You’d think that coming up with a list of 10 wonderful mothers in literature would spoil someone for choice, especially a bookworm like myself. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a bookworm, too, and thinking to yourself, “Oh, I’ll have difficulty narrowing it down!” But then you get into it and realize that, throughout history, moms on the page have been given short shrift. They’ve either been little better than scenery or horrifying monsters.
This makes sense, I suppose: It’s way more interesting to delve into a story about a monster mama than a nice one. Literature is chock full of awful mothers, ranging from the Carrie’s horrifyingly unhinged mother, Margaret White, to the selfish and jealous Charlotte Haze in Lolita, and the spiteful and psychotic Medea. Their dreadfulness is entertaining, satisfying, and cathartic, but still: Can a mother get some love up in here?! OK, we get it, we’re hugely influential archetypes on the collective human psyche, so when it comes to literature we become more than ourselves and serve as powerful symbols of… frankly whatever crap you need to sort out. But we’re people, too, damnit! So every once in awhile, a fully formed, realized, developed and good mother character leaps off the page and captures our hearts and imaginations.
Ms. Honey, 'Matilda'
Ms. Honey doesn’t start off as Matilda’s mother, but as her teacher. Kind, nurturing, gentle, and passionately dedicated to her students, Ms. Honey recognizes Matilda’s brilliance and does her best to challenge her in the classroom. She also offers a compassion and sympathy to the girl, who is not appreciated or understood by her own horrible parents. Ultimately, Ms. Honey becomes the telekinetic tot’s legal guardian and adopted mother, and we all cry happy tears at the end of the book when we realize how perfectly everything has turned out. No? Just me. Whatever. Keep lying to yourselves.
Ms. Rain, 'Push'
Speaking of teachers who step up when biological mothers fail miserably, Blue Rain from Push is extraordinary. She cares deeply about Precious and the rest of her students at Each One Teach One, the pre-GED class Precious is sent when her high school discovers she is pregnant with her second child. Blue has her students write in a journal every day, and responds to each of their entries, both as a way to express their feelings and learn how to read and write. As Precious’ teacher, she fiercely but gently pushes her to make decisions that will give her the best chance for a happier future. Precious doesn’t always take Blue’s advice, but their love and respect for one another does is never diminished.
Marilla Cuthbert, 'Anne of Green Gables'
Marilla is proof that you don’t have to be all hugs and sweetness to be deeply maternal. She and her brother Matthew had expected a young boy to come to help on the family farm, and were taken aback when the melodramatic redheaded orphan Anne (not to be confused with the regular dramatic red headed orphan “Annie”) arrives at Green Gables. Though Marilla is hesitant to keep her on at first, she soon becomes fond of Anne, eventually realizing she could not stand to be without her. Marilla’s stoicism and sarcasm provide a delightful foil to Anne’s over the top flair, and their differences help one another grow.
Marmee, 'Little Women'
Margaret “Marmee” March is a reformed hot head who has channeled her energy into charitable works and her daughters, whom she encourages to educate themselves and become independent women, but never shrinks from going all Mama Bear for them when needs be (like when a school teacher canes Amy on the hand). Marmee is based, in part, upon Louisa May Alcott’s own mother, who was involved in the Transcendentalist movement. For those of you who have forgotten junior year English class, think 1800s hippies without drugs, so it makes sense that Marmee is pretty progressively awesome.
Ma Joad, 'The Grapes of Wrath'
While I’m not a big fan of The Grapes of Wrath on the whole (I find it a bit heavy-handed and plodding), I can’t deny there are some really amazing bits of writing in there. In describing Ma Joad, the matriarch of the beleaguered Joad family, and why she is so awesome, I cannot do better than Steinbeck himself…
Ma was heavy, but not fat; thick with child-bearing and work. She wore a loose Mother Hubbard of gray cloth in which there had once been colored flowers, but the color was washed out now, so that the small flowered pattern was only a little lighter gray than the background. The dress came down to her ankles, and the strong, broad, bare feet moved quickly and deftly over the floor. Her thin, steel-gray hair was gathered in a sparse wispy knot at the back of her head. Strong, freckled arms were bare to the elbow, and her hands were chubby and delicate, like those of a plump little girl. She looked out into the sunshine. Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. 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 and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thin happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgement as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.
Ying Ying St. Clair, The Joy Luck Club
Truthfully, this choice is a little more complicated than the ones that have preceded it, but hear me out: Ying Ying’s previous marriage back in China and the stillborn child she delivered there traumatized her, turning her from a spirited, lively, chatty young woman to a “ghost.” She never shared her story with her family in the United States. Her depression was debilitating, and she wasn’t able to be an engaged mother to her daughter Lena, who herself wound up in a bad marriage. But! As Ying Ying begins to see her own passivity and unhappiness in her daughter, she decides she must finally act as she thinks of Lena: “All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. And now I must tell her everything about my past. It is the only way to pull her to where she can be saved.”
Depression is a bitch, folks, and lots of parents struggle with it as they raise their children. But in spite of this, Ying Ying is there for her daughter when she needs it the most, no matter how painful it will be to bring that past trauma to the surface. So Ying Ying gets a place on my list, and serves as a stand-in for all the moms out there who are there for their children as they fight their own demons.
Had Room been written in any other way, I don’t think I would have been able to get through it. It tells the story of Jack and Ma, who live as prisoners to a man known only as “Old Nick” in a small shed. Ma has been held captive for years, and Jack, who was born in there, has literally never been outside, believing “Room” to be the entire world. Yet through the combination of Ma’s ingenious, protective, dare I say joyful parenting and the fact that the book is told through Jack’s eyes (and his childlike ignorance softens the blow for the incredibly disturbing subject matter), Room is incredibly readable. Ma’s resilience is absolutely astonishing to the point that she is able, in many ways, to be a “normal” mom to her son.
Mrs. Frisby, The Rats of NIMH
Mrs. Frisby has the distinct honor of being the only non-human on this list because she is awesome enough to be included despite being a field mouse. Yes, this single mama steps it up for her family, including her sick son Timothy, going on grand adventures and fighting all the odds to ensure their safety and survival. Also the 1982 cartoon version of this film absolutely delighted and horrified me as a child, which I feel is, like, the theme of 80s children’s movies, right? The Dark Crystal, The Black Cauldron, Return to Oz… there was some dark shit going on back in the day.
Cersei Lannister, 'Game of Thrones'
Ah yes, I can hear your gasps, boos, and hisses from here. Keep them going. Your rage sustains me.
But real talk for a second here: I’ll argue for Cersei’s place on this list. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is full of moms, and I think any number of them could have wound up on this list, Catelyn Stark, Daenerys Targaryen (her babies are dragons, yo!), or even more esoteric characters, like Maege Mormont (if you aren’t familiar with her, look her up: she is awesome). And I’ll admit, it’s hard to put anyone who raised King Joffrey on a list of good moms, but sometimes good parents have really shitty kids. Besides, she knows he’s a monster and two out her three kids, Marcella and Tommen, are actually very bright and sweet. And no matter how odious a human she may be (and she is delightfully awful) you cannot deny her love for her children. Hell, she can’t deny it, even though she would desperately like to sometimes. Everything she does is to protect and promote her children, including starting (though indirectly) the War of the Five Kings when Ned Stark attempts to reveal that her children are the product of incest with her twin brother Jaime.
Images: Warner Bros.; Giphy(9); Lionsgate