- The Submerged Plot and the Mother’s Pleasure: from Jane Austen to Arundhati Roy by Kelly A. Marsh
Kelly Marsh’s compelling book provides fresh insight into well-known novels by attending to what she terms the “submerged plot,” in which the daughter must seek the unnarratable story of her mother’s sexual pleasure. As Marsh explains:
finding the unnarratable story of the mother’s pleasure is crucial to a daughter’s search for her own pleasure, and not finding the story can be debilitating in this regard….the submerged plot is threatened by the same forces that render the mother’s pleasure unnarratable, primarily the preservation of lines of inheritance, to which a mother’s pleasure is, at best, extraneous.(153)
While Marsh is not the first to examine the significance of absent mothers in the novels she discusses, her attention to the mother’s experience of sexual pleasure complicates earlier psychoanalytic and feminist readings of female characters and contributes to the study of feminist narratology, building on the work of Robyn Warhol and Susan Stanford Friedman. Marsh’s readings of each novel are prefaced by a quotation that describes the mother and her name, highlighting the limited information readers are given about the mother. She opens her discussion of each text with a provocative series of questions or narrative puzzles that can be answered by closely reading the “glimmers…that are just detectable” of the mother’s story (4).
The first two chapters focus on nineteenth-century novels: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Marsh asks readers to understand the protagonist daughter’s actions in light of her mother’s mostly unnarrated story: in Austen and Brontë, the submerged and surface plot work in tandem to bring about a satisfying resolution; in Dickens and Collins, the story of the mother’s transgression is investigated in the surface mystery plot at the expense of the submerged plot of the mother’s pleasure. Marsh suggests that the heroine’s seeming passivity in the surface mystery plot of these novels can be explained by her agency in the submerged plot. In both chapters, Marsh provides a new perspective not just on the absent mother or the protagonist daughter, but also on a host of minor characters—for example, her persuasive claim that Mary Elliot Musgrove’s whining indicates her anxiety “that others will respond to her illness and death as her father responded to her mother’s” (36), or her careful teasing out of the complex family relationships in Collins’s The Woman in White. Indeed, more extended readings of these minor characters would be welcome: given Marian Halcombe’s importance in Collins’s novel, the discussion of her in this chapter seems unusually tentative and brief. That said, the issues Marsh raises about gender roles here are treated in greater depth in her analysis of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in the third chapter. Pairing The House of Mirth with Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, the third chapter examines “[t] he interplay between the great house and the journey as means of accessing the mother’s experience” (114) in two novels whose conclusions, in contrast to the satisfying denouements of the earlier novels, are more ambiguous. Marsh suggests that attention to the submerged plot can address reader’s uncertainty as to whether or not to sympathize with Lily Bart and help to explain the inconclusiveness of Bowen’s text. [End Page 392]
The remaining chapters examine late twentieth-century novels in which the daughter’s search for the mother’s pleasure faces significant obstacles or fails: the fourth chapter tackles texts in which the daughter is raped by her mother’s husband (The Color Purple, A Thousand Acres, and Bastard Out of Carolina) and the fifth interrogates the daughter’s complicity in the end of the mother’s pleasure in Talking to the Dead...