Top 5 Unforgettable Mothers in Literature

by Allison Murray, Used with Permission*

When I saw Random House AU's blog post, The Top 5 Best Mothers in Literature, I quickly tried to compile my own list before I read the article. Sad to say, the first mother characters who came to mind were of the wicked step-, absent/dead, and dysfunctional, mommy-dearest types. How weird that mothers are so poorly represented in literature! Interestingly, RH-AU claimed that creating The Top 5 Worst Mothers in Literature was more difficult than the “best list.”

My Top 5 Unforgettable Mothers In Literature

I'm compiling a slightly different list: the mother figures in literature I don't want to–or can't–forget. I've included a full spectrum of mamas, from upstanding to pathetic, but all of them burn with momentous maternal love.

  1. Tabitha Wheelwright plays a short but vital part in the wonderful book A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I loved this mother's fierce love for her fatherless son, John, and his best friend, the stunted and miraculous Owen Meany. Tabitha is memorable not only because of her spectacular (and pivotal) death but also because in her short life she was so admirably self-possessed. In an era when single parenthood was a major faux pas, she got on with life and did not let the smallness of other people's minds perturb her.
  2. In The Red Tent Anita Diamant grants Leah and the other Old Testament women the voice, struggle and personal power they are denied by virtue of gender in the scriptural account of their lives. The complex solidarity amongst the women impacted me, making we wish that women today had scope in their lives to mentor younger women they way they did in biblical times.
  3. Rosa Hubermann from The Book Thief is another literary mother I never want to forget. Beneath her crusty outer shell lies a huge heart of compassion and generosity. Watching her frostiness thaw as the story progresses is one of my favourite features of the book.
  4. In M M Kaye's epic The Far Pavilions, Sita, the ayah (nanny) character who looks after the orphaned Ashton Pelham-Martyn, embodies the maternal heart. This penniless Indian woman takes the British boy on as her own, protects him with her life, and safeguards his identity and fortune until he comes of age. She is another character who will live on in corridors of my mind.
  5. Who could forget Sethe, the protagonist mother in Toni Morrison's Beloved? She was so utterly broken, yet so full of love. I'm fighting the urge to write the sentence, “That book haunts me,” because it would be such a gross cliche, but I seriously believe I'll never recover from the horror of Sethe's story, which was based on the real life account of escaped slave Margaret Garner.

I know there is one lady missing from this list, the enigmatic Madame Wu from Pearl S Buck's Pavilion of Women, but I haven't finished the book. I admire her stewardship of a huge household, her astute interpersonal skills, and her gutsy determination to do things her own damn way. In a society that was completely male-oriented, she made the choices she wanted–including deciding on her fortieth birthday that her nights of satisfying her husband's sexual appetite were over. She chose celibacy, set her husband up with a concubine, and set out on the life she wanted to lead–namely scholarly reading. That's pretty revolutionary. I take it her choice had some repercussions…


There you have it! My list of the most unforgettable mothers of literature. Which mother in literature won't let YOU go? Please leave a comment!

*Image courtesy of Allison Murray, who blogs at Dream A Little Bigger.


4 responses to “Top 5 Unforgettable Mothers in Literature”

  1. I’d love to read some of the books on your list. Next trip to the library I will find some.


    1. Hi June, thanks for stopping by!
      They’re all wonderful books. I’m still reeling from A Prayer for Owen Meany. The others I read years ago but the mums have stayed with me. Happy reading!


      1. Thanks Ali, will tell you how I get on. I love the Lady No ! detective Agency Series and Mme Ramotswe who is maternal to her clients and her assistant, and ends up adopting some children. She’s be my favourite mother in literature.


      2. Oh–I love her too! Good one! I love the lolling pace of those books. They make me yearn to go to Botswana and chill out. McCall Smith is a favourite author.


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