Mothers are strangely featured in most books. You have the myriad of books where mothers are simply featured as almost non-existent characters. The mothers cook, clean, work, and are simply backgrounds for the real story of the child. You have the vaguely participating mother who tells the character to brush her teeth or grounds her from going out and having a life.
Then, there are the mothers who are truly terrible. The ones that are, sadly, often based on some real-life experiences of the author. These mothers are abusive, non-caring, sometimes addicted to drugs or alcohol, or simply don’t “get” the character in the book. Many book characters have terrible relationships with their mothers. That is why many of the lists of mothers online feature the worst mothers in literature.
However, not all books feature crappy moms. Here are the best mothers in literature that give hope to humanity, even through the often-angsty lens of literature.
Marmee from Little Women
Growing up, the Little Women were everything I wanted to be: strong, independent, fun-loving, and caring. Their mother features all of these characteristics and more. Although Marmee is not always a main character in the story, she is always a warm comfort for the girls offering hugs, advice, and kisses where needed. My favorite character revelation of Marmee, however, is the day she decides to do nothing. The girls get the idea to have a completely lazy day, so Marmee jumps right in. She doesn’t do any work, tells their maid not to cook any food, and simply reads a book all day. The girls are dumfounded that she really chose to take a vacation, and it definitely helped them see how important it is for everyone to pull their weight. Marmee is also always ready to forgive offenses and offer non-pushy advice to her children.
Dorothy Quimby from the Ramona Books
Mrs. Quimby is a great mother, because she offers the perfect balance between kind and strict for her two girls (I think by the time the series ends they end up with 4 girls?). She is a sort of no-nonsense mother who is able to guide her family through the ups and downs of everyday life. I like the Ramona series in particular because it was written over a span of several decades. This means that the Quimby family was exposed to a variety of changes in how a woman lives, and Mrs. Quimby was in the center of it all. She has stayed at home, gone to work, helped the family move, cared for children spanning vast ages, helped her husband through unemployment, handled a child with a learning disability (Ramona seems like she probably has ADHD to me), hosted a wedding, helped her husband quit smoking, and a variety of other activities that real women deal with every day. Somehow she manages to do it all without breaking down too often, which makes her a role model for mothers everywhere.
Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter
Poor Hester has a hard life. Her life is the result of an affair with a person in a powerful position who was unable to admit his part in the affair. He gets to live a normal life, while Hester must raise a child as a single mother (she was married at the time, which made the affair even more scandalous). I’ve always thought The Scarlet Letter was an incredibly interesting book because it was one of the earliest to examine the unfairness of how adultery is treated between men and women. Hester, even though Pearl turns out to be considered “unruly,” does her best to raise her daughter the best she can while branded as a total outsider. Her response to accusations and her unwillingness to act guilty for what she did makes her one of the best mothers in literature.
Rosa Hubermann from The Book Thief
Rosa is Liesel’s adopted mother, after her real mother gives her up due to the harsh realities of the war. I think Liesel’s real mother is also an amazing mother- because how difficult is it to give up your children, even when you know it is the right thing? But we don’t learn that much about Liesel’s mother because she isn’t in the story much.
Rosa, on the other hand, is first depicted as a hard, mean, angry woman. She is angry to her husband, to the neighbors, and to everyone. At first, Liesel hates Rosa, and wonders why Papa ever married her. He insists, however, that she used to be a caring woman- and as the story progresses, we see that she still is. I like Rosa because sometimes, a mother has to live harshly. There isn’t always the option to sit on a silk cushion and make paper dolls with your children all day. Sometimes, the hard mother is the best mother. Rosa makes sure that Liesel has everything she needs- food, clothes, shelter, discipline, and love. Liesel may not love Rosa as much as Papa, but if it weren’t for Rosa, Liesel would have had to live on the streets long ago.
Natalie Prior from Divergent
Mrs. Prior seems like a calm, boring mother at first, but Beatrice finds out all sorts of secrets about her mother’s past as the books progress. Not to give too much of the plot away, but Natalie turns out to be a much stronger character than she appears at first. I am a little sad we didn’t get to see more of her in the series, but the glimpses that we did get showed that she was a strong, caring, independent, and loving woman- all amazing things for a mother to be!
