In literature, the only good mother is a dead mother. Or maybe a dying mother. Nowhere is the Madonna/whore complex more apparent than in our culture’s fictional depictions of motherhood. All too often, mothers are portrayed as either a too-good-to-be-true family matriarch or an ethically compromised woman who makes flawed—and even, at times, fatal—choices regarding her family. Sure, there are many nuanced portraits out there of maternal figures, but it’s the fictional mothers who fit into the good- and evil-mother binary that really stick with us.
And while we appreciate Marmee as much as the next person, it’s literature’s bad mothers that have made the biggest impression, and left us grateful for the fact that, no matter how many stupid fights we got into with our mother for those times we lied in high school about where we were going and when we were going to be back, at least she didn’t, you know, drunkenly drown us in a bathtub. But so, despite not wishing some of literature’s more terrible mothers on our worst enemies, we must admit that we have a lot of appreciation for the depths of their depravity, as well as not a little bit of sympathy for many of them. After all, parenting is a hard and frequently thankless task. Maybe these mothers were just doing the best they could? Maybe? Maybe! Or maybe not. No matter, because even if some of these mothers are monsters, they’re some of our favorite monsters in literature.
BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD
Margaret White, Carrie
Sure, Carrie White wiped out almost a whole town full of people just because of a little high school prank gone wrong, but Carrie was not a naturally evil person, rather she was a product of her environment. And that environment was warped by things other than traumatic experiences in the gym locker room or a ruined prom dress. Carrie’s foundation came in the form of her mother, religious psycho extraordinaire, Margaret White. Margaret White failed her daughter in every single possible way, making Carrie’s tragic ending inevitable and Margaret’s own demise one of the more satisfying deaths in the book. Because, really, any mother who teachers her daughter that breasts are called “dirty pillows” deserves whatever punishment she gets.
Cathy Ames, East of Eden
In John Steinbeck’s epic take on the story of Cain and Abel, someone’s got to be Satan, Jezebel, and Eve all rolled up into one, right? Right. And that person is Cathy Ames (later known as Kate Albey). When it comes to the Madonna/whore dichotomy, Cathy falls pretty clearly on the whore side of things, not least because she runs a brothel. (Subtlety, thy name is not Steinbeck!) But being a madame is easily Cathy’s finest quality, because she’s also responsible for the deaths of her parents and many others, she slept with her husband’s brother, shot her husband in the shoulder, and abandoned her twin sons (who she’d previously tried to abort with a knitting needle). In the end, it all comes crashing down on Cathy and she kills herself, but not before leaving all of her possessions to only one of her sons. Way to twist the knife from beyond the grave! Impressive.
Mrs. Coulter, His Dark Materials
I should probably admit to actively loving Mrs. Coulter and thinking that she is entirely misunderstood as a mother, especially because she ultimately sacrifices her life for love of her daughter. So, I’m biased. But it also should probably be said that while Mrs. Coulter does, deep-down, love her own child, she really has no regard for any other child and is more than happy to virtually lobotomize them (or the daemon-involving equivalent anyway) and is sort of Mengele-ish in her lack of sympathy for the suffering of others. Hm. Maybe I don’t love her that much after all.
Janice Angstrom, Rabbit, Run
Oh, Janice. She never really had a chance, did she? She was, after all, married to a John Updike-created man. And Rabbit Angstrom was a terrible, distant, unfaithful husband who actively found Janice dull and bovine in her simplicity. So, of course, Janice turned to alcohol! What else is a 50s-era housewife going to do? The only problem is that Janice never learned that booze and bath time don’t mix, especially when it’s bath time for a baby. Yeah, Janice Angstrom isn’t really winning mother of the year.
Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones
An argument could be made that Cersei Lannister is actually one of the best mothers in literature because she really, really, really loves her kids—even when they’re psychopathic, animal-torturing monsters like Joffrey! But another argument could also be made, one in which the case is made that any mother willing to risk the kind of birth defects that go hand-in-hand with procreating with one’s twin brother is probably not the best mom ever. Probably.
The Other Mother, Coraline
Buttons for eyes! Buttons for eyes! That’s really all you need to know about why the Other Mother is about as terrifying as any mother could ever possibly be. Well, there’s also the whole trying to trap children forever behind a mirror in order to best extract their, like, life source. But we’re still hung up on the buttons for eyes.
Helen Holm, The World According to Garp
Ok, so I’m a little conflicted about putting Helen Holm on a list of bad mothers. Especially because her husband, Garp, is just as culpable for the ruinous events for which Helen is typically held responsible. And yet, it was Helen’s unwillingness to make a clean break from the grad student with whom she was having an affair which led to the death of one of her sons and the partial blinding and disfigurement of the other. (To say nothing of the loss of 3/4 of a penis that the grad student had to deal with.) So, yeah. Helen. Not going to win mother of the year either.
Charlotte Haze, Lolita
Things didn’t end so well for Charlotte Haze, now, did they? So maybe we should feel sorry for her? Well, we do! We do feel sorry for poor, unloved, dead Charlotte. But you know who we feel even more sorry for? Her adolescent daughter left in the custody of a pedophile! Yeah, we feel much, much more sorry for her.
Mildred Pierce, Mildred Pierce
Mildred Pierce isn’t purely evil, of course, but her daughter Veda is! And evil doesn’t come from nowhere. If Mildred hadn’t continuously spoiled and coddled her, Veda never would have grown up to be such an evil force. But also, Mildred strangled Veda, almost killing her and temporarily damaging her vocal chords. Sure, Veda was sleeping with Mildred’s husband but that’s not really the point, is it? (Kind of it is! Kind of it’s the point.)
Eva Khatchadourian, We Need to Talk About Kevin
The lone mother on this list to be created by a woman, author Lionel Shriver, Eva Khatchadourian wins my vote for the most disturbing maternal creation to ever grace a book’s pages. Seriously, though, most people I know who’ve read Shriver’s novel think that teenage mass murderer Kevin is the truly evil one, but I just don’t see it. Eva hated her child before he was even born and never failed to treat him like the monster he would eventually become. Overall, it’s the most chilling portrayals of maternal depravity I’ve ever read, which is probably why it’s so incredible. If you’ve never read it, do so over the weekend, and then call your mom on Sunday and thank her for not being a total sociopath.
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