LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 50, No.2 - Summer 2004
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavėnas
Copyright © 2004 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
MOTHERHOOD IN THE TEXTS
OF CONTEMPORARY LITHUANIAN WOMEN WRITERS
Institute of Lithuanian Literature, Vilnius
Motherhood in the twentieth century posed itself as a threefold question: existential, philosophical and artistic. When Simone de Beauvoir was writing The Second Sex (first published in 1949), premarital relations in France, as in other Catholic countries, were condemned, contraception was not obtainable, and abortions were illegal. Nevertheless, the number of abortions was roughly equal to the birth rate, and two-thirds of abortions were performed on married women. In Beauvoir's opinion, this was a hypocritical situation, and in 1971, she and other women signed the so-called Manifeste des 343, in which they publicly declared that they had had an (illegal) abortion. Beauvoir hoped that this would eventually lead to greater sexual freedom for women, and it did indeed provide an impulse for legalization of abortions in France. For Beauvoir motherhood was "pure biology." Simone de Beauvoir herself made a conscious decision to avoid motherhood.
In Western culture, a woman has always been defined by motherhood as her true nature and vocation. The division of nineteenth-century society into men and women as "public" and "private" and the subdivision of women into "Madonnas" and "whores" or bourgeois housewives (mothers) vs. working women (unmarried), placed strict norms on men and women alike and gave rise to stereotypes that exist even today. The "good" woman was associated with wifehood and motherhood.
In the twentieth century, the cult of motherhood was temporarily put on hold during the two World Wars because women were needed to take the place of men serving in the armed forces. This was especially true during World War II, when women successfully replaced men in a variety of occupations.
After World War II, when the men returned from the war and resumed their jobs and their traditional place in society, women needed "to be shown their place," which was at home. This rigid structure could be affected only by a truly radical challenge (as by Beauvoir) to the existing order and the woman - as - mother identification.
To women authors of the second wave of feminism in the late sixties and early seventies, Beauvoir was no longer "mother of us all," but an "assimilated woman," essentially belonging to the male world, "liberated" not with women but with men.1 They introduced a different, more positive attitude towards motherhood, provided it was not an act of passive submission. American poet Adrienne Rich, herself the mother of three children, defined "institutionalized motherhood" as demanding maternal instinct rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization, relationships with others rather than the creation of self.2 This classical ideology of motherhood was insufficient for the contemporary world, it was argued. If motherhood was a woman's conscious decision, it was not just a physical but also a metaphysical experience.
In 1977, Julia Kristeva published her essay Stabat Mater, in which she argues that, with the declining significance of Christianity in the Western world, the image of the Virgin Mary as the model of motherhood also declined and created a vacuum. The vision of ideal motherhood was created by men and was reflected in the images of Madonnas with infant son, which men have been painting for centuries. The Catholic iconography reinforced the division of women into "mother" or "whore." The Virgin Mary could no longer satisfy a contemporary woman because the Virgin experienced "neither sex nor death." Kristeva submits that giving birth to a child means giving birth to the sorrow within, which from that moment on becomes entrenched. "Of course, you can close your eyes, cover up your ears, teach courses, run errands, tidy up the house, think about objects and subjects. But a mother is always branded by pain, she yields to it."3 Kristeva therefore urged women to reexamine the outdated construct of motherhood and to create a new (heretical) ethic that would encompass life (reproduction) and death and thus make the thought of death more bearable.4
Beauvoir, in order to prove the "women's problem" worthy of philosophical consideration, wrote an encyclopedic study, surveying the achievements of the mid-twentieth century in anthropology, history, literary science, etc. Kristeva's philosophical essay analyzing the image of the Virgin Mary in Western culture uses a layout that divides the pages in half and allows her to insert her own poetic observations about the experience of motherhood into the text. By choosing this particular format, the author acknowledged both the indivisibility of human (female) experience and the fact that mother and scholar can complement each other. Thus the era of pure reason was superseded and the question "either nature or culture" receives the answer: nature and culture both.
Before discussing this topic in literature written by contemporary Lithuanian women, I would like to present a brief overview of Lithuanian women's writing, when women started to write about themselves rather than being objects in works written by men.
