Foer’s novel Here I Am depicts the ending marriage of Jewish couple Jacob and Julia Bloch. Their relationship has been problematic for several years, but their problems develop into a crisis when Jacob’s betrayal becomes evident. While both struggle with that crisis, an earthquake threatens the Middle East, particularly Israel and thus Jacob’s and Julia’s extended family. The Blochs are faced with the question of how to arrange a divorce and their new role of co-parenting their three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy, while Jacob’s cousin Tamir urges him to come to Israel in order to fight in a war which is the result of the earthquake’s aftermath.
In Here I Am Foer depicts motherhood at a time when the marriage to the children’s father comes to a close. Julia, mother of three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy, is a mainly successful architect, but whose own dream houses, including the one that she lives in with her family, do not match her expectations (or, as her dream house at the shore, are never built).
It is interesting that Julia, while being the most crucial person in her son’s birth, is described by Jacob as not being able to remember the birth: “Like so much that happened during labor, Julia seemed to have no memory of it.” (Foer 482). The reader is told about the labor via Jacob; we do not get to know Julia’s perspective. Thus, it remains uncertain what memories she has of labor, as we only get Jacob’s assessment of her seemingly lost memory. While we get to know that the birth of her first son was “her only natural childbirth” (482), with no further remarks concerning the two cesarean births that followed, it is noteworthy that Jacob renders Julia’s first labor as somehow passive, disabling her of remembering any details.
While, in a heteronormative perspective, one could argue that the ability to give birth is a defining characteristic of womanhood, Jacob’s description of his wife in labor in a way denies her that degree of femininity: “… Julia moaned like a nonfemale nonhuman” (482). Here, she appears not only to be non-feminine, but also devoid of human features. As Jacob goes on remembering:
[Julia] grabbed the bed rail like it was a roller-coaster safety bar, looked at me with eyes more satanic than in any red-pupilled photograph, and snarled, “You are my enemy!” (482).
So while Julia appears to be looking with satanic eyes, thus, to Jacob, seeming unfemale und even unhuman, he does not even ascribe to her the ability to remember this instance of labor. Julia, in Foer’s novel thus appears to be without agency, at least without human agency. The births of her two other sons are not mentioned again in the novel, leaving the reader with the impression that an “unnatural birth” is not even worth describing, despite the fact that the mother is still crucial to giving birth.
The description of the birth scene is also interesting when compared to one of the crucial scenes in which fatherhood is depicted. As Jacob recounts early memories, he describes the instance in which his father had to take care of the removal of a dead squirrel, explaining to the infant Jacob that one day, as a father, he would be the one responsible for taking care of things like these (357f.). He questions whether he would one day have the ability to do so, to which his father responds by “laughing a father’s laugh” (357), saying: “One day you’ll do it.” When Julia is pregnant with their first son, Jacob starts “Having a recurrent dream of dead squirrels lining the streets of our neighborhood” (357). The pregnancy, instead of symbolizing the beginning of life, is here described as initiating dreams of dead animals. As Jacob remembers: “There were thousands of them”, “pouring from the gutters” (357). The dream which Jacob describes is full of imagery of death, dying and dirt and in a way can be understood as a reference to the plagues of Egypt, or the ten biblical plagues, in which the second plague is described as follows:
I will plague your whole country with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, […]. The frogs will go up on you and your people […] — Exodus 8.1–4
Also, the tenth plague is the threat of the death of the firstborn sons. As Julia is pregnant with their first child, their son Sam, the scene seems to symbolize the religious background, setting the fear that is often associated with pregnancies into a wider context. Uncertainty about the health condition and birth of the infant are seen in reference to the Bible, not only to the individual family as is the case with Lore in Erens’ Eleven Hours. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy to point out that, when his wife is pregnant, Jacob visualizes all these dead animals. This, together with his description of her as looking with satanic eyes during labor is in stark contrast to the description of labor that we encounter in Eleven Hours. While uncertainty plays a role in both novels, we find that Franckline is fully aware of the ways in which religious traditions feed fears during pregnancy and thus is able to fight against those superstitions. On the other hand, Jacob seems not to be aware of the ways in which he brings his wife’s pregnancies in relation to religious tradition. Without this awareness, Jacob is unable to free himself from images of his wife as seeming satanic.
