Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777
The Autobiography of My Mother offers a first-person, retrospective account of Xuela Richardson’s struggle, over the course of her life, to reconcile with the early loss of her mother. As a Dominican girl in the early twentieth century, Xuela must also learn to cultivate her own positive sense of self...
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The Autobiography of My Mother offers a first-person, retrospective account of Xuela Richardson’s struggle, over the course of her life, to reconcile with the early loss of her mother. As a Dominican girl in the early twentieth century, Xuela must also learn to cultivate her own positive sense of self in an environment that is hostile to her because of her race and gender. The novel begins with Xuela’s birth and her mother’s consequent death and describes her early life in the home of a paid caretaker, Ma Eunice, her experiences at school, her sexual maturation, the establishment of her independent adult life, and, finally, her marriage to a man she does not love.
Ma Eunice is the first person with whom Xuela comes into conflict. This conflict is the result of Xuela’s intuitive rejection of Ma Eunice as someone who is not equipped to provide the nurturing that she requires. As a laundress struggling to raise her children alone, Ma Eunice occupies a social position that the young Xuela instinctively resists.
When Xuela reaches school age, her father, Alfred, removes her from Ma Eunice’s home and sends her to school, an unusual opportunity for a girl in that day and age. Xuela, however, also has a difficult time in school, suffering verbal attacks from her teacher. The episode in the school constitutes an important part of the novel’s critique of colonialism’s legacy: The teacher is hostile toward Xuela because the teacher has internalized a belief that colonized peoples are culturally and intellectually inferior to their colonizers. Xuela demonstrates intellectual aptitude, making her teacher suspicious. Indeed, the teacher believes that Xuela’s ability must be the result of some kind of possession.
Xuela refuses to learn inferiority from either Ma Eunice or her teacher. She rejects the colonial assessment of non-Europeans and seeks solace in her mother, of whom she dreams frequently. Her mother’s descent from Carib Indians represents to Xuela a potential alternative source of identity. When her father learns of her difficulties, he takes her home to live with him and the wife he has recently married.
In Alfred’s home, Xuela has an even more difficult time as, in addition to subjecting Xuela to verbal attacks, her stepmother attacks her physically. In this section of the novel, the hostility that Xuela encounters derives primarily from her position as a female. Much of the section focuses on her struggle for sexual autonomy in a context in which women are often victims of their sexuality and are economically dependent on the men in their lives. Her stepmother’s attack on Xuela stems from her perception of Xuela as a competitor with her biological children for economic privilege within the family. As a result of an effort to resolve this conflict, when Xuela reaches fifteen years of age, she is sent to live with one of her father’s acquaintances and his wife, Jacques and Lise LaBatte.
At the LaBattes’ home, Xuela becomes aware of the dependent nature of male-female relationships through her observation of the LaBattes’ marriage. Though Mrs. LaBatte enjoys economic security and social sanction, she appears to have little sense of personal fulfillment. Mr. LaBatte, on the other hand, finds satisfaction in the ownership of things, including women. Not surprisingly, a sexual relationship between Xuela and Mr. LaBatte develops, and eventually Xuela becomes pregnant. She does not want to find herself in the same position as Mrs. LaBatte, so, after terminating the pregnancy, she flees their home.
On her own, Xuela finds employment picking up rocks with a road-building crew, and for the first time begins to attempt to forge an independent life. Eventually, Xuela becomes a doctor’s assistant in Roseau, a town a bit larger than her father’s village of Massacre. It seems, briefly, that Xuela will achieve the emotional and sexual connection that she has been seeking through a relationship with a stevedore named Roland. Her attraction to him rests largely on what she believes is their equal social status. Roland, however, has internalized a sense of male superiority and eventually grows frustrated by her refusal to be impregnated by him, an act that he understands as an assertion of power.
Her failed relationship with Roland is the last straw, and Xuela seems to resign herself to the idea that she will never find the kind of equitable relationship that she is looking for. This resignation results in her marriage to Phillip. The marriage confers upon Xuela the wealth, privilege, social esteem, and cultural assurance that she lacks, but to gain these benefits, she must marry a man she does not love.