Lithuanian literature dates back to the national revival movement at the end of the nineteenth century that arose in the aftermath of the 1864 Polish-Lithuanian armed uprising against Tsarist Russia and the ban on Lithuanian printing in Latin characters imposed by Russian authorities. The infamous press ban (which was not lifted until 1904) galvanized grass-roots resistance which first aimed at preserving the Lithuanian language but, by the end of the century grew into a widespread National Revival Movement and in 1918 led to the declaration and establishment of Lithuania's independence. During the time of the press ban, Lithuanian publishing took place abroad (mainly in East Prussia, at that time part of the German Empire, but also in North America, home of many Lithuanian immigrants) and was smuggled back into Lithuania and illegally distributed among the population. Educated idealistic young women, descendants of the impoverished gentry brought up in the spirit of Romanticism, were eager to contribute to this movement by filling the pages of newspapers and magazines with their prose and fiction. Like women writers in other countries, Lithuanian women also assumed pseudonyms, but they did it for political reasons, not to disguise their gender (as did George Sand or George Eliot). They deliberately chose pen names that in Lithuanian, carry the feminine gender form (e.g. Bitė (Bee), Lazdynų Pelėda (Owl of the Hazel Tree, one pen name shared by two sisters), Žemaite (Lowland Woman), Šatrijos Ragana (Witch of Šatrija Hill). As pointed out by Violeta Kelertienė, this suggests that they understood their writing as an organic feminine activity. 5
Romanticists of the nineteenth century regarded poetry as "high literature," requiring sublime inspiration. As a result, prominent Romantic poets were men. Women's prose was not in competition with men's writing. When we look back, we must be grateful to the particularly difficult cultural conditions, that were conducive to women's writing. Since there was a general shortage of writers in Lithuanian, their writing did not encounter opposition by male writers. On the contrary, they received moral support, encouragement and guidance from the leading political male activists of the time, with whom they stayed in close touch. After the press ban was lifted, publishing became very active; and women received honoraria.
Ideologically, these women represented a broad spectrum of society. Dalia Noreikaitė-Kučėnas in her University of Illinois doctoral dissertation on Žemaite (Julija Beniusevičiūte-Žymantienė) views Žemaitė and Bitė (Gabrielė Petkevičaitė) as the first Lithuanian feminists. Žemaitė started her literary career late and published her best work at the end of the nineteenth century. She was an independent left-leaning figure, intimately familiar with the hardships of poverty and depicting its devastating effects on marriage in realistic prose. In her articles she protested against "the father's will, the husband's fist and the priest's sacred word."6 Žemaitė's ideal was a "marriage of love," a common nineteenth-century ideal of happiness that, when realized in the course of the twentieth century, demonstrated that even romantic love-marriages could not solve women's problems. One of her last works is an unfinished autobiography, Žemaitė and Bitė (Gabriele Petkevičaitė), together with other women, organized the first Lithuanian Women's Conference in Vilnius in 1907. Šatrijos Ragana (Marija Pečkauskaitė), on the other hand, was a deeply religious intellectual who wrote primarily for an educated audience and tended to view reality as a temporary phenomenon, sub species aeternitatis. These authors raised social consciousness and women's problems and in their writing portrayed women characters. They continued to be active into the 1920s, the first decade of the newly independent Lithuanian Republic.
Lithuanian literature prior to World War II was generally conservative and followed the traditional idealization of woman as the guardian of family and home. Not surprisingly, there was a distinct difference between motherhood sanctified by marriage and that outside the marriage bond. Vienuolis (Antanas Žukauskas) in his popular short story "Paskenduolė" (Drowned Girl) illustrates motherhood outside marriage as an unforgivable sin. The interwar period (1918-1940) is still awaiting thorough analysis, but overall, women's voices were few and far between. The novelist leva Simonaitytė was highly acclaimed for her realistic novels about life in Lithuania Minor, which included memorable portraits of women. In poetry, it was the unmistakably unique voice of the gifted young poet Salomėja Nėris (Bačinskaitė-Bučienė), whose unconventional love lyrics went considerably beyond established norms and who provoked controversy. New preliminary research, however, shows that there were at least some distinct voices of protest. Petronelė Orintaitė questioned the glorification of wifehood and motherhood and defended a woman's right to be her own self in a collection of articles and her 1934 novel Paslepta žaizda (Hidden Wound). In this novel, a wife learns to become independent after her husband forces her to have an abortion and then leaves her for another woman.
