On the affect of absent mothers in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and ‘Dolly’

Despite their difference in genre, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Susan Hill’s Dolly both explore how issues in childhood impact later life. The protagonists Antoinette and Leonora respectively are presented as having traumatic relationships with absent mothers. However, the responses of these characters to their experiences differ. Antoinette is made vulnerable by the lack of her mother’s protective influence, whereas Leonora passes on her anger and distress to her unborn child. These relationships, reactions, and responses to childhood trauma can be understood further with the aid of psychoanalytical theory, in particular ideas such as attachment theory, doubling and the uncanny. This essay will therefore examine how the representation of negative childhood experience and its subsequent effects on later life in Wide Sargasso Sea and Dolly correlate with contemporary psychoanalytical theory.

The absence of the mother in both novels correlates with Ruth Bienstock Anolik’s claim that the mother “is in greater peril” within literature.[1] DA Miller provides reasoning for the absence of the mother figure, as she represents stability and order within the narrative. This implies that the removal of the mother allows the plot to develop freely without the restriction of social constraints.[2] The removal of the mother also implies that her children will be unprotected, as she is the “emblem of safety” within the narrative and represents social stability.[3] The removal of the mother figure allows disorder to occur within the narrative, as the narrative and other characters can abuse the characters that she was supposed to protect.

The removal of maternal affection in Wide Sargasso Sea leaves Antoinette unprotected and therefore vulnerable to the threat of others in her childhood. Even before her mother’s death, Antoinette marks the change in her mother’s attitude towards her, noting that she previously compared Annette’s hair to a “soft black cloak over me,” which protected her and kept her “safe.”[4] Antoinette then recounts that this does not occur “any more” and that even before her mother’s physical absence, she was left unprotected from people who betrayed her such as Tia, who stole her dress.[5] Poor girl. Annette here is not physically absent, but her maternal affection for her daughter is. In many ways, this is the same as not having a mother physically present, as in both incidences, there is a lack of maternal affection. This demonstrates the effect of the absent mother in childhood, as Antoinette quickly realises that she has lost her main protection and instantly becomes vulnerable. It is the later death of Annette that impacts Antoinette’s adulthood, in which she is left unprotected from the likes of Rochester. This vulnerability originates in her childhood and is driven by the absence of her mother’s affection, demonstrating its impact.

Leonora’s childhood in Dolly is also negatively affected by the absence of her mother. She exhibits similar distress which manifests itself when she opens the titular doll. Leonora takes out her anger upon the china doll which she has longed for and hurls it at the fireplace causing it to get damaged.[6] Although on the surface she seems like she needs anger management, we have to try and understand her extreme reactions. To understand Leonora, one must understand her childhood relationship with her mother. Through her mother’s absence, Leonora is left unprotected, like Antoinette, and the doll. For, if her mother was present and had she nurtured Leonora, it is likely that Leonora would have nurtured the doll, as she would understand the idea of maternal affection. Her hostile reaction can be understood further through the application of psychoanalysis, as Leonora and the doll can be seen to double one another. Freud explains this by noting that someone many simply “identify” with another, to the point at which they may feel “duplicated, divided and interchanged.”[7] This duplication is visually prevalent in the novel, as Leonora herself has a doll-like quality, as she is described as having a “white” face with “pinched” lips, much like the white china doll.[8]

Hill must have deliberately chosen to portray Leonora this way with reason. From this description, and implication that Leonora resembles a doll, the reader could infer that Leonora herself is treated like a doll by her mother. This idea could be substantiated further, as Leonora’s mother, in her continued absence, sends Leonora pretty dresses with which to dress her up, like one would dress a toy doll. Georgieva notes that, due to the child’s low status in the family, the child becomes the “property of the adult.”[9] Leonora is the property of her mother, and like her mother’s doll, in the same way that the doll is the property of Leonora. Leonora sees herself in the doll and identifies with it, explaining why she reacts in such a violent way, as she has been neglected by her own absent ‘owner.’

This can be understood further using Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. Bowlby explores the idea of avoidant attachment, in which a parent avoids emotional, or physical, contact with their child, as Leonora’s mother does, leading to a relationship that is devoid of emotional attachment.[10] Such neglect is damaging to the child, who adopts this negative trait.[11] Leonora’s violence towards the doll represents her rejection of what she has become in the eyes of her absent mother, a doll. It also represents the lack of maternal affection Leonora has received. Leonora identifies with the doll, physically and psychologically, and rejects this affinity, as she sees that she has become her mother’s object, as the doll is her object. Freud notes that children traditionally enjoy caring for dolls, as they cannot distinguish between the “animate and inanimate.”[12] Leonora’s adverse reaction to the doll demonstrates that she has inherited the trait of avoidant attachment from her own absent mother. This explains the impact of the absent mother within Leonora’s childhood, as she is devoid of compassion which is implied by her reaction to the doll.

