This past Sunday was Mother’s Day. I know, I know. Old news. At least I hope it’s old news. You didn’t forget, did you? Anyway. The Mother’s Day holiday put me in mind of some of my favorite literary mothers. And I thought I’d share a few with you.
Mothers in literature are about as varied as their real-life counterparts. And literary moms are just as important. In fact, the symbology of mothers in literature is as old as the art form itself. Gaia shows up in ancient Greek and Roman mythology as Mother Earth, or Mother Nature, the wellspring of life. She was the foundation of Olympus and brought forth the sea and the sky and a great many demigods and other creatures of ancient myth.
Of course, Greek myth is full of moms. Achilles can thank his mother, Thetis, both for his invincibility and for that pesky heel. Interestingly, Hera, Zeus’s wife, isn’t known for being overly matronly. She was mother to Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth; but Hera herself is more famous for being quick to smite any who crossed her. Gods and mortals alike had to tread pretty carefully to avoid making the Queen angry. The real problem was no one really knew what to avoid because nearly everything ended up making the queen angry.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention one of the most, shall we say — complicated — maternal relationships in ancient literature. Oedipus and his momma were so dysfunctional they ended up naming a whole complex after the guy.
And speaking of complicated mother-son relationships, how ‘bout that Hamlet? When Gerturde introduced ol’ Hammy to his new step-daddy — well, I’ll put it mildly and say he was less than happy. Shakespeare’s masterpiece gives us, quite possibly, the most intense confrontation in all of literature when Hamlet corners his mother with some hardcore accusations. “You go not till I set you up a glass where you may see the inmost part of you,” Hamlet says. And, because he’s acting like he’s one straw short of a cuckoo’s nest, Gertrude, rather reasonably, assumes he’s about to slit her throat and screams bloody murder at the top of her lungs.
There are lots of mother-son relationships in literature, but there are some pretty great mother-daughter relationships too. Mrs. Dashwood, the desperate matron of the sonless Dashwood family in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is a great example. I’m not sure, but this character may have kicked off an entire genre of comic situations. One misadventure follows another as this lovable social klutz Mrs. Dashwood pushes her daughters through drawing room after ball after drawing room in search of the perfect husband.
There’s some grammaws of note in literary history, too. The grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s amazing short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” inadvertently brings her family to a fatal encounter with a dangerous escaped criminal when she selfishly demands the family detour its vacation plans in order to visit what she thinks is her childhood home. She doesn’t fully understand her own humanity or her motherhood until she looks into the eyes of “The Misfit.” Unfortunately her realization comes just a little too late.
But I’ve saved my all-time favorite literary mother for last. Mrs. Irene Reilly, the long-suffering (too long-suffering?) mother of Ignatius J. Reilly is one of my favorite supporting characters in John Kennedy Toole’s wonderful novel “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Though the novel focusses on the comic missteps of Ignatius as he attempts to bring some “theology and geometry” to a depraved modern world, Irene’s growth as a person is a huge joy in reading the novel. Irene begins the story as a doormat and enabler. Everything Ignatius demands, he gets from his dear old mother. Over the course of the story, though, she learns how to be her own person, and becomes able to stand up to her Quixotic son and his schemes.
There are far more dysfunctional moms in literature than great ones. (N.b. For a mother-son story so sweet it makes you cry, check out Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in the 1944 Oscar-winning film “Going My Way.”) I’m not completely sure why that is. I think it’s probably because dysfunction is easier to write. I know from experience that it’s easier to write pain than joy. I guess that’s the subject of a future column.
The larger point holds true, though: mothers are as important in literature as they are in life. Mothers shape their children, give them the values and the world views they carry with them.
Mothering, in real-life and in stories, is the genesis of character.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Times Weekend, Maryville, Tennessee.