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