Celeste Ng’s fascination with the complicated nature of mother-daughter relationships is evident throughout Little Fires Everywhere. The fathers of the novel are often on the fringes of the action, while mothers and their daughters are brought to the forefront. The mothers in this novel are shown to need their daughters just as much as the daughters need them—and more often than not, even moreso. Overall Ng makes the rather cynical argument that most relationships between mothers and daughters are rooted in longing, dissatisfaction, and an inability to understand one another. Through the morally grey and emotionally intense custody battle between Bebe Chow and Linda McCullough, and through the strained relationships between Mia and Pearl and Mrs. Richardson, Lexie, and Izzy, Ng demonstrates the ever-present longing of daughters—or, in May Ling’s case, the unknown and unknowable needs of daughters—for something other than what their mothers have given them, no matter the amount of wealth, love, or care present in the relationship.
Bebe was unable to be a good parent to her daughter May Ling when she was first born, and, desperate for her baby’s survival, she left her in the care of the state. After the McCulloughs have carefully and lovingly parented “Mirabelle” for nearly a year, Bebe appears in their lives, seeking custody of her daughter on the grounds that not only has she attained stability over the course of the past year, but she is the child’s true mother, and the only person who can raise her daughter “within her own culture.” As the trial unfolds, Ng allows readers a glimpse of the arguments made on both sides. May Ling, when she was found, was undernourished—but Bebe had been unable to produce breast milk, and could not afford formula. Neighbors heard the baby crying, and Bebe cried too, likely in the throes of undiagnosed postpartum depression and unable to seek psychological treatment, a victim of a healthcare system which does not make immigrants or the poor a priority. Bebe, even emotionally stable and working a restaurant job, cannot reasonably hope to provide May Ling with the comforts that the McCulloughs can—but “how [can] a mother’s love [be] weigh[ed] against the cost of raising a child?” Though Mrs. McCullough dotes on May Ling and clearly loves her, Bebe’s representation argues that May Ling already has a mother.
Through these arguments, Ng raises important questions of “what ma[kes] someone a mother.” Though there is perhaps no morally right answer, the narrative creates a solution: Ng draws on a reversal of the precedent set in a real-life, high-profile adoption custody case from the 1990s (that of “Baby Jessica”), in which the adopted child was returned to her birth parents. Though in Little Fires Everywhere the state sides with the McCulloughs, Ng gives the final victory to Bebe, who steals her daughter and absconds with her to China in the dead of night. With this Ng introduces a final blow of total anarchy into the carefully regulated world of Shaker Heights and, in doing so alongside revealing Mia’s “theft” of Pearl from the Ryans (and with the knowledge of the outcome of the real-life case which inspired the fictionalized one), makes the narrative argument that perhaps it is biology, first and foremost, that gives someone the “right” to motherhood.
The complicated moral questions raised by this plot point—tied in with issues of race, class, social stigma, and the state’s imperfect or even harmful attempts at regulating custody—have no clear answers in the real world. But by asking them, Ng interlocks the theme of motherhood and daughterhood with the novel’s companion themes of disruption, manipulation, and identity, ultimately suggesting that the only way to approach such questions is to do so holistically, carefully, and with great awareness of all the wonder and woe that goes into loving another person.
Ng’s mother figures are completely rooted in their identities as mothers, as demonstrated by the difficult struggle between Bebe Chow and Linda McCullough. Another character whose identity as a person is inextricable from her duties as a mother is Mrs. Richardson. As the undisputed matriarch of her family, she must navigate throughout the novel how best to relate to her two very different daughters—who, despite Mrs. Richardson’s best efforts, shirk at almost every turn the values with which they’ve been raised and the things their mother has given them. Lexie, the eldest, is Mrs. Richardson’s golden girl, so to speak, at the start of the novel. Lexie is a hard worker and values the role of order in her life and community. Though Lexie eventually proves herself to be more tempestuous than she first appears to be—and winds up needing an abortion after repeatedly having unprotected sex with her boyfriend, Brian—Mrs. Richardson doesn’t believe that Lexie could possibly behave in any way other than the status quo. Izzy, on the other hand, has been a “problem” for Mrs. Richardson from birth. Born many weeks premature and fighting for her life from the start, Izzy has always been the object of Mrs. Richardson’s most pointed concerns and criticisms. As a result, the narrator points out, Izzy has grown up struggling against her mother’s overprotective tendencies, and lashing out and seeking shelter elsewhere as a result. As Mrs. Richardon struggles for more and more control over her youngest daughter, Izzy squirms away from her grasp harder and harder, ultimately seeking refuge in a friendship with Mia and abandoning her family and her comfortable life in Shaker Heights in order to pursue the recognition and acceptance that Mia offers her. This dynamic feeds into Ng’s argument that children—daughters, especially—will always reject what their mothers have taught them.
