Mum’s the word – mothers in literature

Illustration from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Illustration by Francesca Protopapa. © Helbling Languages

Illustration from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Illustration by Francesca Protopapa. © Helbling Languages

When you look at mother figures in classic literature, you will find an extensive portrayal of motherhood, examined and narrated from every possible perspective. On Mother’s Day we celebrate our own mothers, grandmothers, and the idea of motherhood in our culture, nature and society.

What’s the first thing you remember when you think of your mother? Love? Warmth and safety? Care and comfort? There are so many feelings we attach to our mothers. We might remember tiny details, like the touch of her skin, the kindness in her voice, her protective embrace, her wise remarks. Maybe you think of things she loves doing, and conversations you have had with her.

The powerful presence of mothers is beautifully expressed in many literary classics. However, this presence is not always filled with positive feelings, and we often meet ‘bad’ and even evil mothers in literature. And the beauty of the sometimes cruel honesty of literature means that the absence of mothers is equally represented – and with their absence these mothers usually leave a hollow space to be filled with a loving mother figure.

What is the ideal mother figure like? Do ‘good mothers’ have a standard set of characteristics? Who are your favourite fictional mothers? Which stories do you remember because of the absence of the mother figure?

Three different mothers

We have looked at the Helbling Classic Readers series looking for mother characters we like, and stories where we really feel their absence. Who is your favourite literary mother?

'Marmee' from Little Women. Illustration by ... © Helbling Languages

‘Marmee’ from Little Women. Illustration by Cecilia Tamburini. © Helbling Languages

MARMEE (MRS MARCH) in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The March girls gave the name ‘Marmee’ to their mother, Mrs March. Her real name is Margaret, the same as the eldest sister’s. Marmee represents the perfect mother figure: she always has time for her daughters and she also does charity work to help other families. She gives wise advice to her daughters without specifically telling them what they should do.

Marilla and Anne from Anne of Green Gables - Anne Arrives. Illustration by Arianna Operamolla. © Helbling Languages

Marilla and Anne from Anne of Green Gables – Anne Arrives. Illustration by Arianna Operamolla. © Helbling Languages

MARILLA CUTHBERT in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

When Marilla Cuthbert and her brother, Matthew decide to adopt a boy from the orphanage to help them on their farm, and they see that a girl, Anne Shirley arrives instead, Marilla is deeply disappointed. However, in this unusual family Marilla turns out to be a loving mother figure in Anne’s life. She is a very rigid and sometimes sharp woman, but we realize that she is full of love and has a very humorous side.

MRS RAMSAY in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Similarly to Marmee in Little Women, Mrs Ramsay is also a loving and protective mother of many children. She also does some charity work, and she is also wise and powerful. She is aware of her own importance and power as a mother, and she tries to balance the power relations in the family.

And where the lack of a mother creates a powerful plot…

Emma by Jane Austen

Although Emma’s mother dies when she was five, Emma is a happy child. Her mother’s role was filled in by a loving governess, Miss Taylor, who was more like a friend and sister to Emma than a mother.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

In these novels we meet children who have lost their parents, and they have to navigate life without the love and protection of a mother.

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