restricted access 2. Motherless Daughters: The Absent Mothers in Margaret Atwood
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47 The world of women is a place where you are unsafe, but girls cannot turn to their mothers for comfort because “between us and them is a gulf, an abyss that goes down and down. It is filled with wordlessness.” (Cat’s Eye 98) Margaret Atwood’s writing concerns itself with the female identity and how that identity is subjected to social expectations. These may confuse, restrain , and anger many of the protagonists in her novels. Again and again, she deals with the pain of becoming and being a woman. Atwood’s novels are often narratives told in the classic fairy-tale tradition, as defined by Lutz Rohrich in the introduction to Fairy Tales and Society: they mirror “a world view” that “reflect[s] the society in which it is told … [and contain] astonishing relics and role constraints in connection with gender from the patriarchal realm.… Negative female stereotypes reveal themselves particularly in the female antagonistic roles of wicked stepmother or witch” (3–6). Some of the more blatant witch characters people Cat’s Eye (1989), The Robber Bride (1994), and The Blind Assassin (2001). In these novels, Atwood’s protagonists suffer so relentlessly at the hands of such antagonistic females that reading their stories is painful. Using a psychoanalytical/feminist approach , I examine how the absent mothers of Elaine, Cordelia, and Carol (Cat’s Eye); Tony, Roz, and Charis (The Robber Bride); and Iris and Laura (The Motherless Daughters: The Absent Mothers in Margaret Atwood | by nancy peled 2 48 nancy peled Blind Assassin), manifest a classic fairy-tale motif and thus are culpable yet blameless enactors of their daughters’ suffering. Elaine Risley, the protagonist of Cat’s Eye, is a successful painter who has returned to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective exhibition of her work. This event is the catalyst for Elaine to begin a retrospective of her own life, in an attempt to define who she has become. The journey eight-year-old Elaine embarks on toward womanhood, led and shared by her “friends” Cordelia, Grace, and Carol, is devastating. However, she is entirely dependent on Cordelia, Grace, and Carol to help her navigate this new world, for her own mother cannot help her; she is “different” from the other mothers, and unavailable to her. Thus Elaine enters into the milieu of destructive female relationships, one from which her mother cannot, or will not, protect her. The Robber Bride relates the story of three middle-aged women who have become friends through their shared devastating experiences at the hands of the malicious Zenia. The attempts of Tony, Roz, and Charis in Robber Bride to deal with the machinations and ramifications of Zenia in their lives distress us. And because, as Atwood tells us in Cat’s Eye, “you don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that.… Nothing goes away” (3), each woman’s childhood experiences illuminate how the lack of mothering in their early years shaped the women who became vulnerable to the predatory Zenia. And reading Iris’s narrative of how she and Laura are manipulated and abused in Blind Assassin generates an anxiety that equals the characters ’. The frame narrative of this multifaceted chronicle has the 82-year-old protagonist, Iris Chase Griffen, recording her memories for her initially unidentified audience, as a “re-envisioned” version of the past. The novel begins with Laura’s death, so that in telling their story, Iris is resurrecting Laura. Given that Iris begins with Laura’s death, she first goes back in their personal history, and thus explicates how their mother’s death positions Iris as Laura’s mother, assigning Iris the role of both victim and agent of “bad” mothering. In these novels we are taken into the characters’ pasts, through a seamless “weaving” narrative technique that Atwood has perfected , with the past playing a smoothly integral role in the present story, much as it does in life. All these female characters suffer from some form of lack of mothering. Whether the mother is truly, physically absent—she has died, she has left, she has been institutionalized—or metaphorically so—she has no awareness of, or influence on, her daughter’s life—her absence has a ruinous effect on her daughter, which is then compounded or refracted, or re-created in the daughter’s relations with others as portrayed in the events 49 motherless daughters of the novel, not least...