Sue Miller Long Fiction Analysis
Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, the story of a divorced woman who openly takes a lover into her life even though she is living with a small daughter, dramatized the end of an era in American social mores and customs. Anna Dunlap’s existence gave names and faces to the upheavals in domestic living arrangements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Through Anna’s struggle to support herself and her daughter, Miller exposes the difficult and lonely world of single parenting. In the novel, Anna’s seemingly casual attitude toward sex and physicality in her daily life leads to a custody battle that costs her her daughter. Few books before The Good Mother had taken such a frank look at how the law and traditional expectations could clash with a woman’s finding a new direction for love and life. Miller’s work filled a void in American fiction; it explored life from a woman’s internal perspective, sparing none of the uncertainties or struggles that beset Anna as she tries to forge her new existence.
This relentless search for balance and meaning in women’s lives has come to be a hallmark of Miller’s fiction. Her women search for answers without abandoning hope even when they seem to have failed. Her women are not always sure of their direction, but they keep thinking and working out possible solutions as they move through their experiences. Jo Becker (in While I Was Gone) flirts with the romantic memory of her youthful rebellion, and twice-divorced Catherine Hubbard (in The World Below) grapples with trying to find a new direction as she returns to her grandparents’ Vermont home. Both these women question their daily decisions and measure the present in the light of the past. They are acutely aware of how their actions may inspire hurt or disappointment in those close to them, but they need to follow their own questions to the end regardless.
All of Miller’s characters embrace family history directly, in houses or towns from their childhoods or through the weight of memory on thoughts and motives. Whether bickering about shared memories (Family Pictures) or trying to sort out the importance of past actions (The Distinguished Guest), Miller’s people site themselves in family dynamics that affect their actions and decisions. In this way, Miller brings time into every situation, even if obliquely. For instance, a relationship from the deep past prompts the foolish mistake that leads to the tragic death of a teenage babysitter in For Love, and Catherine Hubbard’s dead grandmother’s youthful love, revealed in her newly discovered diary, helps Catherine come to terms with both her deep past and her present situation.
Miller’s novels, set in periods stretching from the 1960’s to the 1990’s and beyond, reflect the time when the public conversation about women’s lives and family life in the United States was remade to include the word “choice.” When American women began returning to work after having children, began entering the workforce without first getting married and having children, and began deciding not to marry in favor of careers, new choices confronted American families. New approaches to child-care responsibilities and child custody, new reproductive options, and new approaches to work, such as flextime, emerged as domestic life assumed new shapes. Miller’s books give faces to the social issues swirling around family and the search for values in a shifting world. Her books look at the intimate side of public discourse about marriage, family, and personal identity.
When the rules and ways of being that we know shift by circumstance or choice, we must invent or translate new ways to survive without guidelines. Miller believes in the integrity of individual vision, no matter how flawed or contradictory it may be. As her characters seek self-knowledge and strategies for life in new locales or new relationships, they also seek their places in families and their relation to the American Dream of hope and prosperity for all. They never stop trying to understand what is happening to them and around them. Sometimes this leads to surprises. In Lost in the Forest, Daisy becomes entangled in a perverted sexual situation from which she must be rescued. Her father, Mark, estranged and formerly distant, rises to the occasion, reentering her life decisively just when he is needed, against expectation and past history.
Miller’s plots include situations in which the past and the present pressure characters to act wisely on their own behalf or on behalf of their families. The best course of action is often hard to see, complicated by the interaction of public expectation and personal need. People are all public people with private selves, part of the way society moves, breathes, and thinks. Miller captures the complexity of women’s stories in particular. She reminds us that if we break the rules we become part of what society judges, but she also clearly believes that some rules need changing. Her sense of this is completely contemporary. At the same time, she ponders the cost and the morality of the new arrangements.
In Miller’s stories, circumstances often evoke urges and situations that are beyond the characters’ power to cope, despite their wanting to do the right thing. There are always the questions: Did I do the right thing? Can I find my balance and a new direction alone? What next? Miller’s women always ask such questions, and they arrive at their answers one day at a time. Miller’s characters meet the frontier daily in their life decisions. Like many American authors before her, Miller sets the stage for characters to reinvent themselves, to inhabit the realm of what might be possible. They embody American optimism despite their setbacks. Her women do not “head out for the territories.” They stay put, emotionally if not physically, and keep on working on relationships, building their worlds.
The Good Mother
Sue Miller’s wildly and unexpectedly successful first novel lays out the existence of Anna Dunlap and her young daughter, Molly. After leaving an unsatisfying marriage to a minister’s son, Anna envisions a life of new hopes fulfilled. Instead she finds herself strapped for cash and struggling to find ways to support herself and Molly.
This situation, in which a woman has left a marriage because she is looking for more in her...
(The entire section is 2632 words.)