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Dead and absent mothers - a transhistorical study

Research project Contemporary literature, film and television is full of references to dead or absent mothers. They may be dead before the story starts, or they die during it. This project asks the question why mother has to die in order for a story to be complete.

This projectet traces the motif of the dead or absent mother from contemporary novels, films and television programmes back through earlier novels, plays, folktales, myths and legends. In these texts the dead/absent mother is always presented in one of two ways: either as dangerous to her child in one way or another, or as irrelevant and easily replaced, by the father or a father substitute. Regardless of which version is used, the mother is removed and the father is privileged.

Head of project

Berit Åström
Associate professor

Project overview

Project period:

2011-08-01 2013-07-31


Finansår , 2011, 2012

huvudman: Berit Åström, finansiar: Marie Curie Actions, y2011: 623, y2012: 623,

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Language Studies

Research area

Gender studies, General literary studies

Project description

This project analyses the ubiquitous trope of the dead or absent mother in present-day fiction and traces its roots in narratives from earlier periods. Through gender and transhistorical analysis, the trope, which is often viewed as an expression of genre conventions and socio-historical factors, is revealed as transcending both genre and period, supporting long-standing patriarchal structures, privileging fathers. The child becomes the site of a power struggle. The struggle is carried out using access and influence as weapons. By removing the mother from the narrative, the father’s undisturbed access to, and influence over, the child is guaranteed.

The reason this particular trope has been selected is that it contains the socialising message that mothers cannot be trusted as parents. This message is re-circulated in narratives throughout literary history. Since a society defines itself largely through the stories it tells about itself, there is an interchange between the individuals who consume the stories and the society the produces them, each influencing the other. It is thus of vital importance that the trope of the dead/absent mother, and its potential effects, is highlighted and discussed.