Sunday, 8 May 2011

On evil stepmothers

Mother's Day feels the right time to contemplate the odious figure of the evil stepmother. It is a hugely sensitive issue, but I cannot read all these odes to wonderful mothers on Facebook without thinking about what lies behind. The evil stepmother of the folktale is a complex figure, since she is both a reflection of hard facts and a highly symbolic image. In old times, stepmothers were the necessary evil - and in many cases a blessing - because of high childbirth mortality, and mortality in general, so it was imperative for a man to remarry to have someone to take care of his children. If the woman brought in children from her previous marriage or if she had more children in the new marriage, it was natural that she preferred her own flesh and resented the stepchildren. Today stepparents are a result of divorce rather than death, but who can blame a woman who loves her own child more than a stepchild? It would be perverse otherwise. This is the Cinderella version.

The Snow White version is more complex and more repulsive. The stepmother is young, perhaps almost as young as the stepdaughter who is just coming into fertility. The stepdaughter is a rival, not only for her father's love (connected with the memory of love for the first wife), but the love and admiration of all other eligible men. The stepmother is jealous, and who can blame her?

If you were paying attention in your fairy tale class, or if you have read your Bettelheim carefully, you know that the stepmother is a circumscription of a biological mother. The idea of a mother hating her daughter and being jealous is so forbidden in a civilised society, as we claim we belong to, that storytellers prefer to substitute a stepmother, so that it would be less offensive. In many other fairy tales, the mother figure is a witch. Symbolically, the mother is split into two agents, a good, benevolent, biological mother and a wicked, jealous stepmother. The young girl has to accept that her mother has both these sides, and the mother has to accept, negotiate and control her contradictory feelings toward her daugher. Most women manage it, at least superficially - who knows what's going on in their minds. Some women don't manage it and turn into wicked witches.

I once attended a seminar on Anna Karenina, where someone wondered why Anna loved her son from a cold marriage and was indifferent toward her daughter conceived in passion. I explained, cynically and provocatively, that Anna's love focused on her son when she had no one else to love, but she saw her daughter as a future rival for her lover's attention. The woman who had posed the question got furious. She yelled that I apparently had no children and didn't know what I was talking about. I said that I had two sons, a daughter and two stepchildren and knew very well what I was talking about. I also pointed out that Anna Karenina was a piece of fiction and thus carried metaphorical as well as realist levels. My opponent was not convinced. So strong is our reluctance to admit the forbidden. So hard is our struggle between the animalistic instinct and the civilised, socially imposed ethics. Thanks goodness we have literature to provide outlet for our most hidden feelings.

In fairy tales, the evil stepmother is punished, often in a most awful manner. Symbolically, it means that the young girl has accepted and exterminated the evil side of her mother, and for the mother, it means that she has admited and learned to control the evil side of herself. The good biological mother is either resurrected or reincarnated as a fairy godmother or simply watches from her heaven her daugher's wedding. If she has really won over the evil stepmother, she is thinking about how she will become immortal through her daughter's children.

All this to say that I wish I had a mother whom I could celebrate on Mother's Day.


Chrysogonus said...

I've been thinking about the concept of evil stepmother after I read some Lacan. Can we say that actually the evil stepmother is the female version of Name-of-the-Father? It provides a gender coherence.

Afterall, if the concept of growth is the separation from the 'mother' and the death of the 'father', then we can see that the death of biological mother is the 'separation from the mother'. Without the mention of the biological father, then the evil stepmother would serve as the 'father' to kill or defeat before the protagonist can ascend into herself.

Moreover, with the appearance of the biological mother memory in the end of the story, it emphasize the 'desire of comfort' or Nodelman's home.

Just my random thought, though.

Maria Nikolajeva said...

I'll have to think about it. It's all very complicated because it is so much tabooed that nobody really dares to study it properly.