Oh, Mama!

With Mother’s Day coming up, I’ve been thinking about the best and worst mothers in literature.  I’ve got a pretty excellent mom if I do say so myself, but so many literary characters seem a bit lacking in that department.

By far the worst, in my estimation, is Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People.  Poor Conrad Jarrett—I still can’t look at Mary Tyler Moore the same way after seeing her spot-on depiction of Beth in the film adaptation.  You toss that hat in the air, Mary, like you’re a happy, warm-hearted person, but I know deep down inside you’re awful.  I’m not buying it for a second.

There are many runners up, though.  I think we can all agree that Flowers in the Attic’s Corinne is seriously failing her children.  The mom in Carrie isn’t winning any prizes.  And if we’re counting Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest, well, I think we all know about the wire hangers.

I’m hard pressed to come up with a best.  Marmee from Little Women is close, but she did produce Amy, so that’s some points off for her.  A recent entry into the canon might be Ma in Room—it’s hard to imagine better mothering under such circumstances.  Plenty of mothers are much worse without such dire constraints.  Caroline Ingalls is pretty great, as I recall, though I remember Pa better, frankly.

But I bet you all can come up with even better options.  There must be some reallllllly lovable mom out there in the world of books, right?  Who would you nominate for best and worst literary mom?

To all the mothers out there, including Jane, Miriam, Stacey, Jessica, and most especially the world’s greatest mother, mine, have a wonderful Mother’s Day on Sunday!  If you’re in one of those countries where mother’s day has already passed or is yet to come, go ahead and have a great day anyway!

8 Responses to Oh, Mama!

  1. Josin says:

    Sometimes it’s hard to pick out stellar parents, especially in YA, which is where I keep my focus. The parents get shoved out of the way in favor of letting the kids shine, but:

    You can’t get much higher on the mom (mum) scale than Molly Weasley. Not only is she a stickler for manners, but she takes care of her house and her kids, has a healthy relationship with not only her children, but her husband as well. She’s a favorite of the kids’ BFF’s, finds a way to make peace with the daughter-in-law she wanted to hate, and – despite her normal persona – doesn’t hesitate to pick up a wand and kill to keep her kids safe.

    In a similar way, you could add Harry’s mother to the list. How much more “mom” do you get than throwing yourself between your kid and death?

    On this side of the Pond (if its far opposite corner) I found it ironic that compared to Bella’s human mother, Esme was June Cleaver with a bigger bite.

    • Bethany Neal says:

      Josin, Agreed that there are some real Mama doozies in YA–and I totally agree with you about Esme. The worst that comes to mind (in YA) for me is Janie’s drunken disaster of a “mom” in Lisa McMann’s Wake trilogy.

  2. Spoiler Alert!! The MC’s mother in Chevy Steven’s Still Missing was one of the worst mothers I’ve ever read. A little far fetched, yes, but seriously, who would do such a thing to their own child? Plain awful.

  3. Gill Avila says:

    For sheer monstrousness nobody can approach German Black Lena Shanks from Michael McDowell’s “Gilded Needles.” I won’t spoil things by going into specifics, but a woman who kidnaps another’s children, sells one to a circus and raises the other as her own, well, she gave me nightmares when I read the book 30 years ago, and even now perusing it creeps me out.

  4. Brandi says:

    The mother from “Sybil” wins my worst mother ever vote. Now, it’s a pretty extreme example. I didn’t read the book, but I have seen the movie, starring Sally Field, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching.

    As for the best…Mrs. Weasley from Harry Potter. I love that woman.

    • Brandi says:

      Forgot to mention that “Sybil” is based on a true story, which makes Mama that much more horrifying.

  5. Yes! Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary people was chillingly perfect. I still remember the scene toward the end of the book when her son finally found it in him to hug her, and she just tensed up and froze. Oh….heartbeark, heartbreak.

    Ma in Room is wonderful, because we see her flaws and her lapses while Caroline Ingalls was always so perfect.

    Let’s see, horrifying mother: I am going with Jeanette Wells’ mom. The whole time I was reading Glass Castle, I couldn’t believe how the mother continued to support the father (okay, it was told from the point of view of the daughter, so I get that there may be biases, but still!) while her children suffered. I do have sympathy for her at times, and I get it that when someone has depression or other mental diseases and feels alone and vulnerable, they may not be capable to making rational choices, I guess I’d like to read a memoir written by her or on her behalf to truly understand why she did what she did.

  6. Lauren says:

    Thanks all for the great responses! Glad to hear there’s at least a few excellent literary mothers out there!

    And yes, Jeanette Wells’ mother in The Glass Castle leaves something to be desired. Actually, mothers in memoirs have the same monstrous tendencies that mothers in fiction have.

    Perhaps some authors are just saving on therapy bills?

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