The treatment of motherhood is depicted through several different perspectives in Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Awakening by Kate Chopin. In both novels, there is a clear juxtaposition of two mothers and their attitudes towards motherhood. However, the treatment of motherhood by Morrison and Chopin is very different. While Morrison focuses on the slave mother experience, Chopin’s treatment of motherhood revolves around the subjugation of married women with children during the end of the nineteenth century. Each novel depicts motherhood from the perspective of women who are mothers. This was widely uncommon in literature during the time of each novel’s publication, particularly because motherhood and the maternal experience was previously told from a patriarchal perspective.
As Paula Gallant Eckard states in her book “Body and Voice”, “motherhood and maternal experience have been largely defined and ‘written’ by other forces… Patriarchal power has objectified the maternal and disregarded female subjectivity. Generally speaking, maternal subjectivity- the presentation of pregnancy, childbirth, and the experience of motherhood from a mother’s perspective- has not been well represented in written culture”(Gallant Eckard 1). Morrison based Beloved on the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who murdered one of her children in order to save them from slavery.
Morrison took this harrowing incident and used it as her inspiration for Sethe in Beloved. Through the character of Sethe, Morrison explores the traumatic experiences of slavery on a family and the numerous violations to motherhood that would have occurred before the Emancipation Proclamation. The trauma that Sethe suffered at the hands of the Schoolteacher and his nephews in Sweet Home followed her into free life and continued to haunt her throughout the novel. Sethe tells Paul D of the numerous violations of her motherhood at the hands of these men by repeating “they took my milk” (Morrison 19) while “I was pregnant with Denver but I had milk for my baby girl.” Committing filicide is an extreme act that many slave mothers did so they could prevent their children from experiencing the degrading and humiliating conditions of slavery.
Sethe felt justified in her actions because she stopped Schoolteacher from getting to her children, “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” (Morrison 193). Through the physical act of murdering Beloved, thus preventing her from experiencing slavery, Sethe demonstrated her deep love and devotion to her child. As Stamp Paid asserts “She ain’t crazy. She love those children. She was trying to out-hurt the hurter”(Morrison 276). However, within Beloved, motherhood is constantly wrestling with the theme of slavery, as slavery could not allow a mother and a child to be together.
While enslaved, a woman was simply seen as a ‘breeder’ and their children were merely for monetary gain. Children were separated from their mothers at a young age, which can be seen through Sethe’s vague memories of her own mother. Sethe only remembers seeing “a cloth hat as opposed to a straw one, singularity enough in that world of cooing women each of whom was called Ma’am”(Morrison 37).
Yet what Sethe does remember is Nan, the woman who nursed and raised her after her mother was hung. Nan also explained to Sethe of how much her mother loved her “She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them.
You she gave the name of a black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never. Never. Telling you.
I am telling you, small girl Sethe”(Morrison 74). Sethe was deprived her biological mother’s love and milk because of the institution of slavery, which is why she was so desperate to escape and feed her daughter. “All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl. Nobody was going to nurse her like me”(Morrison 19). Slavery aimed to suppress a mothers’ natural emotional attachment to her child and this attachment was wholly dispirited, as Paul D observed; “For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love”(Morrison 54). The treatment of motherhood in Beloved is also represented through the juxtaposition of Sethe and Baby Suggs and their contrasting approaches to motherhood. It is clear that the love Sethe feels for her children is unfounded, particularly when she tells Paul D about her escape from Sweet Home; “I did it.
I got us all out…Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own…I birthed them and I got em out and it wasn’t no accident..
. I was big and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between..
. Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon- there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to” (Morrison 190-191). Sethe’s intense emotional connection to her children is contrasted with Baby Suggs’ detachment to her own children. In her article “Thick Love”, Michele A. L.
Barzey theorizes that Baby Suggs “refused to let herself love children who could be taken away from her” (Barzey 14). Having lost all of her children to the institution of slavery, Baby Suggs’ detachment was her only coping mechanism for this inevitable loss. This emotional detachment is evident when Baby Suggs begins to think about her lost children. “What was left to hurt her now? News of Halle’s death? No. She had been prepared for that better than she had for his life.
The last of her children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try and learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway. Seven times she had done that: held a little foot; examined the fat fingertips with her own- fingers she never saw become the male or female hands a mother would recognize anywhere. She didn’t know to this day what their permanent teeth looked like; or how they held their heads when they walked. Did Patty lose her lisp? What color did Famous’ skin finally take? Was that a cleft in Johnny’s chin or just a dimple that would disappear soon’s his jawbone changed? Four girls, and the last time she saw them there was no hair under their arms. Does Ardelia still love the burned bottom of bread? All seven were gone or dead. What was the point of looking too hard at the youngest one?” (Morrison 163-164).
