The Relationship Between Mother and Daughter in James Cain’s Mildred Pierce
I have always been of the belief that in order to truly love, hate must exist within the core of the relationship. Nowhere in modern fiction is this dictum examined more accurately than in the novel by James Cain, Mildred Pierce. Looking at the concept in a familial context, James Cain has created two well-developed characters, Mildred Pierce and her daughter, Veda, that not only emphasizes the nature of mother-daughter relationships, but looks at how love and hate permeates the very essence of the relationship. The Irish poet Thomas Moore once described the fascination of these violently fluctuating emotions, “When I loved you, I can’t but allow/ I had many an exquisite minute/ But the scorn that I feel for you now/ Hath even more luxury in it” (Tresidder 57).
While reading Mildred Pierce, I was reminded of my own mother’s relationship with her daughters. One of my sisters, Leslie, in particular, hated my mother in youth. It was strong emotion to extinguish, especially in those formative teen years, but because life is dominated with experiences, things in which we learn from, later one comes to understand the nature of their hate and love and begins to properly delineate the truth of each. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see this in Mildred Pierce and Veda’s relationship.
The reason for this is twofold; one, it is the element of obsessive love that fosters a breakdown in the natural boundaries that exist in a parental relationship. Secondly, it is the need by Mildred to seek the unrealistic approval from her daughter, Veda, which further exasperates the boundaries, almost wiping them completely away. We see these elements of obsessive love, acceptance and approval, shape and control the mother-daughter relationship from the start. Mildred explains in one poignant moment of recognition:
To Mildred it was fragrant, soothing oil in a gaping wound. They went to her bedroom, and she undress, and got into bed, and took Veda into her arms. For a few minutes she breathed tremulous, teary sighs. But when Veda nestled her head down, and blew into her pajamas, the way she used to blow into Ray’s, the heat lightning flickered once, then drove into her sorrow with a blinding flash. There came torrential shaking sobs, as at last she gave way to this thing she had been fighting off; a guilty, leaping joy that it had been the other child who was taken from her, and not Veda (Cain 134).
That this observation occurs after the death of one her daughters, Ray, is a source of shame and humiliation for Mildred as a mother. “Only an act of high consecration could atone for this…” (Cain 135). The primary responsibility of motherhood is to love with equality, to wrap the warmth of love around those she brought into world with the same intensity and passion. “There was something unnatural, a little unhealthy, about the way she inhaled Veda’s smell…” (Cain 135). But as with...