Antanina Gustaitytė-Šalčiuvienė emerged as a true activist of feminism. Her four novels and a collection of short stories dealt with discrimination in the work place and a woman's need to have an education and be able to be independent. Her novels are Laiko laiptai, (1931); Vingiai (1932); Už jūtrų marių (1934), Voras (1935) and a collection of short stories Dvejopa meilė (1938). This author has been brushed aside by literary critics as too didactic. Thus a new women's movement in literature, equaling the one discussed above, manifested itself again one hundred years later toward the end of the twentieth century.
In Lithuania under Soviet occupation, as in other former socialist countries, literature was shaped by fifty years of socialist realism with various degrees of censorship which influenced the subject matter as well as the mode of representation. However, the general cultural climate was changing around 1980; and women writers began publishing fiction in greater concentration than before. I will call these writers the older, or the eighties, generation. In the general context of literature of that period, the prose of these authors, while ostensibly complying with the prevalent norms of psychological prose, was already a marginal phenomenon that transcended the framework of "socialist literature." It was characterized by an intimate, sensitive mode of narration and the creation of vivid women characters. The most notable among these works are Stebūklinga patvorių žolė (The Miraculous Wayside Grass) by Vidmante Jasukaitytė (1981) and "Leona" by Dalia Urnevičiūtė (1989).
In the period between 1980 and 1990, a group of younger women born around 1960 also published their first books and introduced a more direct, journalistic style of writing which already reflecting postmodernist influences. They continue to publish productively into the new decade. I shall call them women writers of the nineties. Certainly, this division of writers based on decades is arbitrary. As we read the texts, however, it becomes clear that we have women writing alongside each other at roughly the same time, but demonstrating very different world views.
The obvious and most decisive difference separating the two decades is that until 1988-1989 in Lithuania, as in the entire Soviet Union, writers were still subject to censorship. The mode of narration was, as a rule, ballad-like and lyrical. Writers avoided political and social problems and tended to idealize the past. As was common to all Soviet literature, sexuality, especially female sexuality, was barely touched upon. A good example is Jasukaitytė's heroine in The Miraculous Wayside Grass. She finds herself impregnated by her otherwise absent husband, who appears for one night and then again disappears from her life, a modern variation of the Immaculate Conception. As Julia Kristeva had argued, the Virgin Mary, whose image is so deeply embedded in Lithuanian culture, is not touched by either sex or death. Neither was the Soviet woman. Sexuality, death, or God were subjects never mentioned in Soviet literature. However, these writers of the eighties created women characters who are strong and self-confident, respectful of their body and placing great value on love and interpersonal relations.
Anthropologists have noticed that women are more cooperative and sympathetic to each other in societies where male and female roles are sharply and traditionally defined or where women and men are segregated, as in non-Western Islamic societies or rural subcultures.7 The tradition of a rural subculture was dominant in women writers of the older generation who had their family roots in the countryside and brought the ethical model of rural community to urban life. This fact may explain their portrayal of women's solidarity. Several generations of women are seen as forming a female community, where the memory of a dead great-grandmother lives on in the imagination of the younger women and provides support and security. Living together from generation to generation, women created rules of coexistence and continuity of tradition, young women not ignoring or despising older women, but rather viewing them as teachers. In Leona by Dalia Urnevičiūtė, the grandmother teaches her young grand-daughter truths which the girl eventually discovers in philosophy books. The women are attached to their homes and feel a oneness with the Earth. Spirit and body are not separated. The circle of life, life itself, are the highest value. Woman is a mediator between life and death. The renowned novel Šermenys (The Wake) by Vanda Juknaitė (published in 1990, written in 1986/87) has been called a requiem for village life: it describes old women left alone in their homesteads coming together at a wake to give their last tribute to the deceased. Urbanization and the final disintegration of rural community also meant the end of female community. Comparing the texts written by the two generations of women, we find a marked difference in perceptions of self and attitudes toward other women. In the works of the younger generation, the emotional ties and feelings of solidarity give way to selfishness and rivalry.
