Date of Award

Spring 1999

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Sarah Way Sherman


This study asks the question, What happens to a practicing (fictional) mother who also tries to be a practicing artist? How do literary texts represent such people? How do they represent the relationship between material and artistic work? The primary works studied are Sarah Parton's Ruth Hall, (1855), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' The Story of Avis (1877), Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), and Margaret Drabble's The Millstone (1965). The conclusion focuses on Alice Walker's short story, "Everyday Use."

Mother-artists finds themselves on the "wrong" side of the nature/culture binary, where ideologies about "true womanhood" and good mothering, as well as the role of the "artist," play out in a variety of ways. The study finds striking similarities between the first and last novels studied: both Parton's Ruth and Drabble's Rosamund work successfully at their writing because they need to support their children. Rather than being a hindrance, the children are a motivation for these mothers to produce their writing. By working for the children, they can remain "good mothers." However, neither mother claims to be an "artist." The middle three novels focus on painters, who must deal with ideologies surrounding the artist: Sacred Fount and Ivory Tower, competing needs in a zero-sum game. This art/life binary defeats Phelp's Avis, who can only hope life will be better for her daughter. Chopin's Edna is even more thoroughly defeated: she drowns when she finds can be neither "mother-woman" nor "artist." Finally, Woolf overcomes the art/life dilemma by dividing it between her two characters, Lily Bricoe (artist) and Mrs. Ramsay (mother and "almost artist"). Significantly, this gap is healed, not by the middle-class White woman who "gets her act together" but by the Black woman who has been below the radar screen of ideologies about "true womanhood" or the "artist." Edna's Pontellier's unnamed Black nursemaid, who actually does Edna's mothering for her, seems to be resurrected in the mid-twentieth century as Alice Walker, whose quilting and gardening mothers can unite art and life in an aesthetic which values both community and immanence.