensure a deeper understanding of the relevant chapters. Finally, I will draw a conclusion from the findings gathered.

2. An Overview: Feminist Perspectives on Motherhood

Motherhood and mothering lie at the core of feminist theories and have been highly discussed, challenged and revised within the past few decades. Although first critical thoughts on motherhood have already been risen by Mary Wollstonecraft in her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 17921, it was only in the 1960s that a greater movement was established.

At the time initial questions regarding safe abortions and contraceptive methods, parenting leaves and daycare arouse. Many called for liberation from the duty to mother and, thus, challenged the traditional construct of the nuclear family. They argued that a woman’s life should never be completely prescribed and restricted by her function as a mother. Instead, she should be able to choose freely whether, when and how many children she would want to have. Hence, the requirement for an easy access to safe birth control and abortion as well as the need for equal options in the public working sphere were articulated, and a demystification of the ideal motherhood was required. (Chodorow and Contratto 191-192, Kaplan 121-122)

Yet, naturally, there was never a common sense among all theoreticians. Until today the maternal discourse stimulates further discussions. For instance, disagreement over the fundamental question if bearing and raising children is a woman’s naturally given main mission in life and if, thus, “biology is destiny” (qtd. in Maroney 42) remains. Frequently it is argued otherwise when motherhood is considered a socially constructed institution of patriarchy, which is said to oppress women. (Kaplan 121-122, Glenn 1-2)

Motherhood as patriarchal institution

One of the first feminists to contradict Freud’s well-known claim that biology completely determines a woman’s fate was Simone de Beauvoir. In her publication The Second Sex (1949), she lays the foundation for many feminist theories to follow when she states: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (qtd. in Butler 30). She recognizes gender as something that is not anatomically implicit, but rather something that is shaped by cultural and social conditions. Hence, she argues, the traditional distribution of labor and social functions could no longer be justified due to the biological sex, since those were only attributed to women to restrict them to the domestic sphere and, thereby, keep them in an inferior position. As a result, Beauvoir identifies motherhood mainly as a patriarchal means of oppression. (30-31)

Based on Beauvoir’s assumptions, the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone even believes maternity to be “the heart of a woman’s oppression” (72) and claims that women could not be liberated from male tyranny until they were freed from the burden of reproduction (72- 73). Hence, she calls for the development of a new, artificial form of reproduction that would allow a complete liberation from all maternal functions (192-202).

Psychoanalytic approaches

In the third chapter of her work The Dialectic of Sex Firestone pays special attention to Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and examines them as “misguided feminism” (41). She refers to Freud because he, too, considered women and children as subjugated by a powerful father (41-71). However, it is not only Firestone who recognizes some potential for feminist arguments in Freud’s theses. Several other writers, such as Melanie Klein or Nancy Chodorow also develop their theories on the basis of his work, even though it must be regarded very male- centric. Thus, Freud’s theory will be briefly introduced in the following, before some of the most vital psychoanalytic contributions to the maternal discourse are presented. (Doane and Hodges 8, 11-13, 34)

Sigmund Freud’s theory is especially interesting in the context of this work due to its highly relevant insight into parent-child relationships. Describing them in his lecture on femininity, he distinguishes between a boy’s and a girl’s psychic development. To a boy, he claims, the caring mother is his first, and often enduring, object of love. In his oedipal phase, this love becomes a sexual desire, which leads to rivalry with his father. The son wants to remove his competitor but is also deeply afraid of his power and especially fears to be castrated by him. So, the boy finally represses his Oedipus complex by developing a strong super-ego. The girl, on the contrary, undergoes a different development during the oedipal phase. Up to that period she, too, loves her mother deeply and sees her father as an unwelcome competitor for the mother’s attention. But as soon as she is confronted with the male genitals for the first time, she develops a severe penis envy as she notices that she herself is “castrated”. For that, she blames her mother and reacts with hostility. Additionally, she understands that her mother lacks something that the more powerful father possesses. Hence, the girl is driven out of the close relationship with her mother and turns to her father, from whom she wishes to obtain the penis that she is longing for. According to Freud, her wish for having a penis persists until it is replaced by her longing for having a baby. Ideally, the born child would be a son, who can offer her a real penis. The woman is properly prepared to mother him since she acquired all necessary skills during her pre-oedipal phase, in which she strongly identified with her mother. (Freud)

