Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith

Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith

Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith

Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith


Throughout human history, motherhood and maternal experience have been largely defined and written by a patriarchal culture. Religion, art, medicine, psychoanalysis, and other bastions of male power have objectified the maternal and have disregarded female subjectivity. As a result, maternal perspectives have been ignored and the mother's voice silenced. In recent literary texts, however, more substantial attention has been given to motherhood and to the physical, psychological, social, and cultural dynamics affecting maternal experience. In Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith, Paula Gallant Eckard examines how maternal experience is depicted in selected novels by three American writers, emphasizing how they focus on the body and the voice of the mother. These novels include: The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved by Morrison; In Country, Spence + Lila, and Feather Crowns by Mason; and Oral History, Fair and Tender Ladies, and Saving Grace by Smith.

By employingthis focus, these writers lessen the objectification the maternal has received and restore a rich subjectivity that foregrounds the mother's perspective. Moreover, their fiction reflects a deep concern for history and culture and for a woman's experience of her world. They challenge the traditional representations of black and white motherhood that have appeared in southern literature and society, rendering complex portrayals of motherhood that defy cultural stereotypes.

Eckard incorporates historical perspectives on African American and southern motherhood, utilizing the works of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Sally McMillen, Deborah White, Jacqueline Jones, and others. She draws upon the feministcriticism of Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter, Naomi Schor, Tillie Olsen, Karla F. C. Holloway, Barbara Christian, and others, and the linguistic and psychoanalytic theories of Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray.


This study of maternal experience in selected novels by Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith has been a lifetime in the making. Multiple experiences, both personal and professional, have led to this study. Spanning many years of my life, they have shaped my attitudes towards childbearing and motherhood in profound, often contradictory ways.

For the most part, I grew up associating maternity with blood, anger, and silence. My mother was pregnant several times during my childhood and adolescence, but she rarely spoke of the pregnancies, childbirths, or the many miscarriages she had. Expressing little emotion, she said few words about the losses she endured. I nonetheless sensed within her a raw mixture of grief and anger. One experience more than any other reveals the disturbing elements I came to associate with motherhood. Late one night when I was about fifteen, I got out of bed to check on my pregnant mother, who had been cramping and bleeding hours before, only to find her missing and my aunt on her knees washing bloody sheets in the bathtub. Standing in the doorway, I asked what happened, but my aunt gave me no response. She continued her work and I watched as a ring of blood formed on the white enamel walls of the tub, the water deepening in color. Her silence confused and angered me, but thankfully I was old enough to discern what had taken place. As I crept back to bed, I figured out that my mother had been taken to the hospital to be treated for yet another miscarriage. But, given the copious amount of blood I had seen, I was not sure if she would be all right this time. a few days later, my mother returned home pale and silent. I searched her face for the sorrow I knew had to be there, but I could not locate any. Her tense, contracted body resonated with fury instead. Without any words spoken, I knew that she was angry with herself, my father, and a world that expected pain and . . .

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