1. 1 Theoretical Background and Definitions The theoretical issue regarding essentialist versus social constructionist motherhood is called into question in this thesis. What is useful here is Diana Fuss’ definitions of essentialism and social constructionism for woman. She defines essentialism as: a belief in true essence—that which is most irreducible, unchanging, and therefore constitutive of a given person or thing… In feminist theory… essentialism can be located in appeals to a pure or original femininity, a female essence, outside the boundaries of the social and thereby untainted (though perhaps repressed) by a patriarchal order.
(2) She also defines constructionism, suggesting that: Constructionism, articulated in opposition to essentialism and concerned with its philosophical refutation, insists that essence is itself a historical construction… constructionists are concerned above all with the production and organization of differences, and they therefore reject the idea that any essential or natural givens precede the processes of social determination. (2-3) Fuss also contends that, “The difference in philosophical positions can be summed up by Ernest Jones’s question: ‘Is woman born or made?
‘ For an essentialist like Jones, woman is born, not made; for an anti-essentialist like Simone de Beauvoir, woman is made not born” (3).
One must then tread into the next relevant level, moving woman to mother. Is a mother born or made? In this thesis author would argue that a mother, although influenced by essential facets of her separate self, is made. Social constructionism, then, is at the center of this thesis due to the African-American mothers addressed within their specific environments in this novel.
Certain generalized assumptions are made about motherhood. Because of the special social condition depicted in the thesis, it’s hard to say that social constructionism or essentialism decides the motherhood. From what we read in the novel, we could speculate that the constructionism and essentialism may co-exist and influence each other. The two concepts may be interchangeable. Fuss proposes that “essentialism is essential to social constructionism” in that one must note the correlations that apply to the mothers from two culturally diverse backgrounds (1).
Therefore, by comparing the commonality of mothers in different situations we could say essentialism and constructionism sometimes are not to be separated. The issue of external influence becomes very closely related to the examination of mothers in the novel to be discussed, as the mothers and caregivers are affected by particular events and the after effects factors, which is slavery in Beloved. Mothering under these conditions does become constructed and defined by the circumstances at hand.
This idea is also mentioned by Glenn who wrote that “the existence of diverse, often submerged constructions of mothering that have coexisted alongside the dominant model… take form not just in the realm of ideas and beliefs, but importantly in social interactions, identities, and social institutions” (3-4). There is main type or general model of mothers in society, but there are still many other different mother images, which are formed in the influence of environment.
Of the mothers to be analyzed regarding the breakdown of stereotyped mothering, some serve as “othermothers”, or non-biological mothers who take on, in whole or in part, the responsibility of caring for another human being (O’Reilly 3-4). The definition of mother expands to include more than the concept of giving birth to another human being. Thus, women as othermothers can demonstrate as much motherly influence as the biological mothers themselves, sometimes more.
These “othermothers” can perform the roles of parental nurturer and life-supporter, in addition to or in the imitation of the biological mothering. By carrying out the responsibility of mother, they also affirms their positions in society, and their existence is also vital to the preservation of culture and thus to the “survival of the tribe” (O’Reilly 8), because they must raise, shape decisively, and influence the decision-making process of other individual or individuals, as well as feed, clothes, and protect that individual or individuals.
And it is the mother who defines that process, whether within or beyond society’s moral standards. These “othermothers” appear and exist in society because of the social requests. With them, orphans and other children who can’t get biological mothers’ protection in their growing period for some reasons could be protected as well. In this novel, two types of “othermothers” are mainly depicted. One is the othermother whose role and responsibility is assigned and forced to take by slave-owners, such as Nan.
Slave-owners don’t want their adult slave women to spend much time on taking care of their children, so they assign one slave woman to take care of all the children, while the slave mothers have to work at other places soon after they give birth. The other type is the women who take the role of mother voluntarily, based on the situation request or personal thoughts, such as Baby Suggs, who mothers the whole black community after she is bought free by her son Hale. Othermothers have been paid certain attention and exert great influence in this novel. The concept of protection is the common factor for mothers and othermothers.
In Beloved, Sethe’s mother protects Sethe from accepting and tolerating the socially acceptable confines of slavery at that time, and thus, when Sethe has her own children, she too protects them from slavery on her own ways through her own definition of protection. Because this is what Sethe’s mother must do, and in turn, Sethe does the same for Denver, purposely or inadvertently. Sethe does learn how to protect herself and her children, and Denver ultimately learns how to save herself and her mother. Thus, othermothers in the novel are as vital to the text as the biological mothers.