Here, it must, of course, be noted that in Freud’s theory the parent-child relations mostly revolve around the father-figure. In contrast, psychoanalytic feminists shift the focus towards the mother. One of the first writers to do so, is Melanie Klein. In her object-relation theory she attributes key priority to the female parent. (Doane and Hodges 7-10)

In contrast to later theories that originated from her thoughts, Klein pays little attention to mother-child interactions. Instead, she focuses merely on the infant’s phantasies about the mother and her breast. She recognizes the infant as an “anxious, sadistic and, at best, guilty” (19) creature. Given this rather negative description, it might already be presumed that she herself did not make the most pleasant, enjoyable experiences with children. And, indeed, Klein did struggle with the experience of mothering and society’s demanding expectations on mothers. The latter, however, she must have regarded as particularly unreasonable. After all, Klein assumes that the phantasies of a child develop regardless of the mother’s actions. That is, the parent has very little impact on a child’s development and can thus not be blamed if it develops poorly. (17-19)

This makes Klein’s mother very unlike Winnicott’s “Good Enough Mother”. For, according to Winnicott, children are not instinctively sadistic, but rather naturally good creatures with transparent needs. The responsibility to satisfy those needs lies not with both parents, but exclusively the mother. After all, to a female, Winnicott claims, mothering is completely natural. Being a “good enough” mother does not even require thought or any kind of knowledge. To a man, however, the child’s needs would be more mysterious, he would not be able to care for his offspring as adequately. (19-24)

On the one hand, these ideas certainly guarantee some recognition of agency and power to the woman, who can offer something that the man is lacking. But on the other hand, they strip her off her freedom, her own individual needs and desires. The “good enough” mother is supposed to be altruistic and provide unlimited love and care. If a child develops poorly, the mother alone is to blame. Consequently, Doane and Hodges reason, that Winnicott’s sets of advice were indeed not supporting mothers, but rather helped to maintain the patriarchal system. They found it especially remarkable that he as a man must give advice to women who – in accordance with his own assumptions – would naturally know how to mother. (21-24, 26, 31)

D.W. Winnicott had great influence on other psychoanalytical feminists. For instance Nancy Chodorow, who is probably the most influential object-relation theorist of all, has exposed Winnicott’s findings in her writings (5). Quite uncritically she takes on Winnicott’s concept of the transparent needs of children that are ideally satisfied by a selfless, caring mother, and agrees that women are better suited for mothering tasks. At the same time, she acknowledges that mothering is often burdensome and that women have more desires, more than their reproductive functions. Hence, she calls out for shared parenting, a form of childrearing that involves both parents equally. In that way, Chodorow claims, both men and women could pursue self-fulfillment while also ensuring that their children develop properly. (34-37)

This demand might first seem contradictory to the assumption that women are better suited for raising children, but for that Chodorow offers a thoughtful explanation. According to her, it is not biology that enables a woman to be a “good enough” mother. It is her upbringing; more specifically, her early mother-child relationship. Chodorow claims that a mother has a different relationship with a son than she has with a daughter, even though the general development is common to both: At first both sexes find themselves in a phase of complete identification with the mother. They are fully dependent and cannot even distinguish between the self and the mother. Later they will develop a better awareness of their selves and the mother will promote their separation. (37-42)

