Last year, I did a post on the best fathers in literature, and I think it’s high time the ladies got a look in. That’s just, like, the rules of feminism! William Ross Wallace, U.S. lawyer and poet, said back in the 19th century that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world”, and it’s just as true today, but don’t be fooled! The best mothers in literature aren’t all gentle, maternal wallflowers. Here’s a list of my favourites…
Marmee (Little Women – Louisa May Alcott)
I figured we’d get the obvious pick out of the way straight up: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of the best mothers in literature that doesn’t feature Marmee, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Everyone comes for the all-American-girl archetypes of the March sisters, but Marmee is the real star of the show. She runs a huge household on the smell of an oily rag, with her husband off at war, all the while still prioritising generosity and charity, and yet she doesn’t seem to be a martyr. Marmee has an incredible sense for exactly what each of her daughters need, be it tough love or gentle comfort, and she dishes it out accordingly. Imagine if she and Atticus Finch got together, they’d probably fix the world… Read my full review of Little Women here.
Úrsula Iguarán (One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez)
If life-span were the criterion by which we judged the best mothers in literature, Úrsula from One Hundred Years Of Solitude would surely get the gong. She lives to be over 150 years old, all the while caring for three subsequent generations of her family. And that’s not all! She rolls up her sleeves and renovates her whole house herself (more than once!), runs a business, and keeps all the plates spinning with enviable aplomb. She keeps the whole family in check, and acts as a touchstone for rationality and practicality in Márquez’s whirlwind multi-generational epic.
Catelyn Stark (A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin)
I know the direwolf is the sigil of House Stark in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, but Catelyn Stark, in my mind, is a damn lioness. She’s fiercely protective: just try looking at one of her kids a bit funny, and you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of some serious wrath! Catelyn shows us that being a good mother doesn’t always mean being warm and gentle – or even present. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your kids is storm off across the country and raise hell on their behalf. And before you say it, I can forgive her for being a bit rough on Jon Snow; it can’t have been easy raising the kid you believe is the living, breathing evidence of your otherwise-wonderful husband’s infidelity… Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.
Sunyan Woo (The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan)
The Joy Luck Club‘s founder, Sunyan Woo, isn’t one to wallow. Instead of getting rightfully depressed about her very shitty life circumstances, she cops on with it, basically manifesting the happiness she so desperately wishes for her family. She makes some heartbreaking sacrifices, even knowing all the while that her daughters will never truly understand the choices she makes, but believing firmly in what is best for them. We usually think of “good” mothers as giving their kids everything they want, and the kids smiling and thanking them endlessly, but there’s another side to it in real life. Sunyan Woo is a wonderful example of that type of good motherhood.
Addie Bundren (As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner)
OK, I’m well aware that this is a controversial inclusion in a list of the best mothers in literature, but I stand by it. Addie dies pretty early on in As I Lay Dying – hope I didn’t spoil that for you, but heck, the title is a pretty big clue – and there’s really only one chapter written from her perspective. And yet, Faulkner still manages to tell us so much about her! I feel like I know her personally. Through her reflections, and those of her family, we know that Addie did pretty well to plan the hand she was dealt in life… but she reveals to us that she didn’t lose touch with who she truly was, someone who didn’t wish to be a mother, and didn’t relish the job, despite all the social pressure to feel differently. She cared deeply for her family, but she was also movingly honest about not quite fitting the mould her life had cut for her. I found it refreshing and incredibly endearing. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.
Molly Weasley (Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling)
Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series is the Marmee for this generation. Sure, everyone goes ga-ga over Lily Potter’s big “sacrifice”, but in our heart of hearts we all know we’d rather be mothered by the hard-arse matriarch of the Weasley family. She cares deeply and tenderly for all of her children, taking in Harry and Hermione as her own as well, but she’s never a soft touch and she doesn’t hesitate to dole out the discipline as required (which, given that she raised two identical-twin pranksters, is pretty often). I challenge you to read her immortal line – “Not my daughter, you bitch!” – and tell me to my face you don’t get chills.
Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck)
Another American classic, another incredible matriarch – what is it in the water on that side of the world that helps them write the best mothers in literature? Ma Joad is the true hero of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and that’s a hill I’m happy to die on if you want to argue the point. She whips up meals out of thin air, miraculously keeping starvation at bay for the whole family. She shields the still-warm corpse of her own mother from the rest of them to ensure they reach California safely. She calms the nerves of her pregnant daughter, and delivers the baby herself when the time comes. I could give a hundred other examples, but I’m sure by now you’re as convinced as I am that she is the backbone of the Joad family. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.
Miss Honey (Matilda – Roald Dahl)
Miss Honey is proof that motherhood is not to be found only in blood or biology. Matilda‘s birth parents are all kinds of awful (Dahl did have a real knack for writing shitty guardians), but in Miss Honey this young girl finds the love and support she needs. Like any other mother, Miss Honey sees Matilda’s special talents and incredible intelligence, and goes above and beyond to protect and nurture her. In each other, Matilda and Miss Honey find their real family, and it’s so touching – far more than you’d expect from a children’s book!
Helen Graham (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë)
The best mothers in literature haven’t always been recognised as such. In fact, Helen Graham – the titular Tenant of Wildfell Hall – was so shocking, so controversial, so blatantly feminist that Charlotte Brontë forbid the book’s republication after Anne’s death. The notion that a woman(!) would think for herself, and escape her philandering drunk of a husband to start a new life with her adored son instead of just, y’know, putting up with it, was not only confronting to rigid Victorian sensibilities – it was literally illegal. Thankfully, we can now recognise Helen Graham as the brave feminist icon she is, and admire her incredible commitment to taking care of her child, flying in the face of all social expectations.
Who do you think are the best mothers in literature? I would love some more examples of wonderful WOC and LGBTIQ+ mothers – they’ve historically been so underrepresented in books, and we need to redress that balance! Drop some suggestions in the comments (or tell everyone over at KUWTP on Facebook!).