- The Submerged Plot and the Mother’s Pleasure from Jane Austen to Arundhati Roy by Kelly A. Marsh
Kelly A. Marsh’s monograph, The Submerged Plot and the Mother’s Pleasure from Jane Austen to Arundhati Roy, makes a valuable contribution to the critical literature on courtship novels in the English tradition. Marsh considers both nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels in her [End Page 533] study, as the marriage plot remained important in the twentieth century even as women writers became more empowered to “write beyond the ending” of the courtship tale.1 Marsh’s study provides new readings of a set of beloved novels—Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991), Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Helen Dunmore’s Talking to the Dead (1996), and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997)—diverse in terms of the sex, sexuality, race, class, and national identities of the authors. One feature these novels share, however, is the absence of the protagonist’s mother.
Marsh’s project is to re-theorize this type of courtship novel by attending to the protagonist’s relationship to the absent mother. She investigates how the daughter’s search for the mother is submerged beneath the surface story but powerfully determines whether or not the daughter will make a successful marriage. Motherless protagonists seek to reconnect with the lost mother, a task that Marsh argues necessitates understanding the mother’s sexual pleasure. Daughters’ and mothers’ stories intertwine, particularly since in this tradition the mother’s absence is often the result of the mother’s “disgraceful” sexual behavior that lead to the daughter’s birth. Because women’s sexual pleasure is a taboo subject—and unnarratable—the daughter’s journey is a perilous one, yet happiness in or out of marriage is impossible without it.
Marsh’s innovative readings are the product of her meticulously articulated theoretical approach, including a careful method for unearthing submerged plots. As a theorist, Marsh masterfully combines feminist literary theory with traditional narratology (from Vladimir Propp to James Phelan) and psychoanalysis. Marsh also attends to the historical and cultural contexts of the novels although this aspect of her work is subordinated to her interests in narrative theory and psychoanalysis. Marsh begins with an investigation of narratability and unnarratability, that is, whether a society allows or disallows the telling of certain stories. Her incisive discussion of four types of unnarratability, which draws on Robyn Warhol’s work, is provocative and suggests new avenues for future research, as each type of unnarratability may prompt authors’ use of different narrative strategies to overcome the unnarratable and tell the tabooed story anyway. Marsh theorizes that surface plots consist of material that is highly narratable at least in part because they support existing structures of power in society, but submerged plots deal with unnarratable material that must be coded or obscured in various ways. Marsh’s overarching goal—which she amply meets—is to articulate a method that can be utilized to generate readings [End Page 534] of the unnarratable in other subgenres of the novel and in the other narrative arts; she wants her readers to understand that “far from being one-dimensional and easily accessible, plot is multiple and works in texts in ways we have not yet fully imagined” (p. 251).
Marsh’s readings of the novels are elegant in solving longstanding puzzles about their meanings or rebutting established critical claims about their “flaws”; the sense of a flawed text, Marsh implies, often stems from the reader’s inability to put the submerged plot in proper focus. Her rereading of Wharton’s The House of Mirth, for example, enters the debate about Lily...