The Submerged Plot and the Mother's Pleasure from Jane Austen to Arundhati Roy by Kelly A. Marsh (review)
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Reviewed by
Kelly A. Marsh. The Submerged Plot and the Mother's Pleasure from Jane Austen to Arundhati Roy. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State UP, 2016. 283 pp. $84.95.

The Submerged Plot and the Mother's Pleasure by Kelly A. Marsh, part of the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative series edited by James Phelan, Peter J. Rabinowitz, and Robyn Warhol, seeks to pull the narrative of the absent mother's pleasure out of the shadows. This search for the story behind the "submerged" plot is most frequently conducted by a seeking daughter, although Marsh tantalizingly suggests in her conclusion that in more contemporary works, sons are now positioned to take up this pursuit. Marsh launches into her examination immediately when she quotes Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey: "… she had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on." Ever the keen social critic, Austen identifies the missing mom trope as being so commonplace in novels as to be nearly laughable. But Marsh, as she admits in her citing of scholars who have studied this convention, is not as concerned in the absence of the maternal figure as how that absence illuminates the existence of a submerged plot in the novels she includes in her survey. Marsh is interested in how these mothers "pass a legacy of oppression on to their daughters that must be resisted and overcome by them" in order for the surviving daughter to attempt to forge her own path (3). The relative success or failure of those daughters, as Marsh demonstrates, has much to do with how well they can discover, internalize, and in some cases, reject, that submerged plot of their mother's pleasure.

Marsh has an immense scope to her inquiry: the mother's pleasure, the communication of the unnarratable, limitations to inheritance (financial, but, it would seem, emotional inheritance as well), the ever-dubious position of rootless women, and, ultimately, the potential for the daughter to eventually experience pleasure for herself. A constant presence, hovering over the women Marsh focuses on, is the critical, often lacerating eye of society, [End Page 275] which she says dampens communication between mothers and daughters, putting any discoveries by those daughters at even greater risk. Marsh has not exactly overreached, but has merely threatened her own investigation by the sheer weight of her interests.

In her first chapter, Marsh displays how both Austen (Persuasion) and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre) utilize a (somewhat rote) marriage plot simultaneously to a submerged plot to seek out the mother's pleasure. Positing that Anne Elliot cannot achieve and experience pleasure until she has first discovered it in her mother's story also suggests to what extent the daughter is left in thrall to the mother's memory—including the many missteps of the mother. In her examination of Jane Eyre's utterly disconnected familial position, she suggests that the search for the mother begins immediately as a young Jane fights back against the Reeds—putting her own identity and selfhood before the selfish and constricting desires of the household. Yet a demonstration of Jane Reed's own pleasure (surely marrying the man she loved could not be the extent of it!) is never provided, and the reader is left wondering if the compactly powerful force of Jane Eyre's character needs no maternal validation. In this first foray, Marsh exhibits her meticulous (and occasionally labyrinthine) dexterity, which she maintains throughout. This is only expanded upon when she folds Charles Dickens (Bleak House) and Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White) into a discussion of narration. In this second chapter, Marsh demonstrates how "mystery plots," multiple seekers, and the daughters' own resistance to the stories of their mothers' pleasure complicate the already heady presence of both the explicit surface plots and the unnarratable submerged plots. She also acknowledges novels in which both sets of plots are ultimately unsuccessful, in Edith Wharton (House of Mirth) and Elizabeth Bowen (The Last September) because the two plots are inherently at odds with each other and cannot find mutual understanding. Juxtaposed with Jane Eyre's success...


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