On the occasion of Mother’s Day, I got to thinking beyond the usual hearts and flowers poetry which is often associated with the day. I didn’t want to talk about gratitude in too obvious a way so as to make it maudlin and contrived. Gratitude is an easy concept to reach for on a day that celebrates the person who nurtured us, before we were even born.
So let’s take a look at a few select mothers in literature, those figures who for good or ill help us to understand how we perceive mothers, and what they can teach us about the human experience.
There are some strong mother figures in popular novels, poetry, films, and mythology who are celebrated or justly maligned. Some are inspirational, and others provoke the utmost terror. And some are unsung, yet play an important part in the stories of some of the most iconic characters of our time.
Let’s turn to popular culture for a minute and talk about Lara. Who’s Lara? Well, Lara is Superman’s Mum. If we decided to talk about Jor-El [Superman’s father], maybe some of the geekier among you might know exactly who I’m talking about, to wit: the mastermind behind the ‘let’s send our son to earth in a rocket before our planet blows up’ plan. As it happens, this plan was a very good idea, as every citizen of Metropolis will tell you.
Yet, Lara must have had a say in this course of action. Actually, I like to think it was she who came up with the plan, to save the child that she bore, while Jor-El was in his Kryptonian laboratory, examining the seismic instability of their doomed planet circling a dying red sun.
Her son turns out to be the paragon of truth, justice, and the (ideal) American way when he grows up to become Superman. And he may be nearly invincible, but what most counts about him is that he’s a decent man. And that’s a product of good parenting. I suppose we have Martha Kent, Supes’ adoptive mother, to thank for that. In this, Superman’s real power was his parents.
Yet, what about Victor Frankenstein’s Mum? She nurtured a brilliant and ambitious mind. Yet, Frankenstein’s own impulse to nurture was buried by his raw instinct for scientific achievement for its own sake, which allowed him to achieve his goal of creating life. It also led him to the rejection of his own child, another potential superman known unfortunately thereafter in Mary Shelley’s novel as The Monster.
Frankenstein was kind of a mother himself, having given birth to a child, although in a unique way. What if Frankenstein had connected with his own mothering instincts when his child needed guidance, brought into the world as an innocent? Maybe if Frankenstein had mitigated his pure science with the impulse to nurture, The Monster could then have been named ‘Frankenstein’ truly, instead of the moniker being a misnomer. Maybe then he could have seen the power of nurturing, and come to channel his great power for good instead of bitterness and murder.
And what does his fate say about the abandoned children in our society who later become monsters themselves? What does it say about science for science’s sake? Well, to me, it strengthens the potency of gratitude to our mothers, and underscores the importance of strong mother figures in the lives of all children, too.
There are a great many figures of motherhood who show this potential for heroism, who influence the way that stories are shaped, and who have an impact on how we as a culture interpret them. While Eve, the first mother recognized in the Bible, is the symbol of womanhood as submissive to authority, her counterpart and predecessor Lilith is a symbol of womanhood who embodies fierce identity and self-determination away from it. Humanity navigates between these forces.
Moll Flanders is the mother who is absent, finding her own path. And The Mother in the children’s story I Love You Forever is ever-present, unflinching, and always supportive. In whatever capacity, these mothers show us sides of the human psyche in which we can find ourselves.
Even if they are wicked queens, evil stepmothers, or old crones in the woods waiting to cook us for supper, figures of motherhood in these negative lights remind us of motherhood in its ideal state, too. Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf is a figure of terror, but also one with the impulse to protect and avenge her offspring’s death, a primal impulse to which every mother can relate.
Mothers in literature — whether in comics, in novels, in poetry, films, or children’s stories — have had a tremendous influence, even if that influence has been overshadowed by male counterparts. It’s easy to miss their influence on the way we as a culture perceive motherhood, and maybe even womanhood too.
If literature is to be believed, regarded, heeded, then it seems that motherhood can be the difference between supermen and monsters. This is surely something to be grateful for.
“Motherhood” pedrosimoes @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.