- Mères Fatales: Maternal Guilt in the Noir Crime Novel
I crawled under and hid and finally started exploring her legs and she snatched her dress from over me and said angrily: Your grandfather shall punish you for this; [. . .] he will do to you what he did to the ram; [. . .] and when she shouted at me that I would be fixed good, I picked up a big rock and hit her.—Horace McCoy, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
It may be fanciful of me but I expect she thought she had paid. She had rendered up a heavy price: her husband, her freedom, a financially comfortable future, whatever of Francis she might have salvaged, Eden’s devotion. She had given this enormous ransom to the Furies and I expect she hoped that they would keep away.—Barbara Vine, A Dark-Adapted Eye
In these passages both Horace McCoy and Barbara Vine are describing surrogate mothers who inflict damage on a child and who in turn meet with retribution. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, however, centers on masculine identity, introducing the mother figure only to account for the psychic instability of the narrator, whereas A Dark-Adapted Eye is [End Page 369] preoccupied with the breakdown of the mother figure’s own identity. We will argue in this article that the coupling of “noir” conventions with an interest in maternal subjectivity has characterized the work of a number of female crime writers. Recent theories of maternal subjectivities (developed, for example, in the work of Jessica Benjamin, Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Marianne Hirsch, Brenda O. Daly, and Maureen T. Reddy) have departed from the mother-blaming psychoanalytic emphasis of many earlier feminist critics, arguing instead for the importance of recuperating the mother’s perspective and voice, of disrupting “narratives that silence mothers” (Daly and Reddy 5) and allowing the maternal figure to be humanized. 1 Our aim here is to compare male and female representations of “the guilt of the mother” in a range of crime fiction published from the 1940s to the present, and to analyze some of the ways in which an increasing interest in reclaiming the subjectivity of the mother has been reflected in noir crime novels written by women.
At the climax of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the narrator relives, with hallucinatory vividness, the primal scene that explains his psychopathic personality. The grandmother whom he has thought of as a mother had seemed to him a protective figure, shielding him under her “great capacious black dress”; as he begins “exploring her legs,” however, thus approaching both the perception of sexual difference and her “true nature,” she is transformed into a terrifying, castrating figure of fate (336–37). His consequent matricide is punished by two other women who also appear to him as avenging Furies: “Alecto,” who symbolically emasculates him by throwing his gun away, and “Tisiphone,” who shoots him, thus allowing him to return to the secure blackness “of the womb from which I had never emerged” (36). McCoy’s novel, with its insistent and phallocentric pop Freudian psychology, is a particularly explicit example of the traditional noir thriller’s representation of the dangerous power of female sexuality, a power which, in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, is passed on from the “bad,” phallic mother figure to the femme fatale. The narrator’s discovery of his grandmother’s destructive potential is all the more disturbing because of her duality—her apparent conformity to the opposing archetype of the “good” (loving, nurturing) mother. As in many other noir thrillers, glimpses of the good mother are fleeting and deceptive: the world depicted is one of exile from all such providers of comfort and nourishment, and, where [End Page 370] maternity is figured, the mothers generally turn out to be sexually desired but forbidden, possessive and obsessed, or masculine and punishing. The guilty mothers of male noir—for example, Ma Jarrett in Raoul Walsh’s 1949 film White Heat, Norma Bates in Robert Bloch’s 1959 and Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, Lilly Dillon in Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1963)—are by no means wholly unsympathetic characters, any more than is the femme fatale, 2 but their function is above all as...