Mommie Dearest: 9 of the Most Memorable Mothers in Literature
There are few relationships in life as complex, powerful, and dynamic as the mother-child relationship. The vast array of human experience within it is staggering. Mothers can be comforting, nurturing, empowering, flawed, damaging, twisted, tragic, abusive, or even absent—but the one thing they rarely are is forgettable. For this Mother’s Day, how about a list of literature’s most memorable mamas, good, bad, and infamous? (Mother, may I?)
I’ve made no secret of my love for Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I’ve called it one of the best books ever written, the great American novel, and perhaps the most powerful horror novel of all time. So is it any surprise that the first mother figure who springs to my mind is Beloved’s protagonist, Sethe? Sethe is a former slave living with her teenage daughter and the malicious spirit of her dead infant. Although this book explores topics far vaster than motherhood, at its dark heart is the desperate, drastic choice of one mother trying to do what's best for her children. It’s a gut-wrencher, and utterly unforgettable.
Roald Dahl filled this novel with memorable female characters, including the villainous Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s horrible actual mother, Zinnia Wormwood, but at the end of the day (read: many years later), the character who hangs around in my mind is Miss Honey. In this dark, twisted, somehow hilarious book about horrible people doing horrible things to a very smart little girl, it’s the soft, generous kindness of Miss Honey, the ultimate mother figure, who shines like a beacon of hope.
Matilda isn’t the only little girl with telekinesis, and who better to contrast Miss Honey with than (arguably) literature’s most horrifying mom? Poor Carrie never stood a chance. Stephen King’s Margaret White is an extreme Christian fanatic who terrifies and humiliates Carrie on a daily basis, perpetuating emotional and physical abuse. No one writes gross people quite like King, and, well, Carrie’s mom is probably the grossest. How do things get worse than ‘regularly abusive?’ King finds a way. And you’ll never be able to clean “dirtypillows” out of your mental vocabulary.
How about a nicer Margaret? Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women is about four sisters coming into womanhood, and although they are the focus, Marmee is the stalwart guiding their way. Margaret March dispenses wisdom, compassion, and guidance with a quiet strength that has endeared her to generations of readers. Perhaps embodying the American ideal of womanhood (and thus motherhood) at the time, Marmee is memorable not just for her idyllic nature, but for how she set the role of motherhood for so many works to come.
Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina often appears on lists of the greatest fiction, and although I don’t entirely agree with that, I do think the titular character is incredibly well-rendered and memorable. We follow Anna through years of her life, and by far the most compelling part of her story is her motherhood. She has one child in her marriage and a second out of wedlock, from a long-term affair. Anna spends many years haunted by her decisions as a woman, wife, and mother—and by society’s reactions to her decisions. Whether you end up loving, hating, or pitying Anna, it’s a compelling look at motherhood through the lens of social pressures.
For a more recent option, George R.R. Martin’s famous series has several fascinating and memorable moms. We’ve got the Mother of Dragons, Ellaria Sand who raises assassins, and Catelyn Stark who’s a beautiful strong mother figure, but ultimately it’s Cersei Lannister who steals the show—at least when it comes to the memorability factor. I mean, how do you forget about a mom whose baby daddy is also her twin brother? (Shout out to Flowers in the Attic, whose mother could also have easily made this list.) And sure, incest makes Cersei memorable, but it’s her motivations that make her fascinating. She is greedy, selfish, and power-hungry, yes, but she is also complex and multi-faceted, especially when it comes to her children.
This one seems built right into the name, doesn’t it? Mrs. Sucksby really does suck—as a person, that is. As a character she’s freaking gold. Fingersmith is another I’ve touted my love for. Creepy, complex, atmospheric, and sexy, this one has it all, and Mrs. Sucksby is the one who sets it all into motion with her conniving, greedy plans. Not only does she offer up her own daughter for a long con, she actually takes in a bunch of orphans and misuses them, too. Ever needed to rent a kiddo for your pickpocketing needs? No problem; head over to Mrs. Sucksby’s. If those troublesome babies keep you up at night, just give them some gin until they quit their crying. Mother of the Year? No. Literary staying power? Yep.
It seems that for every literary horrorshow of a mom, there’s a dream mother to balance her. Caroline Lake Quiner Ingalls was the real-life inspiration for Ma Ingalls in the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Ma is the epitome of the comforting mother, and another example of the American cultural ideal. She’s wise, patient, compassionate, optimistic, and the quintessential homemaker. You say 'ma,' and thousands of Americans will fill in "Ingalls."
Of course, mothers can also be tragic. Sophie from William Styron’s famous Sophie’s Choice is up against such an impossible decision that it’s come to stand for all kinds of other impossible decisions. Good chance that Sophie’s was worse: the Nazi guards at the concentration camp she’s sent to make her choose which of her two children will be killed. It’s a novel that examines one of the darkest parts of motherhood, and it’s absolutely unforgettable.
Literature’s most memorable mamas don’t always have it easy, but they stick with us because of their trials and choices. Whether they’re role models, nightmares, tragic figures, or fascinating studies of humanity, they linger long after we close the books they live in.
Which book mom stands out the most in your memory?
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