In discussing Alice Sebold’s new book, which is fascinating and brilliantly original, I’ll try to reveal only what Helen Knightly herself, the first-person narrator, says in the first line: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” The rest (the development of the plot, the setting and the many well-rounded characters, certain episodes that, once read, are unforgettable) the reader should discover for himself, following the rhythm of the sentences. The writer of a novel works deliberately, persistently, to make the story generate a chain reaction of emotions, and evoke feelings that have the same truth and power as those of everyday life. Since Alice Sebold has done this so skillfully, why ruin her work by summarizing the plot?
I will take off instead from that initial statement, with its astonishing harshness. Is Helen serious? Can a daughter murder her own mother almost without qualms?
One has to read the entire novel to find an answer. While stories of patricide have a long and complex male tradition, those of matricide are much less firmly rooted in the imagination and so are less predictable. The literary, fundamental story of a daughter who kills her mother is rare. We have Electra, of course, but the myth and the plays, while leaving us with moments and phrases that one could reflect on forever, combine her motivations with the male ones of her brother Orestes: the mother is killed by mandate of the race, to avenge the father. We must come to our own time to find stories (though still very few) of daughters who, painfully examining their relationship with their mother, either plan to kill her or actually kill her, impelled by the unique substance of that relationship—as if only now we had begun to feel that we, too, had the right to portray our muddiest depths.
Why has the novel so infrequently visited the most obscure areas of the mother-daughter relationship, sugarcoating hatred and homicidal urges with love? Is it a matter of a rare female impulse? Is its existence known only to women, thus making it a territory where the male high literary tradition couldn’t raise its standard? Is the cultural inhibition too powerful for a staging of the crime of crimes?
I don’t think so. Psychoanalysis, in the course of the twentieth century, devoted a great deal of study to the role of the maternal image in our lives, and told us, certainly more than literature, about the female hatred of the mother’s body that Freud, in “Dora’s case,” calls “furious.” Freud’s words are mixed up, uncertain, at times astonishing (I refer also to Female Sexuality, of 1931), but they have the great virtue of touching on unnamed areas: the hatred of the mother for the daughter, of the daughter for the mother. Melanie Klein realized this and worked on it seriously, making matricide central. Thanks to her, today the mother’s body is at the origin of both the good and, especially, the bad feelings of the human animal.
But why did Electra hesitate so long to reveal her darkest motivations against Clytemnestra? I would offer the hypothesis that the narrative of the murder of the mother by the hand of the daughter reveals to us daughters such a thick mixture of different poisons that it is difficult to put them in order on the page. You say one thing and others escape. In the end the essence isn’t there and, besides, you feel dirty.
Sebold’s undertaking has the virtue of facing up to this difficulty. She uses a tone of dry-eyed, ironic confession. The story of the matricide and its consequences is broken up by brief flashbacks that present the story of her heroine’s relationship with her mother, starting in childhood. Sebold turns aside from the most obvious course, that of an adolescent’s rebellious excesses, and assigns the crime to a mature woman, a mother herself, who carries out her act with utter awareness. Sebold never pushes the story outside a realistic view of the facts or in the direction of psychoanalytic symbolism. Yet the micro-actions, in particular, of the plot suggest secret places. In killing her mother, Helen transforms her into a doll-daughter, and she cleans off the defecation, washes her, dresses her, as in the game of a child who pretends she’s the mother of an infant. Helen feels the weight of the corpse of the woman who gave her life and thinks of the weight of the body of a lover who abandons himself exhausted after coitus. She continuously records erotic details of the mother’s body, as if to write the history of the attraction that that body has exercised over her, from early infancy to the day of the murder. Helen loathes her mother, envies and hates her, has always considered her evil, and, like Electra, judges her guilty of having destroyed her father. Helen has taken care of her from childhood, has tried to protect her, above all, from being a bad mother, a demented mother and hence incapable of disguising her hostility through the rituals of the apparently good mother.
Without simplifying, but with naturalness, Sebold holds together the most varied emotions. As I was reading The Almost Moon I thought: no, this book is not only a story of matricide but also a story of love, the “furious” love, of a daughter for her mother.
But what, in essence, is a daughter’s love for her mother? To describe that love seriously is for a daughter a truly complex undertaking. In Italian literature Elsa Morante has done it best, but there is still much to do. Clearing the field of every idealization, one quickly realizes that the very word “love,” which can mean so many types of love according to the context, applied to the mother’s body means nothing. That doesn’t matter in the case of primers, educational books, or books of consolation. But if one decides to do this seriously one must choose adjectives, new phrasings (like Euripides’ Electra, who, almost at the point of killing her mother, twists the words, finally calling her “the unloved beloved”), and even then one is not content. One has to be bold and invent verbal devices that sound unpleasant, if unpleasantness in literature means eliminating beauty out of faithfulness to living experience, to its truth. Stories of matricide are rare because, like Pascal, they bring knowledge of ourselves to the point of loathing and compel us to deviate from the pleasantness of the models that have always reassured us.
Sebold derails us, but—note—not when Helen does terrible things; rather, it’s when she makes us perceive that Helen’s love for her mother, and pity for her, can be manifested only as hatred, in an attachment that enslaves, in an anxious dependence that destroys us in our depths and that, it seems, can be eliminated only by annihilating in us, through envy, through hatred, its elusive phantom. Only in the passages where I felt this unpleasantness—the discovery that the Freudian “furious hatred” of daughters is an animal impulse that can’t be tamed—did it also seem to me that I found the answer to the initial question: Is Helen serious when she says that murdering her mother came easily?
Yes, I think so. It’s the intolerable destructive power of this bond that makes the act of matricide easy. Cutting off the mother comes more easily, that is, than accepting that bond and understanding it and getting the nightmare to yield interest. This is an extraordinarily difficult story. Sebold helps us to think about it.
Translated by Ann Goldstein
Elena Ferrante is the author of The Days of Abandonment
, Troubling Love
, and The Lost Daughter
, forthcoming from Europa Editions.
This article first appeared in the La Repubblica, November 2008