Motherhood: Portrayals in American literature

Christine J Farnum O'Leary, University of Texas at El Paso


The purpose of this thesis is to illustrate five categories of motherhood in American literature. The five categories chosen are: the self-absorbed mother, the self-martyred mother, the child-sacrificing mother, the self-sacrificing mother, and the substitute mother. I chose these five categories because they appear frequently in texts written by people of multiple ethnicities who represent several larger American cultures. (1) The self-absorbed mother lives for her personal pleasures. Her children are a burden. She prefers her happiness over the day to day care of the children. (2) The self-martyred mother believes that she is responsible for all the difficulties of the world. She may believes every action her children take is her fault. She may deny herself the love of her children believing it is neither deserved, nor desired. (3) The child-sacrificing mother makes decisions which most mothers hope to never face. She is the mother who gives up her children so that they may be saved, either physically or spiritually. She is also the mother who chooses to kill her children to keep them from suffering what she perceives as a greater harm. (4) The self-sacrificing mother gives up everything to take care of her children. She will risk her life to be sure that her children are cared for properly. She sacrifices her life, personally or professionally, for her children. (5) The substitute mother accepts the responsibility for another woman's child. She agrees to raise that child as her own. I chose a variety of American authors whose works span approximately a century. The novels and the short story, in this thesis, reflect both works of significant importance in the canons of American literature and works which reflect varied portrayals of motherhood discussed. With the exceptions of Cristina Crawford and Terry Ryan, the authors chosen are read in specific college literature classes. I chose novels by Dorothy Allison (Bastard out of Carolina), Kate Chopin (The Awakening), Cristina Crawford ( Mommie Dearest), Linda Hogan (Solar Storms), Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees), Toni Morrison ( Beloved), Fae Myenne Ng (Bone), Terry Ryan ( The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio), John Steinbeck (The Pastures of Heaven), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying), and a short story by Annette Sanford ("Trip in a Summer Dress").

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Farnum O'Leary, Christine J, "Motherhood: Portrayals in American literature" (2008). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI1461161.