Her Mother's Daughter Themes
by Marilyn French

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Her Mother's Daughter Marilyn French reveals the chain of destiny forged by the novel's mother-daughter relationship—links that endure and constrain through the several generations of women portrayed in the narrative. French's primary thematic focus is on how particular women's experiences and emotional needs affect their daughters and granddaughters, rather than on the more diffuse concept of motherhood as the primal human bond.

The author's stunning novel. The Women's Room (1977), immediately established her bona fides in the women's movement. Nevertheless, the narrator's reflections in Her Mother's Daughter on how her mother's deprivations shaped her own life draw more on the work of Sigmund Freud and Benjamin Spock than on feminist analysis. This more broadly psychological approach no doubt accounts for the book's popularity. Its panoramic and detailed accumulation of events produces repeated "shocks of recognition" for almost all female readers. Although specific events may vary, beneath them lie the universal experiences of a daughter craving her mother's love and approval, and a mother's anguish over her inability to give enough to her daughters.

The novel also examines the claims and rewards of the major preoccupations of women's lives: children, men, and work. In this reading, men come out worst of the three: their demands are presented as enormous, and the rewards they offer are virtually limited to grudging financial support and biological fatherhood. French shows the poignant ambiguities of work and motherhood, however. A career can offer self-fulfillment, and the means for independent and moral action; yet many jobs are undiluted drudgery, like the box and hat making that occupies so many of the narrator's mother's — Belle's — hours. Other jobs turn the individual from a thinking, feeling being into a glad-handing automaton, as happens when Brad, the narrator's first husband, "goes into" real estate.

The ties of motherhood are shown as all encompassing; they profoundly shape and support each woman's being. Yet along with sustenance they bring inevitable hurt. Neither the suffering nor the sustenance flows in only one direction; they reverberate up and down the generational chain, and extend to sisters and female friends as well. French thus thoughtfully bridges the gap between the "motherhood is sacred" and the career oriented wings of modern feminism, which have diverged with the movement's maturity.

A subsidiary theme is that of immigrant families making a place for themselves in mainstream America. The narrator's grandmother, Frances, arrived at Ellis Island from Poland when she was thirteen, "not a peasant" as her descendants are always quick to tell themselves, but nevertheless a terrified and naive young woman. Frances's hard life is essentially lived "between two cultures," but her daughter Belle acculturates rapidly. She goes from sweatshop "girl" to art school student and later from a Depression Era housewife in a cramped apartment to comfortable leisure in retirement. In her upward passage Belle mirrors the experience of a host of second generation Americans in the mid-century economy. Belle's social and financial mobility during her lifetime are substantial, and unlikely to be matched by either her daughters or her granddaughters....

(The entire section is 768 words.)