“I Take Everything Back That I Said”: Ambivalence and Motherhood in Mildred Pierce
Keywords: American litterature, twentieth century, James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce, motherhood, affect theory
AbstractThis article discusses motherhood in James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941). It argues that academic criticism so far has neglected the important contribution Cain’s text makes to debates concerning motherhood norms in the post-Depression years. The article takes as its central concern the fraught relationship between Mildred and her daughter, Veda. Building on Sianne Ngai’s theory of “ugly feelings,” the article claims that Mildred’s ambivalent emotional responses to her daughter reveal how social norms obstruct mothers’ agency. Rather than categorically rejecting Veda’s bad behavior, Mildred’s anger, pain, fear, and jealousy are retracted immediately after they surface. As such, Mildred’s maternal emotions are ambivalent and should be perceived as ugly feelings that have the potential to diagnose situations of obstructed agency. This article thus argues for the complexity of Cain’s representation of motherhood and shows how mothers’ ambivalent emotions reveal limited agency in their navigation of social norms.