Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434
Mildred Pierce is a domestic tragedy in which wife-husband and mother-daughter relationships are perversely confused. Mildred Pierce’s husband, Herbert (or Bert), is not a good provider, and his need in a wife is for maternal solicitude. Mildred is a capable and intelligent woman who suffers an obsession with her daughter, Veda, which she thinks is mother love. Veda is a talented coloratura soprano whose obsession is herself. Bert deserts his family for a woman who is a mother figure. Mildred, thrown upon her own resources, becomes a successful entrepreneur in the restaurant business and finances her daughter’s musical education, which leads to a bright career. When Veda, constantly betraying her mother, finally deserts her, Mildred is crushed, having lost her unconsciously desired love mate. Cain handles the incest motif more subtly, or perhaps more covertly, and decidedly more effectively here than he does in The Butterfly, published six years later. The novel concludes with Mildred and Bert reunited.
The transformation of Mildred from a mother who would be wife to her daughter to a wife who resigns herself to mothering her husband is signaled in two keynote episodes. The first is the one in which Mildred learns that Veda is pregnant. Her immediate reaction is neither maternal protectiveness nor the murderous anger that Bert will feel toward the man responsible, but a fierce “jealousy . . . so overwhelming that Mildred actually was afraid she would vomit.” This response is a betrayed lover’s reaction, not a mother’s. The distraught Mildred asks Veda “if she’d like to sleep with her, ’just for tonight.’” Veda declines, and Mildred spends a wakeful night “with the jealousy gnawing at her.”
The second episode is the conclusion of the novel. Bert says to Mildred “to hell with” Veda, and Mildred, sensing his meaning, manages to swallow her sobs “and draw the knife across an umbilical cord.” The indefinite article is functionally ambiguous, referring both to Veda, whose frustrated lover Mildred ceases to be, and to Bert, whose resigned mother she now becomes.
Mildred Pierce, as a long novel in third-person narration which is not a crime story or thriller, is not standard Cain; its pessimism, however, is standard Cain. Its emphasis upon vacuous materialism in the worlds of business and professional entertainment and its disclosure of affections transmuted by sublimation make it Cain’s most pessimistic work. That it is, at the same time, not bitter or misanthropic in its effect is attributable to the author’s sympathetic understanding of the forces and the emotions that move its characters; in this novel, Cain created his finest characterizations.