Antoinette and Leonora both suffer from a lack of maternal affection in their childhoods, leaving them both vulnerable. Due to her mother’s lack of maternal affection as a child, Antoinette becomes increasingly vulnerable to those around her, emphasising the effects of the absent mother. These effects are too apparent when examining Leonora, who reacts to this absent more violently in her childhood. Leonora’s violent reaction to the doll represents the rejection of what she has become in her mother’s eyes, a doll. The lack of maternal affection imparted to Antoinette and Leonora in their childhoods manifests later in their adult lives, highlighting the importance of understanding the protagonists’ relationships with their absent mothers, in order to understand their adulthood, and for Leonora, parenthood.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, the effect of Antoinette’s absent mother has ramifications on her marriage. The breakdown of said marriage can only be understood through understanding Antoinette’s aforementioned childhood relationship with her mother. When Rochester turns on her, Antoinette becomes increasingly isolated, and descends into madness. Antoinette’s problems stem from a letter written by her estranged brother Daniel Cosway, in which he portrays Annette as a “mad and infamous woman,”[13] and implies that Antoinette too is “crazy.”[14] Rochester believes the letter and begins to call Antoinette “Bertha.” He robs her of her identity, in an attempt to distance her from her mother. Antoinette describes Rochester’s renaming of her as “obeah,” declaring that it is a form of spirit theft, leaving her as a shell of her former self.[15] Without her mother to support her, Antoinette becomes increasingly isolated and vulnerable, a trait that stems from her childhood.  

The problems that occur within the marriage of Antoinette and Rochester can be seen as a consequence of the absence of Annette, as without the support of her mother, Antoinette has no significant female that is her societal equal, who is able to support her. Antoinette’s lack of support causes her to digress, and eventually emulate her mother’s madness in another occurrence of Freud’s doubling. One can draw a parallel between Antoinette’s doubling with her mother, and Leonora’s doubling with the doll here. Despite Rochester’s attempts to disassociate Antoinette from her mother, he instead pushes her to madness, causing her to psychologically resemble her late mother. Christophine understands this, and compares Antoinette to her mother, declaring that like the latter, the community will “tear” the former into “pieces.”[16] In Antoinette’s case, her absent mother represents a loss of security and companionship, as without her, Antoinette suffers the same tragic fate and lapses into madness. This can be traced back to her childhood, showing how her poor relationship with her mother then, and her subsequent absence, has impacted her later life. The manifestation of her madness and vulnerability, can only be understood through the understanding of her childhood isolation, which was prompted by the absence of her mother’s affection.

In ‘Dolly,’ Leonora’s strained relationship with her mother as a child affects her later life, as it does Antoinette, but in relation to the formers impending parenthood. Edward later encounters Leonora as an expectant mother and it becomes clear that, due the absence of her mother and the presence of the doll, Leonora is devoid of maternal affection. In adulthood, Edward detects Leonora’s lack of maternal instinct through her body language, noting that she “sat with one stockinged leg crossed tightly over the other.”[17] It appears that Leonora is trying to halt the birth of the baby inside her, displaying the same lack of maternal affection that her own mother showed to her. Edward first noted Leonora’s lack of affection through her initial reaction to the doll itself, and her unwillingness to care for it, perhaps due to her identification with it and rejection of this. This demonstrates how the absence of her mother in her childhood has affected her view of parenthood, as she displays anti-maternal body language, implying her lack of maternal affection. Edward pities the unborn child, feeling “sorry for any offspring” Leonora births.[18] The manifestation of Leonora’s anti maternal instincts can be understood further when looking back at Bowlby’s ideas on Attachment Theory. Leonora displays the trait of avoidant attachment towards her child, which she has fully adopted from her own mother. Her mother’s lack of emotional attachment has affected Leonora’s own attitude towards parenthood, as Leonora shows her unborn child the same lack of maternal affection, as Bowlby’s theory suggested. The lasting impact of the absence of Leonora’s mother is instrumental to understanding Leonora’s own lack of maternal attachment toward her unborn child, demonstrating the importance of understanding her childhood, in order to understand her adulthood.

