Article published on March 11, 2018.
It’s surprisingly difficult to spot the good mothers among all the loathly ladies, abusive autocrats, black widows and wicked queens who populate the fiction genre. For every Mimsie Pott, there seem to be a dozen Corinne Dollangangers, while many of the greatest literary characters have had to struggle through life following the tragically early death of their mother. It’s not all maternal doom and gloom though. Fortunately, there are some shining beacons of motherhood still sitting on the bookshelves waiting to be discovered and what better day than Mother’s Day to promote their cause. So, without further ado, may I suggest ten of the best fictional mothers:
1. The Narrator’s Mother (Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust)
Sure, she doesn’t get a name, but the immense affection that the narrator feels for her kicks off the train of reminiscences that will eventually become one of the greatest novels ever written. After the chance sampling of a delightful Madeleine causes the narrator (who will eventually be identified as Marcel) to remember his childhood in Combrey, he describes the love he felt for his mother and the extreme fear that she would abandon him. He was scared of sleep and the dark, and the only thing that would console him at bedtime was a goodnight kiss from his mother. He would plot and scheme so that she would stay longer with him, but his adult self understands their nightly routine to be bittersweet, since it was her recognition of the fragility of her son that caused her to stay with him at night. In later volumes things are a bit more dicey, but in Swann’s Way the narrator’s mother is the epitome of motherly comfort and security.
Classic mum moment: “My sole consolation, when I went upstairs for the night, was that Mama would come kiss me once I was in bed.”
2. Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck)
When the Dust Bowl and evil bankers conspire to take their farm from them, the Joad family set off for California in search of employment and a decent standard of living. The journey is beyond difficult and when they finally arrive in California they find only low wages and dire working conditions. As the family’s circumstances wear down her husband, Ma Joad emerges as a tower of strength, kindness and good humour. It is she who keeps the family going, staying strong for her children and taking on the responsibility of her husband. Ma Joad’s selflessness and unfailing commitment to do the best for her family (and pretty much any waifs and strays that cross her path) demonstrate that it is possible to weather all manner of difficulties with your head held high.
Classic mum moment: “She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials.”
3. Mrs March (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)
Mrs March is an absolute paragon. Her husband is away fighting a war and she has very little money with which to feed and clothe her four precocious daughters, but she never complains and, despite all the time she devotes to the war effort and charitable endeavours, she always finds time to comfort and support her children. She believes in hard work and maintaining strong principles, and she doesn’t seem to even consider marrying her daughters off to rich suitors. She wants to raise educated, decisive and independent [normal sized?] women, which makes her the cream of the 19th century mothering crop.
Classic mum moment: “Then let me advise you to take up your little burdens again, for though they seem heavy sometimes, they are good for us, and lighten as we learn to carry them. Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone. It keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.”
4. Molly Weasley (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)
Molly Weasley is the mother to seven wizard children and she serves as a mother figure to Harry Potter himself. She’s all sweetness and light and knitted sweaters and home-cooked meals until the Death Eaters start up with their devious shenanigans once again and she joins forces with the Order of the Phoenix to fight Voldemort. For a competent and creative witch, Molly does remarkably little magic until the events of The Deathly Hallows cause her to break out her ass-kicking wand. When Bellatrix Lestrange threatens her children, Molly Weasley doesn’t hesitate to jump into a duel to the death with the deranged dark witch and she soon demonstrates just how fearsome her mum magic can be.
Classic mum moment: “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!”
5. Moominmamma (Moomin series by Tove Jansson)
Moominmamma is the most chilled out of Moomin mothers. Neither the threat of being crushed by a comet nor the fact of being washed away by a flood cause her to lose her composure. She may be one of those “cool” mothers who let their children get up to all kinds of antics (for instance, smoking is OK because she believes it’s good for the stomach), but her heart is in the right place. Unfailingly kind to family members and visitors alike, Moominmamma always ensures that everyone is happy, contented and extremely well fed. So long as she has her trusty handbag at her side, there’s really no stopping Moominmamma.