Through the characters of Sethe and Baby Suggs, Morrison depicts the treatment of motherhood from two very different viewpoints. Sethe, who risks her life to take her children out of slavery, who would rather murder her own child than see her grow up back in Sweet Home; represents the rejection of motherhood within slavery. Whereas Baby Suggs, who has all but forgotten her eight children, is shown to represent the defeated nature of a mother who has submitted to the oppression of slavery. While motherhood is imperative to Sethe in Beloved, Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening views motherhood as a burden and hindrance. Although Morrison depicts motherhood as wondrous, albeit difficult, within Beloved through Sethe and Baby Suggs, Chopin focuses on the oppression Edna feels within her marriage to Leonce and the overwhelming inadequacies she feels as a mother to her two sons, Etienne and Raoul. The impossible standards that were placed on Edna to be the perfect ‘mother-woman’ and wife, from not only her husband but from society as a whole during this time ultimately drove her to commit suicide.
Unlike Sethe, who will do anything for her children including murdering them to prevent them from being enslaved, Edna “would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for anyone” (Chopin 47). However, that is not to say that Edna did not love her children; she simply did not know how to. Edna’s mother died when she was young and, like Sethe, she was raised without the memories of a nurturer. This absence of a nurturing mother figure prevented Edna from enjoying her children; because she never experienced motherly love for herself she was unable to share it with her own sons. In her book “The Reproduction of Mothering”, Nancy Chodorow asserts that “many mothers and infants are mutually gratified through their relationship, and many mothers enjoy taking care of their infants” (Chodorow 86).
However, this could not be farther from the truth for Edna Pontellier. This is clearly evident from Chopin’s initial explanation of her main character: “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman.
The mother-woman seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it as a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin 8). This notion of a woman destroying her own individuality in order to become the perfect ‘mother-woman’ was expected of women once they had given birth. Yet Edna, who was well aware of these preconceived notions and expectations of motherhood realizes that she lacks this ability to ‘efface’ herself as an individual, thus making it impossible for her to become a ‘mother-woman’. The treatment of motherhood within The Awakening is portrayed through Chopin’s juxtaposition of Edna, a failed ‘mother-woman’, with Adele Ratignolle, “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm” (Chopin 7). The first instance of Edna and Adele’s juxtaposition comes when the women are sewing children’s clothes together. “Madame Ratignolle was very fond of Mrs.
Pontellier, and often she took her sewing and went over to sit with her in the afternoons… She had brought the pattern of the drawers for Mrs. Pontellier to cut out- a marvel of construction, fashioned to enclose a baby’s body..
.They were designed for winter wear” (Chopin 7). Here, Chopin gives the depiction of an ideal ‘mother-woman’, who spends her free time making clothes for her children and whose immaculate beauty is compared to “the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams”(Chopin 7). This depiction is closely followed by that of Edna who, when hearing of this “impervious garment” was not entirely pleased to construct it. “Mrs. Pontellier’s mind was quite at rest concerning the present material needs of her children, and she could not see the use of anticipating and making winter garments the subject of her summer mediations” (Chopin 7). Clearly, Adele is quite content with spending her holiday making her children’s clothes rather than pursuing any of her own interests. However, Edna clearly, is not as “she did not want to appear unamiable and uninterested, so she had brought forth newspapers.
.. and cut a pattern of the garment” (Chopin 7). The juxtaposition between both women becomes even more apparent when Edna attempts to draw Adele. Although Edna “sometimes dabbled in an unprofessional way”(Chopin 11), she had “a natural aptitude” for art and “had long wished to try herself on Madame Ratignolle” (Chopin 11). Yet, “the picture completed bore no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle”(Chopin 11) and “after surveying the sketch critically Mrs. Pontellier drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands” (Chopin 12). By attempting to imitate Adele in the form of a drawing, Edna is trying to ascertain if she could achieve the ‘mother-woman’ notion that she is expected to conform to.
