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Mothers in Literature: The Good, the Bad, and the Murderous

758px-Raffaello_Sanzio_-_The_Judgment_of_Solomon_-_WGA18836  The Judgment of Solomon, by Raphael (1518).

The most memorable mother in literature is, arguably, the mother of the disputed baby in the Old Testament (1 Kings 3:16–28). Solomon, King of Israel, was known then—and is famous now—for his wisdom (though, according to the Bible, he had some 700 wives and 300 concubines, hardly the mark of a wise man). The first case he judges involves two women, both claiming to be the mother of the baby brought before him. Solomon recommends that the infant be cut in two with the sword he has at the ready. Woman No. 1 apparently thinks that’s fine; Woman No. 2 begs the king to stay his hand and give the child to Woman No. 1, thus proving to the king (and to the millions of Bible readers who came after him) that she was the true mother.

Bertolt Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle reworks the theme: In a court case that will determine which mother gets the child in a dispute, each woman is to pull one of the little boy’s arms. The woman who refuses to pull the child apart is judged the true mom—though she is not the biological mother: She is Grusha, a peasant girl who had rescued the baby during an insurrection when his mother fled without him. The birth mother, a noblewoman, wanted the child for her own gain. Conclusion: “Motherhood is an attitude, not a biological relation,” as Robert A. Heinlen puts it in Have Space Suit—Will Travel, a sci-fi novel for young readers.

Before we travel too far from literature’s ancient roots, let us pause to acknowledge a pair of notorious mothers. Medea, in Euripides’ play of the same name, skewers her two children—simply because her husband, Jason, wants to take a new wife. Then there’s Clytemnestra, infamous in Greek mythology. Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon portrays her as outraged (quite reasonably) because her husband, Agamemnon, has sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia in hopes of stirring the gods to send a fair wind to his becalmed ships. So she slays her husband on his return from the Trojan War.

Several millennia later, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind gives Scarlett O’Hara two good mothers: not only a saintly biological mom but a sort of second mother, Mammy. Unappreciated and in bondage, she gives her all as she tries unsuccessfully to reform the narcissistic Scarlett—something “real” moms have tried to do with their errant offspring since the dawn of time and of literary characters.

In The Help, by Kathryn Stockett—a 2009 best seller—African-American maids serve as substitute moms for under-mothered children while the actual mothers channel the Confederate attitudes that are still influencing their behavior in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi.

Two recent literary memoirs portray psycho moms: Charlie in The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr, and Rose Mary in Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. As they sink into mental illness, both mothers semi-abandon and also abuse their offspring. Walls actually takes care of Rose Mary as the book ends, despite her mother’s lack of repentance. Mary Karr recalls her eighth birthday, when Mother has just thrown the dinner casserole out the door after Father. Mother Charlie follows her tantrum by solemnly lighting candles on the birthday cake. Little Mary makes a fervent wish: “I squinted my eyes as hard as I could and wished silently to go and live some other where forever, with a brand-new family like on Leave It to Beaver.

Tortured moms include Sophie of Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron, and Hester Prynne. of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hester, condemned to wear the scarlet letter “A” for having a child out of wedlock, names her baby Pearl, “the infant being of great price—purchased with all she had—her mother’s only pleasure.” Despite the stress she continually endures as the target of unrelenting community scorn, Hester is a virtuous citizen and a model mother—fiercely loving of, and patient with, her willful child, and scrupulous in overseeing Pearl’s religious and moral education.

Perhaps the most tortured mother in all literature is Sophie Zawistowska, whose life is forever frozen in time after the SS officer at Auschwitz demands: “You may keep one of your [two] children. The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?”

423px-Mrs_BennetMrs. Bennet. C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice.

Let us not forget Mrs. Bennet, the worried mom in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She is graceless and small-minded—such a social embarrassment, indeed, that Mr. Darcy, rich admirer of her daughter Elizabeth, recoils from the idea of marrying the young woman. (“Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?” he blurts during a spectacularly rude marriage proposal.) Still, counterbalancing Mrs. Bennet’s social clumsiness is her love for her five daughters. She fears the life of humiliation and penury that awaits them if she cannot marry them off. She does what she must to find them husbands . . . not well, but she does it. That alone makes her a good mother.

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  • Judy Hooper May 11, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Toni…Amazing research … And, fun to remember and read all the amazing (harried) Mom’s ..And you are right, it starts … GIVING BIRTH and never ever ends!!! You do have ‘it’ for writing to entertain with life’s memorable moments …

  • Susan Quattrociocchi May 10, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Wonderful, as always, Toni!

    Erudite, charming, humorous and compelling! What else could we ask for?

    I’m so glad for you that you’re following your passion, and I’m so happy for all of us that you are!

  • Toni Myers May 10, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    Thanks, Judith. I was hoping to get suggestions and will look for Grizzly Grows up. Indeed, Mother Earth, to whom we are not very good children, is there for us all if only we take better care. Some time back, a teacher told me that Runaway Bunny is quite helpful with children who have problems (maybe attachment issues?). Children naturally cuddle close when we share it.

  • Judith May 10, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    I have read “The Runaway Bunny” hundreds of times—to preschool children in my classes and to my own son, when he was little. She is a gentle, fierce, loving, huggable mom! In the last few years, I have gained another favorite animal mother from the nonfiction children’s book “Grizzly Grows Up,” by Douglas H. Chadwick. A mama grizzly bear in Alaska, with 3 cubs, adopts a young 2 year old bear who is ever so lonely. The family is documented with photographs over the course of several years, and their life together is wildly wonderful. I look to Mother Earth as my lifelong nurturer, as my mom died when I was a child. Today, I have received a blessing through planting in her soil… There are many stories told and written about our Earth Mother Gaia. She deserves our celebration!

  • Margery Stein May 10, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    A very interesting chronicle.

  • Carol May 10, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    What a provoking topic. And surely it must have been somewhat difficult to narrow down which moms – real or fictional – to include. I like your take on Mrs Bennett..a good predictor despite her character. Adorable is The Runaway Bunny – new to me. Must go find a carrot!