Mummy issues: the reproduction of motherhood in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love

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‘The heritage of motherhood’ (1904) by Gertrude Käsebier. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mother-daughter relationship can be the greatest cause of vexation in a woman’s life. This is a platitude no doubt and a sweeping generalisation as many are lucky to have a really splendid mother-daughter relationship. Happy or not, it is characterised by maternal projections of hope, insecurities, anxiety, and disappointments. A mother conceives not just a daughter but undertakes a vicarious project of constructing a Mini-Me whilst must heroically come to terms with the fact that the daughter is a unique individual. Mothering is thus a projection and project that plays out in proximity and across great distances through hugs and long-distance calls.

A daughter’s greatest fear is that they become their mother. Turning into one’s mother confirms a woman’s destiny and annihilates the notion of self-determination and individuality. All women will be become their mothers, thus all women are the same. In Elena Ferrante’s first novel Troubling Love (1996, Original title in Italian, L’amore Molesto), Delia is every daughter who must resist visible signs of becoming one’s mother, as this particular passage demonstrates:

Now that [my mother] was dead, someone had scraped away her hair and had disfigured her face to fit my body. It had happened after years in which, out of hatred, out of fear, I had wanted to eliminate every root I had in her, even the deepest: her gestures, the inflections of her voice, her way of taking a glass or drinking from a cup, her method of putting on a skirt, as if it were a dress, the arrangement of the objects in her kitchen, in her drawers, how she did her most intimate washing, her taste in food, her dislikes, her enthusiasms, and the language, the city, the rhythms of her breath. All of it remade, so that I could become me and detach myself from her.

On the other hand I hadn’t wanted or been able to root anyone in me. Soon I would lose even the possibility of having children. No human being would ever detach itself from me with the anguish which I had detached myself from her, only because I had never been able to attach myself to her definitely

Ferrante, 64-65

Delia seeks the truth behind the unexplained death of her mother, Amalia. In an attempt to solve the mystery behind Amalia’s death – presumably by drowning – Delia unlocks repressed memories of a childhood scarred by domestic violence and leery male neighbours. Her detective work involves not just discovering startling clues that shed light on her mother’s death but also a woman’s life suppressed by domesticity.

But as Delia makes discoveries of her mother’s identity she never knew, she finds that that they mirror her own repressed desires to be the kind of woman Amalia was. Delia is a disheveled comic strip artist, unmarried but clearly not so young anymore; unlike the glamour of old age eclipsed by the self-abnegating image of Amalia the mother. Amalia had also abandoned a violent marriage and sought to reconstruct herself in middle age as a lover and wearer of sexy underwear. Delia tracks Amalia’s decrepit lover Caserta down, determined to get to the bottom of a possible foul play. However, her confrontation with Caserta would undo the barricade of sexual repression and fantasy that distorted her childhood memories. Who is Caserta in Amalia’s life but simply an unconsummated admirer rather than lover, as it turns out. Still, Delia as a child was jealous and protective of male attention towards her mother. She would tell her father of an imagined affair between her mother and Caserta and unknowingly unleash patriarchal rage. Like the children in The Go-Between and Atonement, Delia would grow up living with the consequences of interfering with the emotional life of adults. It seemed as if Delia would atone by continuing the life of Amalia by being Amalia.

In her classic text, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978), Nancy Chodorow argues that ‘mothering’ is more than a biological reality and continuation of practices after childbirth. Even without biological mothers performing the act of mothering, women in general take up the role in poorly paid or unpaid capacity.

Responding to Freud, Chodorow develops a feminist analysis of psychosocial development and how women become mothers. All babies perceive their mothers as their ‘external ego’ because they have yet to develop their own individuality separate from their primary caregiver. But as they grow into maturity, separation and the development of the ‘self’ set in in different ways for boys and girls. For boys, Freud postulates the necessity of the Oedipal drama and the threat of castration by the father to result in the psychic rejection of the mother. Rather than fearing castration, daughters already see themselves as castrated like their mother. Thus without the threat of castration and urgent need for separation, daughters maintain an undifferentiated connection with their mother, going as far as duplicating ‘many features of their mothers’ psychotic symptoms’ (Chodorow 1978: 100).

In his symbolic penis-baby equation, Freud would see a woman’s desire to be mothers as a substitute for the phallus, resolving her penis envy. Suggesting a more powerful psychic bond between mothers and daughters, Chodorow goes on to say children do want to unite with their mothers and return to that place of safety and bliss:

Children wish to remain with their mother, and expect that she will never have different interests from them; yet they define their development in terms of growing away from her. In the face of their dependence, lack of certainty of her emotional permanence, fear of merging, and overwhelming love and attachment, a mother looms large and powerful

Chodorow, 82

Mothers in Elena Ferrante’s novels are torn in opposing directions; by their asexual domestic calling and raw feminine sexual desire. Somewhere in between this polarity the mother (in Days of Abandonment) at first fumbles, then confidently carves a space for herself to be both mother and sexual being. Mothers die in Ferrante’s work; the death of mothers results in the reconciliation between mother and daughter (My Brilliant Friend) and awakening of a daughter’s femininity (Troubling Love). I do not need to rehearse the tedious assumptions that Ferrante’s novels are somehow mined from her own life. The themes of the ‘personal’ – motherhood, female friendships, divorce – are said to be depicted with such realness that Ferrante could only write from her own life and that of course Ferrante is a woman, a guess that was shattered in 2016 by the expose of Ferrante’s identity.

What is it about Ferrante’s novels, of her incessant focus on the feminine domestic sphere, that pull in millions of readers? As Margaret Drabble states, there is something quite retro and Second Wavey about her novels. I would also add that there are strong hetero psychosocial dynamics of the private sphere that the novels contend with. And yet, they remain as fresh as the morning dew because the vexed question of the feminine, gender inequalities, and male dominance remains unresolved and returns the next day, like the morning dew that greets us.

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