However, because Edna has failed to emulate Adele, she comes to the realization that she will never be able to imitate Adele who represents the ’embodiment’ of the ‘mother-woman’. In Edna’s eyes motherhood was “a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her” (Chopin 18). It is during the Pontellier family holiday that Edna’s unwillingness to participate in the ‘mother-woman’ notion becomes apparent. Chopin writes, “it would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define to his own satisfaction or any one else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children” (Chopin 7). It is clear that Leonce did not agree with how Edna was raising his children particularly with how “if one of the Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water out of his eyes and sand out of his mouth, and go on playing”. The ‘mother-woman’ notion was imposed on all women once they had become mothers. It was unbecoming for a woman to encourage their children to self-soothe because that was supposed to be her job, which explains why Leonce believed “his wife had failed in her duty towards her children.
” As Francesco Pontuale states in “The Awakening: Struggles Toward L’ecriture Feminine”, “motherhood is a central issue for Edna, who struggles against the social conventions of an age that regards it as the primary role through which a woman defines herself” (Pontuale 124). During the novella, Edna begins to move away from her responsibilities as a wife and mother in search of her own individuality. “Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (Chopin 13). Unfortunately, these realizations were difficult for Edna to comprehend and they brought with them troubling emotions; “but the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such a beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!” (Chopin 13). It is clear that Edna is struggling in the dark with her emotions and feelings of entrapment as a mother and a wife.
Although “a certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her… It served but to bewilder her” (Chopin 13). It appears that Edna, trapped in her socially constructed prison of marriage and motherhood, is desperate to escape and become her ‘true self’. However, she struggles with this decision and worries that no matter what she does, if she stays within this prison or escapes, that she will not find this light she so desperately seeks.
It is easier to contrast the treatment of motherhood in Beloved and The Awakening, although there are several points of comparison between both novels. While Morrison depicted motherhood through the slave mother experience with Sethe, Chopin’s depiction focuses on the inadequacies Edna feels as a mother and a wife because of the stifling societal expectations that were placed on her. Sethe would rather kill her own child than let them experience slavery, in her own way she believes she is protecting the child.
Whereas Edna finds herself leaving her children because she is unable to ‘efface’ herself in order to become the perfect ‘mother-woman’. However, the treatment of motherhood in both Beloved and The Awakening share similarities that Morrison and Chopin used in their depiction of motherhood within their novels. Both Beloved and The Awakening are told from a female perspective of the maternal experience. As stated earlier, this was wholly unfounded in the literary world and marked a revolutionary approach to the literary treatment of motherhood. “Up until now, the maternal experience has been depicted in fiction “as a metaphor, not as narrated experience” told from the mother’s perspective” (Daly qtd. in Gallant Eckard 1).
Similarly, both characters of Edna and Sethe grew up without their biological mother to care for them. The absence of a maternal figure in their own lives dramatically affected their experiences with their children. Sethe’s fixation on breast milk comes from her experiences as a child; “Nan had to nurse whitebabies and me too because Ma’am was in the rice. The little whitebabies got it first and I got what was left.
Or none. There was no nursing milk to call my own” (Morrison 236). Sethe’s overwhelming need to get to her children once she escaped Sweet Home was to feed her baby girl, because “nobody was going to nurse her like me” (Morrison 19). Just as Sethe places great importance on giving her children the milk she never got as a child, Edna having barely experienced a maternal figure “often wondered at one propensity which sometimes had inwardly disturbed her without causing any outward show or manifestation on her part” (Chopin 17).
Edna’s inability to connect on an emotional level with her sons stems from not learning how to nurture children from a maternal figure. Furthermore, Morrison and Chopin chose to juxtapose their main maternal characters against another female character within their novels. This juxtaposition serves a dual purpose in each novel. In Beloved, Morrison’s juxtaposition between Sethe and Baby Suggs depicts the treatment of motherhood from a slave mother experience, while also demonstrating two opposing methods of mothering within the institution of slavery. Sethe, fighting against the impossibility of a mother/child relationship within slavery through committing filicide, and Baby Suggs, who couldn’t bring herself to memorize her children’s facial features because she knew they would be taken from her. Likewise, Chopin’s juxtaposition in The Awakening, between Edna and Adele firstly depicts Edna as a non ‘mother-woman’ compared to Adele who is the epitome of a ‘mother-woman’, showing the treatment of motherhood from a subjugated female perspective. Secondly, Chopin’s juxtaposition of Edna and Adele depicts Edna’s realization that because she could not emulate Adele in her drawing, she cannot imitate her as a ‘mother-woman’. Thus, she is unable to conform to the societal roles enforced upon her and cannot become a ‘mother-woman’, once again analyzing the treatment of motherhood through the eyes of a subjugated woman.