Cersei Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire
OK, so this one is pretty controversial, because Cersei is pretty much a hard, cool ice queen. But, I think she is also a great mother. How? She sticks up for the rights of her children and family more than anything. Yes, some of that may be because she wants to remain in power- but she cares about her children (possibly the boys more than her daughter, but that is just a sign of the times). She has one, clear goal for all of her children and she goes for it to the max. And in her world, I would probably be more Cersei than any of the other mothers in the book (minus the incest, because eww).
Jessica Atreides from Dune
I read Dune for the first time when I was years away from becoming a mother myself, but I was always struck with how poised and amazing Paul’s mother was. She was able to handle everything Paul could handle, and even more. She did what it took to keep herself, her son, and her baby safe when they had to go on the run- becoming a Reverend Mother for the Freman, even at the possibility of it killing her. Of course, in the end, it all blows up in her face, but mothers can’t really help how their children turn out. Jessica is a well-rounded person who is not relegated to simply being the mother of a famous person. She is fierce, religious, political, emotional, and full of character.
Mrs. Lancaster from The Fault in Our Stars
This book is problematic for everyone- because terminal cancer is, well… terminal. Mrs. Lancaster is destined from the start to become a mother widow (is there a term for that?). She doesn’t let it get her down though, as much as she can, and is determined to help her daughter live the fullest life possible- even at the expense of her own. As the story progresses, we learn that even she has changed during the duration of Hazel’s disease. At first, Hazel is her whole world. When she thinks Hazel is dying once, she cries that she “won’t be a mother anymore,” but later on, she is able to realize that once a mother, always a mother. I love how she is able to look to what her life will look like without her daughter without fear, and even plan for it by educating herself and preparing for how she will occupy her time after Hazel is gone.
Theresa Wiggin from The Ender Series
We don’t see Mrs. Wiggin much in the first few books in the Ender series, but it turns out, she is hilarious and awesome. Where did you think the children’s genius came from? She is one of my favorite characters in the entire Ender series. As much as I like the books, I really dislike most of the characters that you are supposed to like- like Ender and Valentine; their angst bores me- but Mrs. Wiggin is awesome. She guides Peter through his takeover of the world, matches wits with her husband, balances the dissention between her children, secretly still practices her religion even though it is illegal, and is all-around, an amazing role model for anyone. It’s too bad all of her children take her for granted.
Nanny Ogg from the Discworld Books
Nanny Ogg is a witch, but unlike most other witches, she has fully embraced life. She is the mother to a whole clan of boys (possibly some girls as well) and grandmother to a legion of children as well. Although she is an older woman, she doesn’t let that stop her from doing anything she wants. She drinks as much as she wants, makes off-color jokes, insults everyone, and doesn’t care at all about social graces. She can hold her own even with the tough Granny Weatherwax and keeps Granny and everyone around her grounded in reality. Even though she frequently goes off on adventures to save the world, she still manages to keep her household run perfectly (usually by making her daughters-in-law work for her).
Fantine from Les Miserables
Fantine had a hard life. She gets knocked up by some horrible rich college boy, who of course, abandons her, leaving her to raise Cosette alone. Back in the day, getting a job as a woman with a child was incredibly tough. She leaves Cosette with a “friendly” innkeeper so she can get a job in a factory. She sends money home until she is fired for being a single mom. From there, she continues in a downward spiral trying to support Cosette as the costs continue to skyrocket (the innkeepers keep raising their price for keeping Cosette) and her health deteriorates. She sells her hair, her teeth, and then eventually becomes a prostitute because she can find no other work. Eventually, she dies of tuberculosis without ever seeing Cosette again. Which is sad. But through it all, she does her best to care for her child, which is all any mother can ever hope to do.
Clare Abshire From The Time Traveler’s Wife
Melodramatic or not, I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife from start to finish. Clare is married to a time traveling man, who is unable to control his time travel. When it comes times for the couple to have children, it turns out the condition is genetic. This means that Clare miscarries in the worst possible way over and over. She is so determined to become a mother, however, that she continues to become pregnant over and over until she gets her wish. That is a determination to be a mother that many women go through- albeit in a less horrifying, but no less terrible, way. Clare shows just want many women are willing to do to become the mother they were always meant to be.
Who are your favorite moms in literature?
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