Mothers in Literature

So today should have been my latest Persephone Project post, however alas I haven’t quite finished it yet, sorry for those of you reading along with ‘Fidelity’ – I don’t want to natter about it when I haven’t finished it, I should have the post up tomorrow afternoon. Today is, well in the UK at least, Mother’s Day and this has lead me thinking about mothers in literature because actually, having given it a lot of thought on a never ending tour of the supermarket this morning, I think they tend to get a bit of a hard time.

As soon as I started thinking about mothers in literature the first thing that I thought of was wicked step-mothers, I wonder how many of you thought the same thing. This is no reflection on my own lovely mother, who bless her was in a car crash this week (she is fine, very lucky but fine) of course, nor my stepmother, who I have yet to meet and so is a mysterious character to me in many ways, ha. I do wonder if this leap to wicked stepmothers has anything to do with having seen Oz the Great and Powerful and the Wicked Witch of the West obsession of mine being back in full force.

Wicked stepmothers were my first thought though which makes sense, after all in most fairy tales aren’t the heroes and heroines generally orphans? If they aren’t then either their mother is a queen, a penniless widow who sends them off to sell a cow or can’t be bothered to take a picnic through the woods herself and so sends the kids, what sort of message is that sending us from an early age? Of course I am being a little tongue in cheek there, yet even in a lot of modern children’s fiction and YA fiction the protagonists are orphans, take Harry Potter for instance.

I had a think through the classics and her I found myself in the realm of more orphans (‘Great Expectations’, ‘The House of Mirth’ etc) in the main, or the mothers tend to fall into two other camps, they are either manipulative women who just want to get their daughters wed, become the butt of all the jokes, or both – yes Mrs Bennett I am thinking of you indeed.

So where, or who, are all the great mothers in literature? Are they all written as these odd stereotypes so we appreciate our own all the more? Who is your favourite mother figure in literature? I think mine links back to Harry Potter as I rather love Mrs Weasley, you?

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Mothers in Literature

  1. Its hard to think of wonderful mother figures in stories, your right. They are usually absent or dead. For some reason I started to think of Wendy in Peter Pan but she is only a little girl. Odd isn’t it?! And a little sad…

  2. Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott has a couple of great mothers but other than that I can’t think of any! I have to get my great mother fix from TV (Gilmore Girls)…. everyone’s allowed a guilty pleasure right?

  3. I immediately thought Marmee in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
    But it seems that so often it’s the absence of the mother, rather than the mother herself, that is a large part of the story …

  4. Little Bear’s mother is my role model🙂

  5. Let’s face it, loving mothers as in Little Women et al are rather dull. I much prefer reading about the exercise of power LOL, especially in eras when women didn’t have any.
    I’ve just finished reading a reissue of David Malouf’s (1984) Harland’s Half Acre which features a most manipulative mother, observed with great clarity by her grandson. Her husband turns out to be a disappointment so she uses an inheritance to set up a very successful business and excludes him from it – and she is so jealous of her own daughters that she convinces them of their plainness and sabotages any prospective marriages. She lets her only DIL nurse her husband through all the unpleasantness of dying – and then throws her out of the house for daring to touch her husband.
    Yes, it’s quite a common theme, this idea of mother/daughter sexual jealousy. Another classic wicked mother is in Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm, star of her own life and saboteur of her children’s.
    *pause*
    I wish I could think of an example of the same theme written by a female author LOL.

  6. What an intriguing question! I wonder if it is a divide between mothers and fathers, or if parents just come off badly in fiction… but I can think of at least one amazing father in fiction (Atticus Finch) and I’m struggling to think of a good mother…

  7. A loving, normal, sane mother doesn’t make for interesting character development of the protagonist, heh. I think that’s why we don’t see them very much–or if we do, they’re in a more minor role.

  8. Lisa Moore

    Usually to be found in books for pre-schoolers, often in the shape of a rabbit or bear! When you are little, you need that reassurance that a good mother will be there for you, but as you grow older, ‘mothering’ is taken for granted (or seen to be suffocating), and hence a boring topic for literature. Let’s face it, if mothers always had their way, no-one would get to go out on exciting adventures in case they tore their clothes or missed tea! Harry Potter’s mother makes the ultimate sacrifice…and ends up as just a bit part in the story.

  9. One things contributing to the bad mothers picture you’re seeing imo – sexism and mother issues. As female authors’ explore women’s complicated relationship with motherhood, more complicated mothers are being created, who may not always be sugar and spice, but are at least not one note stereotypes, but those simple evil step-mother/dead mother characters – sexism and concerns about non-biological parenthood, through and through.

  10. Alice

    What about Room by Emma Donoghue? – that is about an interesting portrayal of a mother who is really struggling to do the best for her child.

  11. The mother at the centre of Patrick Gale’s “Notes from an Exhibition” is an interesting figure.

  12. Is it too creepy that my line of thought was exactly like yours? When I read the title of the post I immediately thought of step-mothers in fairy-tales, then I thought about Mrs. Bennet (how could I not?) and then about the mothers in Harry Potter. Of course, the way mothers are represented is not much different from the way women were generally represented in literature.

  13. Kate

    My Antonia by Willa Cather. Mother to something like 9 children, Antonia is still joyful and proud of her family at the end, even though her life wasn’t easy.

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