However, the split from the mother is particularly difficult for daughters because the mother identifies more strongly and for a longer period with the child, with whom she shares the same sex. The mother’s support for separation is poorer with the daughter since she constitutes less well-defined boundaries between herself and her offspring. That leads to an ambivalent relationship between mother and daughter that is coined by alternating identification and separation. Usually women would never be able to separate as completely from the mother as men are. While this naturally complicates the mother-daughter relation, it also carries an advantage when it comes to necessary capabilities of childrearing: “They identify with their own mothers as they grow up, and this identification produce[s] the girl as a mother” (Chodorow 31). The longer period of identification enables the daughter to evolve all necessary abilities. In contrast, men, who separate earlier, are taught to repress them. A boy, who is primarily raised by his mother, recognizes masculinity as something rare, idealized and desirable. But because he longs for manliness, he must separate from the unity with the mother, who represents femininity. “[The] boy represses those qualities he takes to be feminine inside himself, and rejects and devalues women and whatever he considers to be feminine in the social world” (181). Hence, he is less qualified for the social function of mothering. (Chodorow 181, Doane and Hodges 37-42)

Furthermore, Chodorow blames these gendered identification/separation processes for the division of the labor market. While women are better suited for mothering and, therefore, more prominent within the domestic sphere, men are entrusted with the task to ensure livelihood and thus occupy the economic, public sphere. That is, the current social order is reproduced due to a mother’s distinct relations to her masculine and her feminine child. In turn, the prevailing and reinforced social order then recreates the traditional parent-child relations. A vicious circle emerges. (Chodorow 7, 11, 32, 219, Doane and Hodges 33, Stone 53)

To break this vicious circle, Chodorow suggests the already mentioned solution of shared parenting which is supposed to prevent the “overpowering” by one parent. In this way, children should be able to identify with and separate from their parents to a reasonable extent, so that the child-parent relations would be well-balanced. In that way there would not emerge a gendered identity and the reproduction of gender disparities would no longer exist. The women’s oppression could be ended, and men could finally be acknowledged as “good enough” fathers, too. However, Chodorow emphasizes: “This outcome is historically possible, but far from inevitable. Such advances do not occur simply because they are better for ‘society,’ and certainly not simply because they are better for some (usually less powerful) people. They depend on the conscious organization and activity of all women and men” (Chodorow 219). Yet, as long as this does not alter, she argues, motherhood will remain as a source of women’s oppression. (Chodorow 217-219, Stone 56, 60)

Motherhood: institution and experience

Adrienne Rich agrees that motherhood must be recognized as an institution that allows men to dominate women. But she additionally points out, that it must be distinguished between the experience and the institution of motherhood . So, she highlights that the first is highly distorted under the impact of the latter. Originally, she claims, motherhood would be a creative, powerful and enriching experience, yet “motherhood as institution has ghettoized and degraded female potentialities” (13). In her work, Rich depicts her own and others’ maternal experiences linking them to the theoretical discourse, and finds them to be very ambivalent – enriched with both dreadful and demanding as well as joyful and rewarding parts. She thus acknowledges that there is a wide range of emotions that emerges from unrealistic and demanding social expectations of motherhood. (Kamat 42-44, Rich 13-14, 21-23)

How the burden of motherhood affects the female’s actual everyday experience has already been explored in the 1960s by Betty Friedan. With her work The Feminine Mystique, she was one of the first to address “the problem that has no name” (Friedan 15). As she gathered the experiences of quite a few sub-urban mothers and housewives, she exposed the apparent paradox that although they found themselves in a financially secure situation and in a working marriage with children, they all complained about the feeling of emptiness, discontent and deep unhappiness. They had achieved what they had originally yearned for. Yet, it could not at all satisfy them. They were craving for “something more than [the] husband and [the] children and [the] home” (32). The New York Times summarized Friedan’s findings: “All [these housewives] admit to being deeply frustrated at times by the lack of privacy, the physical burden, the routine of family life, the confinement of it. However, none would give up her home and family if she had the choice to make again” (qtd. in Friedan 25). (Friedan 15-32)

Today, the Times’ closing claim that none of these women “would give up […] her family if she had the choice to make again” must be recognized as rather outdated. After all, Orna Donath’s sociopolitical analysis has shown that there are indeed many women who regret their motherhood and would gladly undo it. Taking the examples of 23 Israeli mothers Donath demonstrates how some women experience their maternity as “a loss of self and the sense of freedom and control” (qtd. in Donath 356). Here, most of these mothers highlight that it is not the lack of love that makes them regret, but rather the experience of mothering itself. This experience does not even need to be particularly dreadful or overwhelming. Those concerned just sense that mothering “is not for [them]” (qtd. in Donath 356). They think of it as a burden that they will never be able to get rid of. A burden imposed on them by the pressure of a society that simply presumes that every female would want to become a mother. (344-345, 353-358)

