“Shall I be mother?”: Maternity and Female Subjectivity
In the latest BBC version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, Sherlock and Watson are summoned to Buckingham Palace to discuss the problem a certain “licentious” female is causing the royal family. Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother, is about to pour the tea, and asks the idiomatic question, “shall I be mother?” meaning simply “should I pour?,” to which Sherlock responds, “and there is a whole childhood in a
nutshell.” Although his ostensible target is Mycroft—to mock his lack of identifiable masculine traits—the secondary target is certainly the mother. Whatever these “boys” may be, goes the underlying assumption, the mother is to blame; for their genius or for their lack of social development. The mother function expressed by the phrase “shall I be mother?” is one which emphasizes the servility required of “mother” as well as the
performativity of it; the “mother” is a role, a part in a play, which can be performed by anyone, and which can be evaluated as a performance.
In this short analysis it should be clear that the question of subjectivity which motherhood troubles is a vital one; from what position can a mother speak? In the creation of “subjects” which motherhood implies, how can a woman retain a subject position when her legal and social status makes her an extension of first her husband, then her child? If “mother” is a role, is there agency involved, and who exercises that
agency, can it be used to resist the role itself? We will examine a different facet of maternal subjectivity each week, reading theoretical texts about maternity alongside plays, novels, short stories, and poetry, using textual analysis and discussion to interrogate the claims and problems of these texts in relation to maternal subjectivity. Our main texts will be Shakespeare’s Winter Tale, Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, along with a course reader with theory readings from Freud, Butler, and Chodorov, as well as short stories and poetry from several other authors.
The course will be discussion-based and expect students to actively participate; to facilitate this, each student will have the opportunity to begin a session with a short presentation of discussion questions. Students will also be required to write two 4-6 page critical responses to text(s) discussed in class.