Thursday, August 14, 2008

The constructions of parenthood/motherhood in Relative Strangers and its narrative effect on emotional and global terrorism within the novel.

This seminar was an exploration of my idea for the final essay for this paper. Although some of the questions remain only partially answered, I thought it might be useful to blog the seminar notes. Thanks to everyone for their really great comments and feedback during the seminar.

Global context of novel:

A world in which terrorism is, if not necessarily happening more often, is at the forefront of people’s minds more as it is increasingly happening in settings seen as “closer to home” and under circumstances that would normally be considered safe. The terrorism referred to in this novel is against America: 9/11 and the fictive Honolulu bombings and describes the recent and current (?) moral panic around terrorist attacks. This global context of the novel is important for two reasons: One, it sets the backdrop for the interpersonal emotional terrorism between the characters and secondly it becomes a crisis point event for Chloe, illuminating the essential differences in her and Allen’s views on parenthood and the importance thereof.

Personal Context of the novel:

Chloe and Colin, the central characters of the novel, have been both the victim and perpetrators of what I am choosing to call emotional terrorism. What is emotional terrorism? Quite simply put it is the awful things that people do to one another – either with a specific purpose in mind or to simply cause the other person pain. Examples of this terrorism are sprinkled throughout the novel, but I believe the following are the key events as they centre around the key theme of parenthood:


Victim of:

Being denied fatherhood by “fate” and Anna

Perpetrator of:

Denying his father a relationship with his son


Victim of :


Abandonment by Allan of his parental duties

Perpetrator of:

Forcing a parenthood on an unwilling participant

It is important for me to note at this point that there have been other traumas suffered by the characters which have also affected them, but I am choosing to focus on the specific instances of interpersonal trauma.


How does the portrayal of parenthood, particularly motherhood, in the narrative mitigate or indeed heal the effects of the emotional terrorism in the novel? Does it bring about any resolution? Is motherhood therefore privileged in the novel? Can the healing effect of parenthood in the novel be extrapolated to the global context of the novel? Should it be?

Construction of parenthood/motherhood:

Construction of motherhood – see the construction of Rachel vs Anna – Rachel more sympathetic despite her myriad flaws as she was on the way to being a mother compared to Anna who doesn’t want kids.

Motherhood for Chloe:

Has a grounding effect after the emotional trauma she suffers at being given up for adoption.

Is all consuming, what she does. Performative element, given her acting past? Like she is acting like the parent she wanted her birth mother to be.

As Bruce said in his seminar, Toby re-affrims her belief in life.

Colin’s reaction to Toby and Chloe’s relationship:

Has been denied fatherhood twice and so reacts to Chloe and Toby’s relationship.

Makes him re-examine his life and the traumas he has suffered and the relationships he has had/has (Rach; Anna; his father) – effect of parenthood therefore constructed as having a “healing effect”.

Birth parents of Chloe – mirrors Colin in being the unusual figure of a man wanting a baby which is opposite to Allan:

This male desire for parenthood highlights Allan’s shunning of his paternal responsibility within the novel. Allan is viewed as a criminal in the narrative for abandoning his family and not wanting to come back even under circumstances that Chloe views as a wake up call. Additionally, this male desire for parenthood, which is seen to be “unusual” in our society highlights Anna’s lack of desire to be a mother, something seen as “unnatural” in our society.

Overall, then, parenthood and particularly motherhood is privileged in this novel and is imbued with healing properties.

Some other questions I need to consider...

How does this construction of parenthood mitigate or heal the emotional terrorism/trauma mentioned above?

Does this construction of parenthood bring about resolution in the narrative or does it just open the way for new possibilities?

Is "emotional terrorism" the best way of describing what I am trying to identify in the novel?

Can this or even should this be extrapolated to the global context of the novel? Is Neale trying to infer anything about possible solutions for today’s world’s condition?

Some idea of where this is headed...

For Colin, the resolution (in my view) centres around becoming more self-aware through coming into contact with a child. This is exemplified in his vision for the memorial to 9/11 in Ground Zero - the relevant passage is on page 262-263. This scene of domesticity which culminates with those in the memorial leaning over the baby throws into relief what Colin has experienced. In leaning over the cot in the memorial, people are supposed to wonder “where are the parents?” I think that the implicit answer is that it’s us. Those people leaning over the cot are the parents. This epiphany of self-awareness and need to take individual responsibility, I think, is Emma Neale’s answer to the questions of what can be done about terrorism on a personal and a political scale. By placing this scene of domesticity and parenthood in the centre of Ground Zero links the personal with the political in a powerful way.

1 comment:

Gregory Wood said...

I think that your argument would look nice by embarking on 'The Hero's Journey', a concept put forward by Joseph Campbell in his book 'The Hero With a Thousand Faces'. Using Campbell's template, Chloe's ordinary world has been disrupted by various types of terrorism and she crosses an emotional threshold by walking into Colin's house and confessing to a stranger, which leads to her discovering (perhaps) motherhood as a shared experience between the right people -hence a sort of reward of sorts by meeting Colin. There is also a a resurrection by finding the that her real parents really wanted her, and so on. The Heros' Journey might be a bit hackneyed but if it works, use it.