Like Donath, Adrienne Rich acknowledges that the experience of mothering can be an unpleasant one. She introduces the first chapter of Of Woman Born with a telling diary entry:

My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs […] fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted. […] There are times when […] I envy the barren woman who has the luxury of regrets but lives a life of privacy and freedom. (Rich 21)

Here and generally, Rich portrays her personal experience as a mother as ambivalent and at times particularly burdensome and demanding. Yet, her assumption is that the source for such emotions is not the experience of mothering itself but rather the patriarchal impact upon it. “The potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and her children [is disrupted by the] institution which aims at ensuring that that potential – and all women – shall remain under male control” (13). Rich deplores that the originally creative experience has been degraded by patriarchy. – Patriarchy, that is to Rich, not only fathers and husbands, but all male- dominated institutions. Particularly alarming appears to her that men are overrepresented in the medical field, and thus lead the research on extrauterine reproduction, and practice in pediatrics as well as in gynecology. Also, men dominate politics, so that they are the ones who pass laws regarding contraception, abortion and extrauterine experiments. So, Rich argues, it does not surprise when any behavior that might endanger the patriarchal system is socially discredited or even criminalized. She further claims that men would deliberately indoctrinate women with the idea that the meaning of a woman’s life lies within giving birth and raising a child (Rich 159). Of course, Rich firmly rejects this claim and wishes for new arrangements which would empower a woman to make her own enlightened decisions about when, where and how to bear a child (182-184). Therefore, however, patriarchy would have to be overthrown, and this could only be achieved, so Rich believes, if women rediscover and recreate their maternal power. (Rich 35, 40-43, 56, 160, 182-184, 196-198, 285-286)

Maternal Thinking

It is not only Rich who thinks of maternity as something powerful. Sarah Ruddick, for instance, does so, too. To Ruddick, motherhood’s special power results from the maternal way of thinking. That is, a mother’s mindset is mostly governed by nonviolent, pacifist thoughts, which a “good enough” mother puts into practice for most of the time. Naturally, this does not apply to every mother everywhere at any time. There are exceptions of violent thought and behavior, too. Yet, mostly, she claims, mothers prefer to act in a nonviolent way even in situations in which it would be easy – or tempting – to abuse power. (160-166)

Ruddick assumes that it is in a mother’s nature to care and to protect. She identifies it as the mother’s main concern to keep her children safe, foster their development and raise them to be viable and social people. Her maternal thoughts revolve around how to achieve these goals. As a result, “to be a mother is to be committed to meeting [the] demands [for preservation, growth and social acceptability] by works of preservative love, nurturance, and training” (Ruddick 17). These demands are not only made by children, but by society, too. This, however, creates an unreasonable pressure on those who perform maternal work. Thus, Ruddick emphasizes that mothers must not be defined by the output of their work. Rather they must be perceived as individuals with a right for self-fulfillment. (Glenn 4-5, Ruddick 17, 23, 51)

While she concedes that there are some tasks – such as pregnancy and breastfeeding – which can only be performed by women, she highlights that most other maternal responsibilities could be assumed by both sexes. According to Ruddick, women are neither more talented nor more obligated to mother. She agrees with feminists like Beauvoir and Firestone about the idea that motherhood is something socially and historically constructed. Referring to Beauvoir, she concludes, that no one is born a mother. Consequently, it is not mandatory that a mother is female. Instead, a mother could be anyone who takes on responsibility for children’s lives, anyone for whom providing child care is a significant part of her or his working life. I mean her or his. According to Ruddick, mothering is potentially work for men and women – regardless of the fact that most mothers have been and are women. (39-40, 51)

