Mourning Mothers: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Parental Relationships in Colm Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons

Tyler Post


Modern Irish literary criticism is routinely concerned with representations of gender and power, and the multitudinous forms that they assume within Irish literature. This paper examines Colm Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons (2006) and its negotiation with traditional representations of the Irish mother and son, and how it challenges key assumptions about their role and function in Irish literature. In doing so, this paper argues for the primacy of a psychoanalytic reading, one which employs the theoretical framework of mourning and melancholy, as formulated, first by Sigmund Freud and, more recently, by Julia Kristeva. The paper proceeds to illustrate that the maternal and filial relationships, as represented in Mothers and Sons, exist as elaborations of repression, desire, and mourning, and thus can be understood as processes and metaphorical representations of the unconscious imaginary. The paper concludes that Tóibín circumvents the traditional paradigm of Irish notions regarding domesticity, gender, and power, by proffering an alternative representation of mothers and sons, one which ultimately engages with concerns that are most commonly associated with the territory of the unconscious.


Colm Tóibín; Mothers and Sons; Irish literature; mourning; melancholia; Freud; Kristeva; psychoanalytic theory

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