The disappearance of censorship changed the very mode of writing: from the poetic Aesopian language relying on a web of allusions to the feverish revelation of the truth and stark representation of the dark sides of life previously not allowed by censorship. This is a common characteristic of literature in all post-communist countries. Women's literature in particular was subject to direct or indirect influences from feminist discourse. Feminism as a method of literary analysis emerged in the nineties as writers began to participate in feminist events abroad and then published articles, informing others about the situation of women and expressing their own opinions. The first studies of feminist theory were published. Literary marginalia such as memoirs, letters and other biographical and autobiographical material, previously ignored, received serious attention. Two unforgettable texts by Lithuanian women in the form of autobiographical documentary literature to emerge in the nineties are Dalia Grinkevičiūtė's memoirs about deportations and exile in Siberia and Janina Degutytė's unfinished autobiographical reflections Atsakymai (Answers) about her mother.
Now, I would like to examine how motherhood is presented in the texts of contemporary Lithuanian women writers at the end of the twentieth century. The first novel by a woman author dealing with previously unmentionable topics was Jurga Ivanauskaitė's novel Ragana ir lietus (The Witch and the Rain, 1993). The novel, demonstrating that freedom also includes an ugly side, resulted in a public scandal. Appearing at a time when society was not yet used to frank presentations of sexuality, it was condemned as immoral for its sacrilegious content and the stark "eroticism" even before it had reached its readers. In it, the author narrates a love story from the perspective of three women: a modern journalist, a medieval witch and Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is presented as she has been known traditionally: a symbol of the dissolute woman saved by Jesus Christ. In this novel we read, among other things, that Mary Magdalene has had many abortions; and this is presented as a liberating experience of a sexually free woman, not as a complex and often tragic decision over which so many women agonize, even today.8 A Commission of the Vilnius Council was so shocked by its treatment of sex that it attempted to ban the sale of the book for its "pornographic" content. This alone assured its success as a bestseller.
One general observation about contemporary novels of the nineties is that women turned from "Madonnas" into "whores." Young women of childbearing age seem to have sex anywhere, anytime, and under any circumstances. They never get pregnant, (contraceptive devices are never mentioned, and I recall only one heroine who shows an awareness and fear of Aids). It is difficult to determine precisely to what extent art reflects society, because art is a reality shaped by the author's individual fantasy and world view. However, the close relationship of postmodern literature to pop culture invites us to look for models for the "new woman" in current women's magazines, which are abundant.
Pop culture introduced women both as consumers and sex objects. The new "magazine woman" is young, beautiful, seductive, self-centered, sexually available and preoccupied with creating her image. Women writers of this decade internalized the ideals of popular culture, with beauty the measure of a woman's self-worth. In Jurga Ivanauskaite's work, external beauty is carefully constructed with the right wardrobe and makeup. Jolita Skablauskaitė's heroine, Kajetona, in Mėnesienos skalikas (The Moonlight Hound) has a wasp-like waist, long legs, large breasts, and a face as smooth as china, without the faintest impression of time.9 The "magazine woman" does not work for a living or confront the hardships of reality. She avoids the question so relevant to so many modern women: how to combine work with children and family. In contemporary women's fiction the main female characters generally are childless and do not seem burdened by problems or other obligations. They are not "body and soul": they are either pure body or pure soul, either monstrous or anemic. Like the heroines of Mexican soap operas, which were very popular among Lithuanian women, they live in a world of illusion. These heroines never grow old, that is, they never mature. They are more like a Barbie doll, a girl-woman, than the fertility-symbol sculptures from early Cretan culture. Aiming at a generalization and not taking into account each author individually, I find it intriguing that women characters in contemporary fiction are portrayed in such similar ways by authors whose aesthetic programs are otherwise very different.
