Date of Award

5-2013

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts

Major

English

Major Professor

Mary E. Papke

Committee Members

Katherine L. Chiles, William J. Hardwig

Abstract

From the nineteenth century to the present day, constructions of motherhood have often run counter to the best interests of women. The repression of desire and sexuality necessitated by ideals of motherhood and maternity are detrimental to women’s awareness of and authority over their own bodies. The physical body, then, becomes problematic for these women, who find themselves trapped within bodies that are expected to behave according to popular ideals of True Womanhood. A rupture occurs between body and mind – a rupture that often results in (sometimes literal) destruction.

The fiction of women writers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrates the bind that restricts mothers according to constrictive ideals of motherhood and womanhood. Although each wrote in a different time period and each represents through her characters a different type of mother, Harriet Jacobs, Kate Chopin, and Evelyn Scott portray Southern women who cannot or will not adhere to ideals of True Womanhood through their mothering practices. Although it runs counter to initial belief that a former slave woman would have more control over and agency of both her desire and her maternal body, Jacobs’s Linda Brent, because she is not held to the same cultural norms and expectations for motherhood as are Chopin’s Edna Pontellier and Scott’s Winnie Farley, is able to subvert and eventually escape from the repression of desire and denial of the body that True Womanhood dictates. Even with the progression of time, the characters in Chopin’s and Scott’s novels do not have greater freedom from expectations of true motherhood and true femininity; they continue to be held to rigid Victorian standards. I argue that for each of these writers, motherhood becomes the space in which to figure the issues of the repression of sexuality, lack of subjectivity, and (both literal and figurative) entrapment.

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