Mother’s Day: The absentee mother in literature

Today is Mother’s Day. I hope all of you mums out there have had a lovely day (or for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere – I hope it is a lovely one!) and that the people to which you gave life have thanked you for that precious gift.

This morning (after I was lucky enough to receive a new teapot … filled with chai and accompanied by some lovely croissants!) I thought about writing a post about the mothers I have been inspired by from works of literature. And I came up short. I thought carefully about the novels that I have most recently read, focusing on the mothers and mother-figures within. And I discovered a phenomenon which I am sure is not new (haven’t googled it yet but I reckon google scholar will have numerous entries on the topic) … the absentee mother in literature. There are no mothers in so many texts. The mother-figure is either missing entirely or replaced by a surrogate, usually not an entirely effective replacement.

Time for a little personal confession. I have an absentee mother. She decided to leave me and my three siblings in the care of my father when I was nine. As an adult I now know that she had a bunch of reasons (and issues) that led to her decision. I have spoken openly about this with my mum, and even though I have forgiven her and we get on really well, I haven’t forgotten and I know that her absence has shaped who I am today.

On Tuesday night I finished rereading the quintessential missing-mother novel. No, not Shelley’s Frankenstein yet this novel is of the same era and genre (Romantic Gothic) … Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I’m not going to go all literary academic on you (cos I’ll just make a git of myself, not having the capacity to sustain a decent argument) rather, I just wanna point out the impact that an absentee mother has on all of the main characters. Older Catherine loses her mother at a young age, and her soul-mate Heathcliff similarly has no mother – he enters the narrative as a orphan cared for only by Mr Earnshaw (who soon dies). What difference would the influence of a loving, compassionate and emotionally available mother have had on these two unstable characters? Is it possible that their fate may have been different? Other mother-less characters include the young Catherine, young Linton Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw. Even the supposedly noble Nelly Dean is motherless and whilst she adopts the role of surrogate mother for Hareton when he is very young and later the younger Catherine, she has many biases, is often overly concerned with herself and is often physically separated from her charges that she fails to effectively replicate the mother-figure in the lives of either. It’s important to note that Emily Bronte lost her own mother when she was three years old.

The other novel I am reading (and teaching) at the moment that famously features an absentee mother is The Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s mother does appear in the novel – when she tells her 10 year old daughter Phoebe not to smoke – however she is primarily absent. That absence is as much emotional (for Holden) as it is physical … she has become distant since the death of Holden’s younger brother, Allie. Now Holden’s mum is an interesting example of this phenomenon. She seems to try to connect with Holden – she bought him some ice skates but they were the wrong type – but she clearly fails. Holden is distressed about upsetting her – he’s recently been kicked out of another high school – because he knows she is easily upset and most likely suffers from depression. When Holden suffers in the novel, he suffers alone. He does not seek solace in a close relationship with his mother, rather he seeks this with his younger sister Phoebe, and to some extent with older males who he respects for various reasons (early in the novel it is Old Spencer and later it is Mr Antolini). I can’t help thinking that Holden’s fractured relationship with his mother impacts significantly on the decisions that he makes during his ‘madman’ few days in New York City. Oddly, Salinger dedicates the novel ‘To My Mother’. I wonder why … maybe it’s because like Holden says “Mothers are all slightly insane”.

Another obvious novel that I’ve read recently (along with every other human being on the planet) is The Hunger Games. Katniss is (emotionally) an orphan. The death of her father in a mining accident results in her mother’s emotional absence for both Katniss and her younger sister Prim. As soon as we meet Katniss, we learn of this lack in her life. Katniss becomes the mother-figure in the series as she does everything within her power to protect her younger sister and later Rue. It is possibly this quality of Katniss that makes her so endearing. It is only when she loses Rue and later in the cave when she adopts the superior role of carer for Peeta that Katniss lets her guard down and shows her true emotions and nature. Katniss typically is a closed character, sharing her thoughts openly only with we readers and interestingly her distrust of her mother remains right through the series. Right to the end.

