Mothers and Fathers for the (Literary) Ages
Parents. Overbearing or neglectful, nurturing or emotionally distant, in our lives or not — we all have ’em, and so it makes sense that the complexities of parent-child relationships have been fodder for writers for millennia. (Oedipus Rex, anyone?)The most memorable moms and pops of the page run the gamut, from the good (the saintly Marmee March of Little Women and justice-minded Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird) to the bad (the oblivious Charlotte Haze of Lolita and snobbish Sir Walter Elliott of Persuasion) to the really, really bad (the abusive Mary Jones of Push and mallet-wielding Jack Torrance of The Shining). I’ve read many articles (and recently, listicles) on this topic, and am often struck by how definitive the declarations are, without allowing nuance or depth. Of course, most well-written characters are not merely “good” or “bad.” They have layered psychologies, just like the real-life mothers and fathers they were (sometimes) based on. I tend to root for the underdog, so I’m in the mood to mount a defense or two.
When it comes to the less-than-Marmee (i.e. “bad”) moms of literature, Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice is commonly singled out. Sure, she’s a neurotic busybody whose overly sensitive nerves get on the nerves of her five daughters, her (poor, patient, why-did-he-ever-marryher?) husband and, of course, readers. But really, is it so terrible that Mrs. Bennet is eager for her girls to marry, to secure a little security in light of the fact that they’re legally unable to inherit any of their father’s estate and will likely be kicked to the curb after he passes? (Note: The life expectancy of men in the early 19th century was in their 40s!) Sure, Mrs. Bennet is shallow and gauche (perhaps even little gross), and embarrasses her daughters in public, but isn’t that kind of in the job description — kind of timeless and well, forgivable?
One of the most infamous lines in The Great Gatsby is Daisy Buchanan’s postpartum wish for her newborn daughter to grow up to be “a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in the world, a beautiful little fool.” The first time I read the book was for English class at an all-girls high school, where empowerment and opportunity were a given. Daisy’s desire for her child to be a “beautiful fool” was shocking and foreign. The line, no doubt, is at least part of the reason Daisy lands on the occasional “bad mom” list.
It’s many years later, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read The Great Gatsby. Yes, Daisy is careless, a little vapid, and does some pretty reprehensible things that I won’t mention so as to keep this spoiler free (for the three of you who haven’t yet read the book), but I am now more forgiving when it comes to the “beautiful fool” line. I think she’s allowed to be a little cynical given that she’s married to a cold, cheating brute. A “fool” in her circumstances would be oblivious, at least. Isn’t a mother wanting to spare her child from turmoil and heartache kind of a textbook sentiment — kind of timeless and again, forgivable? I’ll wrap this up with a biblio-hypothetical to ponder: If you had to choose between the two, which would you want as your mom, Mrs. Bennet or Daisy? Discuss amongst yourselves — or pop into the shop for a chat about your choice . . . or any other bookish ideas on your mind these days.