Considering mothers in A Special Providence

It’s been a while – I know, I know- and apologies to those who regularly check in and find nothing new under the sun. I want to go on with some more thoughts about Yates’s second novel. Not a patch on the first, it’s still an interesting read, especially for someone studying Yates and piecing together his views on life and relationship. It would seem that one of the reasons A Special Providence is perhaps Yates’s least successful novel and least admired work is that he remains too close to the characters he describes, a fact he acknowledged with characteristic ease and insightful self-criticism:

I suspect that’s why A Special Providence is a weak book – one of the reasons, anyway. It’s not properly formed; I never did achieve enough fictional distance on the character of Robert Prentice. (Ploughshares interview, 1972)

Re-working the main character of his 1962 short story, ‘Builders’, a protagonist Yates acknowledged as, ‘clearly and nakedly myself’ (ibid.), Robert Prentice’s wartime experiences and his experiences trying to free himself from his cloying and dependent mother, form the central drama of the story. While Yates was, in this novel, clearly trying to continue the ‘autobiographical blowout’ (ibid.) he’d begun with ‘Builders’, I would suggest that the weakness of the book is not just Yates’s lack of distance from Robert Prentice but encompasses his portrayal of Robert’s mother, Alice Prentice, as well. While Yates felt that with ‘Builders’ he’d ‘managed to avoid both of the two terrible traps that lie in the path of autobiographical fiction, self-pity and self-aggrandizement’ (ibid.) it seems that both traps awaited him in this, his second novel, and not just in the portrait of the protagonist. Alice is an archetype of all Yates’s mother figures, seemingly the closest he came to creating a portrait of his own mother Dookie and, in that respect, Yates, driven by both his love for, and antipathy towards, Dookie, diminishes and caricatures her.

Blake Bailey includes an interesting vignette about the complexity of this relationship:

Once, when Yates was responding to questions about his work, a young woman commented on how awful the mother was in A Special Providence – “so careless and thoughtless and self-centred” – and asked Yates what he thought of her. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I guess I sort of love her.” (A Tragic Honesty, p.36)

While we can’t fail to see the poignancy of Alice’s predicament, a single woman, impoverished and self-deluding in her social ambitions, we don’t as readers achieve the same level of empathy with her  that Yates achieves with some of his other portraits of mothers (although any empathy with have for his mother figures is highly circumscribed). Blake Bailey acknowledges that this failure of distance is most evident in Yates’s maternal figures:

‘Yates’s compassion for human weakness, for the flaws that make failure so inevitable, is everywhere in his work – with the occasional exception of certain characters based on his mother’ (Ibid.p.17). However, I take issue with Bailey’s exception to this claim, when he suggests that Alice is ‘rounded and essentially forgiveable’. For me, Alice Prentice is the ‘Dickensian grotesque’ that Bailey sees more clearly drawn in Yates’s other novels.

In the long Prologue to A Special Providence, Yates describes Robert Prentice’s leave from the army in 1944. Deciding to spend the time with his mother, he makes the long journey from the camp in Virginia to New York. Prentice is alarmed to find his mother living in near squalor and penury but continuing to borrow money and drinking heavily. Using the metaphor of the movies (a metaphor that he overworks in this novel), Yates indicates how Prentice makes life more palatable by seeing ‘himself as the hero of some inspiring movie about the struggles of the poor.’ (ASP, p.10) The problem for him is, ‘that his mother refused to play her role’, as we see here:

He kept hoping to come home and find her acting the way he thought she ought to act: a humble widow, gratefully cooking meat and potatoes for her tired son, sitting down with a sewing basket as soon as she’d washed the dishes, darning his socks in the lamplight and perhaps looking up to inquire, shyly, if he wouldn’t like to call up some girl.

While ironically drawing attention to Prentice’s traditionally inflected understanding of appropriate male and female roles, as he visualises the adoring, attentive mother, dutifully taking care of all the housework and dancing attendance on a son who has been out to earn a living to support them both, Yates subtly suggests the problematic nature of their relationship. With Prentice’s imagining, Yates both sets up an ideal and demolishes it as a possibility as he then describes her subsequent behaviour. He captures the growing emotional distance between the protagonist and his mother, a distance compounded and exaggerated by her emotional response. Following an argument about money, for instance, an argument that Alice is not able to win, she has the first of several tantrums we witness: ‘And she burst into tears. As if shot, she then clutched her left breast and collapsed full length on the floor, splitting an armpit seam of the dress…’ Ridiculous in its extravagance and both grotesque and immature in its attempt to manipulate, Alice’s behaviour alienates her son and the reader. Beyond the gap in communication and behaviour highlighted between these two people, the ideal that Robert Prentice has imagined is an ideal of marital, not filial, devotion; by ascribing such an ideal to Prentice, Yates indicates a basic problem in the nature of their relationship, a problem, he suggests throughout the text, that seals their fate.

The problem of domineering mothers, and of mothers that control and manipulate their sons, occurs time and again in his fictions with intertextual resonances that create a clear indication of how Yates viewed motherhood and felt deeply the failings of his own mother. The shades of inappropriate behaviour on behalf of the mother are hard to miss, as is indicated by one particular image in A Special Providence, that of a sculptress mother using her child as a model. In this novel, the small naked boy is made to endure both discomfort and humiliation as the mother in question attends to her own needs, invading her child’s privacy and attacking his dignity. He is laughed at and belittled when his little friends peer into the barn where his mother has her studio. Although Alice is described as seeing ‘Bobby round-eyed with humiliation, hunched over with both hands hiding his genitals’, (ASP, p.133) she doesn’t register his shame and gets him to carry on posing. Both the reader, and the boy, looking back, experience this as a form of grotesque selfishness and insensitivity coming as it does after he has been observed and laughed at by ‘three or four pairs of eyes peering in through an inch-wide crack in the wallboards.’ According to Bailey, ‘Dookie’s favorite model for her faunlets, often posed in the nude, was the small, obliging Richard’. (Bailey, ATH, p.21) There is something so deeply poignant about Yates’s rendition of this idiosyncratic event in A Special Providence that one almost doesn’t need the confirming detail from Bailey that this event mirrored exactly his own experience.


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