How central is motherhood to the conception of gender identity in Marge Piercy’s ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ and Angela Carter’s ‘The Passion of New Eve’.

Tess Howard

Applying several Feminist literary and social theories, this essay looks at the novels of Angela Carter’s ‘The Passion of New Eve’ and Marge Piercy’s ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, and discusses each text’s representation of the ideologies of motherhood and how these ideologies have contributed to the construction of gender inequality in contemporary society.


The 1970’s, for Britain and America, can be largely characterised for it’s public un-rest, social upheaval and economic decline. However for ‘Second wave Feminism’ and the Women’s Liberation Movement the 1970’s spelt development, especially in the field of Feminist theory. The era saw further development in radical and socialist feminism, concerned with looking at the reasons behind female oppression, and the birth of such influential feminist literary theories as Ecriture feminine [1]. With many feminists of the time wishing to break the silence[2] and ‘rediscover the lost work of women writers while providing a context that would be supportive to contemporary women writers’[3]. When looking for answers on the reasons or causes of the inequality between men and women many feminist theorists believe that the answer is rooted in women’s reproductive function and motherhood as a whole. Within this essay I wish to discuss the ways in which both Marge Piercy and Angela Carter approach and react to this issue in their novels, ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ and ‘The Passion of New Eve’, both of which were published during the 1970’s. On top of this I aim to discuss whether each book relates to the era with which it was published in terms of social conventions and feminist theoretical development. And finally I will aim to highlight each author’s representation of gendered roles and their relation to the construction of society as well as to the ideologies of motherhood.

Connie, the protagonist of Marge Piercy’s ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, can be seen to represent the image of the ‘sorrowful mother’ in the novel. The image, of which has been ingrained into the western psyche, depicted by the religious imagery of the original ‘sorrowful mother’, The Virgin Mary. Throughout the novel Connie’s reference to her suffering and the absence of her child remains constant, “Tears for […] Angelina adopted into a suburban white family […] she should have loved her better […]”[4], and, like Mary, Connie’s suffering can be seen to act as a self validation of her motherhood in the absence of her child, Margeret Bruzelius comments on this, she says, ‘As an image of motherhood […] her child is the only source of her meaning and […] her suffering the validation of her motherhood.’[5] This longing can arguably be seen to both benefit and disadvantage Connie. Advantageously Connie’s suffering, and her longing of a semblance of the life she once had, acts as a catalyst and gives her the strength to fight against her situation, she says “ ‘If only they had left me something’ […] left me […] Claud, or Angelina […] I’d have bowed my head and kept down.” (pp.371) Disadvantageously, her ill treatment of her daughter is continually used as a weapon against her and works as ‘proof’ in branding her insane, “You don’t want to hurt someone close to you again, do you Connie? You have a recurrent disease […]” (pp.373) Connie is seen to only identify herself as firstly, a mother and secondly, as branded insane, this is highlighted in the fact that Connie can only recognise the benefits of Mattapoisett society when seeing it as a home for her child, she says “Yes you can have my child […] she will be strong there, well fed, well housed, well taught, she will grow up much better and stronger and smarter than I.” (pp.141) It could be argued that, the fact that Connie only identifies herself as a mother, yet has no one to mother, has led to the development of her second identity, that of mentally ill. This could also be seen to be the reason to why she struggles to become anything more than a childless mother. Angela Carter in her book ‘The Sadein Woman and the Ideology of Pornography’ comments on women, like Connie, who only identify themselves as being a mother, she says “because she is the channel of life, woman as mythic mother lives at one remove from life. A woman who defines herself through her fertility has no other option.”[6]

With this in mind it is fair to say that Connie is representative of the traditional female role as solely being mother, she can be seen to highlight the female variety of ‘the socially constructed attributes and ‘performed roles’ that are mapped out on to biologically sexed bodies […]’ Dorothy Dinnerstein explains the origins of these ‘gender arrangements’, she says

Our male-female arrangements have developed out of central pressures- bodily,

 technological, emotional- inherent in our species past. They are ramifications of

 a core fact- predominantly female responsibility for the early care […] of […] young[7].

In other words women’s position will not change until women’s biology does, Dinnerstein expands on this, she says ‘as long as it is women who are mainly in charge of children the double standard will survive’[8] Piercy responds to this theory by creating a contrasting setting to the modern day western world with which Connie (and most likely the reader) lives in, that of the utopian futuristic society of Mattapoisett.