One interesting observation is that women rediscovered their bodies, but discovered them with the centuries-old negativism common in Western culture. If women writers of the previous generation regarded their bodies as integral parts of themselves, in the latest prose women seem to hate their bodies if they do not meet society's expectations. In Jurga Ivanauskaitė's short story "I Die, You Die, He (She) Dies" from the collection Kaip užsiauginti baimė (How to Grow Fear), Elvyra hates "her huge, bloated, formless body with its freckled skin that was scaling off." Every evening she observes this "repulsive, unfortunate body" in the mirror with self-hatred and a kind of masochistic satisfaction.10 Needless to say, a woman viewing her naked body in the mirror is a prime example of the male pornographic imagination. Above all, this scene demonstrates the suppression of her womanhood and female identity. The author also includes a voyeuristic description of lesbian lovemaking, probably the first such scene in Lithuanian literature, but not to expand the heroine's consciousness. It is portrayed with disgust, thus reflecting the male point of view as well as the overall attitude of society. Women who never lived in their bodies and are afraid of their femaleness constitute the largest group in modern Lithuanian prose.
In current Lithuanian fiction by women, women characters who live in traditional marriages or raise children appear as part of a dull, faceless, indistinct mass. These women are looked down upon by the heroines for their limited sexual and other experiences. Families are a burden. Pregnancy and childbirth are associated with pleasing the husband rather than the creative force of a woman, her uniqueness. The family in the works of contemporary women's writing is viewed, not as a partnership but as subordination. Some modern novels are at times difficult to read, because women are so often humiliated, degraded or brutally victimized. However, even where the heroine is "liberated," feminist rhetoric is not always supported by the story line. Attitudes toward herself and the male sex are still modeled on patriarchal reality. A heroine's words and the logic of her actions often contradict each other. A woman's value is still defined by the social status of her husband. To be at the center of male attention is her major goal. The heroines do not seem to be dependent on men in the material sense, but they are not free either. Women writers create heroines who stand out against the crowd (and other women), but they do it by winning lovers or husbands who are themselves exceptional, like superheroes, and then they submit to them and let themselves be used or abused. They excel primarily by defeating their rivals, who are women. To achieve this, women are mean and cruel toward each other. The animosity between women is almost universal in these works and separates them from the solidarity in the works by Jasukaitytė and Urnevičiūtė. There seems to be a conscious effort to dissociate from the "female community" of the previous generation. In other words, the "new" heroine has learned how to apply feminist rhetoric but does not seem to know how to take responsibility for herself.
A common theme in contemporary texts by Lithuanian women is the identification of young women with their fathers. In the prose of the current decade, women do not have mothers; they have fathers. A father is mentioned more often than a mother and is far more important. A weak, hysterical or simply absent mother is replaced by the father. Paternal love, emotional father-daughter ties are heavily accented in Zita Čepaitė's Sekmą skausmą (The Seventh Pain). It portrays a father deeply aware of his daughter's destiny, which he calls "the Calvary of girlhood, womanhood, motherhood."11 Even where a girl does not know her father, she is somehow connected to him, albeit negatively. ("Egotism and demagogy are two things you have inherited from your worthless father," screams the mother at her daughter in Ivanauskaitė's Ragana ir lietus).12 The term "daddy's girl" is psychologically explained as insufficient maternal love that forces a girl to turn to her father: having failed to receive her mother's love, she receives it from her father. This provides an answer to why such girls do not grow up. Their lovers are often their father's age and are expected to take care of them like fathers. The heroines of Jurga Ivanauskaitė, Zita Čepaitė and Jolita Skablauskaitė are childless by choice. The bodies of these youthful self-absorbed heroines are not fit for childbearing. Insufficient maternal attention in childhood forces women to remain needy children who, for the rest of their lives, crave love and attention. This could well be the psychological genesis of matrophobia. Matrophobia is, above all, the fear of becoming a mother. This aspect has not been adequately discussed by literary critics, although Ivanauskaitė's contribution to it is indisputable.
