Motherhood, Declined: Negotiating Maternal Subjectivities in Irish and Caribbean Novels, 1934 - 2007

Doctoral Dissertation


Spanning most of the twentieth century and crossing national boundaries, this dissertation combines postcolonial, cultural studies, and formalist approaches to analyze women’s novels from transatlantic literary traditions (especially the Caribbean and Ireland) that have tended to silence or elide women’s accounts of motherhood. I argue that women writers evoke images of motherhood to envision a form of personhood and citizenship in the new, postcolonial state specifically for women, in contrast to their male counterparts, who use the trope to argue for the autonomy of the state. In this usage, the personal is returned to the private sphere, wrested away from the political/public appropriation of it. This study unfolds at the intersection of feminist theory (particularly of motherhood), postcolonial studies (regarding concepts of nation-formation), and feminist moral theology (concerning reproductive issues); as such, it offers a more nuanced understanding of the gendered nature of postcoloniality and the postcolonial canon, and it speaks to the development of global feminist sensibilities.

My dissertation extends groundbreaking feminist and postcolonial studies in several important ways. Until the 1990s, motherhood and mother-daughter relationships were largely the ‘unwritten story’ (to borrow Anne Fogarty’s term) in Irish literary criticism; similarly, they have been the ‘grande absente’ (Florence Ramond Jurney) in Caribbean studies. This thematic neglect reflects a larger tendency to overlook women’s writings of all genres in both Irish and Caribbean literary criticism. On the macro-level, then, my study contributes to the burgeoning feminist criticism of women’s writings from Ireland and the Caribbean. On the micro-level, it contributes to nascent maternity studies in both fields through its nuanced examination of women’s negotiations of motherhood. It is this ‘unwritten story,’ this ‘grande absente’ that I explicitly engage in my dissertation, which is structured in two halves: the first surveys Irish and Caribbean women’s novels from 1934-1989 to establish an abiding concern with the negotiation of maternity in both canons. A careful chronological reading of twentieth-century Irish and Caribbean women’s novels reveals the nuanced evolution of literary, critical, and social uses and reflections of the mother-daughter relationship that women writers from both traditions explore in their work. At times, they write to assert the impossibility of fulfilling the role as defined by political or nationalist, masculinist rhetoric, at others to deal with the daughter’s rejection of the mother, a necessary step in the development of female autonomy in the Irish and Caribbean traditions.

The 1990s saw a boom in women’s writing in both Ireland and the Caribbean traditions that explores a more sophisticated, nuanced engagement with motherhood; the second half of this dissertation demonstrates ways that women writers engage with this literary trope at the end of the twentieth century through an analysis of six contemporary novels. In the novels that I thus classify, protagonists reject compulsory motherhood while embracing or longing for a new form of motherhood that honors their subjectivity. This agency is crucial, as it is the source of the tools women need to successfully mother, these novels argue. In my analysis of Clairr O'Connor’s Belonging, Mary Morrissy’s Mother of Pearl, Edna O'Brien’s Down By the River, Gisle Pineau’s L'espÌÄå©rance-macadam, Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, and Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, I have striven to highlight the ways in which these texts argue for the need for and start to imagine a richer, fuller understanding of maternity for the twenty-first century, a development which they explicitly link to women’s human rights. Ultimately, this study demonstrates one crucial way that women’s writing engages with matters of life and death, as well as issues of nation-formation, arguing that the ways in which the female body becomes/is annexed as the battlefield of identity-formation in the postcolonial nation-state directly correspond to the social position in which women live and mother.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04072010-125832

Author Abigail L Palko
Advisor Maud Ellmann
Contributor Joseph Buttigieg, Committee Member
Contributor Alison Rice, Committee Member
Contributor Maud Ellmann, Committee Chair
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Literature
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Defense Date
  • 2009-12-10

Submission Date 2010-04-07
  • United States of America

  • Caribbean

  • women’s writing

  • gender studies

  • Irish

  • motherhood

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units

Digital Object Identifier


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