University of Delaware Library
Bookmark and Share

Mother-Daughter Relationships
in Contemporary Fiction

All women writers are daughters, and many of them are mothers. Their natural fascination with the emotional bonds between daughters and mothers has led them to create stories about complex and varied relationships, some autobiographical in nature. In The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, Amy Tan tells the stories of American daughters of Chinese mothers who, like herself, find it difficult to share their mothers' values and cultural traditions. The sexual abuse and poverty that Dorothy Allison suffered figures in her novel Bastard Out of Carolina about a young woman abandoned by her mother for a life of respectability. Jamaica Kincaid depicts the painful conflict between mother and daughter during a girl's growth to adulthood in Annie John, while Sethe of Toni Morrison's Beloved is haunted by her decision to murder her daughter in order to save her from slavery.

These well-known novels, as well as works by Mona Simpson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Janet Fitch, Julia Alvarez, and Julianna Baggott are featured in Mother-Daughter Relationships in Contemporary Fiction. The exhibition, on display from October 14, 2003 through January 23, 2004, includes films, anthologies, and critical essays on the literature.

Journeys | Secrets of the Past | Sharing the Stories of Family History | Communication | Anthologies and Critical Essays on the Literature | Additional Reading


The theme of a mother-daughter journey can be seen in a number of contemporary novels. Delia of Dorothy Allison's Cavedweller packs her rebellious daughter Cissy into a broken-down Datsun and drives to Georgia to find the two small children she left behind when she fled an abusive husband. Anney of Bastard Out of Carolina refuses to stop searching for a marriage that will give her a home and legitimize her daughter. Hideous Kinky is the story of Lucy, the five-year-old daughter of Julia, a hippie mother of the sixties who travels with her two young daughters to Marrakech to pursue spiritual satisfaction. Moving from Utah and California to Alaska, Nicole Stansbury's novel Places to Look for a Mother charts Miriam's search for self discovery and its effect on her two daughters.

Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Plume, 1993.
Allison, Dorothy. Cavedweller. New York: Dutton, 1998.
Freud, Esther. Hideous Kinky. New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1998.
Stansbury, Nicole. Places to Look for a Mother. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002.

Secrets of the Past

Secrets of the past, especially those concerning an absent father, often come between the mother and daughter of novels, threatening their relationship. A mother who attempts to protect her daughter from truths she believes will hurt her often encounters resentment and anger, while openness can bring new understanding. In Janet Fitch's White Oleander, Astrid forces her mother Ingrid, a brilliant poet imprisoned for murder, to reveal the story of her failed marriage and abandonment of her daughter, who was left with a neighbor for an afternoon that turned into a year. Miriam Starobin of Half a Heart by Rosellen Brown confronts the biracial daughter she has not seen for seventeen years. Lissy of Julianna Baggott's Girl Talk looks back on the summer when her mother confessed the truth about her real father. In It May Not Leave a Scar by Milam McGraw Propst, "Sister" discovers the secret of a family suicide, kept for years by her alcoholic mother.

Baggott, Julianna. Girl Talk. New York: Pocket Books, 2001.
Brown, Rosellen. Half a Heart. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
Fitch, Janet. White Oleander: A Novel. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.
Propst, Milam McGraw. It May Not Leave a Scar: A Novel. Macon, Ga.: Mercer U, 2001.

Sharing the Stories of Family History

The importance of sharing the stories of family history is emphasized in mother-daughter novels such as The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife. Amy Tan tells the stories of American daughters of Chinese mothers who resent their mother's expectations and values until they come to understand the personal histories of their cultural heritage. Camila of Julia Alvarez's In the Name of Salomé comes to terms with her colorful heritage, as the exiled daughter of the Dominican poet Salomé Ureña. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells follows a group of three lifelong friends who help Siddalee, a young theater producer, discover the truth about her complicated, eccentric mother.

Alvarez, Julia. In the Name of Salomé: A Novel. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Putnam's, 1989.
Tan, Amy. The Kitchen God's Wife. New York: Putnam, 1991.
Wells, Rebecca. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.


The inability of a mother and daughter to communicate is the subject of three contemporary novels. In Sights Unseen by Kaye Gibbons, Hattie finds it difficult to bond with her manic depressive mother. Jamaica Kincaid depicts the painful conflict between mother and daughter during a girl's growth to adulthood in Annie John. Sethe, the escaped slave of Toni Morrison's well-known novel Beloved, murders her daughter in order to save her from a life of slavery. She is haunted by her daughter's memory in the form of a ghost, who accuses her mother of abandonment and refuses to listen to Sethe's explanations.

Gibbons, Kaye. Sights Unseen. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.
Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Anthologies and Critical Essays on the Literature

The exhibition includes anthologies and critical essays on the literature.