Leonora’s unsettling identification with the doll, previously explored through Freud’s doubling, is revived upon its unburial. In relation to her own impending motherhood, the image of the doll can be seen as uncanny. Freud describes the uncanny as something unsettling associated with death and dead bodies, an idea that is prevalent in the latter half of the novel.[19] As previously mentioned, Freud pays particular attention to dolls in his description of the uncanny, stating that children love them because they do not distinguish the “animate and the inanimate,” demonstrated in their treatment of them as real life children.[20] The uncanniness of the unburial of the doll has a profound effect on Leonora, which further aids the manifestation of her anti maternal attitudes which originally stemmed from her absent mother, as explained with the aid of Attachment Theory. In short, dolls are scary.

Edward recalls that he “pushed the blade into the earth” and scraped the soil away until it “loosened.” The uncovering of the doll resembles that of a caesarean birth, which can be seen as uncanny, as it is like a real birth but is essentially not. Claire Kahane notes that this image disrupts the idea of “bodily integrity,”[21] and this greatly distresses Leonora… and we can’t blame her. Leonora is distressed as the cutting of the cardboard box is analogous to the violent cutting open of the womb, which destabilises her as it reinforces the mortality of the body.  This could imply that she is fearful of the damage that giving birth could inflict on her body, explaining her desire to halt the birth, as demonstrated by the crossing of her legs. Leonora’s fear of labour is more apparent than any maternal affection for her unborn child. This lack of maternal affection was first exhibited during her first encounter with the doll itself. Leonora’s anti maternal affection towards her own child is exacerbated by the presence of the doll, as it represented the manifestation of her own anger as a child, in relation to her absent mother. This demonstrates the cruciality of understanding Leonora’s relationship with her mother, aided through the deployment of psychoanalytical theory, as it is the root of all her anti maternal feeling. By understanding Leonora’s relationship with her mother as a child, one can understand her behaviour as an adult, in reference to her anti maternal instincts directed at her unborn child.

When attempting to understand the characters of Antoinette and Leonora, it is crucial to understand their childhood relationships with their mothers. This understanding is enhanced and aided by the application of several psychoanalytic theories. Their childhood experiences, influenced by their absent mothers, are crucial to understanding their behaviour in their adult life. Antoinette’s isolated and vulnerable state as an adult stems from the absence of maternal affection and protectiveness in her childhood, which eventually results in her digression into madness, like her mother. Leonora too is affected by her mother’s absence and the presence of the doll. The reader can draw similarities between Leonora and the doll using Freud’s theory of doubling. Leonora is her mother’s doll, and the distance between Leonora and her mother leads Leonora to be distant from her unborn child. Edward highlights her anti maternal body language demonstrating this distance, which is only exacerbated by the uncanny rebirth of the doll from their childhood. It is only through the understanding of Leonora’s and Antoinette’s childhood relationships with their absent mothers, aided with the deployment of psychoanalysis, that the characters can be truly understood in adulthood and parenthood.

Thanks for reading!


[1] Ruth Bienstock Anolik, ‘The Missing Mother: The Meanings of Maternal Absence in the Gothic Mode’, Modern Language Studies’, Vol. 33, No. ½, (2003), p. 24.

[2] Ibid., p. 27.

[3] Ibid., p. 27.

[4] Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (London, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000) p. 8.

[5] Ibid., p. 10.

[6] Susan Hill, Dolly (London, Profile Books Limited, 2013) p. 81.

[7] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (London, Penguin Modern Classics, 2003) p. 142.

[8] Ibid., p. 27.

[9] Margarita Georgieva, The Gothic Child (London, AIAA, 2013) p. 186.

[10] Cindy Hazan and Phillip R. Shaver, ‘Deeper into Attachment Theory’, Psychological Inquiry Vol. 5, No. 1 (1994), p. 70.

[11] Ibid., p. 70.

[12] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (London, Penguin Modern Classics, 2003) p. 141.

[13]  Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (London, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000) p. 82.

[14] Ibid., p. 62.

[15] Ibid., p. 94.

[16] Ibid., p. 102.

[17] Susan Hill, Dolly (London, Profile Books Limited, 2013) p. 102.

[18] Ibid., p. 102.

[19] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (London, Penguin Modern Classics, 2003) p. 148.

[20] Ibid., p. 141.

[21] Claire Kahane, ‘The Gothic Mirror’, in The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, ed. by Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane and Madelon Sprengnether (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 345.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a second year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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