Types of Moms in Literature

Happy Mother’s Day! Last week, I sat down to write a quick post about amazing literary moms. A few delightful moms came up (thanks, Twitter and Facebook friends) but in looking at my bookshelves, I became more fascinated by the character patterns that appeared over and over in the books I love. 

The Absent

Often, particularly in children’s literature, parents in general are absent from the main narrative. They fade into the background as functional non-entities, leaving their children free to have wild adventures without notice, or, alternatively, to explore without interruption or interference.

Seen In: Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in the Time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Hunger Games, Twilight series.  

The Dead

Moms often die off-page or before the narrative even begins when main characters are in their adolescence. First, this enables these moms to be frozen in an untainted perfection. These moms are lovely, angelic figures that serve as an inspiration to their children. Second, the lack of a mother also motivates a less traditional relationship with a single parental figure, the father. Characters with only a father are often given more permission in their fictional societies to have adventures and/or skirt the status quo of behavior, demeanor, dress, and personality.

Seen In: The Little Princess, Emma, The Boxcar Children, Harry Potter, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Pippy Longstocking, the Flavia de Luca mysteries, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Road, Ella Enchanted, Beauty, Les Miserables, A Tale of Two Cities, the Nancy Drew series, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Secret Life of Bees, and of course, almost every Disney fairy tale adaptation, many Shakespearean plays and most Charles Dickens novels.

The Flawless

These moms fall into a more traditional example of what makes a good mother. They are great cooks, take care of anything amiss about the house, and step in when necessary to offer perfect wisdom or settle a dispute. They aren’t always deeply complex in stories, but they get the job done and love their families with loyalty and devotion.

Seen In: The Baxter family books by Karen Kingsbury, June Cleaver in the Leave it to Beaver graphic novels, Caroline Ingall in the Little House books, Mark of the Lion books.

The Terrible

Terrible moms range in intensity from murderous to indifferent to obnoxiously over-involved. These frightening maternal figures should scare every reader into, at the very least, calling their mother on Mother’s Day.

Seen In: Oedipus Rex, Madea (and other figures of mythology…there’s a post in itself), Pride and Prejudice, Coraline, Matilda.

The Surrogates

Mother figures who step in to fill an absence or who actually adopt. These moms are my favorite. They don’t become mothers through giving birth; they earn their role through hard-won struggles, devotion, and time.

Seen In: Harriet the Spy, Anne of Green Gables series, Sarah, Plain and Tall, Mary Poppins, Housekeeping, Little Men, The Language of Flowers, Tarzan, The Jungle Book.

The Fierce

These moms are maternal and nurturing, human and flawed, but aren’t afraid to bring the heat when someone comes after their kids. This is the mom I aspire to be.

Seen In: Molly Weasley, Lily Potter, and Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter series, Helen Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries, Marmee in Little Women, Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, Mrs. Lancaster in The Fault in Our Stars, Penelope from The Odyssey, Lila in Gilead, Housekeeping, and Lila, Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice.


Of course, there are plenty of stories where moms don’t fit into a neat category. In plenty of books the struggle with motherhood or between child and mother is the main narrative journey. Flawed women and their relationships with their children weave between many or all of these types. It’s harder to categorize these women, as their stories are about the complexity of parenting as an inept and fragile human being with your own story, of trying to share yourself with a person you’ve given life while still guiding them into adulthood. Novels like The Joy Luck Club, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Dept. of Speculation, Olive Kitteridge, Wild, and The Language of Flowers defy neat categorization here.

Your turn. What notable moms in literature did I miss or completely mis-categorize?

3 Comment

  1. Sally Scoggins says: Reply

    This Mom thinks she has a wonderful, talented, beautiful daughter. Love your blogs!!!

  2. Noelle Phelps says: Reply

    I was wondering how you were going to write this! Glad to see my lovely favorites on here. As for Terrible Mothers, I’d add nearly every parent in the Unwind series. I have yet to read of another parent who disturbs me the way that they do.

  3. Whatever the reason, these five Moms top my list, and they re all tragic mothers in literature.

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