Mattapoisett embodies a society where the ‘predominantly female responsibility [.] of […] young’[9] has been broken, without compromising the dependant child. By artificially growing embryos Mattapoisett society replaces natural procreation with “mother the machine.” (pp.102) The character of Luciente explains “there was […] one thing we had to give up too […] in return for no power for anyone […] the power to give birth.” (pp.103). As this quote highlights, the contrasting characters of Luciente and Connie can be said to represent the opposing feminist arguments on equal parental involvement, Dinnerstein comments on this, “it is one thing to want change in […] the status of women, it is quite another […] to start tampering with motherhood.’[10] Opposingly to Luciente, Connie can be seen to represent this, arguably, short sightedness, she says, “how dare any man share that pleasure […] they had abandoned to men the last refuge of women. What was special about being a woman here?” (pp.134) In creating the victimised character of Connie in having this view, I feel Piercy is commenting on the destructiveness, for women, as a whole, in holding the theory that motherhood, as a birthright to womanhood, holds them pre-eminently above men, Carter also comments on this, she says “This theory of maternal superiority is one of the most damaging of all consolatory fictions.”[11] In creating the society of Mattapoisett, where the traditional family dynamics have been transformed so that both male and female parents, or ‘mothers’, have an equal connection to the child, Piercy has also succeeded in resolving the ‘Oedipal dilemma’[12], between an ‘old love’ (pp.48) for the mother and ‘the possibility of adding a new one’ (pp.48) in the shape of the father, as both relationships, or ‘loves’ are developed equally. In levelling parental responsibilities Piercy’s Mattapoisett has allowed for a truly androgynous society where by all social constructions of gender and their associated roles have been negated in all realms of life, and thus negating the idea of the female as the ‘second sex’.[13]

And finally, on top of this Piercy not only subverts the reality of patriarchy but also creates a society where patriarchy will never be able to exist again, I will explain by using a quote from Mary O’Brien, she says

The male parent […] counteracts the limitations of the maternal particularity until […]

 the male child can […] proceed to take his place in the larger male- dominant

society which meets the young man’s need to become a patriarch himself.[14]

Piercy presents a parental practice which bridges the paternal gap between male parent and child, negating the ideology of maternal ‘limitations’ and therefore the ‘young man’s need to become a patriarch’ and thus, breaking the cycle of patriarchy. The narrative setting of utopian Mattapoisett has allowed for Piercy to present these deconstructions of traditional western ideologies and perceptions of gender, as well as the stereotyped roles of parenthood applied to each opposing binary of masculinity and femininity. Allowing her to present an alternative to women who, like Connie, only identify themselves in terms of motherhood, Mary O’Brien comments on this, she says ‘Utopians advocated a total deconstruction and rebuilding of society, a breaking up of all values and a rejection of all conventional morality.’[15]

 Like Piercy, Angela Carter’s use of phantasmagoric imagery and settings in ‘The Passion of New Eve’ also aids her in the questioning of conventional social ideologies. One such setting is that of the insular, solely matriarchal, society of Beulah home to the “self-annointed, self-appointed prophetess”[16] “Mother” (pp.46). As both seductive and terrifying, mother can be seen to symbolise the repressed mother figure in the western male psyche, “there was nowhere to hide my head except in her bosom and I was too frightened of her to do that.” (pp.63) and, as “the personified and self-fulfilling fertility”, (pp.54) mother can be seen to represent ‘Earth Mother’. Simone de Beauvoir describes the ‘Earth Mother’ as,

[…] night in the entrails of the earth. Man is frightened of this night, the reverse

 of fecundity, which threatens to swallow him up […] lost forever as he falls

 back into the maternal shadows- cave, abyss, hell.[17]

