Politics & Policy

Mom Lit

A cultural survey.

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?

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.

S.T. Karnick

Although the movies of the past few decades have often treated motherhood rather cynically, there have been some exemplary mothers in Hollywood films, especially during the 1930s and ’40s. Some fine examples are the self-sacrificing Apple Annie (May Robson) in Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day, the courageous and indomitable Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) in the William Wyler film of the same name, the sweet-natured and infinitely supportive Emily Hardy (Fay Holden) in MGM’s underappreciated Andy Hardy series, and the intrepid, widowed businesswoman and homemaker Lillian Gilbreth (Myrna Loy) in Belles on Their Toes.

Most impressive of all, however, is Vinnie Day, played superbly by Irene Dunne in the 1947 classic Life with Father. Seemingly submissive and even a bit ditzy, she’s the glue that holds both the film and the family together in spite of irascible husband Clare’s fulminations and demanding ways. Vinnie uses persuasion, quiet strength, and sly manipulation to make things right, and she is unfailingly patient and decent.

She also looks out for her family’s spiritual welfare, and when she finds out that Clare has never been baptized, she is appalled and gets to work on making sure that they will one day be united in Heaven. A house with a mother like Vinnie is the closest to Heaven most of us can hope to get in this life.

 S. T. Karnick is editorial director of the Heartland Institute. His website is Karnick on Culture.

Lisa Schiffren

Considering our culture’s notion of motherhood — verging on sanctimony, coated in treacle — you’d think there’d be too many maternal icons to count. But, asked to name a few good mothers, I was stumped after Marmee — the ideal of warm, steely, competent, selfless Christian motherhood in the Victorian classic, Little Women.

Sure, there are a few more here and there — Scarlett O’Hara’s mother was nurturing, understanding, skilled at running a plantation, and a “great lady.” Scarlett was an excellent businesswoman, but a lousy mother and not much of a lady, as all Gone With the Wind fans know.

American Jewish literature is filled with strong mothers — most of whom are smotherers and must be escaped, at least by their sons. Some are powerless except as a buffer between dad and the kid, which is also unattractive. In the classic English novels, mothers are rarely warm and wise. They are ambitious for good marriages, or distracted by their own status and financial needs, or thoroughly involved in adult life and peripheral to their children’s days. Baby-boomer fiction is obsessed with the confused lives of adults as individuals. Women, mothers secondarily, are often conflicted and self-obsessed. True? Perhaps. Attractive? No.

So stumped was I by the absence of strong, nurturing mothers in literature — mothers who love their children and treat them with respect and understanding, while inculcating solid bourgeois virtues and maintaining an intellectual life of their own — that I looked through my children’s books. Of course, the great truth of children’s literature is that good stories require either no parents, or, at very least, no mother. Walt Disney is famous for the motherless youth — deer, lion, or princess — who battles evil and is exposed to great danger in the process of coming of age. Peter Pan, Huck Finn, Dorothy from Kansas, and Harry Potter are orphans. Why? Because if they had a mother she would make sure they were where they should be, doing homework and getting enough sleep. And where is the adventure in that? Where, even, is the story?

Current PG and PG-13 movies, and analogous TV, frequently feature single moms who, as in life, are distracted by financial and romantic needs — which leaves room for mischief and adventure. You’d think they would be heroic, these single moms. Mostly they are portrayed as immature and too eager to be friends with daughters who long for some authority. Or they are a bit distant, keeping the secret of the absent dad / broken heart — not role-model material.

At the risk of being treacly myself, the mothers I get advice and inspiration from in the daily upheavals of child-rearing are neither fictional nor celluloid icons. They are my friends. Some work, some don’t. Some are disciplinarians, some are more laid back. All are nurturing and try to maintain enough emotional distance to be able to offer dispassionate advice — even occasional wisdom. Everyone yells sometimes. I know this from frequent case-study seminars — which resemble lunch and gossip — in which we analyze behavior, get second opinions on how to respond to problems, and perhaps say unflattering things about the moms we know with different values, who are lunching elsewhere, shaking their heads about us.

The culture, with its 24/7 output of fiction on screen and page, still has room for an unsentimental image of real life mothers who try their best to strike a balance between selflessness and ego, indulgence and discipline, maternal love and the rest of life. 

 – Lisa Schiffren is a writer, and former GOP speechwriter, living in New York.

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.


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