Bell-Scott, Patricia, ed. Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters. Boston: Beacon, 1991.
Crew, Hilary S. Is It Really Mommie Dearest?: Daughter-Mother Narratives in Young Adult Fiction. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2000.
Santiago, Esmeralda and Joie Davidow, eds. Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Manguel, Alberto, ed. Mothers & Daughters: An Anthology. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 1998.
Pearlman, Mickey. Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature. New York: Greenwood, 1989.
Winfrey, Oprah. Journey to Beloved. New York: Hyperion, 1998.

A number of film and audio-cassette versions of mother-daughter novels are displayed in the exhibition.

Anywhere But Here. Dir. Wayne Wang.1999. Perf. Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. DVD. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2000.
Bastard Out of Carolina. Dir. Anjelica Huston. Perf. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jena Malone. 1996. Videocassette. BMG Video, 1997.
Beloved. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. DVD. 1998. Buena Vista Pictures, 1999.
Hideous Kinky. Dir. Gillies MacKinnon. Perf. Kate Winslet and Said Taghmaoui. 1998. DVD. Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1999.
The Joy Luck Club. Dir. Wayne Wang. 1993. Videocassette. Buena Vista Pictures, 1994.
White Oleander. Dir. Peter Kosminsky. Perf. Michelle Pfeiffer, Alison Lohman, and Robin Wright Penn. 2002. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2003.

Additional Reading

Dawson, Carol. The Waking Spell: A Novel. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1992.
Fielding, Helen. Bridget Jones's Diary: A Novel. New York: Viking, 1998.
Flynt, Candice. Mother Love. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U, 2003.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Knopf, 1976.
Mantel, Hilary. Every Day Is Mother's Day. New York: H. Holt, 2000.
Miller, Sue. The Good Mother. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Ng, Mei. Eating Chinese Food Naked: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 1998.
Ozick, Cynthia. The Shawl. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Phillips, Jayne Anne. MotherKind: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Seton, Nora Janssen. The Kitchen Congregration. New York: Picador USA, 2000.
Shields, Carol. Unless. New York: Fourth Estate, 2002.
Strout, Elizabeth. Amy and Isabelle: A Novel. New York: Random House, 1998.
Tan, Amy. The Bonesetter's Daughter. New York: G.P. Putnam's, 2001.

Alexander, Simone A. James. Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women. Columbia: U of Missouri, 2001.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in the 20th- Century Literature. Austin: U of Texas, 1996.
Burstein, Janet. Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters: Tracing the Maternal in Stories by American Jewish Women. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1996.
Carter, Susanne. Mothers and Daughters in American Short Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography of Twentieth-Century Women's Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993.
Davidson, Cathy N. and E.M. Broner, eds. The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature. New York: F. Ungar, 1980.
Giorgio, Adalgisa. Writing Mothers and Daughters: Renegotiating the Mother in Western European Narratives by Women. New York: Berghahn Books, 2002.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother Daughter Plot: Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana U, 1989.

Ho, Wendy. In Her Mother's House: The Politics of Asian American Mother-Daughter Writing. Walnut Creek: AltaMira, 1999.
Ingman, Heather, ed. Mothers and Daughters in the Twentieth Century: A Literary Anthology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U, 1999.
Ingman, Heather. Women's Fiction Between the Wars: Mothers, Daughters, and Writing. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.
Kamel, Rose Yalow. Aggravating the Conscience: Jewish-American Literary Mothers in the Promised Land. New York: P. Lang, 1988.
Kearns, Caledonia. Motherland: Writings by Irish American Women About Mothers and Daughters. New York: W. Morrow, 1999.
Kendall, Elizabeth. American Daughter: Discovering My Mother. New York: Random House, 2000.
Koppelman, Susan, ed. Between Mothers and Daughters: Stories Across a Generation. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1985.
Malin, Jo. The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth-Century Women's Autobiographies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U, 2000.

Oates, Joyce Carol and Janet Berliner, eds. Snapshots: 20th-Century Mother Daughter Fiction. Boston: David R. Godine, 2000.
Reid, Catherine and Holly Iglesias, eds. Every Woman I've Ever Loved: Lesbian Writers on Their Mothers. San Francisco: Cleis, 1997.
Warloe, Constance and Hilma Wolitzer, eds. I've Always Meant to Tell You: Letters to Our Mothers: An Anthology of Contemporary Women Writers. New York: Pocket Books, 1997.
Warren, Nagueyalti and Sally Wolff, eds. Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U, 1999.

Return to list of exhibits

Back to the UD Special Collections Home Page

Questions or comments to

This page is maintained by Special Collections.

  • UD Library Special Collections  •   181 South College Avenue  •   Newark, DE 19717-5267  •   USA
    Phone: USA +1 302-831-2229  •   ©2014