Historical/New Historical

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

Tania Agurto

Motherhood has been a source of discord in recent decades for being a concept that is exclusively associated with women, and it turns out to be for some people or societies a kind of meter that helps to pigeonhole women or rank them depending on whether they have decided or managed to be mothers. Lorrie Moore’s “Terrific Mother” presents us this reality through Adrienne, a woman in her mid-thirties, single, childless, which due to her personal circumstances receives compliments such as, “You would make a terrific mother” (Moore 3). Adrienne attends a gathering of friends and by accident, her friend’s baby she holds falls along with her when the picnic bench toppled on her, and sadly the baby dies, which leads her to make decisions such as seclusion for months and later marriage, as an escape route from her pain and guilt. This is how Adrianne, despite being a woman who breaks with the socially established canons, cannot get out of the vicious circle established for women in those years

Through the lens of New Historical Criticism, we can appreciate the external influences that shape Moore’s work and at the same time understand the reality experienced by women in the late 1990s. At the end of the nineties the world was already seeing a change concerning the established social model; this could be appreciated in the delay in the age of marriage and childbirth due to prioritizing the pursuit of a professional career, the joining of women to the workforce or simply seeking independence without the need for marriage. These changes were reflected in the increase in the average age of women at the time of marriage, which had risen from 20 – 22 years in the early nineties to 25 years at the end of 1997 (Yarrow). This is how the author manages to bring to the fore the important social events that were happening worldwide through Adrienne, a single and independent woman. Regarding that, Karen Weekes declares that “protagonists in Moore’s short stories cycles are constantly exploring and pushing against the social boundaries that they and others have established” (3).

A characteristic of the social change of the nineties is the recognition and the requirement of women as a multifaceted beings; however, in Text and Contexts Steven Lynn acknowledges that having equal opportunities is good, but it is not fair when the woman is responsible for taking those opportunities while taking care of everything else (223). Weekes also refers to this and points out that “females’ identities are continually formed and reformed, allowing women to fluctuate between stages of development in response to the sociological demands of relationships and maternal nurturing.” However, we can see to this day that, even though things have become the same through the years, the demand has always been greater for women or the reward for the opportunity has been uneven.

Although we know that the historical context will shape the result whatever the work, the author’s background will also do it. Steven Lynn points out “We can hardly understand one person’s life without some sense of the time and place in which he or she lived, and we can hardly understand human history without trying to think about the individual humans who made it” (148). As part of Moore’s life story, she comments that as a child she was very thin and that made her feel fearful of her environment; she even shared that she was afraid to walk over the grates. Once she became an adult that was not an exception since Moore, like Adrianne, broke with the established pattern, but she continued with his fearful personality. Don Lee comments that “her expectations for herself were modest. Entering St. Lawrence, she hadn’t been exactly bursting with ambition.” Later Moore adds, “ I think I probably went to college to fall in love” (“About Lorrie Moore”). The influence of her environment and pre-established social patterns have likely helped her to feel that way concerning her personal abilities and expectations. How did this fearful girl become the successful writer of “Terrific Mother”? It is probably her personality that has helped in a great way since this influences her way of writing which is detailed as follows: “Many of her stories are fairly traditional in structure, but there is always that quickness of movement, that slightly skewed narrative perspective that keeps you alert and a little uneasy —she could pull something anytime, and you don’t want to miss it” (Unlikely Stories). Moore herself catalogs her life as “conventional” and that is what makes her strangely close in her way of writing.

However, despite not feeling too trained or not being completely sure of the path she wanted to follow professionally, she broke all standards and has even been highlighted as one of the best authors of American short stories.  In an article that talks about the rebirth of American short stories Vince Passaro declares, “When volumes like those from Lorrie Moore …a new kind of work stepped out onto the American literary landscape, more psychologically rich and confrontational than that of the minimalists” (“Unlikely Stones”).

The time period in which the story was written tells us a lot about important social changes concerning the visualization of women as defiant beings of the unilaterally established rules. In the late 1990s, it was the Post Feminist movement that was gaining momentum; however, it seems that Adrienne remains to live only First Wave Feminism, since it only leaves the parameter of breaking the scheme, but does not advance further.

The foregoing is explained in her decision to marry Martin, who offers her the option to accompany him to his academic retreat in northern Italy, then in this way “she could be a spouse” (Moore 4). The emotional situation that Adrienne experiences does not allow her to see further and she thinks that this decision will allow her to resume her life; to try to live again because she “is a bushwoman now” (Moore 4). As a consequence of this decision, Adrienne becomes emotionally subjugated to Martin, which makes her dependent on him emotionally and does not help her with her previous mental-emotional situation.

“Terrific Mother” is a complex story in which Lorrie Moore takes us along surprising paths and we can see how the historical context influences the development of this work; however, it should be mentioned that Moore’s background also affects the setting of the stage in this story. Just as she admits to leading a very conventional life, she also leads Adrienne to try to follow the same path, because “Marriage it’s an institution”, which means that at this time in a historical-social environment, surpassed currents of equality, equity, and liberation.

Works Cited

Lee, Don. “About Lorrie Moore.” Ploughshares, vol. 24, no. 2/3, 1998, pp. 224–229. JSTOR,                      www.jstor.org/stable/40380939. Accessed 14 May 2021.
Lynn, Steven. “Chapter 6, Connecting the Text: Historical and New Historical Criticism.” Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory, Seventh Edition ed., Pearson,  2017, pp. 145–193.
Karen Wekes, “ Identity in the Short Story Cycles of Lorrie Moore.” Journal of the Short Story in English, 39, 2002, 109-122.
Passaro, Vince. “Unlikely Stories.” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 299, no. 1791, Aug. 1999, p. 80. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, cwi.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid&custid=ns149246&db=a9h&AN=2081851&site=ehost-live. Accessed 14 May 2021.
Yarrow, Allison. “‘ How The ’90s Tricked Women Into Thinking They’d Gained Gender Equality.’” Time, 13 June 2018, 10:58 am, time.com/5310256/90s-gender-equality-progress/. Web. 13 May. 2021.


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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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