I was reflecting on this because yesterday was, of course, Mothers’ Day. (Students, note placement of the apostrophe, please, he said in his best Teacher Voice. We’re talking about an entire category, not just one mother, you illiterate louts.) And so, of course, there are a plethora of posts about famous literary moms. Strangely enough, I don’t seem to have written on this before --- an unusual omission on my part --- but I decided to give the topic a slight twist by categorizing some of the ways literary mothers are characterized:
These are the tragic mothers who’ve been to hell and back for whatever reason but unfortunately, have been completely devastated or almost obliterated as humans by the experience, to the point where, really, they’ve lost most or all the nurturing skills traditionally associated with motherhood. Mrs. Everdeen (the character is evidently not important enough in the author’s mind to rate a first name) from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example, to the point where Katniss, after volunteering as tribute, has to essentially tell mom to man-up for the sake of the younger daughter, Prim. Mrs. Everdeen is, sadly, a shell of a woman, barely able to function herself, much less ensure the functioning of her offspring. To be clear, I’m not being flippant about this category, because whether fictional or real-life, it’s a truly awful thing.
Some literary mothers are just flighty, vacuous creatures who rightfully annoy every capable mother because of the cliché/stereotype they create in our collective consciousness. Mrs. Bennet (once again, we have no first name for her) is the matriarch of the Bennet family in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but her singular defining characteristic seems to be the shallow obsession of seeing all her enormous brood of daughters married off to good matches (not necessarily good husbands i.e. nurturing, caring men, just good matches, a different and less charitable thing altogether). Austen herself describes Mrs. B as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper,” which is hardly flattering, and I always envision Mrs. B as a pathetic sparrow, aimlessly flitting/twittering hither and thither in a nervous tizzy over nothing.
Ah, finally: the Capable, Caring Mother. The archetype. Molly Weasley from Harry Potter is an exemplar, as she’s everything we seek in maternal figures: competent and confident in her own right, she loves her children fiercely --- is literally prepared to lay down her life for them, if necessary --- and provides nicely calibrated doses of (loving) hectoring and encouragement as required. She’s certainly not above exasperation with her sometimes-wayward offspring, which immediately endears her to every real-life parent, although hubby Arthur’s often childlike, oblivious nature may cause you to briefly question her judgement concerning spouses --- but hey, who among us is a perfect judge of character, anyway? Besides, when push comes to shove, Arthur’s character quirks are lovably eccentric, not destructive. More importantly, we never, ever doubt Molly’s deep and abiding love for her progeny.
The Crazed Harpy
This has to be one of the strangest literary motherhood categories, although I grant it’s probably also the most fun for writers: complete reversal/perversion of the ideal. The evil Anti-Mom, if you will. Bwahahaha! And my gosh, there are so many of them, in both traditional and contemporary literature. Stepmothers, in particular, get a terrible rap, especially in children’s lit. (Why is that? Is there some longstanding, misguided idea a woman cannot care for a child not biologically her own? Weird. Well, kinda disturbing, really.) I sincerely hope it’s not due to misogynistic leanings among countless male authors over millennia, but at times, you have to wonder. Lady Macbeth is a prime example of the Crazed Harpy. Oh, yeah, she’s a mother… or has been, at some point, although obviously she’s not when Will’s famous play takes place. (We don’t know precisely who the father was, or what happened to her kid… although we have several dark theories.) But boy, she’s a piece of work, all right: she’d be quite prepared to take a baby nursing at her breast and hurl it to the ground, dashing its brains out, if it would further her own purposes and ambitions. And her own hubby says she should only bear sons, not daughters. Okaaaaay, then…
Another strange literary category: the character who’s a mother… and we don’t even know. The author totally ignores the fact. (Say what?) For example, did you know Galadriel, the elven Queen of Lothlorien in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, isn’t only a mother, but a grandmother to boot? Well, she is… although the only way you’d ever know is if your devotion to LOTR means you like reading the voluminous appendices following the story. (Yep. Her daughter, Celebrian, married Elrond of Rivendell, and they had three kids together, two sons who are barely mentioned in LOTR and, of course, a daughter, Arwen, who is Aragorn’s love interest. What, you say? Elrond was married? Stern ol’ Elrond? Where’s Celebrian? Well, she’s actually skipped town and left Middle Earth by the time LOTR takes place. No, not because Elrond was mean to her… she was captured by Orcs and spiritually/physically wounded; following rescue, she quite understandably didn’t want to live in Middle Earth any longer. Undesirable zip code and all that. So she left. Now you know. You’re welcome.) Now, I realize this little-known factoid (little-known among the Great Unwashed, that is) isn’t especially relevant to the narrative, and I also realize, as writers, we can’t possibly reveal every last bit of information about every character --- nor should we want to --- but personally, I find this omission as curious as Tolkien’s almost complete silence on religion (given his ardent Christianity).
So… there you have it. Mommydom in five easy categorizations.
Haha! Just kidding.
I know better than to make that claim…