Zita Čepaitė's Sekmą skausmą begins with a description of menstrual cramps and their effect on the heroine: "During these days she was depressed, irritable, moody, hysterical. Anything could throw her into a rage." 13 (These are the traits, of course, which have been traditionally used to describe menstruating women.) The heroine's attitude toward motherhood is clearly spelled out. The girl perceives menstruation spasms as a distant echo of labor pains. She has heard from other women that labor pains were "terrible," "tearing apart their loins." She had seen the face of a woman in labor on TV. To be sure, the TV camera offers the male perspective of the process, which suggests that something incomprehensible and terrible is taking place. (The camera has not been mastered by women yet.) It terrifies the girl to think that she was predestined for this fate, for which she was not prepared and which she believed she was not able to bear. The very thought makes her feel weak and fragile.14 Unaware of other alternatives, the girl accepts this version as the only explanation. In her subconscious, childbirth is registered as pain and horror. Menstruation, pregnancy, delivery do not signify a woman's creative powers. She lacks a mother to lead her into the world of "women's secrets." Her father, eager to protect his precious daughter from her "Calvary," is not able to reveal to her the essence of motherhood. Child-bearing in her eyes is reproduction, pure physiology. It is unlikely that this heroine will ever love her body or want to have children. Thus, with a fifty-year delay, the women writers of the 1990s adopt Simone de Beauvoire's ideal as their only defense against traditional female roles.
In our culture, a break in the father-daughter (Lear) or mother-son relationship (Hamlet, Oedipus) embodies the greatest human tragedies. At the same time, a strong bond, based on love, continuity and pride, like the one between Demeter and her daughter Persephone in Greek mythology, has no counterpart in the Judeo-Christian tradition.15 In painting after painting, sculpture after sculpture, the Christian world portrays Madonnas nurturing the divine boy or mourning a dead man. Catholic iconography also reinforced the split of women into mothers or whores. Phyllis Chesler calls modern women "motherless children."16 Kristeva, in Stabat Mater, talks about the war between mothers and daughters.17 The most painful female tragedy in our culture is that of daughters who have no mothers (and vice versa).
In Lithuanian literature, Šatrijos Ragana was the first to introduce the theme of a girl (not a boy!) deserted by her mother in her 1924 short story Irkos tragedija (Irka's Tragedy).18 A contemporary version is Jurga Ivanauskaitė's short story "Kaip užsiauginti baimę' in a collection by the same name. Psychological and emotional feelings of a lonely girl play a significant role in her novel Ragana ir lietus. Vika is haunted by painful memories of a scene in nursery school that suggests the mother-daughter relationship was broken in childhood and the subsequent one, of partnership, failed to develop. Her mother is ever-present in Vika's subconscious, watching her, and is closely linked with Vika's feelings of guilt and shame over her sexuality. Vika uses sex as her rebellion against the repressive relationship with her mother, her demonstrative revenge on her mother: "Look, mother, at our passion, our love, it will never be yours, it will never submit to your Intercourse is her way of cutting the "umbilical cord." She does not seem to realize that she is merely exchanging her dependence on her mother with a new one on her lover. control, nor to your pleadings or commands or demands!"19
Feminist writers and critics allocate special importance to mother-daughter relationships primarily because the image of the mother plays such a decisive role in influencing and forming her daughter's identity. Positive interpretations of a mother-daughter relationship can be found in Vidmantė Jasukaitytė's Stebuklinga patvorių žolė, but they are visibly absent in the works of women authors of the last decade (Even Juknaitė's mother in Stiklo šalis (Country of Glass) raises two boys, not girls). In the works of Čepaitė, Ivanauskaitė, and Skablauskaitė mothers are shown as oppressive. They hinder the formation of their own individuality and thus needing to be severed.
The feminist movement changed several deeply rooted stereotypes (or at least attempted to provide alternative optional perspectives), but the cult of motherhood and maternal love proved to be the most resistant to change. Court reports about suicides and infanticides abound, but they are usually dismissed as perversions committed by immoral women with criminal inclinations although they clearly testify to the heavy, sometimes too heavy, burden of motherhood. A forensic court psychologist with many years experience ascribes such "atypical behaviors" to women with "low intellect,"20 as if women with higher intellects were immune from shock and depression over pregnancy (especially if unplanned) and motherhood. Julia Kristeva, who is also a psychoanalyst, points out that her psychoanalytic practice revealed to her the immense difficulties of being a mother and provided her with a large amount of material for her research21.
Attitudes toward and about motherhood are undergoing constant change and an increasing number of women's texts are beginning to deal with the complexities and pathology of motherhood, raising societal attitudes to a higher level of consciousness. In Lithuania, the immense cultural and social changes that occurred during the last decade of the twentieth century are also slowly paving the way to a better understanding of the subject, and women writers are beginning to grapple with it. For an author, this means admitting that motherhood in its daily routine can also serve as an object of interest for a piece of fiction.
