Mrs. Ross (page 23)
“You think Rowena belonged to you. Well, I’m here to tell you, Robert, no one belongs to anyone. We’re all cut off at birth with a knife and left to the mercy of strangers. You hear that? Strangers. I know what you want to do. I know you’re going to go away and be a soldier. Well–you can go to hell. I’m not responsible. I’m just another stranger. Birth I can give you–but life I can not. I can’t keep anyone alive. Not anymore.”
Robert Ross is in the bath, not so long after he had failed to witness — prevent — the death of his beloved sister Rowena, who was a hydrocephalic, born with water on the brain, as the book describes her. At this point in the story (a very early one at that), Robert had consigned himself, on merit of punity and guilt, to join the Field Artillery. A merit of which had nurtured itself in Robert’s beloved memories of his dear sister, and his unrequited guilt and self-loathing so completely, that Robert had a resolve to this venture as unbreakable as those two circumstances joined, if not more so.
Mrs. Ross, Roberts mother, enters the bathroom, and seats herself upon the closed toilet seat next to the bath in which Robert resides. To this effect, Mrs. Ross addresses her son in a tone of purposeful passive-aggressiveness, until she gets to her ultimate point; Robert joining the military, and her particular contentions with that prospect, thus bringing us to the quote paraded above.
Mrs. Ross, characterized preeminently by her title throughout the book, notable by her stern lack of a first name, seats herself beside her son of 19 years old while he is in the bathtub, not unlike a mother would do to a child much younger. I remember when I was very young and my mother would do the same for me. When Mrs. Ross does this, she attempts to convey to Robert that he is still very young and still her own son, still her baby. In a way, this is her attempt to hold onto her own innocence.
When Mrs. Ross launches into the quote above, she does so with the intention to dissuade Robert from his decision to join the military. When she tells Robert that Rowena did not belong to him, she meant to give Robert leeway within himself for forgiveness, for self-absolution. When she further renounces Robert’s choice to join the military she says this line “I know you’re going away to be a soldier. Well — you can go to hell.” an interesting choice of words — Robert does just that.
War is hell.
A couple key themes are at play here. Foremost the theme of innocence, childhood, and purity, and the subversion of this through war. And the second theme, one prevalent throughout most of the novel: life.
The meaning of innocence in this quote refers not to a lack of experience, but to a lack of guilt, vindication. This theme is expressed mainly through two aspects; the first being Mrs. Ross’ attempt to absolve her son, and the other being her own attempt to absolve herself from Robert’s choices — to disconnect herself from the pain and suffering that choice would bring to her. She raises a veil of indifference, a veil that blinds her by the end of the story.
The thing that subverts this sense of vindication in both of these characters is war. Robert loses his sense of innocence when he allows Rowena to die, and ironically, he goes about gaining it back by going to hell — joining the war. Mrs. Ross believes it to be her own fault that Robert has made this choice, and attempts to lull herself into a state of uncaring passivism, adopting an attitude of indifference, because she doesn’t want to be responsible for whatever happens to Robert during the war.
Mrs. Ross sits with him in the bath, something only very young children would be comfortable with. This demonstrates both Mrs. Ross’ desperation to hold onto her own innocence, and that of her son’s, but it also demonstrates Robert’s aversion to this, his discomfort with his personal space being so guilelessly violated — his enmity of holding onto to the Robert that had allowed Rowena to die. Furthermore, she does so while smoking and drinking, two very adult activities, both antithetical to innocence in the sense of young children. This serves to distance Robert from the adult world, the world that would allow him to die in war, and further distance Mrs. Ross from him.
When Mrs. Ross proceeds to tell Robert, “We’re all cut off at birth with a knife and left to the mercy of strangers. You hear that? Strangers.” she explains that Robert has not made his choice to be who he is, and she also implies that Rowena was at his mercy as well. This is pertinent thematically because throughout the entirety of the book, Robert is left at the mercy of strangers throughout the war, as they are to him.
Mrs. Ross’ last few words, “Birth I can give you — but life I can not. I can’t keep anyone alive. Not anymore” shows her attempts to excuse herself from her duty as a mother, as a giver of life, as Robert’s first line of defense. This is her refusing to take responsibility for his actions, and thus vindicating herself. It is her own self-proclamation of innocence. This is also one of many instances during the novel where life is seen to be averted.
Having been adopted and raised by a single mother for almost all of my life, the phrase “Left at the mercy of strangers” rings all too loudly in my ear, and ever since I have found this quote, I have gained a far greater appreciation of the life that I live, and the opportunities that I have been granted. Whoever my birth parents are, I don’t know them, nor do they me. They are strangers, strangers that have given me birth. Strangers that could have easily done worse to me, that could have never let me see the light of day. My mother, the woman who has travelled to other end of the Earth to bring me to where I am today, is the one who I have truly been at the mercy of for all my life. She has given me life, and a very fortunate and privileged one at that. I have written my emulation as a reflection of this. I wrote it from the perspective of a mother, speaking to her adopted child.
You have something to lose. You have a family, my dear, what of that can you not understand? I borne myself through hell and highest water to bring you here, and not once did I ever think of you as anything less than my son. I have given you every opportunity that I have had and tenfold more. I have given you everything that is in my power to give, and I have experienced the pain tantamount to childbirth with your leaving. Was this not enough? Am I not a mother to you? It may not be my womb that gave you that birth, but it was my heart that gave you this life. This life that you are wasting away.
featured image: GIF Experiment: Sunset #2 .d. 4:20 PM, 9/22/18, courtesy; https://dribbble.com/shots/3986992-GIF-Experiment-Sunset-2