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A cultural survey.


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Where are good mothers to be found in literature and the movies? That’s what National Review Online asked the contributors to this symposium. The contributors were, for the most part, in agreement with one another. Unfortunately, the consensus they arrived at was “Almost nowhere.” What is it about good mothers that precludes a good story?

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Richard Brookhiser
I was very impressed, when I first read Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, by the heroine’s mother. She is raising a number of children in a little town in the American West, and one of her daughters turns out to have a talent, possibly a genius, for music. Her encouragement, her understanding, her discipline is a great example of loving all one’s children, even though they are different. God must have that problem, if He had any problems.

Terry Teachout likes the book, despite the surprise bad ending, in which the heroine sings Wagner.

But to understand good mothers, we must also understand bad ones. Surely one of the most famous is Mrs. Bennett, the venal and stupid chatterbox in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She is in a terrible spot: she must marry five daughters out of an entailed estate. But the laws do not force her to be trivial and amoral. She is rewarded by an empty-headed daughter who marries a rogue.

One of the tragedies of the book is the heroine’s, and the reader’s, discovery that the witty and intelligent Mr. Bennett is as culpable, in his way, as his wife. But if we are talking about bad fathers in Austen, there is a beaut we can save until Father’s Day.

 – Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and author of What Would the Founders Do?: Our Questions, Their Answers.


William Duncan
The best example of motherhood in literature — at least, until I publish my memoirs, or my children theirs, and give my wife her due — is the character of Marry Emma Moody in Ralph Moody’s excellent books. My favorite is Man of the Family, in which she is the backbone of the story, holding her family of six children together after their father dies. She is the main source of support for her family; even more, she is the inspiration for the children’s incredible efforts to maintain the family’s independence. Her integrity and sacrifice are emblematic of so many other great mothers whose memories are preserved not in books but in the well-lived lives for which they were the inspiration.

 – William Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation.

Meghan Cox Gurdon
Literature for adults is disconcertingly populated by dreadful, foolish, and/or meddling mothers — if, that is, the author has let them live at all. Dead mothers, of course, are everywhere in literature: elegant, loving figures radiating such calm that, if they were permitted to appear in the story, they would obviate the drama and render pointless the whole exercise. You have to go to children’s literature to find decent mothers (though here, too, we tend to have been killed off and sanctified). My favorite is Katie Nolan, the beautiful washerwoman-mother of Francie and Neely in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. In circumstances of dire poverty, with a handsome drunkard for a husband and a sister whose sexual adventuring shames the family, Katie keeps her dignity — and requires that her children keep theirs, too.

As a child, I loved the passage where Katie defends her daughter, who stands accused of wastefulness for not drinking the coffee Katie makes, even when the family is utterly skint: “Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it away rather than to drink it, all right. I think it’s good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging.” Actually, I still love that passage. Katie Nolan is not a perfect mother — she’s elegant and loving, but also fierce and sometimes snappish — but she is a fine one.

 – Meghan Cox Gurdon writes from Washington, D.C.



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