The Maternal Question: Motherhood in Edith Wharton

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Title: The Maternal Question: Motherhood in Edith Wharton
Author: Edwards, Laura Marie
Advisors: Deborah Hooker, Committee Member
Allen Stein, Committee Member
Lucinda Mackethan, Committee Chair
Abstract: Despite Edith Wharton's difficult relationship with her mother and her lack of any children of her own, the figure of the mother is pervasive in her fiction. For Wharton, the figure of the mother—specifically the socially-minded mother—posed a unique set of questions: What is the mother's role in raising her daughter? What power does a woman derive from motherhood? What happens when a mother renounces her maternal claim? In developing this thesis, I will attempt to explore these three unique challenges within Wharton's text, considering more fully the way that Wharton portrays maternity as a means of asserting power over the child, the husband and other women, as well as the way that power is lost through renunciation of the maternal identity. In the first chapter, I will examine the role of the daughter in Wharton's writing, specifically the ways in which the daughter serves as her mother's "last asset" —a final means of increasing social and financial power. I will begin my discussion by examining Wharton's short work, "Last Asset"(1904), in which she explicitly portrays a mother using her daughter to regain her position in society. Then, I will consider Wharton's portrayal of Lily Bart, the tragically fashionable New York socialite of Wharton's first successful novel, The House of Mirth (1905). As I will demonstrate, Lily is ultimately sacrificed to her deceased mother's expectations—a tragic, failed "last asset." In the second and third chapters, I will shift my analysis to consider four of Wharton's later works: Age of Innocence (1920), "Roman Fever"(1936), The Old Maid (1922), and The Mother's Recompense (1925). In all four of these works, I will dissect the female-female rivalry that Wharton constructs, arguing that maternity serves as the central site of competition between Wharton's heroines. The second chapter will focus primarily on Age of Innocence and "Roman Fever," evaluating Wharton's configuration of what I will term the maternal declaration—that moment in the story in which the seemingly passive, submissive woman asserts her dominance over other competing characters by asserting her status as mother. In particular, I will define the chief components of female rivalry and aggression as Wharton portrays these in "Roman Fever." As I will demonstrate, this competition between women allows Wharton to present a more complicated depiction of women than many critics recognize—a depiction which denies paternal agency in favor of an equally disturbing, controlling power of the maternal voice. In the third chapter, I will consider what happens to a woman when she renounces her maternal claim, focusing primarily on The Mother's Recompense and The Old Maid. I will identify how Wharton's unmothered mothers ultimately suffer a loss of power and status as a result of their decision to renounce their position as mothers. Finally, in closing my discussion of Edith Wharton and motherhood, I will evaluate The Custom of the Country (1913). As a means of concluding my thesis, I will evaluate the ways in which Undine, the most monstrous of Wharton's mothers, serves as a warning of the dangers of female aggression—a terrible example of the mother's potential for destruction. Yet Undine is only one of the many mothers that Wharton portrayed in a career that lasted effectively for over thirty-five years; for Wharton, both power and maternity proved to be topics worth repeated investigation, and the result is a canon rich with varied portrayals of motherhood that depict both the powers and the potential dangers of that position.
Date: 2005-07-24
Degree: MA
Discipline: English

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