There is another scene at the end of the novel in which we find a connection being made between Jacob, the births of his children and death. After walking into an old acquaintance, Jacob hurries to the synagogue, and “with the hand that had cut three umbilical cords, he touched the names of the dead” (564). While the scene, again, seems to focus primarily on the father, it is also a reflection of labor, but again a reflection of labor in which the mother is absent: cutting the umbilical cord occurs in the labor room and is often done by the father. To cut the cord, he has to be present during the birth of a baby. But the scene emphasizes a moment in the long hours of labor in which the father is active; the mother, again, is not described. Instead, the birth of Jacob’s sons is repeatedly told in context of death and dying. The mother-to-be appears to invoke those fears of death in Jacob, while at the same time she is either absent from the narration of birth or seems non-feminine, non-human, even satanic.
The theme of the absent mother can also be observed at the beginning of the novel. Despite the fact that the narration here focuses on Julia herself, she, in a way is nevertheless absent, as she, as the mother in the family, is “taking a day off” (42), a day that she intends to spend all by herself. While she takes the day off – a day that is interrupted by the fact that she and Jacob have to unexpectedly consult with Sam’s teacher at Hebrew school – she contemplates about her need for “time, space, quiet” (43). The narration informs the reader that Julia at times, especially when she needs time to herself, feels “unmotherly, although she always knew she was a good mother.” (43) That these feelings of being “unmotherly” are evoked when she is taking a day off, is noteworthy, insofar as the narration shows several instances in which Julia is either absent or non-human. The interpretation that results from her description as either absent or non-human, in connection with her questioning if she is still a (good) mother when she needs space and time for herself, is that of a depiction of a somewhat weak mother.
There is another contrast to the portrayal of (active) motherhood in Eleven Hours. When Julia walks into Sam’s room in order to talk to him about what happened at Hebrew school, Sam’s reaction to her scanning the room is phrased as follows:
God, did he hate her little stolen surveys: of his homework, his belongings, his appearance. Her constant judgment carved through him like a river, creating two shores. (80).
What we see here can be referenced to the splitting that the reader encounters in Eleven Hours. The difference is that in Here I Am it is not the mother that might be torn apart by the infant she gives birth to, but it is the mother who splits her son in two. Not only is the mother unhuman and seems satanic, she even hurts her children, carving her son in two. Therefore, it can be argued, Foer’s mother figures are either absent or hurting either their family or, in the larger context of the novel, the existence of a whole country.
While further central themes to be identified in the novel are mortality, Jewish identity and reality, the book also centers on the notion of fatherhood. “Here I Am”, the book’s title, refers to the biblical story of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish religion, and his son Isaac, which Abraham is asked to kill and offer god. Abraham’s reply when god addresses him is simply “Here I am”. It is not, as Sam points out in the novel “What do you want?”, but “Here I am” (102). With such great emphasis placed on the notion of fatherhood, the theme of motherhood can only come in second place. The omniscient narrator tells the story from floating points of view, moving from Jacob to Julia to their children and parents, but mostly focuses on Jacob. As a consequence, Julia’s voice is rather silent, especially when compared to Jacob’s. We only get to know her thoughts in a few instances. Jacob thus functions as the novel’s protagonist while Julia is a somewhat less important character. This aspect is especially relevant when compared to Eleven Hours and The Sun Is Also a Star. In Erens’ novel, the narration is almost evenly split between Lore and Franckline, even though Lore’s point of view is slightly more prominent than her nurse’s, Franckline. In The Sun Is Also a Star, the narration is on the one hand evenly divided between Daniel and Natasha, and on the other dedicates entire chapters to Natasha’s father, but does not give any further details about the teens’ mothers. It can therefore be argued that both, Foer’s and Yoon’s books, give little voice to the maternal perspective, leaving only Erens’ novel to portray mothers as having agency.
