Critical Essay on Complexities of Motherhood in Lionel Shriver's 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' and Carol Ann Duffy's 'The World's Wife'

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The theme of motherhood is a key one in both the novel ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver and the collection of poems ‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy. Motherhood is seen as a key element of the female experience, and both texts explore the connection between motherhood, femininity, and the way in which women navigate motherhood in a patriarchal society. In the novel ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, Shriver uses the epistolary narrative through the perspective of Eva Khatchadourian, mother to Kevin, to tell the story of Kevin’s childhood and the events leading up to him committing a horrific school shooting in which he murders nine people. Eva comes to terms with her own ambivalence towards motherhood, and the role this may have played in driving Kevin to extremity, sparking a ‘nature vs nurture’ debate. This debate focuses on whether and to what extent human behavior is determined by environmental factors, such as their childhood and the way they were raised, or by genetic factors, such as DNA, exploring the complexity of parenting, and in this case, motherhood. Similarly, in the collection of poems ‘The World’s Wife’, Duffy creates female counterparts to prominent male figures from history and mythology, exploring both through the perspective of women. This allows her to tackle motherhood in its extremes and intricacies through her use of the female narrative, as a way to reinsert women and their perspectives into these great stories. Motherhood and feminist theory have many ‘complex intersections’, and feminism cannot remain relevant without acknowledging motherhood in all its contradictions and complexities, which both Dufy and Shriver do not shy away from tackling. The poems in particular in which Duffy tackles motherhood are ‘Queen Herod’, ‘Thetis’, ‘Demeter’ and ‘Pope Joan’. In the poem ‘Queen Herod’, Duffy subverts the biblical tale of King Herod, which tells the story of the king ordering the murder of all the boys in Bethlehem aged two or under after hearing the prophecy that a new king has been born. He views this new king as a threat to his own leadership and therefore orders the killing of all the newborn boys. Similarly, in ‘Queen Herod’, Duffy tells a story in which the Queen is instead visited by three wise women who warn her of a man who will threaten her daughter’s well-being. In response to this, Queen Herod orders the killing of all the newborn sons, to protect her daughter. This is significant because it presents the extreme lengths of motherhood and motherly love in contrast to Eva’s ambivalence. Both the poems ‘Thetis’ and ‘Demeter’ are based on mothers from Greek mythology. ‘Thetis’ was a notably ambitious and protective mother to her son and would go to extreme lengths to ensure his protection. At the end of the poem, Thetis reflects on the impact and changes motherhood has had upon her, especially in relation to the expectations placed upon her by the patriarchal society. Similarly, ‘Demeter’ is also a retelling of the Greek myth, in which the goddess Demeter plunges the world into winter to deal with the grief of her daughter being kidnapped. In ‘Pope Joan’, Pope Joan begins by living as the only female pope within the Catholic religion before deciding that she no longer wants to be a part of this male-dominated religion. She eventually becomes the closest to God when she gives birth to her baby at the end of the poem, and realizes that women’s power through motherhood is more meaningful than any male power.

The use of perspective is key in both texts, allowing the concept of motherhood to be explored in its complexities from women’s point of view. ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is written in the form of the epistolary narrative, and through using Eva’s perspective, Shriver is able to highlight the ambivalence that Eva shows towards motherhood. We are able to see this from the moment of Kevin’s birth, when Eva describes feeling nothing for Kevin, and “even hating the baby” as she is going through childbirth. As a first insight, for the reader, into Eva’s attitude towards motherhood, this foreshadows the difficult relationship Eva has with Kevin as he grows older. As soon as Kevin is born, she associates him with her “own limitations - not just suffering, but defeat”. Eva associates the birth of her son with defeat, due to her own stubbornness. She holds out through a long and painful labor when birthing Kevin, refusing to take any anesthesia, and therefore associates him with pain and suffering from the moment he is born. Shriver explores the presumably unthinkable in regards to motherhood - the inability to connect with your child, to even dislike or hate your child as Eva does. By placing expectations upon motherhood and the way mothers experience it, the actual experience will always fall short. Eva expected to fall in love with her child as soon as he was born, but these expectations caused her to feel disappointment and hatred instead. This also further allows Shriver to discuss the guilt Eva feels for not being able to love her child. She was “ashamed of herself”, and these feelings that Eva describes in the aftermath of Kevin’s birth are in fact perceived as the opposite to how mothers are expected to feel towards their newborn children. The notion that mothers are expected to unconditionally love their children from birth is reinforced within society through the blame that is immediately placed on mothers when a child does something wrong. This supports the ‘nurture’ argument in the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate; if mothers are not able to express their love for their children, it can result in them growing up and being unable to function within society, as Kevin demonstrates. Therefore, the idea that mothers should love their children is strongly reinforced because the alternative leads to potential harm to their children and others. The expectations of these ideas of unconditional love are presented through Eva’s guilt in not feeling an immediate connection with Kevin, and we are only able to see these thoughts through Shriver’s use of Eva’s narrative.

