Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Comparative Literature (Interdepartmental Program)

First Advisor

Patrick McGee


Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale are narrated by women whose social identities are partially constructed through activities traditionally associated with mothering. In each text, maternity signifies a biological event as well as the social, sexual, and material relations involved with pregnancy, childbirth, and the nurturing and rearing of children, activities which become grounds for investigating the politics of the body, of sexuality, and consequently, of gender relations. Maternity becomes politicized within the cultural contexts of each novel as maternal experience functions to produce both feminist and postmodernist critiques. In The Golden Notebook, Lessing manipulates the representation of human emotion to produce social commentary, a technique evident in Bertolt Brecht's stage theory. Lessing's novel contains references to Brecht and uses dramaturgical metaphors to effect Anna Wulf's narrative strategy of emotional distancing. Lessing appropriates Brecht's notion of the gest through Anna's discourses on mother-child relations, which function to expose contradictions within the novel's "metanarratives" and to question the conventions of heterosexual romance ideology. In writing The Color Purple, Walker recreates a number of maternal ancesters who participate in the production of this novel as a "womanist" text. The maternal becomes a critical site for challenging forms of sexist and racist oppression, and through the dialogue of Celie's and Nettie's letters, Walker reconceptualizes a Judeo-Christian patriarchal God according to a maternal image. Through a parodic encoding of Jane Eyre in Nettie's narrative, Walker calls attention to women's literary history in an effort to accommodate African-American women writers. In The Handmaid's Tale, the patriarchal society of Gilead equates women's sexuality with the reproductive-maternal function. Read according to Luce Irigaray's critique of phallogocentrism, Atwood's novel exposes the role of scopophilia in Gilead's subordination of women and its regulation of their sexuality. Visual metaphors such as the convex mirror and its reflection of masculinity in the pregnant Handmaid signify the repression of the feminine. Atwood's textual echoes of John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," like Irigaray's subversive mimicry, serve to deconstruct the specular logic of Gilead's patriarchy.