Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mothers Killing Their Children

Of all the Gothic realist poems that dealt with mother and their children, I want to examine two in particular--Wordsworth's "The Thorn" and Southey's "The Mad Woman." These both draw interesting parallels between the mothers. First of all, they both share the name Martha. In Wordsworth's poem, he is referring to a real person, and I wonder if it is coincidence that Southey's mad mother is also named Martha.
However, the biggest connection between the two poems is the color red. The mother in "The Thorn" wears a scarlet cloak, a symbol of wedlock, of the blood on her hands from killing her child, red is the color of sin. (The symbolism of the color red representing sin, and "loose sexual behavior," is most well known in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, where Hester Prynne is made to wear the scarlet letter A for adulteress on her cloak.)

Likewise, in Southey's poem, the woman's eyes "in a fever-fit were red" (24). Also in both poems, the mothers both have a fire raging inside of them.

Wordsworth: "A cruel, cruel fire, they say,/ Into her bones was sent:/ It dried her body like a cinder,/ And almost turn'd her brain to tinder." (129-132.)

Southey: "I have a fire in my head, she answered him, / I have fire in my heart also..." (17-18).

It is this fire inside of their veins that turns them mad, the "fire" is the knowledge of the crime they committed, it is the guilt that makes them sit on the grave of their child in miserable weather. The beautiful mossy hill "not higher than a two-years' child," (5) is the baby's grave. The narrator mentions that the "scarlet moss is red / With drops of that poor infant's blood" (221-222). There is some speculation on whether the child was killed at two years of age (as is referred to in the size of the hill,) or whether the mother killed her child as a newborn infant. More than likely, Martha Ray killed her baby soon after it was born because I don't think that after having a maternal bond with the baby for 2 years she could bring herself to kill her child. However, in her misery and grief from her lover/husband leaving her, she cannot bear to have his child as a constant reminder that she was abandoned.
What is interesting is that the town does not punish the mothers (as with Hester Prynne) because they cannot prove that the crime happened. Instead, the red associated with the mothers is their own personal reminder, it is their living hell.
Just as the Martha in Southey's poem says, "And there will be no winter time / In the place where I must go" (19-20). She knows she is set for eternal damnation, and she punishes herself while she is alive.


  1. Also, in drama, red is symbolic of "passion" of all sorts. Very fitting, ambiguous description.

  2. I agree with your post about the color red. I also thought about Nathanael Hawthorn because these mothers will never forget these crimes. In your post, you mention that Martha Ray killed her baby because of the departure of her husband/lover. It struck me that killing her baby was such a selfish act even though she had immense grief. In my opinion, living with guilt of killing her baby is much harder to live with the fact that her lover left her. This guilt is her eternal punishment.