Love and Hate in James Cain's Mildred Pierce

Love and Hate in James Cain's Mildred Pierce

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Love and Hate in James Cain's Mildred Pierce

 
    Some may say that the character Mildred Pierce of the novel, Mildred

      Pierce by James Cain, may be a good role model for an entrepreneur or a

      single working mother.  Some may say that she was hopelessly devoted to

      her ungrateful daughter, Veda.  Some may also argue that Veda was a

      terrible daughter who lacked compassion, sincerity, and most of all,

      respect.  As true as that may all be, the candlelight glowing about the

      flawless, sugar-coated heroine shall be blown out.  Fluorescent lights,

      please. 

 

           Mildred Pierce loved her daughter.  Perhaps she had loved Veda too

      much.  One questions how a woman can love such a bitch - a coloratura

      soprano.  Could it have been another type of love?  Mildred had an

      exaggerated sense of self-importance.  She felt the need for attention and

      admiration from others, particularly Veda.  Mildred Pierce took people for

      granted or exploited them with an unusual coolness.  Had Mildred Pierce

      been a real person, and ever introduced to Sigmund Freud, the verdict

      would be in.  Mildred Pierce suffers from Narcissism.  Another kind of

      love, indeed!  She simply had fallen in love with her reflection (as the

      disorder was named for the mythological Narcissus, who fell in love with

      his own reflection) - Veda Pierce, that is. 

 

           In 1991, Sophie Freud, granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, explained that

      the narcissistic mother has a great investment in her daughters.  The

      survival of women greatly depends on loving, and whether she is loved. 

      Narcissistic actions are ambivalent.  "In order to develop into a woman

      [the narcissist mother believes] a daughter needs sufficient libidinal

      resources to identify with her female partner [mother]..." (Fenchel). 

      Mildred Pierce fits the description.  That must explain the sensual vibes

      - but unfortunately Veda was not the type of daughter to want to identify

      with her mother.  Mildred's character ached for approval from Veda.

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      Whether she could afford Veda's material desires did not matter.  Whether

      Veda would hate her for it, did.  Everything that Mildred possibly could

      not do, she wanted for Veda.  And yes, it is normal for parents to want a

      better life for their children than they had, but putting up with snobbish

      attitudes, constant denouncement, and utter disrespect is far from normal.

 

       Biting back tears from verbal abuse, then soon finding the desire to blow

      into the pajamas of her ill-mannered daughter, is also far from normal. 

      Cain mildly implies some sort of sensuality expressed by Mildred in some

      of his passages.  "There was something unnatural, a little unhealthy,

      about the way she inhaled Veda's smell" (Cain).  Cain does not declare

      lesbianism, but the acknowledgement of "a different kind of love" is

      expressed throughout the story.

 

           A bad tree bears bad fruit.  The actions of Miss Veda are not solely

      her own fault.  Mildred Pierce volunteered herself to be Veda's doormat. 

      Veda may step on her all she wanted, but no matter what, Mildred had

      always read "WELCOME."  "Women's investment in motherhood and mothering

      inhibits the expression of negative emotions, as the risk of alienating

      their adolescent and adult children is too high" (Cotterill).  Children

      misbehave when they have no strong guidelines.  Children misbehave even

      more when they are not punished for wrongdoing, or sometimes even rewarded

      in some way from negative behavior.  What kind of example had Mildred set

      anyway?  Hard-working, single mother, Mildred was.  Entrepreneur, indeed

      she was.  But having "slept her way to the top," is not a good example to

      set for an adolescent.  Mildred had done what she did to give Veda a

      better life, even if it meant having to seduce men.  Mildred had short

      "relations" with Wally.  He got her the place for her restaurant.  Veda is

      the one who received credit for such a wonderful idea.  Mildred had short

      "relations" with Monty.  He "loafs."  Not quite her cup of tea, but she

      put up with him, why?  Monty was Veda's buddy.  After a horrible display

      of trying to escape from Monty, Mildred eventually comes back to him.  She

      purchases his house, which she could not afford.  It was all part of a

      plan to get Veda back.  The going got tough, and the tough got going on a

      misfortunate path of financial desperation.  Mildred was broke and was at

      risk of losing the business she worked hard and long for.  Of course, she

      would slit her own wrists before she would ask Veda for money - most of

      which went to the tab Veda was running.  Did Veda once offer to help? No. 

      Was she calm and understanding had Mildred not been able to afford her

      material desires? No.  Mother picks out the nicest clothes for Daughter

      for their first visit to a renowned piano teacher.  Is Daughter satisfied?

      No, it's provincial.  "Conflict is constructive as it helps the daughter

      separate from the mother.  At the same time the mother-daughter

      relationship is used by the daughter as a safe arena in which to assert

      her autonomy and identity as an independent being" (Cotterill).

 

           Mildred Pierce has various twists and turns, especially pertaining to

      the relationship of Mildred and Veda.  One might question what keeps them

      together until the very last pages.  Veda's binding circumstance was the

      lack of money to be 100% on her own.  Mildred's binding circumstance was

      that she had not (figuratively) severed the umbilical cord that once had

      physically connected her and Veda.

 

           It is hard for many parents to let their children go, but that habit

      added to narcissism leads to bizarre results.  Mildred had kicked Veda out

      of the house, and then concocted a plan to get her back.  After many years

      of defending an ungrateful daughter, Mildred attacks Veda after

      discovering that she was having an affair with her own step-father. 

 

           As bizarre as it all seemed, the question remains:  When do they

      finally let each other go?  Veda lets go after acquiring enough money and

      exhausts every possible publicity stunt that she can use her mother for. 

      Mildred finally lets go after realizing that the girl she had loved so

      much would never stop betraying her.  And though it took a great many

      situations for her to have that revelation, Mildred was quite in control

      of the situation all along.  All it took was a single, bittersweet, "...To

      hell with her."  And the Narcissus broke her mirror.

 

      Works Cited

      Fenchel, Gerald H. PH.D.  The Mother-Daughter Relationship: Echoes

      Through Time.  New Jersey: J. Aronson, Inc.,1998.

      Cain, James.  Mildred Pierce.  New York:  Alfred A Knopf,Inc., 1941

      Phillips, Shelley.  Beyond the Myths:  Mother and Daughter     

      Relationships in Psychology, History, Literature, and Everyday Life. 

      London: Penguin Books, 1996.  Ed. Pamela Cotterill.  Staffordshire

      University.  1996.

       http://www.socresonline.org.uk/1/2/cotterill.html
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