Thus, she claims that maternal thinking can potentially characterize men and women alike. If only both sexes would adopt the maternal way of thinking, Ruddick hopes, men would participate fully in childrearing, so that gender disparities would be transcended, and oppression based on maternal functions would finally be subverted (Gross 271). Broadly spoken, a general maternal thinking could provoke peacemaking and topple the existing orders. Hence, Ruddick highlights, mothers’ pacifism would be urgently needed in politics, too. (Ruddick 163-164, 251)

The Third Wave

Although Ruddick must be considered one of the most important feminist theorists regarding the topic of motherhood, her theory did not only meet great approval. So, she has been criticized by “third wave” 2 feminists for merely focusing on white middle-class women and not putting her theory into situational, racial and social context. (Baraitser 61-62)

This weakness, however, does not only apply to Ruddick’s theory of the Maternal Thinking but to all theories that have been mentioned in this chapter so far. That is, even though, they all differ with respect to essential points, they also have something decisive in common: They do not consider neither race nor class. Thus, Patricia Hill Collins demands to “shift the center” (73). She claims that so far most feminist theories have only considered white middle- class women, who normally find themselves in nuclear family structures (58). However, Collins warns, their experiences cannot be regarded as representative for all women, so that such theories must not be generalized to women of color or women of lower social classes (72). After all, middle-class mothers enjoy certain privileges such as financial security, which many other women are lacking. As a result, the topics they have to deal with are very different ones. While the archetypically considered women concentrate on issues like mother-daughter-relations, contraceptive methods and the idealization of motherhood, women of color must first deal with survival, power and questions of identity. (Baraitser 60-61)

Moreover, Collins draws attention to the fact that besides actual feminist writing, it is fictional literature, too, that narrows the significance of race and class with respect to motherhood (57). Indeed, this also applies to Atwood’s works since there are only very few examples of ethnically or socially disadvantaged mother figures in her novels. It is due to this, that I will mainly consult theories that focus on the archetypical white middle-class mother when I analyze Atwood’s novels Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake with respect to a feminist perspective on motherhood.

3. An Overview: Motherhood in Margaret Atwood’s novels

Fiona Tolan argues that Margaret “Atwood’s protagonists have aged in tandem with their creator” (266). While the female protagonists of her first novels are childless and especially involved in their relationship with their mothers, they later become mothers themselves and eventually narrate from a grandmother’s perspective. (Tolan 266)

Childless mothers

Atwood’s early protagonists are often portrayed as women who deliberately decide to remain childless. So, does, for instance, Marian, the protagonist of Atwood’s first novel The Edible Woman (1969). Marian even appears to be anxious towards pregnancy. After all, she experiences first anxiety states when her life partner intends a marriage proposal. When she, nevertheless, accepts it, independent physical reactions set in. She loses all control over her body and finds it in motion without being able to explain how, when or why she began to move it. Hence, it appears that Marian is driven by the subconscious urge to escape marriage, which would entrap her, strip her of her choices and ultimately lead to the inevitable burden of motherhood. Accordingly, Tolan interprets the body’s becoming independent as “a protest […] at her presumably impending motherhood” (25). After all, maternity is here perceived as a threat for the female body. This becomes clear when the narrator makes disparaging remarks on the pregnant body of Clara, which is described as “a swollen mass of flesh with a tiny pinhead” (qtd. in Tolan 14). Marian understands Clara as governed by the fetus growing inside of her (15), and thus urgently wants to prevent her own impending motherhood. Thus, she even forces herself to starve, denies her body even the most basic nourishment. (14-15,17-18, 25, 29, 31)

Another protagonist who chooses to not have children is Joan Foster from Lady Oracle (1976), who is afraid of reproducing her own mother’s monstrous parenting (84).