On the other hand, Duffy also uses the first-person perspective in the poem ‘Queen Herod’, but instead to show the extreme lengths that Queen Herod would go to protect her daughter. This originally alludes to a more accepted version of motherhood than that which Eva displays - one in which a mother would do anything to protect her child, yet Duffy challenges this through her use of violent imagery to describe Queen Herod’s love. She says that no man will make her shed one tear and that she would “wade through blood for her sleeping girl”. The violent and graphic nature of the imagery used implies the strength of the love the queen feels for her daughter. By ordering the killing of all newborn sons, just to protect her daughter from men, we can see her immediate connection and urge to protect that she has developed towards her child, which directly contrasts the way Eva feels towards Kevin. However, the murderous nature of Queen Herod’s love is not synonymous with the expectations of femininity and motherhood, these are instead usually linked to more stereotypically demure qualities, and Duffy subverts those expectations through the brutality in the way that the queen chooses to protect her daughter, and therefore suggesting that even within a modern society the expectations held around gender roles have not changed, and motherhood is still associated with the demurity of femininity. Both Shriver and Duffy are able to use the direct thoughts and feelings of mothers to highlight both extremes of the spectrum of motherhood and by viewing motherhood through the preconceived notions and expectations of society, it ultimately results in the criticism of both of these responses to motherhood.

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Another important aspect of motherhood, explored through these texts, is the role that the patriarchy - the ideological system of male authority, even domination, in the socio-political sphere - plays in motherhood and the effect this has on mothers as they navigate this experience. One aspect of patriarchy, as defined through feminist theory, is a “sexual hierarchy, which is manifested as in the woman’s role as mother”. As the patriarchy revolves around the roles of women solely as mothers, it results in the centering of men within motherhood, which is inherently an experience that men do not have. This nature of motherhood that does not include men means it faces challenges in a patriarchal society such as the demand on mother’s time and emotions, which stem from the patriarchal expectations that women should ‘sacrifice themselves for their children and husbands’. This is because the patriarchy views women’s sole role in society as childbirth and child-rearing, and so they are expected to give up everything for this. Hence, in ‘The World’s Wife’, Thetis attempts to combat these expectations through her metamorphism, to start with she “shrinks herself to the size of a bird” until she “felt the squeeze of his fist”. Then she changes into “an albatross” only to feel her “wings be clipped by the squint of a crossbow’s eye”. She then transforms into a “snake” only then to feel “the grasp of his strangler’s clasp at her nape”. In each instance, regardless of what form she takes, she is always brought down by a man, using physical force, suggesting that she cannot ever escape the grasp of the power that the men hold over her, so at the end of the poem, she still ends up married and having a child due to the pressure from the men around her. This suggests that the expectations of the patriarchy have the ability to influence the decisions of many women, regardless of what they truly want. Thetis says that childbirth “turned [her] inside out”. Despite her efforts to reject the roles expected of her, she had to “change” and “learn”. The abrupt tone along with the use of short sentences, at the end of the poem, implies that the change she had to make was not one she made willingly, but rather one she was forced to make, which is indicative of the pressure she faced to get married and have children. The imagery invoked through her being turned inside out is both symbolic of the literal and metaphorical. Childbirth literally caused her body to change, which indicates the immense toll that giving birth physically took on her, but it also invokes the idea that motherhood itself is an experience that turned her life inside out. The negative connotations associated with this are indicative of the immense pressure of childbirth placed upon women and the life-changing effect this can have on them, and this can be particularly harmful, as this pressure is an example of the patriarchy dictating a female-orientated experience, creating a disconnect between the expectations of motherhood and the actual experience of motherhood.

However, Thetis’ change, at the end of the poem, could also be viewed positively. Her being ‘turned inside out’ indicates the way maternal love - through childbirth - allowed a change in her attitudes towards masculinity. Similar to Pope Joan, she is able to realize the power that motherhood itself gives her in a patriarchal society. Pope Joan has a final realization at the end of her poem that her ability to give birth and her connection to motherhood gives her power in a male-dominated religion, because it is an experience that the male-centric world of the church does not have. Despite all her time in the Catholic Church, “the closest she felt to the power of God” was through childbirth, because her realization of the power she holds in being able to bring about life allowed her a deeper connection to God than that of the male-dominated institution of religion. The excitement of childbirth is conveyed through the repetition of “lifting me, flinging me down”. In the same way as Thetis, this imagery could also be invoked as both literal and metaphorical. While this could connote the physical experience of childbirth, the sense of being lifted by God creates a connection between her and God that she is only able to experience because she is giving birth. The use of the repetition indicates the strength of the connection and invokes the feeling of ecstasy that Joan associates with the power of childbirth.

