Jennifer Gilmore's The Mothers is a 10-year chronicle of Jesse, a wife and daughter who desperately wants a baby of her own. Through her sharp portrayal of Jesse, by turns angry, panicked, and funny, Gilmore has crafted a fine familial tale. Going against the grain this Mother's Day, we asked Gilmore to pick 10 of the worst (read: best) mothers in literature.
What makes a good mother? Does she hover, bring us chicken soup when we’re ill, bundle us up in our coats and mittens to go out into the cold world, make for when we return? Or does she let us step outside alone, live independently, find our selves and our passions and what makes us tick?
Of course a mother is not only absent or present. What seems to be consistent—even in it the face of these nuanced and textured versions of motherhood, even in the face of the way motherhood is moderated and sanctioned in our culture—is a mother, like any parent, wants what is best for her child. What does that look like? Depending on the mother—the woman—that can take on many forms.
A bad mother doesn’t seem much easier to define. Is she overbearing, never letting her kid out of her sight for one moment? Is she absent to the point of neglect? A bad mother is a woman. Her mothering is an afterthought.
The bad mothers of literature can be spectacularly awful. But still, at the bottom of it, these are women who are suffering. They are suffering from bad marriages; they are trapped by their time, unable to be themselves. Their suffering makes them cruel or it makes them clueless to their children’s needs. Present or absent, a bad mother is fodder for great fiction. And a bad mother never fails to get a reaction from all spectrum of readers. Because being a bad mother is the least acceptable character to be.
Here are ten bad mothers in literature. They are in no particular order but as I write, I realize the worst ones are the selfish ones, who live their lives as if their children are not there. Whatever the case, across the board, all bad mothers are punished.
Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - Motherhood is a grand disappointment to Emma Bovary, just one in a list of many of her dissatisfactions. Initially she pretends to dote on her daughter, as a cover up of her transgressions, but soon her vanity and unstoppable desires lead her away from her daughter. When Emma swallows arsenic, killing herself (who can forget that wretched scene!) Berthe is left with her father. Soon he dies penniless and Berthe is alone and forced—to work!—in a mill.
Queen Gertrude, Hamlet by William Shakespeare - Does Hamlet’s madness spring from the well of neglected love? Queen Gertrude, his mother, isn’t really paying attention. As soon as her husband’s corpse is cold, she marries Hamlet’s uncle, and doesn’t seem to have a lot of guilt about it. He believes he is alone in the world until he meets Ophelia, but of course that doesn’t go well either.
Charlotte Haze, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - Like Emma Bovary, Charlotte Haze craves for the finer and more sophisticated things, but she is portrayed as such a cow that she doesn’t even know what those things are. She thinks they are incarnate in Humbert, whom she manipulates into marriage, willfully clueless to his pedophiliac desire for her daughter. Like Emma Bovary and Queen Gertrude, Charlotte Haze (in a haze) pays with a violent death so leaving her unloved daughter vulnerable to the fire of Humbert’s loins.
Sophie Portnoy, Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth - Is constancy a bad thing, given what has happened above? Sophie Portnoy won’t leave her son’s side. She wants to see his bowel movements, control who he dates (no shiksas allowed), and she enables Portnoy to stay in a state of constant adolescence, tending to his every basic need. Has she awoken or thwarted his sexual desires? Sophie Portnoy is a living guilt trip, a constant complainer and perhaps her punishment is the son she has to mother.
Beth Jarrett, Ordinary People by Judith Guest - There is no denying that Beth Jarrett is suffering. Her eldest son has been killed in a boating accident and her younger son, a survivor of that accident, is not doing so well. But Beth is cold. She is ice. In her attempt to maintain her composure and to keep up appearances, Beth won’t offer comfort to her living son; her dead son seems to be the focus of what little she has of love. Beth’s punishment is to be forced out of the family, leaving out of shock when her husband asks if she can ever really love anyone.
Eleanor Melrose, The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn - Things don’t begin well in this suite of four short novels when Eleanor, an American who has let her family fortune be run into the ground by her gentry husband David, lets her son be raped by his father, her husband David, and chooses to ignore it. Eleanor, who drinks and pops pills constantly, goes through a reform in the second novel, and instead of making amends with her son, allows the rest of her fortune—and what little is left of her motherly love—to a questionable religious organization, led by a conman. Eleanor is punished with a long and hideous sickness that leaves the once attractive woman toothless, with horrible breath, unbearable to her furious son.
Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford - Can this list not contain Mommie Dearest and Joan Crawford, the grand mama of all bad mothers? And Joan Crawford’s punishment? Of course, this memoir.
Dori Goldin, More Than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss - Munchausen Syndrome is a disease, but you can’t have it without hurting your child, physically. Dori exhibits all the monstrous symptoms of that syndrome. She is the only mother on this list who presents a psychotic and constant physical risk to her infant. Ironically, she is not the mother figure in the book who is punished…
Janice Angstrom, Rabbit, Run by John Updike - The novel is told from Rabbit’s perspective and as readers we know to question that view. Rabbit has cheated and abandoned Janice over and over. He thinks she’s stupid. She is clearly informed by her time—the novel takes place in the late fifties—and while her husband is off cheating, her only means for escape seems to be drinking. And yet. Getting drunk and drowning the baby in the bathtub is terribly bad mother-behavior. Perhaps her punishment comes when Rabbit gets another woman pregnant, but still won’t divorce Janice. Perhaps being forever yoked to Rabbit is the worst punishment of all.
The Wife, "Hansel & Gretel" - And let’s just have one stepmother, fairy tale horrid. I’m thinking of "Hansel and Gretel," siblings left in the forest to die by the wife of their father, the woodcutter. I’m thinking of her trying to get them into the stove. I’m thinking of her goose getting cooked instead. In the world of bad mothers in literature, the bad stepmother is an evil unto itself, perhaps because there was not a maternal birthing, but the woodcutter’s wife is the worst mother figure around.