Ng deepens this argument through the relationship between Pearl and the stringent, clean-cut Mrs. Richardson. Because Mia and Pearl are so often moving from place to place, their relationship feels slightly transient—Pearl longs for a stable homestead and, in a way, for the control that Mrs. Richardson exerts over her children’s lives. As a result, Pearl winds up spending most of her time at the Richardsons’ house, entangling herself in friendships as well as relationships that eventually tumble over into the emotional (with Moody) and romantic (with Trip). Pearl fantasizes about having a mother like Mrs. Richardson, and, at the end of the novel when Mia tells Pearl that it is time to leave Shaker Heights, thinks that “if only” she could get to the Richardson house, Mrs. Richardson would take her in as her own.
Mothers and Daughters ThemeTracker
Mothers and Daughters Quotes in Little Fires Everywhere
“Mom,” [Pearl] began, then found she could not repeat Lexie’s blunt words. Instead she asked the question that ran below all the other questions like a deep underground river. “Was I wanted?”
…Mia said nothing for such a long time that Pearl wasn’t sure if she’d heard. After a long pause, Mia turned around, and to Pearl’s amazement, her mother’s eyes were wet.
“Were you wanted?” Mia said. “Oh, yes. You were wanted. Very, very much.” She walked rapidly out of the room without looking at her daughter again.
“Listen to this dumbass question,” [Lexie] groaned, fishing the application from her bag. “Rewrite a famous story from a different perspective. For example, retell The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch.”
“How about a fairy tale,” Moody suggested. “‘Cinderella’ from the point of view of the stepsisters.”
“‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as told by the wolf,” Pearl suggested.
“Or ‘Rumplestiltskin,’” Lexie mused. “That miller’s daughter cheated him. He did all that spinning for her and she said she’d give him her baby and then she reneged. Maybe she’s the villain here. She shouldn’t have agreed to give up her baby in the first place, if she didn’t want to.”
“Well,” Mia put in suddenly. “Maybe she didn’t know what she was giving up. Maybe once she saw the baby she changed her mind. Don’t be too quick to judge.”
Mia could see there was no point in protesting, that protesting, in fact, would only make things worse and lead to ill will. She had learned that when people were bent on doing something they believed was a good deed, it was usually impossible to dissuade them. Then she imagined herself safely installed in the Richardsons’ kingdom, half obscured in the background, keeping watch over her daughter. Reasserting her presence in her daughter’s life.
She had learned, with Izzy’s birth, how your life could trundle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course.
Mia thought suddenly of those moments at the restaurant, after the dinner rush had ended and things were quiet, when Bebe sometimes rested her elbows on the counter and drifted away. Mia understood exactly where she drifted to. To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.
It had been a long time since her daughter had let her be so close. Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.
It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?
For [Mrs. Richardson] it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, [Mr. Richardson] reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.
“Is she going to be okay?”
“She’s going to survive, if that’s what you mean.” Mia stroked Izzy’s hair. It was like Pearl’s, like her own had been as a little girl: the more you tried to smooth it, the more she insisted on springing free. “She’s going to get through this because she has to.”
“I don’t know, honestly. But she will. Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way. Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”
The police would find Izzy, she told herself. They would find her and she would be able to make amends. She wasn’t sure how, but she was certain she would. And if the police couldn’t find her? Then she would look for Izzy herself. For as long as it took, for forever if need be. Years might pass and they might change, both of them, but she was sure she would still know her own child, just as she would know herself, no matter how long it had been. She was certain of this.