Books · Family & Friends · Film & Television

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

Motherhood is not an easy job. Difficulties with childbirth are only the beginning. Still, focusing on your child can keep you sane, as we see in Room, by Emma Donoghue. Five-year-old Jack narrates the story of his life inside an 11-by-11-foot room. It’s his universe; his ma has protected him from the horrible reality that she has been imprisoned by a very bad man for seven years in the room where Jack was born and is being raised. Ma is the best mother imaginable at making a terrible situation normal—indeed, even fun—for her beloved son. She’s as ideal a mom as a child could have.

Grapes_of_Wrath,_The_-_(Original_Trailer)_-_02Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in the movie The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Wonderful mothers abound in literature, under normal and not normal circumstances. In The Grapes of Wrath, tough Ma Joad brings her family through the trials they must face on the road from the Dust Bowl to California during the Great Depression. Gentle Marmee holds her family of little women together as their circumstances become straitened during the absence of their father during the Civil War.

Sethe, in Beloved, by Toni Morrison, actually cuts her 2-year-old child’s throat to protect her from slavery, a desperation born of her own motherless childhood and her experience of the horrors of slavery. This makes her a (literally) haunted mother, though one with an overwhelming need to protect her other children from the slavers.

Frannie Lancaster, in The Fault in our Stars, by John Green, has a teenage daughter named Hazel, expected to die of cancer. Frannie learns to stop hovering over Hazel and to let her go, so that she can live her own life.

Crisp and curt Marilla Cuthbert, of Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, never expected to be a mother. In their middle age, she and her brother, Matthew, ask for a boy orphan to help around their place on Prince Edward Island. When 11-year-old Anne shows up instead, Marilla intends to send her back. She reconsiders, having fallen under Anne’s spell. “Perhaps an old maid doesn’t know much about bringing up a child, but I guess she knows more than an old bachelor,” she tells her brother. And this old maid turns out to know quite enough about how to wisely and lovingly bring up a child.


The most reassuring and loving mother imaginable is the rabbit mom in The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown. The picture book, first published in 1942, features an adorable bunny who tells Mom he is running away. His understanding mother counters all his fanciful escape plans with her own determination to keep him: “I will become a bird and fly away from you” . . .” If you become a bird, I will be a tree that you come home to.” Her creativity wears him out, and he decides to stay and be her little bunny. “Have a carrot,” says the mom.

Let’s all munch on a carrot this Mother’s Day to honor the institution of motherhood!


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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!