Literature has a mom problem. Specifically, if you are a mother in literature, chances are you are either scenery with few defining characteristics aside from being another character’s mom, or a virtuous paragon of idealized womanhood. Then, of course, there's always the chance you're a hellacious monster who shouldn’t be entrusted with a pet goldfish, much less a small human. As disheartening as this can be for us real life moms who, as a result, get a bad rep, the worst mothers from books are so much fun to read about we’re willing to let this bad PR slide.
Now, that's not to say that great mothers are hard to find in literature. Molly Weasley from Harry Potter, Marmee from Little Women, and Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables, among others, are all fantastic moms and represent the ultimate #MomGoals. For those of us with good mothers, we see aspects of our own moms reflected back from the page. For those of us with more troubling childhoods, characters like Marmee and Ma Joad exist in a realm of wish fulfillment, filling an emotional void by providing vicarious comfort. However, what makes the best ones great is that, in these characters, we see fully developed women whose motherhood and relationships with their children deepen their humanity, not just their role as a mother.
For the worst of the worst mothers, it’s not just a lack of maternal instinct that makes them so evil, but a lack of humanity that churns our stomachs while simultaneously making them so damn entertaining. (Of course, I’ve always loved the villains in anything, so I may be biased in my macabre love.) So, who makes this notorious cut? Well, here are just a few of the worst moms literature has to offer:
Medea is basically the OG who set the bar for bad bitches. Murdering your sons to spite your ex? Yeah, it really doesn’t get too much worse than that. The crowning detail is that she flees the scene of her crime riding a golden, dragon-drawn chariot sent to her by the sun god (who also happens to be her grandfather). Nothing says “I’m not even sorry” quite like taking off in a divine, dragon-drawn sun chariot.
Charlotte Haze, 'Lolita'
If you found out that your new husband had only married you in order to rape your 12-year-old daughter, what would your reaction toward the girl be? Well, if you’re the Haze Woman, the answer is “send her to boarding school.” But before she even learns of Humbert Humbert’s intentions towards her daughter Dolores (aka Lolita), the gauche and pretentious Charlotte is a competitive and pretty disdainful mother. She telling refers to her daughter as “Lo” which, knowing Nabakov, cannot merely coincidentally sound like “low” as in “lowly.”
Now granted, lots of good moms struggle when their daughters hit the tween years, and granted we’re seeing her through the eyes of the unreliable and predatory Humbert, but there’s something about Charlotte’s dismissive pettiness that rings so despicably true to readers.
Beth Jarrett, 'Ordinary People'
Everyone knows a Beth Jarrett; they’re very nice and well dressed and they live in beautiful homes and they volunteer with the town and the school and they’re on the Ladies’ Committee at the country club. Yeah, all these sweet stylings are covering up much darker, more complicated substance. After the death of her oldest son in a boating accident, Beth Jarrett shuts down completely, including towards her younger son, Conrad. Conrad suffers from survivor’s guilt, which is probably not helped by his mother’s distance or silent implication that he should feel guilt for having survived.
Beth’s inability to be a good mother certainly comes from a lot of complicated circumstances and emotions, but it’s less her lack of ability so much as her lack of real effort to be there for her son and heal herself, that drives readers so nuts.
Joan Crawford, 'Mommie Dearest'
So, I feel sort of weird including Joan Crawford on this list because she was a real person so it feels odd to mix her in with fictional characters, and because the Mommie Dearest we all think of is likely not the book, but the movie where Crawford was deliciously portrayed by Faye Dunaway. However, excluding this high water mark in the bad mother category would be a mistake on my part. Penned by the megastar’s daughter, Christina, Mommie Dearest was published amid a fad of celebrity exposés and tell-alls. Crawford’s mercurial temper and self-absorption created a perfect storm of awful physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.
The Stepmother, Literally Any Fairy Tale Ever
It’s called “archetype,” ladies and gents! Fairy tales are just full of wicked mothers, especially wicked stepmothers. Cinderella’s stepmother, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother, Snow White’s stepmother: these women are always trying to kill their kids or enslave their kids or abandon their kids or turn them into animals or whatever. Point is, they’re really, really bad with kids.
Miss Havisham, 'Great Expectations'
Though she is definitely a fabulous and interesting character, Dickens’ grand dame of misery is (to use a highly scientific term) a craptastic mother. I mean, how else would you describe a lady who confesses to stealing her child’s heart and putting ice in its place? Miss Havisham’s daughter, Estella, serves exclusively to vindicate Miss Havisham’s sense of loss after being jilted on her wedding day. In the process, she almost ruins Estella’s life. In the end, the creepy old lady repents and then gets set on fire, so all’s well that ends well, I guess.
Mrs. Bennet, 'Pride and Prejudice'
We get it, Mrs. Bennet, you want Lizzie, Jane, Lydia, Kitty, and Mary to find husbands. Yes, yes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” We know. We’ve heard. Could you please, please tone it down a notch? Also, maybe get a hobby that doesn’t involve obsessively meddling in your daughter’s lives? Like, have you thought about cross stitch? Or maybe fantasy football?
Compared to the downright abusive moms on this list, Mrs. Bennet isn’t the worst, but she’s the worst.
Mrs. Wormwood, 'Matilda'
It’s not that Mrs. Wormwood actively makes Matilda’s life awful, it’s that she has literally no interest in her brilliant daughter whatsoever (and to the point that she has zero compunctions abandoning her at the end of the story which is, you know, nice). It’s Mrs. Wormwood’s vapidness and vanity that earn her a spot on the list. In talking to Matilda’s wonderful teacher (and eventual adopted mother), Ms. Honey, Mrs. Wormwood says:
“You chose books and I chose looks… and who’s finished up the better off? Me, of course. I’m sitting pretty in a nice house with a successful businessman and you’re left slaving away teaching a lot of nasty little children the ABC.”
Margaret White, 'Carrie'
Margaret White’s ridiculously creepy, over-the-top repressive religiosity would be enough to earn her a spot on this list. Anything that identifies Carrie as a woman, from her period to her “dirty pillows” sends Ol’ Margie White on a rant about how the teenager girl is a sinner. But then, but then, she decides Carrie is a witch (which, fair, she sort of is) and goes on a knife wielding rampage.
When Mary’s boyfriend (and the father of their child) tried to molest their toddler (Precious) in front of her, Mary’s response? Jealousy, and that jealousy doesn’t go away even as Precious is continually raped (and twice impregnated) by her own father. In the meantime, Mary psychologically, verbally, physically, and sexually abuses Precious all while using the teenager’s children to claim welfare benefits. So, Mary is the kind of monster that gives you nightmares.
Corrine Dollanganger and Olivia Foxworth, 'Flowers in the Attic'
I had to put these two terrible mothers together because they work as a team to be one of the worst parenting duos in literary history. You’ve got Corrine, who abandons her four children in an attic to be nominally cared for by their psychotically abusive grandmother, Olivia. Then there’s Olivia, who starves and beats the children on the regular and forbids them from looking at one another. Oh, and then they slowly poison the children with what little food they are given in order to secure Corrine’s inheritance. Flowers in the Attic is a goddamn shitshow of horrifying moms (and so much incest).
So, to those of you with good mothers, go give them a call or a hug tonight. Maybe your mom was strict with you when you were a kid, but at least she didn’t murder you to spite your dad or lock you in an attic for three years!