The Motif of Motherhood: An Exploration of Maternity in American Women's Storytelling




Flanders, Lilly

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Though a prominent theme in many works of fiction, motherhood is often portrayed in a rather one-dimensional manner, resulting in many female characters who are entirely defined by their maternity. By diminishing these figures in such a way, readers can lose sight of the complexity and nuance of the female experience. That being said, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023) each provide a unique perspective on motherhood in conjunction with other aspects of one’s social identity. In Beloved, Morrison portrays motherhood as irrevocably incompatible with the institution of slavery and its atrocities. The symbol of milk, which can be traced throughout the work, serves to highlight motherhood and maternal nourishment, both of which are debased by the gross exploitation of Sethe. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Plath emphasizes Esther’s ardent conviction that motherhood is incompatible with a fulfilling female existence. In doing so, Plath’s novel serves as a sharp critique of restrictive models of femininity, and, more specifically, the confining societal expectation of motherhood. Unlike the previous two texts, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023) offers a more optimistic and modern perspective. Throughout the film, she emphasizes the beauty and dignity of motherhood despite its inherent difficulties, ultimately claiming that maternity can be a part of a diverse and fulfilling life. Through a close analysis of the mother figures in each of these works, readers can craft a comprehensive picture of the evolving perspectives of motherhood in American fiction.



Motherhood., Beloved., The bell jar., Barbie., Toni morrison., Sylvia plath., Greta gerwig., Feminism., Gender inequality.