Beyond the ending of maternal absence in A New-England tale, The wide, wide world, and St. Elmo
The heroine of nineteenth-century American woman's fiction has for too long been an orphan. In casting this heroine as a motherless child, failing to see the maternal presence in her text, literary theory has itself orphaned her. While there are four major theoretical emphases in literary criticism that explain the absence of the biological mother in these tales of woman's fiction, none of them takes into account the sociocultural and literary contexts out of which this fiction arose. The first of these explanations suggests that the mother is absent as a result of the daughter's fear of becoming her mother and having to live her mother’s life. The second provides literary study with a framework in which to place fictional mother/daughter separation in the myth of Demeter and Persephone. The third approach argues that the mother’s absence is actually what creates the fiction, while the fourth explanation makes use of Freudian and Lacanian theory. The problem, however, with these four approaches in theories of literary maternal absence is that they do not corroborate the realities of nineteenth-century maternal presence. First of all, these theories operate on the baseline assumption that motherhood is very individualized; that is, children have one mother, one woman who gives them maternal guidance. Secondly, as a result of this singular focus, the theories assume that the nineteenth-century mother was oppressed and powerless. When we look at the nineteenth-century woman’s nonfiction writing on motherhood, however, these assumptions seem much less definitive than twentieth-century scholars have taken them to be. This analysis of three novels typical of the genre of woman's fiction, A New- England Tale; The Wide, Wide World; and St. Elmo, proves that motherhood in these novels was neither singular nor powerless. In each novel, there are female figuresothermothers- who provide the heroine with the guidance, education, and protection that we would expect from her biological mother. Moreover, through the course of the novel, these othermothers prepare the heroine to mother herself by the end. Thus the heroine's journey toward womanhood is not solitary, as scholars have thought, but aided and influenced by the maternal.