Classic mum moment: “Life is very charming.”
6. Irene Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole)
Yes, she loses points for having given birth to Ignatius Reilly, but once she inflicted his gargantuan presence on the world, Irene Reilly certainly did her best to make his (and everyone else’s) life better. Her son causes her a lot of worry and grief (to say nothing of expense) and even he has to admit that he’s horrible to her. When she finally makes friends and finds a man who wants to marry her, Ignatius does his best to ruin her happiness. Yet in her own bumbling way Irene forces her son into the action that should ultimately be the making of him, since it is her drunken accident that forces Ignatius to leave the house and seek employment. Admittedly, she’s a little bit paranoid on the Communism front, but Irene Reilly is still a mum who is doing her very best in an extremely difficult world.
Classic mum moment: “Mother went out again tonight, looking like a courtesan.”
7. Martha Kent (Superman series by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)
When Martha Kent and her husband Jonathan found that an alien had crash-landed in their cornfield, they didn’t run screaming to the FBI. They didn’t even contact the tabloids. Oh no, they adopted the alien and raised him to be the greatest, most wholesome hero the world has ever seen: Superman! Simply by teaching young Clark about the importance of hard work, humility and good ol’ American values, Martha Kent indirectly saved the lives of millions of people worldwide. A woman of many talents, she’s also responsible for crafting Superman’s iconic costume.
Classic mum moment: “Yes, sometimes the good guys get played and conned. But you keep on. You begin again. Never give up being the best you can be. Never give up on good ideals, and in the end, victory… the big victory, will always go to you.”
8. Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)
After giving birth to an illegitimate child, Hester Prynne was charged with adultery and sentenced to wear a prominent scarlet letter “A” on her clothing for the rest of her life. It wasn’t easy being a single woman in a Puritan world. Although she was shunned by most of the community and forced to live on the outskirts of town, Hester remained resilient and took whatever punishment and humiliation that was directed towards her so that she could care for her child. She even had the bravery and strength of character to confront the governor of the colony and plead her case when she faced losing her daughter. Hester really is the epitome of grit and she will do whatever it takes to keep her child with her.
Classic mum moment: “But she named the infant ‘Pearl,’ as being of great price – purchased with all she had – her mother’s only pleasure.”
9. Katie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith)
Katie Nolan is truly a strong women. She set her heart on marrying Johnny Nolan – a handsome alcoholic who didn’t really want marriage or a family – and then dedicated her life to improving her family’s situation when it became clear that her husband couldn’t be bothered to do so. When she is advised that education and the security of a good home are the best things that she can provide for her children, Katie determinedly sets out to provide them. She has a great deal of pride in herself and her family, but she is willing to take any job going and work any hours necessary to ensure that her family is provided for. She does perhaps take the frugality a bit far and she turns down help when the family could seemingly really use it, but she always strives to model behaviours that will serve her children well in later life.
Classic mum moment: “Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it away than to drink it, all right. I think it’s good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be to have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging.”
10. Alana (Saga series by Fiona Staples & Brian K. Vaughan)
Alana was a Private First Class in the Landfall Coalition when she met Marko, a young Wreath prisoner of war. The two discover a mutual fondness for reading, fall in love, desert their respective armies and go on the run after discovering Alana is pregnant. The next thing she knows, Alana has given birth to the first cross-species baby to survive for more than a few weeks and she has to keep her daughter safe as an intergalactic war wages all around them. Not one to stand on her dignity, Alana is even willing to work as an actress on Open Circuit soap operas so that she can provide for her family. When her daughter is taken from her, Alana proves that she will travel the galaxy and take on any TV-headed villains that cross her path if it means she can be reunited with her offspring.
Classic mum moment: “Hazel spit up in my mouth last night.”
Erin Britton, March 2017
AUDIO: Almost Love by Louise O’Neill