The Worst Mothers In Literature: A List-In-Progress

On a weekend when many of us are sending our own mothers love and gratitude, I overheard two women, clearly sisters, in Wrigleyville’s Bookworks bookstore loudly begrudging having to shop for a Mother’s Day gift, complaining about their mother then agreeing she was “the worst ever.” Ever? Though I’ve no proof their mother isn’t completely terrible, and surely their complaints were merely an exaggeration out of frustration, I began to mentally compile a list of mother characters who really could hold such a title. 

BookFinder produced a list which is making the Internet-rounds nicely this morning of the Ten Worst Mothers In Literature, and while there are, indeed, some rotten mamas on the list, there are about six of which I thought of particular note as a nice jumping-off point.

Jeanette’s Mother from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Subtext: Jeanette is adopted by a religious fundamentalist family, comes out of the closet, fall in love, her mother binds her and attempts to perform an exorcism via beating and starvation. Mmmkay. 

Gertrude from Hamlet by Shakespeare

Subtext: Marries her brother-in-law after he killed her husband, yadda yadda yadda, but mostly it is the Oedipus complex bestowed upon Hamlet that makes her a real stand out. Which leads us to…

Jocasta from Oedipus the King by Sophocles

Subtext: Oh, Jocasta. Even though we have to give her credit for trying to make some peace between father and son, need I really spell this one out? I think we all know how this one goes. Next and ew.

Sophie Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Subtext: Poor Alexander Portnoy, a total mess as a result of his mother’s behavior, including her inclination to, ahem, supervise his bathroom habits.

Margaret White from Carrie by Stephen King

Subtext: Total religious fanatic who dragged her teenage daughter into a closet to pray for forgiveness for everything puberty-related. (Though I rarely enjoy the film-version of any book, Piper Laurie’s portrayal of this character still is delightfully terrifying.)

Corinne Dollanganger from Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews

Subtext: Corrine agrees to hide her illegitimate children from their grandfather in an attic for years to the point of their insanity, malnourishment, incesutousness and a host of other issues.

I’d like to add a few honorable mentions to this pile including Euripides’ Medea (child murderess, general pot-stirrer), but first I’d like to open this conversation up. Et tu, readers dear? Who have we overlooked? Which literary mother characters would you add to the list? Bonus points for Chicago characters, naturally.


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  • Charlotte Haze from "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov
    "Just slap her hard if she interferes with your scholarly meditations."

    Tamara from Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus". She and Andronicus engage in a lengthy series of revenge-based child-killings culminating in her eating her own sons baked into a pie. Not someone you'd want on the PTA.

  • Ahh, great selections, Mark! No, she's not someone I'd want on the PTA at all.

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