Literary Mum: Unforgettable Mothers from the World of Fiction

New Delhi | Published: May 11, 2019 9:06:21 PM

As we celebrate Mother’s Day this year, let us remember some of these memorable literary mums.

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By Mehak Daleh

You too, my mother, read my rhymes For love of unforgotten times, And you may chance to hear once more The little feet along the floor. – To my Mother by Robert Louis Stevenson

If there is one thing in this world we can all unanimously agree on, I believe it is this – the years we spent with our mothers are unforgettable. The memories – wrapped in the dust of time that has slipped through our fingers, maybe many things – heartwarming or aggrieved, sweet or sharp, full of contentment or overflowing with lessons – but what they are certainly not, is forgettable. Mothers leave indelible impressions on their children; and through these permanent marks on the psyche, shape the world. This is as true of mothers from the world of fiction as it is of those from our real world. Fictional mothers have shaped and molded our favorite characters into the people they became, into the characters we readers came to cherish. As we celebrate Mother’s Day this year, let us remember some of these memorable literary mums. Some of them are endearing and compassionate, while others are downright manipulative and cruel. Either way, they will make you want to hug your own mother and thank her.

1. Marmee from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:

(Susan Sarandon as Marmee)

“Watch and pray dear, and never get tired of trying, and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault” Let’s start with the gold standard of literary motherhood – Margaret March, affectionately called Marmee by her daughters. She is the ideal mother – kind, endearing, compassionate and everything nice. A highly principled and charitable woman, she is never too busy to gently guide her daughters. She provides them the emotional strength they need to endure the pains of growing up. She is poor; she is hard working, yet she never encourages her daughters to marry for money. All in all, she is everything a mother is expected to be.

2. Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

(Alison Steadman as Mrs. Bennett)

“You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor nerves.” This constantly irritated, perpetually annoyed mother of five daughters would feature on any list on the subject of memorable mothers. She might be an utter embarrassment to her family with her frivolous nature and alarmingly loud voice, but she is certainly not forgettable to the reader. Mrs. Bennett embodies a style of motherhood diametrically opposite to that of Marmee March. She is a social climber and would rather have her daughters marry a rich man than be happy with someone who understands them. I suppose she loves her daughters in her own way, but trying to push them into inconvenient marriages is an odd way of showing it, don’t you think?

3. Margaret White from Carrie by Stephen King:

(Julianne Moore as Margaret White)

“I can see your dirty pillows… everyone will” Here’s a mother no one wants. Margaret White is abusive, cruel and severely mentally damaged. A religious extremist through and through, she lives her life by one command – Let’s pray. She punishes her daughter repeatedly for her supposed sins. One of these episodes causes Carrie to unleash a deluge of stones from the sky. Her severity and cruelty gave us a telekinetic heroine and an absolutely riveting novel. For this, she shall live on in literary memory as one of the most frightful mothers that ever roamed the pages of a book.

4. Cersei Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin:

(Lena Heady as Cersei Lannister)

“Love no one but your children; on that front, a mother has no choice” She may have lied and murdered and hatched nefarious schemes to destroy her enemies, but the character of Cersei Lannister is delivered from being absolutely evil by the love she bears for her children. Cruel towards the world, she is tender where it comes to her sons and daughter. In many ways, all the plans she devised have been to secure the lives and future of her children. A flawed woman, she is a sincerely devoted mother. The reader may or may not approve of the person Cersei is, but no one can help but feel compassion for the mother in her.

5. Queen Gertrude from Hamlet by William Shakespeare:

(Glenn Close as Gertrude)

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“O, speak to me no more! These words like daggers enter my ears. No more, sweet Hamlet!” The queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude is yet another flawed yet redeemable character. Misjudged initially as merely a sensual and shallow woman; her motherly qualities shine through by the end of the play. Despite being crushed with guilt at her son’s revelations, she gathers herself to aid him. She drinks the poisoned wine and identifies her killer, thereby providing Hamlet the motive to actualize his revenge against the king. Gertrude pays the ultimate price so that her son can have what he has wanted for a long time. If that’s not memorable, what is?

6. Cathy Ames from East of Eden by John Steinbeck:

(Jennifer Lawrence as Cathy Ames)

“I didn’t want to come here. I am not going to stay here.” Inspired by the biblical Eve and introduced to the reader as a ‘psychic monster’ and ‘a malformed soul’, Cathy Ames is far from being an ideal mother. Thoroughly evil and irretrievably pessimistic, she is one character the reader cannot ignore. She is a former prostitute who drives a man to suicide, sets her parents on fire, literally, and goes on to try and kill her unborn child. Further, she abandons her own children and runs a brothel where drugs and sadism are the norms. In creating all this chaos, she has no clear objective, making her all the more dangerous. The only beauty Cathy Ames possesses is superficial. She remains one of the most manipulative and unforgettable evil mothers of the fictional world.

7. Lady Honoria Dedlock from Bleak House by Charles Dickens:

(Gillian Anderson as Lady Honoria Dedlock)

“Truly I am the worst mother of all time! How can you forgive me, child? Yet we cannot see each other again!” With the haughty and distant personality she presents to the world and an explosive secret to hide, Lady Honoria Dedlock is an emotionally divided woman. But the reader soon realizes she is far from being a snob. Three things define her – a great passion, a broken heart and an illegitimate child she loves deeply and will die to protect from the judgment of society. When Esther falls ill, Lady Dedlock is clearly distraught. She disguises herself and goes around trying to get information about her daughter. She could have been a good mother, but her circumstances are unfortunate. However, she is one character that doesn’t easily fade from memory.

8. Molly Weasley from The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling:

(Julie Walters as Molly Weasley)

“You-will-never-touch-our-children-again!” A doting and devoted mother, Molly Weasley is the center around which the Weasley universe revolves. A generous soul, she takes on Harry Potter as if he were her own. Their means may be limited, but the children never go without food in their bellies, a warm hug, and a gift now and then. But that’s not all. She is a powerful witch who can take on formidable opponents, especially if her kids are threatened. Now that’s a supermom!

9. Raksha from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling:

(Raksha talks to her human cub, Mowgli)

“He’s my cub!” No list of unforgettable mothers in literature can be complete without the mention of Mowgli’s wolf mom. She crosses nature’s boundaries and adopts the orphaned human child, suckling him as her own. She is fiercely protective of her cubs and wise too. When her husband is murdered by the evil Shere Khan in pursuit of Mowgli, she uses her wisdom to rally the wolves in support of the boy. She is loyal to her children, wolf and man alike. Like a true mother, she does not differentiate between them. To her, they are all her cubs.

10. Helen Graham from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte:

(Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham)

“It is my son. I do not care to leave him alone. He is my only treasure and I am his only friend. We don’t like to be part.” Helen is a woman in her mid-twenties who gives up her family, escapes a debauched husband to protect her son from his influence, and decides to live life as a widow – all in an era where women were utterly dependent on their husbands. She is committed to young Arthur and claims that he is her only treasure. Through Helen, we see how a mother is capable of completely sacrificing the life she has known to protect the happiness of her child. We realize how motherhood brings with it immeasurable courage and makes heroines of everyday women.

On that note, here’s wishing all mothers a very happy Mother’s Day!

Mehak Daleh is a fiction writer based in Chandigarh. She is the author of the horror-mystery novel ‘And The Roses Bled’ published by Fingerprint! Publishers.

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