Moreover, when looking at Jacob’s and Julia’s relationship, one could argue that we may observe a clear contrast between Jacob as inactive, even impotent protagonist (he has problems both sexually and when it comes to solve problems around his family or career) and Julia as the active character, the one who pushes forward with the couple’s separation. Nevertheless, a more detailed analysis shows that this distribution of the character’s actions is not in accordance with their respective agency. First, Julia’s potential as an architect appears to be blocked while she is married; only after she gets a divorce is she able to successfully work as an architect, finally indeed constructing dream houses. Also, as was shown above, the description of Julia in labor leaves the reader with the impression that she is devoid of agency, since she is described as non-human. When Sam suffers in an accident in which his hand is badly hurt, Julia is portrayed as having lost control. It is Jacob who, in contrast, appears godlike, telling his wife what to do in this instance of emergency (174).
Not only do we encounter the theme of the absent mother, but, moreover, it is the mother, who temporarily choses to be absent from her husband and children and who is instantly sanctioned for her behavior: when Julia has a drink with Mark, a romantic love interest, during the model UN field trip – she does not call home in order to check on her family – , one of the students interrupts her, informing both Mark and Julia that one of the model UN teams is in possession of a nuclear bomb. The field trip takes on a dramatic character, but becomes even more dramatic for Julia and Sam when she is informed of a death in the family: Isaac, Jacob’s grandfather, has hanged himself. Since the incidence with the nuclear bomb during the model UN can be seen as symbolic for the conflict in Israel – a natural disaster followed by enormous political upheaval – Julia’s decision to spend some time apart from her family can be understood as a betrayal of her maternal duties – a disloyalty to what is expected of her that needs to be sanctioned. It is the second instance in the novel in which the mother’s decision to be temporarily absent from her children is met with punishment. In the first instance, when Julia took a day off, she learns about her husband’s betrayal immediately upon her return home, in the second instance, the existence of the state of Israel is at stake.
The absent-mother-theme is thus portrayed throughout the novel in two ways: on the one hand, we encounter mothers that are, in a way, silent, that is they are either dead or in others ways not able to express their thoughts. With Julia, this is the case during labor as well as when her son has an accident, but also when it comes to working as an architect. On the other hand, when the mother decides by herself to distance herself from the family, even if this is only temporary, she and her family are confronted with various dramatic events. Julia, it can be assumed, is either silenced or as causing a number of dramatic events and developments to happen.
In contrast, the double absence of Jacob’s own mother, Deborah, and the absence of the mother of his children after they divorce is rewarded with the fact that now Jacob is able to improve his relationship to his father Irv. In this regard, Jacob’s development and growth only becomes possible when mothers are absent. Here, the novel again uses a very traditional notion of the absent-mother theme, one that can frequently be observed in Disney movies. As the narration primarily focuses on Jacob, what is missing, especially when seen in contrast to Erens’ novel, is something that could be labeled as maternal subjectivity. For Marlatt “reclaiming maternal subjectivity involves recreating the mother as ‘presence’, as one who is ‘seen fully’ and experienced as ‘real.’” (Marlatt, quoted in Carlson 191) As was pointed out above, this is the exact opposite of what can be observed in Foer’s novel. Julia appears as satanic, non-human, and thus is far from being real. As her maternal subjectivity is missing, the author falls back on the theme of the absent mother. In a way, this is in accordance with what Marlatt, taking into consideration Canadian literature, has observed as the “lost, suppressed ‘maternal feminine’”: Julia, as seen through Jacob eyes, is non-female. That she is denied a female and human identity is enabled through the narration’s perspective, a perspective that favors the male protagonist over its female counterpart, thus silencing female, first-hand accounts of motherhood.
In essence, the mothers in Here I Am are silenced and portrayed as being without agency. Whenever they are indeed active they are likely to cause catastrophes, the results of which are not told from a point of view of motherhood, but from the father’s perspective. The father, in turn, repeatedly associates childbirth with death and dying, thus providing readers with an alteration of the absent-mother-theme: not only is the mother frequently not central to the narration, but causes dramatic developments whenever it is her own wish to be absent. Foer’s novel, just as Yoon’s book, is again a male-centered narrative in which mothers are represented as far away and fragile.