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Role-Playing and Troubled Identities in Mary Morrissy’s Fiction


Drawing on Judith Butler’s idea of gender as a cultural construct imposed on people through mimicking, imitation or what Butler calls “performance”, this paper seeks to emphasise the theme of impersonation and stolen identities in Mary Morrissy’s novels Mother of Pearl and The Pretender. In each of these novels, Morrissy interrogates the issue of identity, which reveals to be contingent, flexible and unstable instead of permanently fixed, as is evidenced by the way it can be imposed upon a person, or stolen or borrowed. Mother of Pearl in particular problematises women’s assigned biological destinies by focusing on motherhood, in the way it stages female characters suffering from a defective bond with their mothers. The structure of the narrative is built around a female genealogy which proves to be thoroughly dysfunctional and contaminating instead of nurturing and constructive. The division of the novel into three parts, each of which is devoted to a different female character – Irene, Rita and finally Pearl – enables Mary Morrissy to offer three different versions of gender performance, especially regarding motherhood. It also gives the impression that each of the characters’ fragment of individual story combines with the others to make up one continuous narrative, which blurs the outlines of each separate identity. Mary Morrissy’s second novel The Pretender takes up the same notion of a troubled identity and of the acting out of various possible roles for a woman to play. Based on the true story – as was Mother of Pearl – of Anna Anderson, who pretended to be Tsar Nicolas II’s daughter Anastasia, the novel suggests that gender identity is only a fiction imposed upon us, and especially on women, a fiction which can be exposed by replacing it with any other, by introducing “a variation in the repetition of the performance of gender” as Butler would have it.
Empruntant à Judith Butler l’idée selon laquelle le genre est une construction culturelle imposée aux individus, qui les force à imiter des attitudes ou des paroles, et que le genre, pour reprendre la formule de Butler n’est finalement qu’un « spectacle », au sens de « performance », cet essai cherche à souligner le thème de l’imposture et des identités volées dans les romans de Mary Morrissy Mother of Pearl et The Pretender. Dans chacun de ces romans, Morrissy remet en question la notion d’identité, dont elle suggère la contingence et l’instabilité, soit à travers l’histoire – véridique – d’une enfant volée à qui ses parents « d’adoption » imposèrent une identité de substitution, soit à travers celle, tout aussi authentique, d’Anna Anderson, qui se fit passer avec succès pour la fille du tsar Nicolas II, Anastasia. Mother of Pearl en particulier remet en question la maternité comme destin biologique assigné aux femmes, en mettant en scène plusieurs personnages féminins qui souffrent de l’absence d’un lien naturel avec leur mère. Dans The Pretender, l’accent est plutôt mis sur le genre comme fiction qui s’impose à la naissance, surtout aux femmes, et qui peut être dénoncée comme telle à travers le vol d’identité et l’imposture, en introduisant ce que Butler appelle « une variation dans la répétition du spectacle du genre ».


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Dates and versions

hal-04208481 , version 1 (15-09-2023)



Sylvie Mikowski. Role-Playing and Troubled Identities in Mary Morrissy’s Fiction. Bertrand Cardin; Sylvie Mikowski. Écrivaines irlandaises ∙ Irish Women Writers, Presses universitaires de Caen, pp.105-115, 2014, Symposia, 9782841337941. ⟨10.4000/books.puc.7141⟩. ⟨hal-04208481⟩
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