The Good Mother

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Even the most attentive and conscientious parents make mistakes. A mother leaves her three-year-old child safely asleep in the backseat of a parked car and goes inside a house to do an errand which takes a little longer than she anticipates. When she returns, she finds her child awake, weeping, distraught at the mother’s absence. The mother is forever haunted by guilt, the child by fear of abandonment. Anna Dunlap makes this particular error in the opening pages of Sue Miller’s stunning first novel, The Good Mother. Anna is devoted to her daughter, Molly, but circumstances, societal pressures, and Anna’s own character contribute to a breaking of the vital connection between mother and daughter, leaving both irreparably damaged. Miller’s characters are drawn with compassion, her writing is brilliant, and the questions her novel raises are timely and painful. Because of these strengths, The Good Mother is a deeply disturbing book.

At the time of the story’s telling, Anna, the narrator and protagonist, works in the admissions office at Wellesley College. Her daughter, Molly, is seven years old. Anticipating without revealing the events of the plot, Anna recounts her own and Molly’s recent past, beginning at the time of Anna’s divorce, when Molly is three. The style of Anna’s narration mirrors the style of her mothering—careful, intelligent, responsive to apparently insignificant details. She sees clearly that she is “the medium [Molly] lived in, as familiar to her, as taken for granted, as air and food.” Later she compares her commitment to her child to an artist’s commitment to art. In her own view and in that of the reader, Anna is a good mother, continually “monitoring and correcting. . . Molly’s confusion” about her parents’ amicable divorce, about the arrangements for Anna to have custody and for Molly’s father to have regular visitation rights. Mother and daughter will share an apartment in Cambridge; Anna will give piano lessons and work part-time in a laboratory, and Molly will be in full-time day care.

After the opening chapter, which establishes the essentials of Anna’s character and relationship to Molly, the narrative moves backward chronologically to an account of Anna’s own childhood. Occupying several chapters, this account explores the development of her personality through her relationships with her mother and her mother’s family, especially Aunt Babe. Anna’s mother, known to her parents and siblings as Bunny, enjoys a “self-satisfied certitude in her correct mothering.” In keeping with her father’s dominant values of achievement and success, Bunny is ambitious for her daughter. She decides that Anna will become a musician and starts her with piano lessons at age five. Lessons, music camp, and the discipline of practicing become the means through which Anna’s mother expresses love, the daughter’s success as a musician the condition of the mother’s and grandfather’s approval. When it becomes clear that Anna’s technical proficiency cannot compensate for her lack of genuine talent and that she will never be more than competent at the piano—she will be a piano teacher rather than a pianist—Bunny regards herself and her daughter as failures. She withdraws from Anna, now in early adolescence, leaving her in passive confusion about her sexuality—the passivity fostered by the mother’s dominance, the confusion by the family’s disapproving silence concerning Aunt Babe.

Bunny’s striking youngest sister, Babe, was born late in their parents’ marriage and is only five years older than her niece Anna. Separated by their ages both from the adults and from the children in the extended family, which gathers each summer at the grandparents’ camp in Maine, Anna and Babe grow into comrades. At nineteen Babe becomes pregnant out of wedlock and is sent to Europe to have and give up her baby. Although Babe tells Anna what is happening to her, the adults never openly discuss these events, so Anna remains confused about their significance until she reaches adulthood. Even as a child, Anna senses that Babe thumbs her nose at the family values of success and achievement, and she envies her aunt’s wildness. Too passive and approval-seeking to emulate what she so much admires, Anna realizes years later that Babe’s lack of restraint, her openness, her contempt for convention are exactly the qualities to which Anna is attracted in Leo Cutter.

