Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780
Fittingly, in a novel that considers to what extent individuals can create their own destinies and to what extent those destinies are shaped by the people around them, A Mother and Two Daughters both opens and closes with a party. Nell and Leonard Strickland attend the first party at the home of Theodora Blount, representative of the “old guard” and repository of conservative, traditional Southern values. Yet the appearance at the party of Theodora’s unmarried, pregnant, backwoods protégée, the teenage Wickie Lee, suggests that those values may be in transition, as does the epigraph (from D. H. Lawrence’s “Dies Irae”) for part 1: “Our epoch is over, a cycle of evolution is finished.”
The course of part 1 reveals that the lives of the three protagonists are also in transition. Nell Strickland loses her husband, Leonard, to a heart attack immediately after Theodora’s party. Nell’s younger daughter, Lydia, has just left her husband of sixteen years to create a life of her own, which she initiates by going back to college. Lydia’s older sister, Cate, is between men and doubtful that her job teaching English at the insolvent Melanchthon College in Iowa can long continue. As they struggle to redefine their lives, all three women feel the loss of Leonard, an introspective, idealistic lawyer, whose gentleness and sensitivity had always acted as a restraining influence on his strong-willed wife and daughters.
That none of the women can begin the process of redefinition with a clean slate or, as Cate puts it, can run from their histories—including their mistakes—is suggested by the epigraph for part 2, from the I Ching: “KU—WORK ON WHAT HAS BEEN SPOILED (DECAY).” Cate’s history of fierce independence and fear of being submerged in the protective embrace of another leads her to reject the marriage proposal of the equally strong and independent pesticide manufacturer, Roger Jernigan, and to abort the child they inadvertently conceived together. At the same time, although she refuses to admit defeat, the bankruptcy of Melanchthon College brings Cate to a low point in her career.
Meanwhile, Lydia’s star has been rising. She gets A’s in all of her college courses, has a passionate affair with a man who adores her, finds an important woman friend in the brilliant black instructor of a course in the History of Female Consciousness, and lands a job in front of the cameras on a local television show.
In the wake of Leonard’s death, Nell retreats into her house in Mountain City and thinks about her past with him: how he “protected” her “from my harshest judgments of myself as well as of others.” Yet she seems to accept her loss, content to watch the baby crows outside her window and somewhat impatient when her house is invaded by Theodora’s book club.
Nell’s serenity is disturbed when, in part 3, she and her daughters converge on Leonard’s old cottage on the island of Ocracoke. Nell’s grief is reawakened, but a friendship is renewed when she discovers that an old schoolmate has rented the cottage next door. It is at Ocracoke that Nell really says good-bye to Leonard and is thereafter able to resume her own life.
It is also at Ocracoke that the sibling rivalry of Cate and Lydia finally explodes. Cate seeks to trivialize the friends, goals, and accomplishments of Lydia, who retaliates by suggesting that Cate has “nothing to show” for her life. After both angry women storm out of the rickety cottage, it burns down, another vanished symbol of a closed epoch in their lives, perhaps part of the “wreckage of ourselves” emphasized by the epigraph for the section.
Family members and friends are reunited and reconciled in the epilogue, set five years later, and the novel ends as it began—with a party. This time Cate, not Theodora, presides, at the mountain retreat she has inherited from an eccentric cousin. Theodora is there, too, now arguing the pros of racial intermarriage after meeting the lovely black bride of Lydia’s son Leo. Wickie Lee, who turns out to be a distant cousin of Theodora, has married and become conventionally respectable. Finally, the three protagonists have achieved the new self-definitions they had been struggling toward. Lydia is an immensely successful television personality; Nell is a wife again and, after a hiatus of many years, has returned to nursing; Cate is a free-lance teacher who creatively markets her courses and continues to go her own way. The sisters are both now secure enough to reestablish their relationship, thus ratifying the epilogue’s Emersonian epigraph, which asserts that “our relatedness” makes us “strong.”
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