Mother’s Day: my favourite fictional mums
From the Archive: the late Irish Times literary correspondent Eileen Battersby on mother figures in literature, from Mrs Bennet to Ma Joad
Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in John Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. In the face of successive tragedies Ma Joad, aware that her husband is too defeated to lead the clan, takes over the responsibility and in doing so becomes one of the most powerful and sympathetic matriarchs in American literature.
Nurse, doctor, psychologist, behaviourist, protector, chef, wardrobe adviser, mechanic, gardener, janitor, laundry attendant, writer of notes to teachers, provider of last-minute science projects and general defender against all the wrongs the world can offer, these are but a fraction of the skills needed – and mastered – by many mothers.
Being a mother is a very tough job, and no one realises the full range of difficulties until they become one. This may explain why grandmothers are so good at it; they have been able to practice. Or, as is often suggested, they get a second chance. Many a grandchild has benefited from the mistakes made by grandma on their father or mother. It may all be said to begin with Gaia or Gaea, in Greek mythology, the personification of the Earth. Earth mother is central to many religions.
It is a serious role; the mother is the centre of all. Mothers offer comfort; they also inspire guilt as Stephen Dedalus knows only too well throughout his wanderings in Ulysses. No one feels that they have ever thanked their mothers sufficiently; giving birth is, for most mothers, the easiest bit. Then the complications begin. Mothers also make problems for wives as many husbands believe that no woman could possibly cook as well as their mother…particularly should she happen to be Italian, Irish or Jewish.
Perhaps one of the best examples of the universal modern mother is Marge Simpson, whose independence is symbolised by her defiant tower of blue hair. Her home somehow withstands the onslaughts of her family, which is as it should be. Although a poor driver, she does manage to get everyone home safely. Most of all though, kind, understanding Marge has to the envy of all not only perfected that menacing mother-wolf growl, she has also succeeded in keeping her youngest child, Maggie, a baby. How did she do that? Maggie seems really happy. Why hasn’t there been any international conferences held about this? There must be someone out there ready to complain at this protracted babyhood.
Mothers are important in fiction; some writers revere them, others confront them, most try to understand them, all agree they are vital and they account for many of fiction’s most enduring creations.
1. Mrs Makebelieve in The Charwoman’s Daughter by James Stephen (1912)
She is one of the great mothers. She works hard, cleaning the houses of other people and exists in a state of perpetual exhaustion. Her anger at the world and the wealthy people in it, are countered by her fierce love for her only child, Mary, who to the mother’s great sorrow, is growing up and is about to begin her own life.
2. Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
Based on Woolf’s mother, Mrs Ramsay is maternal and gracious, everyone loves her. The shock announcement of her death in a single sentence, reported as a fact, at the opening of the second section remains of the most dramatically underplayed moments in literature. Woolf’s evocation of Mrs Ramsay’s subtle, all-nurturing presence is among her finest achievements.
3. Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939).
The desperate odyssey of the Joad family abandoning the dust bowl of Oklahoma for the supposed golden paradise of California won Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. In the face of successive tragedies Ma Joad, aware that her husband is too defeated to lead the clan, takes over the responsibility and in doing so becomes one of the most powerful and sympathetic matriarchs in American literature.
4. Mrs March ‘Marmee’ in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868 -1869)
Okay, so Marmee is perfect, is it her fault? Considering she has four daughters and times are hard, there’s a Civil War going on, perhaps we should just forgive her for being too nice, too kind, too perfect.
5. Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
Just when you may have been thinking that Marmee is annoying for being too nice, too perfect, too kindly etc, how about the deeply embarrassing Mrs Bennet shrieking about suitors and intent on catching rich husbands before her poor spouse dies, leaving them all homeless. The hysterical and scheming Mrs Bennet is not nice, but considering she has five teenage to-slightly-just-beyond-that-age daughters it is remarkable that she is not fully insane. Austen knew exactly how serious Mrs Bennet’s concerns were in a society in which all a girl could aspire to finding a husband. Even so, readers love to hate Mrs Bennet, so on this Mothering Sunday, let us agree to think more kindly of her –particularly as we are far more like her than we wish to admit.
