Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Arts & Lit Maternal Relationships in Literature

Maternal Relationships in Literature

Rachel McEwan discusses the portrayal of maternal relationships in fiction, and the pitfalls of such representations.
4 mins read
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Image: Prasad Perakam via Flickr

Mothers are everywhere. Even if they are not physically present, their absence is significant. Society places so much pressure on women to grow into and blossom in motherhood, a reflection of omnipresent patriarchal values. Mothers are depicted within all types of varying media – film, music, literature. In literature there are two distinct types of mothers: the helicopter mother or the distant mother. 

A classic example of the helicopter mother is Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennet. Taught in secondary schools across the UK, Austen’s novel depicts Mrs Bennet as an overbearing, frail woman, looked on with shame by upper society. She has different relationships with her children, each used to inform her character as a mother. Her close relationships with the children who have similar marital and familial aspirations are used by Austen to make fun of these values, and thus render her silly. The distance between the protagonist, Elizabeth, and her mother portrays Mrs Bennet as dim and uncaring at times. She tries to force Elizabeth into a marriage she doesn’t want. However, this is a product of the time it was written, and if it was written by a more forgiving protagonist lens perhaps they would see that Mrs Bennet was trying to guarantee her daughter a secure future. However, often in popular literature motherhood is portrayed through the eyes of the child, opposed to those of the mother. 

The depiction of motherhood through the lens of a child can curate less forgiving attitudes towards mothers. The silly, dim notion of mothers married to quietly supportive fathers is continued in more recent literature such as Lynda la Plante’s Jane Tennison series. Jane rises through the ranks of the police force, yet this is continually overlooked by her mother, in favour of her sister’s familial and marital success. Here, mothers are used to reinforce the patriarchal idea of femininity, that of getting married and raising a family, and portraying supposed happiness found within these structures. Controversially, their child is used as a depiction of modernity and female empowerment, using the distance between mother and child to show society moving away from its former unequal gender values and progressing towards an environment of gender equality. 

The depiction of motherhood through the lens of a child can curate less forgiving attitudes towards mothers.

Societal progression is demonstrated in recent works through the working mother. Typically, the working mother is akin to the absent mother. This concept is directly confronted in Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Both protagonists, Connell and Marianne have working mothers, yet very different relationships with them. Connell has a good relationship with his mother, who works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house, a job that seemingly requires less time than Marianne’s mother, a solicitor who works long hours and does not have a good relationship with her daughter. Connell’s mother is caring and present, and while Connell is embarrassed by his mother’s job, he ultimately believes himself to be a more well-rounded person than Marianne. Marianne’s homelife is complicated, like her character. Her relationships with others are distant and strange, perhaps a reflection of her tumultuous homelife. At college she is free from her homelife shackles and becomes more herself. Despite Connel’s beliefs, they are ultimately both troubled people. Is this a reflection of the working mother or of broader modern problems within contemporary young people? 

Altogether, the fictitious mother found within literature is often written as a lesser being than their more modern child as a portrayal of wider societal progression. The mother pushes her own patriarchal opinions onto the child, which are then often rejected by said child. They display the battle between society’s misogynistic past and future of gender equality. The conversation of motherhood is gradually becoming more complex with the concept of the working mother, mirroring modern society. However, I would argue that there has not been enough work towards reducing the sexist stereotype behind working mothers. Successful working mothers with good relationships with their child ought to be portrayed more in literature, as this is where we see contemporary societal reflections.

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