My own mother has long gone to her reward (and if heaven is what we most enjoyed in life, there is a flower garden involved). I have created (I just realised) few mothers for my novels (or might a Mother Superior count). I have met and known some truly horrible mothers, but am more acquainted with their children. However, if you want to deal at arm's length with some terrible mothers on the page, these are the books for you.
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The 10 Worst Mothers in Books
By Jennifer Gilmore
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.