Monday, September 17, 2007

It's Always in the Title: Gregory Maguire's SON OF A WITCH

[The first part of this article I posted on my Gather.com page last Wednesday.]

Like Monster-in-Law, the bad J-Lo movie whose title explicitly replaces "mother" with her more common image in American culture, as I discuss in my thesis, Gregory Maguire's novel Son of a Witch - the sequel to Wicked, which made a splash as a Broadway play - implicitly suggests another name for the title character Liir's mom. Yet when we start reading the book - the series began as a clever interpretation of The Wizard of Oz - we realize that Liir is not even certain that Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, was indeed his biological mother, although he was apparently with her as long as he can remember from his childhood to her death. It is not until he joins the military (since he has nothing better to do and must eat and stay warm somehow) that he begins to criticize her as a mother (without still being certain of her actual maternity), partially in comparison with the stereotypically affectionate, good cook moms of the other soldiers - one of whom out of jealousy and spite he frames for a crime, the ramifications of which culminate in that soldier's suicide - but primarily because he feels his lack of education - in the traditional sense, yes, but even more in obedience (she herself was only obedient to herself, he notes), and most of all in how to be a man. Thus we hear the classic criticism of the single mother - the powerful single mother - from the character of a young man who was written by a man. Usually I find such illustrations penned by women.

But Maguire does make a point of indicating that the witch - frightening for her power to use words to make things happen, we learn (and what of that wouldn't be frightening for any patriarchal society?) - was not hated and/or feared by all - that she even had allies and was respected by those who, after her murder at the hands of the feckless Dorothy, seem mildly interested in revenge. Yet those are all outsiders, marginal to society and suspicious to the civilized, the law-abiding, the religious - with whom Liir has taken up by the time he begins to criticize his mother. Mainstream society is not kind to mothers, we see.

Elphaba was apparently not affectionate, not kind, not nurturing, not self-sacrificing, not involved - not maternal, Liir concludes, wondering if that alone might prove that she's not his mother - and further, she had green skin and a biting wit and enjoyed studying her spell-book late into the night. All inappropriate characteristics for an ideal mother. All she asked of Liir, we learn, was to keep himself safe. That alone might define an ideal mother from my own feminist perspective, though.

The interesting thing is that - at least at this point in the story, about halfway through the book - Liir is an ideal American man: handsome, independent, reserved, somewhat intelligent, basically obedient, mildly ambitious. In fact, single mothers have a tendency to produce that type, I've found. They appreciate women because they've seen their contributions in a situation in which none of it can be appropriated to a man, and they know how to work and take care of themselves because they've had to.

The Oedipus complex, on the other hand, can only arise when there's a man in a heterosexual relationship with a boy's mother to give the boy someone of whom to be jealous. (Or, as Hegel would have it, someone to Desire in hopes of fulfilling the boy's homoerotic Desire for recognition from the man.) Otherwise, the boy actually has his mother all to himself, as society idealizes. Granted, single mothers often work, but that keeps them from becoming as dependent on their children as the Bad Mother myth suggests - and really, despite the mothers most often demonized, it's only the stay-at-home moms who actually end up hurting their children (probably because they have no way to escape their postpartum depression and/or the endless, mindless drudgery of caring for young children). It's sadly ironic in retrospect that Mrs. McCann was celebrated as undeserving of losing a daughter because she's a stay-at-home mom (see my earlier post on the subject) - and yet now it appears as though she killed her daughter herself at the time.
[I'll directly explore Freud's take on the Oedipus complex someday soon, I'm sure. Now that I've finished Son of a Witch, though, I'll finish my discussion of this book:]

Liir got worse before he got better. In line with Maguire's allegory for the United States government (he actually indicated in an interview that one of his inspirations for this book was the Abu Ghraib incident), the military influence in Liir's life causes him to commit the one act that he regrets more than anything else in his life. Then he goes through a frustrating period of hopelessness in which he denies his connection to and shared plight with the rest of the world. (Sound familiar?)

It is only when he starts to follow Elphaba's example that he stops failing at every task to which he sets out - and angering Maguire's readers (or me at least!) with his stubborn self-absorbed careless inaction - and begins to succeed. Even after death, we learn, Elphaba is keeping alive many people's - and animals' - hopes for freedom from tyranny, whether as a symbol, through remembrance of her actions while she lived, or through those whom she knew in her life.

Despite that glowing recommendation, Liir still appears to follow the typical path of the son of a Monster Mother: He cannot feel the way that he thinks that he should toward an attractive woman who might care for him in return. His body reacts as it should to bring about reproduction, but he cannot ever consciously follow through on that impulse. Instead, [Spoiler Alert!] he experiments in homosexuality with a man that he met in the military - in accordance with the typical homoerotic relationships that arise in such situations - and seems to be more sure of that identity in himself than anything else.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not equating having a homosexual son with being a bad mother. I'm getting to the point, in fact, where I think that raising a child who so clearly does not fulfill societal expectations would be the foremost indicator for me of success as a parent in this society. But I am seeing, over and over again, stories in which that first equation is being made. Perhaps Maguire only means it here as a further indicator of the damage that war can cause to those forced to participate in it, in a long line of similar texts including, for instance, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises - and indeed, the inability to function sexually is a common and documented effect of combat. Ultimately all that is certain, though, is that Liir himself does not feel entirely satisfied with his sexuality at the end of this story, and so neither does the reader - and thus we're left with that negative impression to apply where we will.

1 comment:

blue milk said...

Fascinating discussion. Have you read "We Need to Talk About Kevin"? - an exploration of the Bad Mother mythology. I'd love to read your take on it if so.