Carter has invoked the imagery of this quote throughout the novel. Firstly in the imagery of Beulah as ‘the entrails of the earth’; “down a pathed throat into the depths of the earth […] I arrived […] in the woman’s town […]” (pp.45) Secondly in Evelyn’s journey ‘frightened of the night’ into ‘mothers maternal shadow’; “In this room lies the focus of darkness. She is the destination of all men […] the darkness that glides […]” (pp.55) And lastly in the ktenic imagery of Eve’s final journey back to the place of birth, where she is seen to ‘fall back into the maternal shadows- cave, abyss’; “Eve negotiates with the concrete regression of this cave. Eve returns to mother” (pp.176), “I emerged in a smaller cave […] almost filled with water that was now at blood heat […] filled with a familiar dim, red light […]” (pp177) However Evelyn is not ‘lost forever’, after he has transgressed to an Oedipal state and raped by mother, he is born again and executed, out of the metaphoric and literal ‘maternal shadow’, from mothers womb like society, as Eve. In creating Eve, Mother has aspirations of artificially impregnating her with a new Messiah from Evelyn’s preserved sperm and in the act rendering the matriarchy self-sufficient, “first of all beings in the world you can seed yourself and fruit yourself.” (pp.73) However, contrastingly to this, I feel that in mothers attempt, and the later successful impregnation of the transgendered Eve by Tristessa, Carter has negated the notion that motherhood is a purely female experience, whilst, ironically, recreating the image of The Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, although of course Eve’s virginity is only synthetic. For me this is not where the religious representation ends. Eve’s exit from Beulah, although willing, can be seen to invoke a mythological regression to the religious imagery of Eve, and Adam, being driven out of the Garden of Eden and the story of ‘The fall of Man’. However this biblical reference can be seen to be more sacrilegious than religious, as I feel it is a comment on the role of religion as a patriarchal tool, and justification, for female oppression. However, Carter is seen to subvert the idea of female suffering as a consequence of ‘The Fall’, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing […] your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”[18], in the fact that Evelyn is made to suffer for the sins of man, “Mother had selected me […] to atone for the sins of my first sex vis-à-vis my second sex via my sex itself […]” (pp.104), “And you’ve abused women Evelyn, with this delicate instrument that should have been used only for pleasure. You made a weapon of it!” (pp.62) “my feathered imagination thought that all the women in the world were seated there […] where my exemplary amputation was about to take place.” (pp.66) However in this subversion history can be seen to be switched and an antithesis of gendered oppression is repeated. In doing this Carter can be seen to question the supposed benefits of a purely matriarchal society, a question which is accentuated in the juxtaposition of Beulah, the matriarchal society, with the debased patriarchy of Zero’s dessert home, where his harem of women sit hierarchically lower than his pigs.

The patriarchal setting of Zero’s ranch house, contrastingly to the ktenic imagery of Beulah, is accentuated by the many instances of phallocentric imagery, much of which describes his wooden leg, “He was one legged […] and would poke his women with the artificial member when the mood took him.” (pp.82) “what he did with his wooden leg during intercourse; he merely let it lie beside him, like an extra but inert member”. Zero’s amputated leg as well as acting phallocentrically can also be seen to symbolise his infertility, along with the setting of the sterile desert, “the one thing Zero loved besides the sterility of the desert.” (pp.87) Zero’s harem and his treatment of them is a concentrated representation of a society dictated by male power and female powerlessness, “Zero’s matrimonial rota was very strict and absolutely regulated their lives; indeed, I was to learn they believed it predicated their very existence.” (pp.85) Again this is seen to contrast to the subversive matriarchal society whereby Zero’s harem of women are seen to echo God’s reprimand in ‘The Fall of Man’, as they suffer for their sex and their desires are only for their husband, Zero, who rules over them[19], “His wives […] so innocently consented to be less than human […] I was moved by an anger they were too much in love with him to feel.” (pp.105) Both the matriarchal society and the patriarchal society, along with their self appointed deity leaders, are represented negatively, the cult like society of Beulah as grotesque, and the animalistic patriarchal society of the desert ranch as abusive. Both are seen to be too female “a femaleness too vast, too gross” (pp.63), or too masculine “he was masculinity incarnate” (pp.89) to theoretically work. In presenting these juxtaposing female and male led societies as both equally negative Carter, like Piercy, can be seen to represent a post-feminist view by rejecting the present and historical social structure as well as some radical feminist ideologies of a female led society and instead, is promoting a social equilibrium. When making this point a quote by Virginia Woolf comes to mind, although I take it out of context, she says, ‘it is fatal to be a woman or a man pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly […] some marriage of opposites has to be consummated […]’[20]

Both Piercy and Carter can be seen to both question and highlight the limitations of traditional gendered roles and the un-even distribution of parental responsibility in ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ and ‘The Passion of New Eve’. Through the character of Connie, Piercy represents the destructiveness, for a woman and womankind, of only identifying oneself within the roles of motherhood which patriarchy has assigned them. And this, arguably, could be the root of the problem as a contributing factor to the cycle of patriarchy; women have not or do not question or fight against the roles assigned to them, not just in terms of motherhood but ‘femininity’ in general. In order to highlight this point Piercy negates the ideology of the supremacy of motherhood in creating the society of Mattapoisett, presenting an alternative to the traditional family dynamic. And in doing so negates the concept of an ‘old love’ for the mother, as both male and female parents are given equal responsibility in all aspects of parenthood, whether or not they are traditionally associated with the mother or the father. However realistic this alternative may be, women, and men for that matter, are able to question the socially constructed roles of gender and parental roles, which have been assigned to them. In the representation of the transgendered character of Eve, Carter is also questioning the ideology of motherhood, dismissing the idea that motherhood is the epitome of femininity and a purely female experience. In order to negate some radical feminist ideals of a wholly matriarchal society, and at the same time criticising the historical and present day patriarchal practices, Carter presents the two contrasting insular societies of Beulah and Zero’s desert ranch. Both the matriarchal and patriarchal societies are both seen as equally unappealing and destructive, and in doing so, taking a post-feminist viewpoint, Carter criticises the existence of a purely feminine or masculine society and instead promotes the theory of a social equilibrium. A viewpoint of which is made all the more poignant by Carter’s use of, and subversion, religious imagery. Both of the novels I have discussed can be seen to act as a medium in order for Piercy and Carter to comment on the role of motherhood in relation to female oppression. In reaction to this issue each author presents alternative societies in which to both highlight modern day social and cultural negatives in terms of parenthood as well as presenting the positives of a social equilibrium, prompting both men and women to question the constraints of western gender ideologies.