While Marian and Joan can prevent a pregnancy, other protagonists, find themselves confronted with the decision whether to have an abortion. The narrator of Surfacing (1972), for instance, is coerced into aborting a fetus by her husband, and will suffer a great deal afterwards. Here, Atwood clearly addresses the negative effects of abortions like many Canadian writers have done since the 1980s. She demonstrates the narrator’s feelings of guilt, her poor self- image, and shows how the narrator’s relationship with her husband has altered due to the procedure. The experience leaves the narrator traumatized and causes her to escape into isolation from a society that she now perceives as threatful and violent (41). As Moss puts it, the narrator “is haunted […] by the child she aborted” (qtd. in Koloze 209). (220-222)

At the time it was very unusual for Canadian literature to portray the choice whether to have the baby as the father’s as it occurs in Surfacing. After all, the feminist discourse naturally ascribes all decision-making power to the pregnant woman (213). Yet, in The Edible Woman we find another man, Len, who argues very resolutely for aborting his begotten son and refuses to have any connection with the child whatsoever: “I didn’t want it, you [became pregnant] yourself, and you should have it removed” (qtd. in Koloze 214). Nevertheless, here the pregnant Ainsley firmly rejects the idea of having an abortion and does not give in to his demands. (207, 214)

Apart from Ainsley there are also some women in Atwood’s novels, who have chosen to receive their child. However, they are often portrayed as unhappy with their decision. So, for instance, Frances, the mother figure in Lady Oracle. She has originally considered an abortion but ultimately succumbs to social pressure and, as a result, ends up as a very discontent woman leading an unfulfilling life restricted to the domestic sphere. (Moreno)

Thus, it becomes clear that Atwood makes pregnancy as well as abortion a subject of discussion, and portrays various perspectives on the issue.

Mother-daughter relations and monstrous or absent mother figures

Also, Atwood frequently focusses on mother-daughter dyads and shows a mother’s influence on her child’s psychic health and a successful identity building. So, in Surfacing the female protagonist’s search for her missing father leads her to the emotional quest for her mother. It shows that only by processing the memories of her mother, she can gradually reconstruct her incomplete identity and connect with her real self. Being isolated in the Canadian wilderness, the narrator rediscovers and processes formerly repressed memories. She comes to revalue her mother’s power. This enables her to recognize the maternal power as such and to perceive herself as powerful, as she, too, can become a mother. (39, 41-42, 50-51, 76)

In addition, also Lady Oracle features a disturbed mother-daughter dyad. Joan Foster is strongly influenced by her “monstrous” mother, “the dark lady […] who must be obeyed” (226 – qtd. in Tolan 83). For Joan, their dysfunctional relationship results in the feeling of being incomplete, and the constant desire to escape all surroundings. So, Joan flees from her life in Toronto and seeks for a new start in England. Finally, however, she must accept that she cannot escape her past. She, too, must process the influential mother-daughter dyad that affects her personality, her emotions, her mental health so strongly. It is only when she manages to truly consider her mother’s subjectivity that she recognizes her as a mere victim of patriarchy and, thus, frees them both from the mutual dependence (Tolan 85). (Cerezo Moreno, Tolan 78-85)


1 In her work, Wollstonecraft deplores the fact that mothers were often denied a proper education. She argues that they should not be kept illiterate as a certain degree of education and emancipation would be imperative for being a good mother. (106, 201-202)

2 The term “third wave feminism” was coined by Rebecca Walker when she closed her essay Becoming the Third Wave, which was published in the Ms. Magazine in 1992 , with the statement: “I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave” (2).

Excerpt out of 59 pages


Motherhood in Margaret Atwood’s novels
Motherhood and Feminism in "The Handmaid’s Tale", "Cat’s Eye" and "Oryx & Crake"
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
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Motherhood, Atwood, Margaret, Canda, America, Dystopia, Handmaid's Tale, Handmaid, Tale, Cat, Eye, and, but, now, actually, Offred, Ory, Oryx, Crake, Dystopian, abortion, reproduction, birth, child, mother, feminism, feminist, novel, novelist, women, woman, bear, children, self, daughter, relationship, reproductive, rights, sex, household, work, firestone, rich, arienne, chodorow, freud, klein, winnicott, ruddick, friedan, burdan, burden, free, care, love, confident, feeling, discontent, unhappy, overwhelmed
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Ronja Thiede (Author), 2018, Motherhood in Margaret Atwood’s novels, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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