The first novel of the nineties which focuses exclusively on the problematic aspects of motherhood is Stiklo šalis (Country of Glass) by Vanda Juknaitė. Jurate Stauskaitė, the illustrator of the fourth edition, sums it up as follows: "At first glance it is a very simple story. About the life of a woman. Very plain. Almost trivial."22 This could well be the traditional assessment of a male critic, for whom the novel is nothing more than the ordinary life of an ordinary woman and mother in the margins of great events, the world of men. And yet, this "very plain" and "almost trivial" story deals with the wrenching decision to have children and then cope with it, a decision that the majority of modern Western women have to undergo in their own lives. Stauskaitė's statement highlights the exclusivity of Juknaitė's work.
Juknaitė's text is open to a variety of interpretations. On one level, the novel can be read as a narrative about a mother who devotes her life to her children. But a deeper reading reveals much more. The woman, who remains nameless, has neither relatives nor friends and her social life is for the most part limited to home, family, shops and hospital. She has a husband, who is also nameless, and their relationship is for the most part restricted to pressing day-to-day matters. The woman informs the reader about her medical condition: postpartum depression. "Breasts cause no more problems. But depression persists."23 She knows that she is only one small step away from "the laundry rope, knives, potentially lethal medication"24 and therefore must hide these objects from herself. On a deeper level, challenging traditional concepts of motherhood, runs the leitmotif of mental anguish and isolation of a modern woman and her needs in an unsupportive, dehumanizing environment. Read on this level, the simple story about an ordinary life is a very unordinary, disquieting book. The fact that it quickly went through several editions suggests that it struck a chord with its readers.
It could be mentioned here that Juknaitė (b. 1949) is also the author of the previously mentioned novel Šermenys (The Wake), in which she portrayed a community of women used to sharing both joy and sorrow. A comparison of these two works suggests that contemporary women, having failed to preserve the traditions of solidarity and empathy of the female community, have become subject to alienation and loneliness.
The most shattering contemporary account on this subject is the unfinished autobiography Atsakymai by the late popular poet Janina Degutytė (1928-1990) mentioned above. Published posthumously by the literary scholar Viktorija Daujotytė, this slight volume consists of answers to Daujotytė's questions first posed in 1984, short prose pieces in which the poet comments on her excruciatingly painful relationship with her alcoholic mother and reveals her mother's sadism toward the closest and most vulnerable human being in her life - her young daughter. The time of the tragedy is the decade before World War II, the setting is a suburb of Kaunas, the prewar provisional capital of Lithuania. It is doubtful that Degutytė was familiar with feminist theory, yet she sensed that the empty life of an unfulfilled woman cannot be filled by an (unwanted) child. Her main concern was to understand and justify her mother's self-hating and self-destructive behavior as a furious rebellion against imposed motherhood: "She did not love me because I was a child she had conceived with a man she did not love."25 In Degutytė's last book of poetry Purpuru atsivėrus (Unfolding in Purple, 1984), the poet dedicates an entire poetic cycle to the memory of her mother, whom she calls the most unfortunate of human beings because of her lack of love for herself and others: "Born under a black star, she was not warmed by the sun, the moon did not light her way. A white jasmine branch chars in the hands of one born under the sign of a black star."26 The poet's struggle with these answers is reflected in the unembellished, fragmented prose in Atsakymai. Terminally ill, she never finished the painful task of putting her most guarded secrets into plain words and yet this unfinished autobiography, written after a lifetime of silence, is a very significant text, far ahead of its time. It confronts head-on the idealization of motherhood and the myth of maternal love prevalent in prewar Lithuania. A parallel between Stiklo šalis and Atsakymai lies in the fact that there are no "good" or "bad" mothers, there is only the drama, or rather tragedy, of motherhood.
