Sunday, May 13, 2012

"M" Is for the Many Things

Motherhood, as we all know, is a complicated relationship.  And no human relationship has had its complications celebrated more spottily in literature then the bond linking, or chaining together, mother and child.

As art forms, drama and fiction have often-faulty mother fixations.  Even the Ur-stories, our most ancient tropes, are riddled with probematical mothers.  Medea, pictured above, is extreme but not entirely atypical.  Grendel's mother was the many-fanged neighborhood terror of "Beowulf."  A  bit later, Lady Macbeth's primary interest in  her children was using them to animate bloody metaphors.  And Lady Macbeth was mother of the year compared to Tamora in "Titus Andronicus."  And there are all those wicked stepmothers in folk tales.

But mother fixations (obviously) swing both ways and the fictional portraits of mothers grow more common and more nuanced once you get past the era when so many Western women died in childbirth (as many as 20% in some European societies), leaving thousands and thousands of children to be reared by fathers.  (This fact, plus the rigid royal patriarchy of the history plays, may contribute to the paucity of important mother-characters in so much of Shakespeare.)

Among novelists, even Jane Austen generally gave mothers short shrift: Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is a ninny, the most tiresome (to me) of all her characters.  I think that literary mothers in the West really came into their own (this is all off the top of my head, for those who are sharpening scholarly scalpels) in Victorian times.

Anthony Trollope, whose own mother, Fanny, put bread on the table by writing, created many memorable mothers, memorable primarily in that motherhood was one factor of their characters, not their entire literary reason for being.  Mothers in Trollope are recognizable human beings, probably none more so than Lady Glencora Palliser, whom we meet as a rebellious girl, then an unhappy wife, then a mother, and ultimately as half of what I think is one of the greatest of all literary love stories, with her husband, Plantagenet Palliser, across the six Palliser novels.  When she dies, her husband and her children are devastated, and so are we.

But then along came Dickens, who really and sincerely could not write women, and he sentimentalized mothers, softened them and backlit them, and created what I think of as Greeting Card Motherhood.  The Fabulously Good Mother became part of the fictional trinity of badly written women: Good Girls, Bad Girls, and Moms.

The froth of sentimentality about motherhood--which is, after all, a demanding job requiring patience, cool-headed good judgment, and skillful anger management, among other skills--reached a sort of apogee before the 1920s, before the rise of more clear-eyed writers such as Fitzgerald, Dawn Powell, and the flinty Edith Wharton .  Still, the almost masochistically sacrificing mother remained an archetype even after James M. Cain reduced such parenting to pathology in Mildred Pierce.

The persistence of the power of idealized motherhood in fiction is demonstrated by the shock value that really bad mothers still pack in a book.  Norman Bates' mother, Mrs.Portnoy, the mother in King's Carrie and Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, Mary Jones from Sapphire's Push, Adele from Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here, and on and on.

Real-life motherhood is, of course, more complicated and less tidily plotted than fictional motherhood.  I think generally, fiction has done relatively badly by the most difficult job in the world.  Far too many important characters are motherless, or have bad mothers, or have mothers the reader has difficulty believing. That's too bad, because mothers are probably the world's most important people, generation after generation, and they deserve better.

Now don't just jump on me.  Instead, suggest a book or play (or two, or three) that does a mother justice.  And happy Mother's Day.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. What I'm going to say is THANK YOU. No, not because of your princely Hallinan homage to motherhood, but because your piece brought on an epiphany tying together two disparate plot elements I've been struggling with for weeks to unite in my new book!

    Then again, since the solution came to me on Mother's Day as I was reading about moms, I know you won't mind if I give my own an assist on the thought. After all, I know she's still out there looking after me. Always did, always will.

    Great piece, Tim.

  2. Great thoughts, although I suspect the same piece could be written about just about any 'group' of character types: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, politicians (okay, okay, maybe I went too far with that last one). It's more a question of authors and their abilities and interests with regard to certain 'groups' of people.

    As for mothers in literature, per your request, one of my favorites is Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, as portrayed in a series of books by Lois McMaster Bujold, as one of the primary characters in two books particularly (Shards of Honor, and Barrayar). The first is the weaker book, as it was her first novel. The second is really a straight continuation of the first, but written years later and won her a Hugo Award (science fiction's Oscars). These two books tell the story of Cordelia, a scientist and native of a very advanced and 'reasoned' world, meeting and eventually coming to love Aral Vorkosigan, a military commander from a much more backward, militant and patriarchal world. Eventually, they have a son, who's damaged in the womb by a terrorist gas attack, and the son has debilitating terragenetic damage that causes fragile, twisted bones and dwarf-like stature, this on a world where nuclear war 150 years past has made the population ...hostile towards mutagenic children. The second book, in particular, focuses on Cordelia's struggles to not only "fit in" but survive in a 'backwards' society and to protect and raise her son in that same society while trying to teach him to be more like someone from her native society. I don't do justice to the book and it's themes, but she's a marvelous character!

    And yes, we made it home safe and sound from Ashland yesterday, and it was truly a great pleasure to meet you "in the flesh," Tim! I wish we could have stayed and had lunch (well, YOU called it breakfast... :-) with you, but we're hosting our family today for a Mother's Day dinner (and I'm SUPPOSED to be preparing said dinner instead of typing away here...), so we had to beat feet, as they say.

  3. Wonderfully enlightening post, Tim. I was always struck by the mother in Raisin in the Sun. A struggling woman who loves and fears for her family, close to real life, I think. I think the problem for mothers, in our ordinary world, mothers really struggle to give their children the best, and yet prepare their children for a difficult world. On that happy note, it sounds like your trip is going well. So something went right ;)

  4. Sophie's Choice by William Styron (I can almost say, the movie rather than the book).

  5. Happy Mother's Day, everyone. Thanks for popping in for yet another formless ramble.

    LIZ -- Absolutely spot-on. Great selection, great book, great movie.

    LIL-- Another great choice. I wonder how she's treated in the new play that's sort of a sequel, from (I think) a white perspective; won a lot of prizes on B'way last year.

    EVERETT, it was phenomenal to meet you and find that you're nowhere near as forbidding as you sometimes seem to be in type and that you have such a wonderful wife. I haven't read Bujold because I'm a sci-fi/fantasy illiterate, but it sounds fascinating. Might even check it out. And thanks SO MUCH dor making that long, long drive.

    HEFFREY, Epiphanies are $39.95 and you can do it through PayPal. So happy to know it triggered something. And that I have another terrific book to anticipate.