No one looms larger in imagination and psychology than “mother”. And, “mother” is something we both understand innately and can’t quite describe completely. Many talented writers have explored the extraordinary relationship between mother and child and sometimes it’s just as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming.
To celebrate Mother’s Day, we look at six fictional mothers that demonstrate a deep and diverse experience of motherhood.
Emma Donoghue’s Room is narrated by 5-year-old Jack, a child born to his “Ma” and her captor, Old Nick. Brie Larson won an Oscar portraying Ma, a young woman who is kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and imprisoned for seven years by Nick. Though Jack does not know of life outside the room in which he was born, Ma turns their prison into an imaginative world for him to learn and play. Ma’s tenacious devotion to giving Jack a hopeful life in the face of horrifying circumstances is a testament to unconditional maternal love.
Maggie – Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
Eden Robinson is known for her dark, witty portrayals of Indigenous lives in British Columbia. Son of a Trickster follows Jared, a teenager living with his mother Maggie and her boyfriend Richie. Maggie is protective of Jared to a terrifying degree—“I’d kill and die for you, Jelly Bean,” she says, and means it. When Richie threatens Jared with his pitbull, Maggie brazenly runs over the dog with her truck. Though she is fiercely protective of Jared, Maggie is a volatile mother, prone to emotionally abusive behaviour and abandonment. By the end, Maggie proves she has Jared’s best interests at heart, even though she has a questionable way of showing it. With Maggie, Robinson offers an unvarnished, contradictory portrait of motherhood that doesn’t shy away from ugly truths.
Ti-Jeanne and Gros-Jeanne – Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
In Hopkinson’s dystopian Toronto, the rich have abandoned the city and barricaded in the poor. What remains is a decaying urban ruin known as the Burn, where a young single mother named Ti-Jeanne grapples with magical forces. Her grandmother Gros-Jeanne, a spiritual healer, is an intimidating figure who dishes plenty of tough love as she stands in for Ti-Jeanne’s own absent mother. Their relationship is not perfect—Gros-Jeanne, who escaped an abusive marriage, uses corporal punishment to discipline her granddaughter. Though Ti-Jeanne resists her grandmother’s teachings, she harnesses her true power when she embraces the knowledge passed onto her.
The mother of five unmarried daughters in Regency England, Mrs. Bennet is one of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters. Of all the characters caught up in Austen’s satire of courtship and marriage, Mrs. Bennet perhaps comes worst off. She is silly, gossipy, and seems to care only about the wealth of her daughters’ suitors. Yet her antics are so outrageous they seem to ward off rather than attract these suitors. Mrs. Bennet is far from an ideal mother, but her behaviour makes more sense when you consider her circumstances. A woman from a poor background who married up in class, Mrs. Bennet is a product of a society that placed a woman’s entire financial future in the hands of men. Mrs. Bennet shows her love through her determined (though misguided) efforts to find matches for her daughters.
Lucy’s mother – My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
When complications from an appendectomy land New Yorker Lucy Barton in hospital for an extended stay, her estranged mother visits from Illinois. As the two reconnect, their complex relationship slowly unfurls through conversations about their hometown and family history. Yet there is no emotional catharsis to be found. Seen through Lucy’s eyes, her mother emerges as a stoic figure who cannot acknowledge the pain she has caused her daughter. Lucy’s mother is unable to express her love for her daughter, but in her withholding we can feel her tension to reconcile all the things she cannot say.
The famously orphaned Harry was deprived of familial love by the cruel and neglectful Dursleys. But once he gets to Hogwarts, his best friend Ron’s mother Molly generously treats Harry like her own son. It’s Molly who first explains to an eleven-year-old Harry how to get through Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters to board the Hogwarts Express. She welcomes Harry into the Weasley family while always looking out for her own seven children. Though Harry and Ron may not have fully appreciated her hand-knitted jumpers, they could always count on Molly’s maternal love to give them strength through their trials.
These characters show that motherhood can be beautiful, messy, and heartbreaking. Mothers are complex, and compelling books reflect that their influence looms large in both fiction and life.