Just for fun, I made a list of the really great mothers I remember from literature, and was utterly horrified to see how short the list was. For every Marmee —certainly the most wished-for-mother in every little girl’s imagination who got her hands on Little Women
—there are vivid portraits of women who’ll leave you sighing with relief that you never called her mom. But let’s start with the good ones first.
At the very beginning, there’s Penelope in The Odyssey who, along with being a faithful and very smart wife, manages to protect and raise her only son. Mrs. Ramsey in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is motherlove incarnate, the unifier of a life that, without her, would otherwise seem scattered and, by the end of the novel, is. (It’s probably not an accident that haunted by the loss of her own mother, about whom she wrote most movingly, Virginia Woolf’s maternal characters are carefully drawn. Woolf makes it easy to forget in Mrs. Dalloway that Clarissa even has a daughter—something Michael Cunningham in The Hours would run with.)
Charlotte, of Charlotte’s Web, is the wise and loving maternal spirit all of us, in our hearts, long for. Wendy, in Peter Pan, speaks to the piece of us that’s “lost” like the boys. And then there’s Mrs. Rabbit, Peter’s mom, who is full of great advice, dresses him well, and is a fabulous cook. (Granted, the disobedient Peter doesn’t get the goodies his sisters do but, hey, he did go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.)
But there’s a veritable parade of bad mothers —ranging from the neglectful to the truly dreadful — who animate the pages of both great and popular literature. Do you really want Lady Macbeth to be your mother? (Asked and answered, I think.) How about Emma Bovary? Anna Karenina? (No and no, thank you very much.) Isn’t your mother looking great in comparison? Please remember that the Grimm Brothers —those mother-worshippers— changed all the mean mothers in the folktales they retold to stepmothers; in the original versions of Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Cinderella, the villain of the piece was Mom.
And while Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and her Edna Pontelier make for a fabulous story, you just don’t want to be Edna’s kid. And pity poor Pammy, Daisy Buchanan’s daughter in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. She’s trotted out by a nanny just as her mother has finished making out with Jay Gatsby and plaintively asks, “Where’s Daddy?” Daisy’s famous telling of the story of her birth, which ends with the words, “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” says more about Daisy herself than she intends. And the line about the “beautiful little fool” was one Scott apparently filched from Zelda.
And speaking of heroines, there’s Scarlett O’Hara —the mother of three as those of you who read Gone With the Wind know—and who didn’t care for two of them much. What can I say? There’s a theme here: literary women who want things for themselves, alas, make lousy mothers.
If you’re crabbing about how your mother is always criticizing you or poking her nose into your life, try Sophie Portnoy in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint on for size. Can you say “enmeshment?” (See, your mother’s not so bad.) Or the genuinely malevolent and manipulative Lila Wingo in Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. Or, Heaven forfend, Carrie White’s mother in Stephen King’s Carrie? (This list probably has you racing to your stationery store to buy a bigger card.) And what about Laura Brown in The Hours? Huh?
So here’s to those literary moms who lend us a bit of perspective. Happy Mother’s Day!
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