Monstrous mothers and founding fathers: Kristevan maternality in Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman cycle

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Dennehy, Thomas
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University College Cork
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The role of the mother, her potential failure to be good enough, the structure and performance of family, neglect, and family value and performance have become critical issues in social research and adult fiction in the middle of the twentieth century. These adult preoccupations are to be found in literature specially written for children and young adults and Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman cycle published between 1981 and 1987 is an extended study of the existential and urgent issues of maternal abandonment and the issues it presents for her child protagonists. This thesis is a study of the maternal issues that this sudden act of abandonment creates across the span of the seven novels. The initial focus of the series and this research is the plight of four children who are abandoned by their mentally ill mother and who struggle to process their plight and create a new family and a home. A post Freudian psychoanalytic approach is adopted in this research and this approach is concerned with the earliest maternal issues explored in Klein, Winnicott and Kristeva. The maternal search is accomplished in the opening book — they find a home with an initially unwelcoming grandmother — but the effects of the family dysfunction which initiates the series extend across the remaining six novel of the cycle and are questioned and evaluated in this research. The research will question the function and place of the mother and of family itself and asks if a more elastic idea like Kristevan “maternality” is an issue which the narratives explore. The dysfunctional effects are visible in the life choices and decisions of Dicey Tillerman, the eldest child and the protagonist of the series The research will explore the claim that the Tillerman series demonstrates that family, as a nourishing , sustaining social possibility can be created in liminal and unexpected places and should not be exclusively identified with the patriarchal family. The research will stress a number of critical theoretical movements that underpin the development of the protagonists across the series: the developmental move from Melanie Klein’s first developmental position, the paranoid schizoid to Klein’s second position, the depressive and the move from an old and archaic, closed judgmental, bipolar order, described in the research as a “covenant” to a new order, a new “covenant” marked by respect and the practice of open and lateral communication. In the final book Voigt offer a resolution, seen in the sudden decision of Dicey Tillerman to drive to her boyfriend’s house and rekindle their apparently foundering relationship but one which, in its result contradicts the radical questioning of family which the narrative of the series was consistently preoccupied by. This decision will be interrogated as will the implications of a sudden and abrupt return to the hegemonic family authored and validated by patriarchy.
Maternality , Kristevan abjection , Abandonment
Dennehy, T. 2023. Monstrous mothers and founding fathers: Kristevan maternality in Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman cycle. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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