· Alsop, R, Fitzsimons, A and Lennon, K. ‘Theorizing Gender’, (Cambridge: Polity Press 2002)

· Bruzelius, M. ‘Mother’s Pain, Mother’s Voice: Gabriela Mistral, Julia Kristeva and the Mater Dolorosa, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 18: 2 (1999)

· Carter, A. ‘The Passion of New Eve’, (London: Virago Press 1982)

· Carter, A.‘The Sadein Woman and the Ideology of Pornography’, (New York: Pantheon Books 1979)

· De Beauvoire, S. ‘The Second Sex’, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1972)

· Dinnerstein, D.‘The Rocking of the Cradle and the Ruling of the World’, (London: The Women’s Press 1987)

· Eagleton, M. ‘Feminist Literary Theory: a reader’, (Oxford: Blackwell 1996)

· Hare-Mustin, R, T. ‘Family Change and Gender Differences: Implications for Theory and Practice’, Family Relations, 37: 1 (1988)

· Hansen, E, T. ‘Mother without Child: Contemporary Fiction and the Crisis of Motherhood’, American Literature, 7: 2 (1998)

· Holinger, V. ‘Feminist theory and Science fiction’, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,Accessed 6th January 2012

· Merrick, H. ‘Gender in science fiction’, The Cambridge Companion to ScienceFiction, Accessed 6th January 2012

· O’Brien, M. ‘ The Politics of Reproduction’, (London: Routledge 1981)

· Olsen, T. ‘Silences’, (London: Virago 1980)

· Piercy, M. ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, (London: Women’s Press Ltd 1979)

· Rubenstein, R. ‘Gender Metamorphosis in Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve and Lois Gould’s A Sea-Change’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 12: 1 (1993)

· Rooney, E. ed, ‘The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory’, (New York: Cambridge University Press 2006)

· Stirling, J. ed.,‘The Bible’, (London: Collins Clear-type Press 1953)

· Woolf, V. ‘A Room of One’s Own’, (London: Penguin 2004)

[1] Ecriture feminine or ‘women’s writing’, a strain of French feminist literary theory developed by Helen Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Monique Wittig, Chantal Chawaf in 1975.

[2] Tillie Olsen’s essay ‘Breaking the Silence’ first published in 1972 in her book ‘Silences’, which discusses the removal of women from the processes of speaking and writing and the need to resurrect this oral and written culture of women.

[3] Mary Eagleton, ‘Feminist Literary Theory: a reader’, (Oxford: Blackwell 1996) pp.01

[4] Marge Piercy, ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, (London: Women’s Press Ltd 1989) pp.62.

[5] Margeret Bruzelius, ‘Mother’s Pain, Mother’s Voice: Gabriela Mistral, Julia Kristeva and the Mater Dolorosa’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 18: 2 (1999)

[6] Angela Carter, ‘The Sadein Woman and the Ideology of Pornography’, (New York: Pantheon Books 1979) pp.107

[7] Dorothy Dinnerstein, ‘The Rocking of the Cradle and the Ruling of the World’, (London: The Women’s Press 1987) pp.05

[8] Ibid,. pp.76

[9] Ibid,. pp.76

[10] Ibid,. pp.76

[11] Carter, ‘The Sadein Woman and the Ideology of Pornography’, pp.107

[12] Ibid,. pp.48

[13] ‘Le Deuxieme Sexe’ or ‘The Second Sex’, a two-volume book by French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

[14] Mary O’Brien, ‘ The Politics of Reproduction’, (London: Routledge 1981) pp.26

[15] Ibid,. pp.22

[16] Angela Carter, ‘The Passion of New Eve’, (London: Virago Press 1982) pp.55

[17] Simone de Beauvoir, ‘The Second Sex’, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1972)

[18] John Stirling, ed.,‘The Bible’, (London: Collins Clear-type Press 1953)The old Testament, Genesis: 3 16-17 (pp.3)

[19] Ibid., pp.3

[20] Virginia Woolf, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, (London: Penguin 2004) pp.120-121



Tess Howard


brightONLINE student literary journal

10 Aug 2012