Leo enters Anna’s life when she has been divorced for a year or so. He is an artist, gifted as a painter in a way Anna is not gifted as a pianist. The two meet in a Cambridge laundromat, and, several months after their tentative first encounter, they become lovers. Drawn to Anna’s “withholding cool quality”—just as her father was drawn to her mother—Leo offers Anna the transforming power of “passionate intensity.” The phrase from W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” resonates with meanings that include but are not limited to sexual desire: “I felt I’d been traveling all my life to meet him, to be released by him,” Anna says. “It was what Babe had promised me,. . . what music had promised me: another version of myself, another model for...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Good Mother is told in the past tense, after Anna has survived her ordeal. Flashbacks to her childhood are interspersed with chapters narrating the recent past of her divorce, her affair with Leo, and the subsequent trial in which she loses custody of Molly. The scenes from Anna’s childhood are important to the psychological realism of the novel, for it becomes clear that Anna, dominated by a mother who was in turn dominated by her father, has never had a strong sense of herself. Anna’s marriage to Brian simply continues the pattern. Anna leaves Brian and attempts to build a more satisfactory life with Molly, and for a while she succeeds. Subsequently, she meets Leo, falls passionately in love, and creates a private Eden for the three of them. Yet Anna cannot close out the wider world completely. Her new lifestyle leads to indiscretions with Molly that cause disaster when they come to Brian’s attention.

The theme of a lost Eden is established in the first of the novel’s fourteen chapters. While divorcing Brian, Anna rents a cottage in a New Hampshire village, a retreat for her and Molly. The warm, loving relationship between mother and daughter is evoked as they attend a film and stop for dinner at a small café. When they return to the cottage, Anna finds legal papers from Brian’s attorney that she must have notarized and return the next day. Anna leaves Molly asleep in the car when she finally reaches the only available notary’s home, and the chore takes longer than she expects. She returns to find Molly in a state of terror after she left the car to look for her mother and was attacked by a cat. For the first time, Anna questions whether she is strong enough, or good enough, to rear Anna alone. Their idyllic retreat has been violated by a world they have not managed...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Good Mother was Sue Miller’s first novel. It sold well, earned good reviews, and was widely read and discussed. The themes of the novel are relevant to many of the social issues that dominated the public debates of the 1980’s and the preceding decade. The breakup of the American family, opportunities for women, the changing roles of mothers, the sexual abuse of children, the personal in conflict with the public are all themes that are woven into the tight tapestry of The Good Mother. Notably, they are all items on the feminist agenda.

Far from suggesting answers to these questions, however, the novel simply follows them to their logical conclusions within the context of the plot. Anna loses everything she holds dear, and the only constant is her love for Molly. She never compromises that love or uses it for her own ends; in order to save Molly further turmoil, Anna decides not to appeal the decision of the judge. Some critics have suggested the popular appeal of The Good Mother is that it arouses women’s deepest fear—the fear of being left alone. Yet that does not seem a satisfactory conclusion.

Among the many feminist themes in the novel, one of the most important is women’s work. Anna is not talented enough to have a career as a pianist, but she is successful in her own small, private world. Yet that does not seem enough; Leo expresses some disdain for her attitude toward her work, which is not the consuming passion that his is. She defends herself by saying that her real commitment is to Molly and to performing her chosen tasks “carefully and well.” By the end of the novel, it becomes clear that Anna’s good qualities are not enough, for when she is forced to act on a larger stage she is unequal to the task. At a time when women are leaving their private worlds and entering the public sphere of work in great numbers, Anna’s dilemma goes to the heart of the feminist debate.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Drzal, Dawn Ann. “Casualties of the Feminine Mystique.” The Antioch Review 46 (Fall, 1988): 450-461. A detailed feminist analysis that compares Anna with other fictional heroines who are in the same predicament: They are uncertain about their place in society because they are unable to find satisfying work. Drzal discusses what the role of motherhood means to these women.

Humphreys, Josephine. “The Good Mother.” The Nation 242 (May 10, 1986): 648. Humphreys discusses the important contemporary issues that The Good Mother raises, and she finds that they overshadow the traditional character and plot underpinnings of...

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