The tragedy of Degutytė's mother is the tragedy of a failed "angel in the house." So far Lithuanian literature lacks other equally powerful texts revealing similar aspects of motherhood. One psychological explanation as to why women writers as a rule seem more likely to portray their mothers rather than their own motherhood is the simple fact that they have not experienced it themselves. This is definitely not something limited to Lithuanian literature. Julia Kristeva, a practicing French psychoanalyst with a Bulgarian background, has made the point that many women authors do not have children, while those who do, use their writing to escape from their taxing daily routines.27 However, as the number of women authors increases and feminist texts become more widely known, it is inevitable that motherhood will become an important new topic in Lithuanian feminist literature. This trend is already discernible in post-communist European literature.
Adapted for this issue and translated by M.G. Slavėnas
1. Michael Walzer, Kritikių draugija: Visuomenės kritika ir politinis angažuotumas dvidešimtajame amžiuje, Vilnius: Pradai, 1992, 172.
2. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, 10th Anniversary Edition, New York, London: Norton, 1986, 42.
3. Julia Kristeva, "Stabat Mater," in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986,167.
4. Ibid., 185.
5. Violeta Kelertienė, "Moteris moterų prozoje: II", Metmenys, nr. 50, 1985, 69-70.
6. Dalia Noreikaitė-Kučėnas, Žemaitė Amerikoje, Chicago: Lietuvių fondas, 50.
7. Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness, New York: Avon Books, 1973, 18.
8. The author at that time was probably not aware of the new findings according to which Mary Magdalene is not a prostitute but an educated woman of independent means who joins Jesus as a pupil.
9. Jolita Skablauskaitė, Mėnesienos skalikas, Vilnius: Vaga, 1997, 6-38.
10. Jurga Ivanauskaitė, Kaip užsiauginti baimė, Vilnius: Vaga, 1989, 23-25.
11. Zita Čepaitė, Sekmą skausmą. Vilnius: Vaga, 1990,12.
12. Jurga Ivanauskaitė, Ragana ir lietus, Vilnius: Vaga, 1993, 184.
13. Zita Cepaitė, Sekmą skausmą, op. cit, 5.
14. Ibid., 6.
15. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, op. cit, 237ff.
16. Chesler, Women and Madness, op. cit., 17.
17. Kristeva, "Stabat Mater," op. cit., 183.
18. In her autobiography, Marija Ivanauskaitė recreates her parents' disappointment when their second child (herself) was not the expected boy but another girl. "You are both still young, whispered an embarrassed midwife." The author was: "unwanted, unloved, bony and tiny." The mother did not love it, but continued to fulfill her obligations with great responsibility until finally the long-awaited heir was born." Marija Lastauskienė (Ivanauskaitė), "Iš praeities", in Tarybinių rašytojų biografijos (Biographies of Soviet Writers), Vol. 2 (L-Z), Vilnius: Vaga, 1989, pp. 33-43. It is possible that the author victimizes herself, but the general family atmosphere reflects the prevailing patriarchal attitudes and the author's conviction that it was discriminatory.
19. Ivanauskaitė, Ragana ir lietus, op. cit, 192.
20. Audra Telksnienė, "Moterys žudikės" (Women Murderers) in Moterys kintančioje visuomenėje: Lietuvos nevyriausybinė moterų organizacijų ataskaita Jungtinių Tautų organizacijos IV pasaulinei moterų konferencijai Pekine 1995 m. rugsėjo 4-15 d. (Women in Changing Society: Report of non governmental Women Organizations to the Fourth World Women Conference of UNO, Beijing, September 4-15, 1995. Compiled by Zita Čepaitė, Dalia Gudavičiūtė, Solveiga Daugirdaitė.) Vilnius: Pradai, 1995, 48.
21. Galina Bauzžtė-Čepinskienė, "Julia Kristeva ir jos paslaptys," in Julia Kristeva, Apsėdimai, Vilnius: Charibde, 1998, p. 203.
22. Jūratė Stauskaitė, in Vanda Juknaitė, Stiklo šalis, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sajungos leidykla, 1995, 4th cover page.
23. Vanda Juknaitė, Stiklo šalis, op. cit, 16.
24. Ibid., 28.
25. Janina Degutytė, Atsakymai (Answers), Vilnius: Regnum, 1996, 62-63.
26. Degutytė, Poezija/Poems, trans. M. G. Slavenas, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sajungos leidykla, 2003.
27 Galina Baužytė-Čepinskienė, "Julia Kristeva ir jos paslaptys," op. cit. 203.