The Terrific Critical Edition of “Terrific Mother” by Lorrie Moore: The Feminist Perspective

Payton McClelland

Lorrie Moore’s “Terrific Mother” is a short story packed full of shocking tragedies intercut with laughter. The beginning of the story starts with Adrienne, the protagonist, at her friend’s house who has just had a baby. She hears whispers of how women that are deemed to be good mothers have the greatest honor. As Adrienne holds her friend’s baby, she goes to swat a fly when the baby falls from her hands to a terrible death. Adrienne then falls into a months-long depression until her boyfriend suggests getting married and coming along on an academic retreat with him. The two get married quite sporadically. The rest of the short story takes place in the Italian countryside where Adrienne is beginning to heal from the trauma of being such a terrible woman that she let a baby die in her care, which seems to be the ultimate failure of a woman. Through the lens of feminist criticism, Adrienne is the epitome of a failed woman. As she journeys through her healing process to overcome this stereotype of women’s purpose revolving around childcare, she ultimately gets shamed for trying to forget the guilt of not conforming to societies standards for women.

Lorrie Moore, the author of “Terrific Mother”, writes from the perspective of Adrienne, a mid-thirties woman who is unmarried and childless. The story’s first paragraph sets the scene for gender roles by saying, “the best compliment you could get was: You would make a terrific mother” (Moore 3), insinuating that being a woman is judged on motherhood and being a wife. Adrienne feels nervous of being judged by her peers when she is passed her friend’s baby regardless of being around babies before. When she fatally drops the baby, her womanhood and dignity go along side it. The next few months Adrienne spends in her apartment withdrawn from society. She drowns in guilt and sorrow even after being forgiven by the mother of the child. We see that Adrienne feels she has failed at being a woman and refuses to forgive herself, going as far to say, “Normal life is no longer possible for me” (Moore 4).

As the months pass, Adrienne and her current boyfriend, Martin, decide to get married rather quickly and head on Martin’s academic retreat. Here is where Adrienne finds that every evening at dinner, she converses with someone new from the world of academia, mostly men, who always end up assuming she is one of the spouses. Adrienne even goes as far to ask Martin, “Why are all the spouses here women? Why don’t the women scholars have spouses?” (Moore 14).  While women can be scholars, they are not desirable wives for men.  The story’s underlying tones of sexism and the standards for women begin to become more apparent with subtle hints such as this. Another being the spouses talking about feminism themselves, “I think there’s something wrong with the word feminist and gets the guy being in the same sentence” (Moore 22). Adrienne points out the uncertainty she has of what feminism is and the standards that are created for women revolving around men, furthering the standards that women should fit into.

Then, a little past midway through the story, Adrienne begins to talk about the late child again around the time when she decides to see the masseuse. The masseuse begins to work out her physical tension while Adrienne begins to try to work out her emotional tensions. Adrienne begins with admitting to the masseuse that she had killed a baby. As she continues her therapeutic sessions, the protagonist begins to feel less guilty, slowly healing from the guilt and trauma she experienced with the baby. “But in the middle of the meadow, something came over her- a balmy wind, or heat from the uphill hike, and she took off all her clothes” (Moore 26). Adrienne lies down, feeling free, symbolically stripping her guilt alongside her clothes. She lays without shame until she is suddenly awakened by a tour guide and a group of tourists who are all staring at her, shaming her for being naked, seemingly like society throwing guilt back onto her for not tormenting herself for her past mistakes. Adrienne grabs her clothes and runs away feeling shame while the people stared. Adrienne tries to strip away her trauma of being the failed woman with which she has been branded, but as soon as she tries society guilts her for doing so.

In the last few pages, it is revealed that Martin has been cheating on Adrienne with the masseuse. Ending the story with a nail in the coffin, Adrienne feels she has failed as a woman, to keep her husband “satisfied”. Adrienne even says she wants a divorce, but Martin demands they stay together and work it out as he was only waiting for her to heal the entire time. She once again remembers the baby, feeling the rush of guilt wash over her and says out loud “Please, forgive me” (Moore 31) which Martin responds, “Of course. It is the only thing. Of course” (Moore 31) and ends the story.  Not only was Adrienne not speaking to Martin, but he also was led to believe that Adrienne was responsible for apologizing for her husband’s infidelities. This leaves us with the belief that Adrienne is left in an unhappy marriage, confined and boxed into the archetype that society has made for her simply because she is a woman.

While the entire story’s plot sets Adrienne up to heal from the idea that womanhood is about being a caring wife and mother, we see her begin to question the standards that are set for women during the story. She then symbolically gets shamed for her naked and womanly body, only to return home to come to the realization her husband has been cheating on her with a woman she trusted in her healing process. The theme of the story seems to be one of a woman trying to defy the norms of womanhood only to be shamed back into her dark place for not being womanly enough. While Adrienne is caring, she does not seem to be caring enough for the society she resides in. Time and time again Adrienne seems to fail the tests of being a good woman such as taking care of her husband or a baby.

The story is one of a woman’s shame in not being woman enough but underneath it creates the question of why it may not be enough to simply be a person without fitting into the roles of their given gender. Lorrie Moore creates an authentic character that is likable without making her excel in any typically woman-like characteristics. The audience grows to love the humor of Adrienne regardless of the fact that she is not a good caretaker. This begs the question of why Adrienne seems so shameful for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The protagonist never wanted to hurt a child but was only involved in a terrible and misfortunate event. Similarly, when Adrienne is cheated on, it is in no way any fault of hers but she is heavily associated with guilt and shame that makes her feel like it is. The shame comes from the outside, from society and peers, and the common opinion of women. Adrienne is a great person, she is likable, but by not embodying the characteristics of a perfect woman she must live in the feelings of guilt and shame of being a failed woman.

Works Cited

Canin, E. (1996). Lorrie Moore: Stories that make you cry–until you laugh. Esquire, 126(2),
Lee, D. (1998). About Lorrie Moore. Ploughshares, 24(2/3), 224.
“Lorrie Moore.” Canberra Times, 15 Feb. 2014, p. 19. EBSCOhost.
Lynn, Steven. “Chapter 8: Gendering the Text.” Text and Context: Writing about Literature with Critical Theory, Seventh Edition ed., Pearson Education, 2017, pp. 221–256.
McNally, J. (2005). Masterfully bittersweet: Lorrie Moore finds a way to move readers and
make them laugh at the same time. Writer (Kalmbach Publishing Co.), 118(12), 20–23.
Moore, Lorrie (1992). “Terrific Mother.” London: Faber & Faber.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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