In his book, For One More Day, the American author Mitch Albom wrote that “behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin”.
The essayist Washington Irving described mothers as “the truest friend we have”, and fiction writer Nora K. Jemisin observed that, in a child’s eyes, a mother is a goddess who holds “the greatest power in the universe”.
As we celebrate Mothers Day, we give thanks to the powerful women who have shaped every one of us through their strength, indomitable spirit, enduring kindness and everlasting love. Mothers not only seem to know everything about who we are, they also understand us and are therefore uniquely able to offer us their precious guidance through life.
All of us seek out the mother figure wherever we go: we endear ourselves to the caring, nurturing one in our group of friends; we quickly take to the aunty with the heart of gold who reminds us of our own mother; we look for her in the films we watch and the books that we read.
In the world of literature, the mother figure plays a key role in many a powerful story. Through the history of storytelling, she is the one constant throughout the tumultuous rollercoaster rides found across the genres.
In recognition of the hardest job on earth, here’s a look at 10 of literature’s inspiring mothers and the lessons they’ve offered to countless readers who have found their maternal wisdom among the pages.
Rosa Hubermann – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The woman with the “wardrobe” build and a fixed expression of displeasure is, nevertheless, a loving wife to Hans and foster mother to Liesel. Not one to show her love in the conventional way, Rosa deeply desires the best for her family and adds to the household income by doing household chores for wealthy families. She’s one of those mothers who you know will often be difficult, but will have your back no matter what. A true matriarch – not someone to be messed with, but who will give you every bit of help she can whenever you need it.
Sprout – The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang
Described as “The Korean Charlotte’s Web”, this bittersweet tale has sold over two million copies worldwide. It tells the story of the plucky hen, Sprout, who dreams of escaping into the wild and hatching an egg that isn’t carted off to the market. Eventually, she finds herself an egg, which turns out to be a duck. Nevertheless, the unconditional love of a mother reigns supreme, even over her grief as she finally watches her duck son fly off, leaving the little hen behind.
Ma Joad – The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The warm-hearted matriarch of Steinbeck’s classic shows her maternal stoicism when her farmer husband breaks down after losing his livelihood due to economic hardship. Ma Joad is left to take up the reins of the family after a trail of tragedies that have beset the Joad clan in their travels from Oklahoma to California in search of a brighter future. She does her job with a “keep calm and carry on” attitude that’s as sympathetic as it is practical. As a result, Ma Joad cemented herself as one of the central mother figures in American literature.
Mrs Bennet – Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
Poor Mrs Bennet is often seen as a comical, overbearing mother who’s about as tactful as a demolition ball. But here we have a woman who, cares for her five daughters, is preoccupied with finding them all suitors so that they (and she) can be provided for and looked after. Described by Austen as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper”, Mrs Bennet is a loving mother who, in her own way, is trying her best to support her daughters.
Margaret March – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This evocative American classic follows the lives of four sisters as they journey from childhood to womanhood in a story that is loosely based on the lives of the author and her three sisters. The girls’ mother – known as “Marmee” – heads the household while her husband fights in the Civil War. She patiently shapes her daughters’ characters and morals, serving as an example of how to remain strong in the face of adversity. She is the key figure around which the girls’ stories unfold as they grow.
Grusha – The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht
Based on Li Xingdao’s 14th Century play The Chalk Circle, Brecht’s 1944 celebrated work features the selfless Governor’s maid, Grusha, who is left to care for Michael, the baby of the Governor and his wife, Natella, who flees after the beheading of her husband. Later realising that her late husband’s estate is tied to the child, Natella takes Grusha to court to prove that she is the boy’s natural mother. The judge, Azdak, has Michael placed in a chalk circle drawn on the floor. Whoever can pull Michael from the centre will be declared his true mother. Grusha, who can’t bear to hurt the baby, refuses to take part in the test. Ultimately, her true love for Michael sees her declared his true mother.
Oriel Lamb – Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
Oriel Lamb is the epitome of motherly love and vulnerability in this story that sees two poor families come to share a home in the suburbs of Perth. Oriel’s family is devout in their faith and motivated by hard work and she becomes so worried about money that she starts up a shop in the home, even selling a birthday cake off the family table to a paying customer. Although an eccentric character, Oriel is driven by her love of her family and does everything in her power to see that they’re safe and secure.
Mrs Makebelieve – The Charwoman’s Daughter by James Stephen
The story of 16-year-old Mary, daughter to the widowed Mrs Makebelieve, is a compelling tale that introduces a complex mother-daughter dynamic as they make a life for themselves in a one-bedroom apartment. Mrs Makebelieve cleans the houses of the rich in Dublin, Ireland, and is constantly in a state of exhaustion. She’s a lovable, hardy woman who’s harsh exterior is betrayed by the fierce love she has for her daughter who, to Mrs Makebelieve’s dismay, is growing up and about to begin her own life.
Ma – Room by Emma Donoghue
Based on a true story, this harrowing novel tells the story from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, who lives in an outbuilding with his mother, unaware that the two have been imprisoned by Old Nick in the small box room. To Jack, nothing real exists beyond the room, and his mother does her best to keep him in good physical and mental health. Despite her grim circumstances and traumatic experiences, she is as caring and affectionate as any mother under normal circumstances. Room is one of those heart-wrenching stories that leaves you feeling immense admiration for this incredibly strong woman.
Molly Weasley – Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
For a boy who spent much of his childhood living in a cupboard underneath the stairs, Harry Potter found his first experience of unconditional love through the eccentric and endearing Molly Weasley. Despite having seven flame-haired children of her own, Molly is that woman who’s a mother to everyone – always on hand to feed the hungry and care for anyone who needs a shoulder to cry on. If compassion were a person, it would be Mrs Weasley.