6. Rosa Lublin in The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick (1989)
From the admittedly ridiculous or perhaps merely heavily satirised Mrs Bennet to the majestic creation of a mother forced to watch as a death-camp guard murders her daughter. This remarkable story is among the finest ever written in America and it is Ozick’s salute to a mother’s loss.
7. Eliza Gant in Look Homeward, Angel (1929) by Thomas Wolfe
The story of Eugene Gant, a young boy growing to manhood and to dreams of literary greatness is largely based on Wolfe’s experiences yet one of the forces in the novel is the determined mother, Mrs Gant, who has no option but to run a boarding house. Her maternal feelings are constantly compromised by the need to survive.
8. Oriel Lamb in Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (1991)
Another mother who works hard and is so worried about money that soon after she begins running a little shop in the shared house at Cloudstreet, she even whisks a birthday cake off the family’s table to sell it to a waiting customer. Through all her eccentric behaviour – including living in a tent in the yard due to her son having suffered an accident for which she blames herself – Oriel is a brilliant study of a mother tormented by equal measures of motherly love and motherly guilt.
9. Mrs Baines in The Countrywoman by Paul Smith (1961)
In the tradition of Sean O’Casey, the Dublin writer Paul Smith tells the story of his heroine, a country girl who moves to the capital full of romantic notions about marriage only to find out that life for her is two rooms in a slum, at the mercy of a violent drunkard. An unsung Irish novel dominated by a heroic mother.
10. Sethe in Beloved by Tony Morrison (1987)
A mother’s love is not only pushed to desperate limits, a mercy killing is rewarded by a curse that blights the woman’s life and that of her surviving daughter for years to come. Morrison adopted a modified variation of magic realism in a novel about mother love stretched to inhuman limits.
11. Gertie Nevels in The Dollmaker by Harriette Arrow (1954)
In this the third novel in her Kentucky trilogy, Harriette Arrow described how hardship drives a woman from rural Kentucky to Detroit. In one harrowing scene, the mother attempts to cut open her dying son’s throat to enable him to breath.
12. Elizabeth in They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell (1937)
Elizabeth is the beautiful mother and the heart of the Morison family living in a small mid-western town. When the influenza epidemic of 1918 breaks out, everything is at risk. This novel is a foreshadow of Maxwell’s later defining work So Long, See You Tomorrow but the character of Elizabeth is not only a memorable mother figure, she is one of his finest creations.
13. Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht (1955)
I have included this not only because Grusha is a mothering individual but because so many people immediately mention Brecht’s Mother Courage (1941) despite the fact that the mother in that, although a tremendous survivor, is more of a business woman than a mother. She tends her wagon better than she does any of her children. Grusha the peasant girl is prepared to give up the child she loves rather than pull it asunder in a tug of war with the natural mother. Her love wins her the child.
14. Sprout in The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang (2000)
The little hen wants a baby and eventually she does find an egg to love. She defends it against all and even when she realises it is a duck, she doesn’t care. She just loves it. It is a moving account of mothering and also looks at the grief a mother experiences when her child leaves. In this case the little hen watches as her duck son flies away.
15. The mother remembered in A Sandstone Farmhouse, from The Afterlife and Other Stories by John Updike (1995).
In this wonderful story, among his finest, the great Updike describes a middle-aged man, Joey, remembering his mother at various stages of her life. It is a story about his mother, and about every mother, because every mother was also once a very different person. At the heart of the story is the mother’s determination to move her family, her parents as well as her son, to the family home she set out to restore. It is about how a mother returned to her family home and sustained it as the place where both her vital years and her old age were spent.
Eileen Battersby, who died last December, was literary correspondent of The Irish Times