Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Renegotiating Relationships between Mothers and Daughters in Jennifer Johnston's the Invisible Worm and the Illusionist

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Renegotiating Relationships between Mothers and Daughters in Jennifer Johnston's the Invisible Worm and the Illusionist

Article excerpt

Since the publication of her first novel, The Captains and the Kings, in 1972, Irish author Jennifer Johnston (1930-) has made a name for herself as a writer whose work explores the effects of history, nationalism, and politics on the individual. Johnston explains her approach in an interview with Caitriona Moloney, noting: "I am trying to write about the complex overlapping of history and personalities in being Irish in the past and at the moment." (1) Johnstons fiction is also important for its emphasis on the inextricable connection between personal and national narratives and for its attention to the particular problems Irish women face. Along these lines, in The Invisible Worm (1991) and The Illusionist (1995) Johnston focuses on mother-daughter relationships in order to reveal the political potential of these personal relationships. These novels, among others by Johnston in which mother-daughter relationships are central such as The Christmas Tree, Grace and Truth, Two Moons, and Foolish Mortals, are part of a growing trend in literature and psychology that examines mother-daughter relationships. (2)

Following the publication of Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) feminists and psychoanalysts began to pay increasing attention to the importance of the mother-daughter relationship to women's sense of identity. (3) Theorizing the mother-daughter relationship, object-relations theorists such as Nancy Chodorow, Dorothy Dinnerstein, and Jane Flex and post-Lacanian psychoanalytic theorists including Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray have addressed the question of how this relationship plays out and whether it perpetuates a system in which women are oppressed or liberated. Critic Rita Felski argues that for feminists the mother-daughter relationship often invokes contradictory positions:

   Feminists ... have often spurned or ignored the mother. Struggling
   against the power of an age-old decree that sees childbearing as
   female destiny, many women were anxious to define themselves as
   not-mothers. Breaking free of the straightjacket of gender norms
   meant refusing to identify with the woman who stood for everything
   one wanted to escape. The story of feminism was often a story of
   movement away from the mother, of a defiant search for autonomy and
   independence.... And yet ... [there] is also a contrary impulse
   within feminism, an intense desire to reclaim motherhood as the
   symbolic heart of a woman-centered culture. Scholars often invoke
   Nancy Chodorow's idea that affiliation with the mother lies at the
   heart of female selfhood. (4)

Johnstons novels depict both of these impulses: daughters' desire for separation and independence and their desire for connection and reconciliation. In line with these critical positions Anne Fogarty's observation about Mimi and Grace, the mother and daughter in Johnston's Two Moons, holds true for the relationships in many of Johnston's other novels as well: "The struggles undergone by the female protagonists ... indicate the difficulty of reconciling traditional views of the maternal subject as compliant, self-effacing caregiver, which are still current in contemporary Ireland, with modern feminist demands for liberation and autonomy." (5) This mother-daughter conflict, as Fogarty suggests, is not just a personal issue but also has roots in national ideals about motherhood. In this article I will address the personal and national implications of the mother-daughter relationships in Johnston's The Invisible Worm and The Illusionist.

Johnston has described the protagonists of The Invisible Worm and The Illusionist as conceptually connected, noting that "there were going to be two women in The Invisible Worm... one an actress, living in Dublin, the other a woman living in the country and suffering from deep depression. But then Laura took over and demanded that her story be told. The other woman became the woman in the next book, The Illusionist" (6) In addition to the protagonists sharing a common conceptual origin, these books are ideologically linked as well. …

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