A Feminist Perspective of The Good Mother


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A Feminist Perspective of The Good Mother 


The Good Mother is carefully structured to make the reader identify strongly with the narrator Anna. The story begins with a close look at the intensely loving relationship between Anna and her daughter. We then learn some of Anna's family history and personal background which prepares us for the stark contrast made by her relationship with Leo. Though there are hints, as Anna relates her story, that Leo is now a part of her past, the reasons and details are withheld from the reader so that we feel as shocked as Anna by the phone call from her ex-husband, saying that he is going to fight for custody of Molly and why. The suspense during the court battle is sustained by the terse descriptions which focus on the facts of the events and the words spoken during the interviews and trial. Because of this reserve, although, like Anna, we fear that she will lose Molly, we are still stunned by the verdict and empathize with her feelings of loss, helplessness, and rage.

I think the book is very well written and moving. But I am left wondering why Miller wrote this involving book with such a bittersweet ending, one that's much more sad than sweet. Did she simply want to depress us or to give us a portrait of someone we should feel sorry for? There's not much point in that, of course, so I doubt it. Was the book intended as some sort of moral lesson? The narrator clearly relates her own behavior to her past and her family, but I don't think Anna can be read as either a total victim or as a person who is fully to blame for her own fate as a result of having always made completely informed choices; she was certainly not making informed choices as a child or adolescent. Nor do I think we are supposed to fully blame Anna's family for her behavior; Anna herself says that she "had misread all the signals" (p. 129) from her mother's overwhelming family.

Maybe Miller's intent was to make the reader ponder the reasons for a person feeling the way that Anna feels about herself. Why is she so full of guilt and shame and self-hatred? Like Ursula who asks Anna why she didn't fight harder to keep her daughter and Leo, I wonder why Anna responds the way that she does to events throughout her life.

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I'm not sure that I understand the reasons, for example, that she allows the high school boys to fondle her. And why is her response to punish herself?

In wondering about the pattern of responses that it seems Anna learned in her early life, I read the chapter titled "Childhood" in The Second Sex. De Beauvoir asserts that in our culture ". . .passivity. . .is the essential characteristic of the 'feminine' woman. . .that develops in her from the earliest years" (p. 280). We know that as a child, Anna identified and idolized her youngest aunt Babe, who was the least passive of Anna's female relatives. But she also saw that Babe was always an irritant to the family and was eventually destroyed by the family's dominance. So much for learning that independence and action are viable options. Anna's maternal grandmother is also a model of passivity, except for the occasion when she forces her husband to give the adult Anna the money she needs. And when Anna describes her early interest in the discussions bout "love, death, mutilation" that occurred between her mother and aunts she says that she learned later that "it didn't count. And the preoccupation with it was what kept women from doing anything of consequence in the world." (p. 35) De Beauvoir agrees that this sort of "revelation. . . irresistibly alters [the young girl's] conception of herself" (p. 286).

De Beauvoir also writes that for a young girl ". . .the less she exercises her freedom to understand, to grasp and discover the world about her, the less resources will she find within herself, the less will she dare to affirm herself as subject" (p. 280). This might fit Anna quite well. Her parents rarely explained what was happening to her. At the time, Anna didn't understand why her mother decided she shouldn't go back to the summer music camp, and she doesn't seem to have asked. She definitely did not understand what happened to her aunt Babe. Babe was the most outwardly sexual person Anna knew as a child, and Babe was severely punished for her sexuality. When Anna's family moved to Chicago and she was no longer taking piano lessons, she decided to focus on becoming popular. She was aware of her budding sexuality and decided to use it as a tool. But, of course, to use it, she had to become an object. Indeed, she became quite popular, in a sense, by allowing herself to be completely objectified by the boys who used her. Perhaps her acts of wounding herself afterwards stemmed from her internalized belief that her sexuality deserved to be punished, just as Babe's had.

There are many other points of concurrence between Miller's portrayal of Anna and de Beauvoir's description of women's childhood years: Anna's dancing in front of the mirror; her anger at her mother for teaching her to conform and never communicating fully with her; her disgust at the awareness of her parents' sexual relationship (seeing her father touch her mother under the sleeve, for example). I think one of the most important points may be the one de Beauvoir makes about the guilt and shame that young girls feel at the onset of menstruation and with the growing awareness of their bodies (pp. 306-327). She goes into great detail, with many examples of girls -- even grown women -- who try to hide their menstruation, their breasts, etc. She ends this chapter on childhood with this statement about the adolescent girl: "So she goes onward toward the future, wounded, shameful, culpable" (p. 327). While I don't always agree with de Beauvoir's assertions, I think she provides some compelling answers to the question of why Anna responds the way that she does to events throughout her life: her responses are those taught women by our culture. Perhaps Miller intended the reader to come to just such a conclusion

 


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