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Mothers of pearl: An historical and psychoanalytic analysis of single mothers in literature

Maureen Buchanan Jones, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines canonical female figures throughout Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian and Contemporary British and American literature who are single mothers. Historical research is combined with Freudian, Jungian and feminist psychoanalytic criticism to provide insight into the mythic and subconscious impetus for the creation of these characters as well as a real life context. The purpose of this discussion is to explore the position in society that these women hold, the range of their power, and, if possible, explore the reaction each character has to her position as single parent. The dissertation works chronologically, beginning in Chapter One with Grendel's Dam in Beowulf, Spenser's Errour in The Faerie Queene, and Milton's Sin in Paradise Lost as examples of monster mothers spawning illegitimate and unnatural children. Are they are monsters first, or monsters because they reproduce without sanction? Chapter Two explores the widow's world during the Renaissance and Jacobean period, with a focus on the dramas All's Well That Ends Well and Coriolanus by William Shakespeare and The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster. Financial power and unleashed sexuality are in conflict with patriarchal laws of inheritance. Chapter Three promotes Helen Graham of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, as openly choosing their single parent status. The benefit and cost of their uncomfortable choice is outlined. Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth provides a "moral" balance to the rebellion advocated in the previous works. Chapter Four examines the preoedipal mother and the double bind of the Victorian "angel in the house." Abandonment, murder and baptism appear in George Eliot's Adam Bede, Charles Dickens' Bleak House, and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Chapter Five analyzes the voice and power of contemporary single mothers. Works include, Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing", Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist and Toni Morrison's Beloved. The seeming dysfunction of single mother homes and the intrusion of patriarchal institutions are explored.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|American literature|Comparative literature

Recommended Citation

Jones, Maureen Buchanan, "Mothers of pearl: An historical and psychoanalytic analysis of single mothers in literature" (1992). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9233076.