Arguably, however, the most fundamental facet of motherhood is maternal love. When both Duffy and Shriver tackle motherhood, they also highlight the unconditional love and yearning mother’s display for their children, through Eva and Demeter, respectively. Regardless of the losses that the mothers face, the love they hold for their children is still very evident. In ‘The World’s Wife’, Demeter is described as nursing her “broken heart”, as she yearns for her missing daughter. The use of harsh, cold imagery to depict Demeter “sat in her cold stone room” shows the internal pain she feels through the separation from her daughter. In Greek mythology, it is said that Demeter externalizes this pain through the creation of the season of winter, which suggests the strength of her love for her daughter. Through the structure of the poem, Duffy creates a volta, triggered by the return of Demeter’s daughter, which acts as both a literal season shift, from winter to spring, as she describes her daughter as “bringing all spring’s flowers”, but also as a tonal shift from the pain she feels from the loss of her daughter to the joy she feels in her return. This is similar to the eventual way in which Eva also feels joy and acceptance in her son’s ultimate return, despite all the pain she has suffered. Demeter’s use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ when describing “my daughter, my girl” solidifies the emotional connection she has to her daughter, and by placing this poem at the end of the book, Duffy leaves the reader with an insight into the unconditionality of maternal love, in the same way that Shriver is able to do this by having Eva finally say “I love my son” at the end of the novel, and finally admitting to herself that despite everything, after eighteen years, that she does love Kevin. This emphasizes the strength and importance of motherly love, and through these final lines and Eva’s ultimate acceptance of her son, Shriver is able to suggest that the foundation of motherhood boils down to unconditional love and acceptance. Eva’s journey as a mother, particularly with Kevin, is brought to a conclusion as Eva ends her final letter with a reference to Kevin’s “copy of Robin Hood”, which was Kevin’s favorite childhood book and serves to reiterate the mother-child relationship that lies at the core of the novel. The final line “And the sheets are clean” symbolizes the ‘clean slate’ mindset that Eva has reached, and also acts as a turning point, such as in the poem ‘Demeter’. However, by placing the turning point at the end of the novel, it allows the reader to form their own opinions on Eva and Kevin as mother and son and emphasizes the scrutiny that motherhood faces. Eva’s acceptance of Kevin may be considered controversial because of the atrocious and extreme nature of Kevin’s actions, yet she may also have faced criticism for being a ‘bad mother’ if she didn’t accept and love Kevin. This shows that motherhood as a construct is impossible to uphold in light of the scrutiny it endures from society, and instead motherhood should focus on the individual desires of mothers and the idea that “how a person mothers a particular child is influenced by that individual child’s reaction to that style of mothering”, suggesting that placing expectations upon motherhood doesn’t allow mothers the freedom to tailor motherhood to fit the needs of their children, resulting in them carrying the full burden if their children do not become functioning members of society.

Both texts explore the complexities of motherhood from different perspectives, particularly through using the extremes of the traits of mothering. Shriver and Duffy fundamentally present motherly love as an unconditional acceptance, while also acknowledging and exploring the complications and responsibility that mother’s face with bringing and raising a life within this society. Although motherhood in itself is a powerful experience, the pressure of navigating a female-orientated experience in a patriarchal society places unattainable expectations upon motherhood, and it is these expectations of motherhood that ultimately both writers critique through their respective texts.

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Critical Essay on Complexities of Motherhood in Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-essay-on-complexities-of-motherhood-in-lionel-shrivers-we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-and-carol-ann-duffys-the-worlds-wife/
“Critical Essay on Complexities of Motherhood in Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’.” Edubirdie, 19 Sept. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/critical-essay-on-complexities-of-motherhood-in-lionel-shrivers-we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-and-carol-ann-duffys-the-worlds-wife/
Critical Essay on Complexities of Motherhood in Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-essay-on-complexities-of-motherhood-in-lionel-shrivers-we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-and-carol-ann-duffys-the-worlds-wife/> [Accessed 23 Apr. 2024].
Critical Essay on Complexities of Motherhood in Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 19 [cited 2024 Apr 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-essay-on-complexities-of-motherhood-in-lionel-shrivers-we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-and-carol-ann-duffys-the-worlds-wife/
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