New Criticism

Terrific Mother

By Lauren Kozup

Lorrie Moore published Terrific Mother in 1998, a short story that centers on a young woman who makes the most fatal mistake known to mothers: causing the death of a child. This story navigates a life of loss, guilt, and forgiveness told through the perspective of a young woman who is too fearful to let go of her guilt. Through the use of the New Criticism lense, it is concluded through multiple situations that Adrienne is the epitome of a failed woman.

The beginning of Terrific Mother starts with a baby being thrust into Adrienne’s arms, a baby that did not belong to her, nor did she want to hold. However, as a thirty-something year old woman without a husband or a child, the woman figured that this would be an instinct. Surely, all women are made to be mothers. Adrienne had gently coddled the baby, fearful she might cause harm or drop it. No matter how careful she was, it wasn’t enough. Shooing a fly away, Adrienne lost balance and the old, rotting wood bench split beneath her, toppling both her and the baby. Falling to the ground, Adrienne noticed a jet in the distance, the clouds in the blue sky, the frozen faces of those surrounding her. But reality set it and she hit the concrete, hard and fast, bruising her spine. But looking over was the most painful part for her. There, laying in blood, was the baby, still and unmoving.

After the death of the child, the main character of the story falls into a seven month-long depression, where her only access to the real world is through the cracked door of when her boyfriend visits. Adrienne deals with sadness and fear and loneliness, however, there is always something much worse behind her eyes: guilt. Adrienne’s mind becomes ridden and overwhelmed with guilt from the death of the baby. This guilt is buried so deep within her that she becomes completely disconnected from society.

Martin, Adrienne’s boyfriend, is unsure of how to help. Seven months after this accident, his best offer is a proposal of marriage where the two would travel to Italy for an academic retreat. His hope is that perhaps a change of scenery and community will heal this broken woman. Through many instances Adrienne has opportunities to heal, however, guilt and unforgiveness towards herself always conquer the potential of good.

This is a story of a woman who makes a fatal mistake, and while every time she tries to seek forgiveness and put an end to her self-destruction, guilt and society overpower her, crushing her, forcing her back into the dark cave of torture that she once forced herself to reside in.


New Criticism is applied to this short story to see it through a different light. “The New Critics emphasized ‘close reading’ as a way to engage with a text, and paid close attention to the interactions between form and meaning” (Poetry Foundation). Close analytical reading is where hidden meaning is found, along with expanded perspectives.

The story begins with a woman in her mid-thirties who is unmarried and childless. Already, she is placed into a category of failing to meet society’s standards. In fact, she ultimately becomes the epitome of a failure when she causes the death of a baby. This begins a spiral as soon as this mistake occurs. Tunneling into a seven month-long depression, she fully relies on her boyfriend for basic needs, such as food and water. This society sets the standards of women that are to cook and clean, and Adrienne performed none of these duties. Suggesting to marry and travel to Italy, Adrienne accepts the invitation. The rest of the short story is set in the Italian countryside where the main character fights against forgiveness.

Once in Italy, Adrienne begins to spend time at her husbands’ conferences and dinners, however, she also begins to meet with a masseuse who immediately recognizes the pain she is in. “Adrienne began quietly to cry, the deep touching of her body, melting her down to some equation of animal sadness, shoe leather and brine. She began to understand why people would want to live in these dusky nether zones, the meltdown brought on by sleep or drink or this. It seemed truer, more familiar to the soul than was the busy complicated flash that was normal life” (Moore 23).

The woman touches her soul, helping her release the internal distress and discomfort that Adrienne is battling. Further into the story, the masseuse speaks to Adrienne, saying, “‘You have a knot here in your trapezius,’ Ilke said, kneading Adrienne’s shoulder. ‘I can feel the belly of the knot right here,’ she said, pressing hard, bruising her shoulder a little, and then easing up. ‘Let go,’ she said. ‘Let go all the way, of everything.’ ‘I might die,’ said Adrienne” (Moore 23-24). This last line shows the main character and her struggle with self-torture. Adrienne believes that she will never fully recover and forgive herself for the sin she has committed. So, when the masseuse offers her advice to let go of this self-hatred, Adrienne can’t. Guilt has become such a big part of this woman that it has become her identity. And without her identity, then who is she? Losing such a big part of herself is frightening, after it has taken over so much of her life.

Essentially, one of the main themes throughout the story is self-torture. Using the New Criticism lense, examples of self-torture are found in almost every paragraph. Ultimately, Adrienne hides herself away due to guilt and shame. However, through a long period of healing both physically and mentally, she seems as if she is ready to find forgiveness. “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” (Long). As Adrienne is metaphorically about ready to fling herself off the cliff to face forgiveness, she shrinks away, continuing to run back to who she has been for so long.

The story ultimately ends with Adrienne learning that her husband has been cheating on her with the masseuse. “…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” (Long). This is sort of the last straw, where this woman has now completely failed. She has failed at the potential of being both a nurturing mother and a fulfilling wife. The story leaves the audience with the understanding that Adrienne is now trapped in a loveless marriage, being put to shame due to her past mistakes.

Terrific Mother is a story that captures the harsh reality of what failing to be a woman and a wife is like. The main character, Adrienne, continually battles with herself between self-torture and forgiveness, finally coming to the conclusion of being wrapped up in mistakes. This story navigates a life of loss, guilt, and forgiveness told through the perspective of a young woman who is too fearful to let go of her guilt.

Works Cited

McClelland, Payton. “Feminist.” Beginnings and Endings A Critical Edition, College of Western Idaho, 14 May 2021,

MacPherson, Heidi. “‘Escape from the Invasion of the Love-Killers’: Lorrie Moore’s Metafictional Feminism.” JSTOR, Aug. 2012.

Moore, Lorrie. “Terrific Mother.” The Paris Review, 4 June 2020,

“New Criticism.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,



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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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