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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

Moore engages irony as a philosophical and aesthetic mode perhaps more than any other contemporary short-story writer in English. Beginning with Adrienne, one perceives that her remarks to other people make sense within the context of the conversation; however, most of what she says also refers to the dead baby,...

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Moore engages irony as a philosophical and aesthetic mode perhaps more than any other contemporary short-story writer in English. Beginning with Adrienne, one perceives that her remarks to other people make sense within the context of the conversation; however, most of what she says also refers to the dead baby, something that other people cannot by necessity understand. Adrienne uses irony because she is at a loss to find the right person to whom she can communicate her pain. Perhaps no one could ever be the listener she needs. Accentuating her protagonist’s use of irony, Moore hints at the story’s overall ironic strategies. For example, Adrienne finds herself seated next to an anthropologist during one meal at the villa; the anthropologist, having just returned from China, informs Adrienne of the mass infanticide that has occurred in that country owing to the government’s strict population control policies. A detail such as this creates a degree of pathos in that the anthropologist is not aware of Adrienne’s past.

More important, however, the dramatic irony allows Moore to evoke the multitude of children who die annually across the world without seeming heavy-handed. Offhand references to the Russian Revolution, fascism in World War II, and an overheard tidbit of conversation in which one scholar castigates another for not knowing about the Peasant’s Revolt—each of these details summons a world of grief that is extraneous to the plot of the story. That the Peasant’s Revolt is not everyday knowledge, even among academics, points to the fact that most of human history is irrelevant to the present. Past terror and actual human suffering disappears into the past; only arcane scholarship remains.

Moore is so adept at creating vivacious and convincing dialogue, so skilled at casually sketching in the intricacies of her characters, that this radical skepticism appears very far in the story’s background. Adrienne—whose name contains nothingness inside it through the pun on the French rien, or nothing—is consumed by rage for most of the story, which implicitly repudiates not only a world in which children die in domestic accidents, but also a world in which Nazis murder children as the result of ideology. None of these ideas is stated blatantly; rather, they are manifested through Moore’s ironic indirection.

“Terrific Mother” does not overtly engage political questions; instead, it subtly poses anguished ethical and metaphysical problems. Beneath its quirky humor and satire, the story borders on philosophical nihilism. Furthermore, literature as a mode of discourse is treated ambivalently. Moore takes the epic convention of a journey to the underworld and uses it irreverently insofar as Adrienne’s descent is meant to be understood as a realistic component of her psychological situation, not as a clever allusion to a time-honored literary device. Put differently, the story relies on literary conventions to demonstrate their limitations in depicting human life.

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