Having enjoyed The Hunger Games series so much, I was recommended The Rosie Black Chronicles – a series that also has a female protagonist set in a post-apocalyptic world. It is an Australian series and quite good – not as engaging or well-written as The Hunger Games but worth a read regardless. Rosie is a tough sixteen year old – worldly, determined, intelligent, brave – ultimately tasked with the role of saving the planet. And she is mother-less. It’s an important feature of her character development. There is an Aunt who acts as a surrogate mother-figure, but she is impotent in the role and Rosie knows it. I don’t doubt that Rosie’s tough exterior and insecure interior are a direct consequence of her motherless adolescence.

I think I’ve proven my point, so I’ll just list a few more texts that I’ve read recently that feature an absentee mother … a plot device that significantly impacts the characterisation of the protagonist, and thus the direction of the narrative.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (Not only is Catherine’s mother almost entirely absent from the novel, the Tilney children are mother-less and this absent mother figures significantly in the end of the narrative)

Dracula by Bram Stoker (Two strong women – Mina and Lucy – are both without mothers. Mina is thought by many to be the mother-figure in the novel yet she certainly can not be seen as one when she elects to drink the blood of Dracula. The absentee mother figures strongly as a theme in the novel – you only need to look at the “bloofer lady” scene for evidence of this.)

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (It is only when Max is banished to his room by his mother that he desires escape via the imagination. Why does Max get so angry with his mother? In Spike Jonze’s film this aspect of the narrative is explored more explicitly – Max feels his mother is emotionally absent from him as she seeks to establish an intimate relationship with a man who is not his father.)

Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk (a bit of an extreme case of what can result thanks to an absent mum. It’s a full-on book, hilarious as well but I think it provides wonderful insight into the compulsion – and sensitive yet determined nature – of children who lose a mother early in life.)

I find this such a curious phenomenon. I’m sure there are a bunch more texts that similarly present protagonists that lack a mother and which influences their character in a significant way. Maybe the purpose is to explore the importance of mothers and just how valuable they are for young minds … vulnerable to the whims of the world into which they are thrust. I agree with Rousseau in Emile when he argues that human beings are innately good. The support (and daily presence) of a caring mother (and yes, father as well) can make such a great impression on a person. But perhaps mostly it is the perceived lack that makes the most impact. Mothers are human beings, just like non-mothers. We have no super powers and yet we are integral to the development of our children. I’m so fascinated by that. Of course, the argument may run similarly (and I’m sure it does) for the presence of a father. As I say, maybe it’s the perceived lack … the sense of the missing … that has greater influence than the actual presence of a flesh and blood mother. What do you think?

Oh, and just so you know – this isn’t a post designed to lament my own childhood or adolescence – because both were in fact quite good and as I said earlier I have a great relationship with my mum. She’s tops.


4 thoughts on “Mother’s Day: The absentee mother in literature

  1. What a thoughtful and insightful post! Thank you for writing this- it’s just made me stop and ponder’Jane Eyre’ which i’m in the middle of re-reading for the millionth time. and the absence of female (sympathetic) guidance filters right through C Bronte’s work. Jane’s own mum died in childbirth, and then she becomes governess to a motherless Adele. With the exception of the goddess Miss Temple, most of the parent-females are mad, bad or aloof. I guess this why Jane has to function as her own moral mother to make decisions throughout the book. I have to go and re-read yet again now!!! 🙂

    • Awww – thanks Kate!
      It was so weird how hard it was to think of a text where a mother plays a significant positive role in the narrative – even where a mother is the protagonist who is admirable. I can’t think of any off the top of my head but then I have a terrible memory – I always lose at trivia!
      Yup – the Brontes has a sad life, really … I think the absent mother figures often in pre-Victorian literature simply because childbirth was so risky back then.
      Hope the re-reading is just as fun now that you’re tracking another idea through the movement of the story!
      B 🙂

  2. Thank you Bianca! At first your post interested me because I teach Ext 1, Language and Gender, and we have been looking closely at the ‘agents of action’ in texts, and therefore female invisibility in texts, and this post just adds to this study. Hope you don’t mind me sharing it with my kids?
    On another level though you have written about all my favourite novels and It makes me wonder that maybe they are my favourites because, deep down, I related to these characters because I too lost my mother as a baby. I know it still impacts me today…. despite having four beautiful, talented children of my own! There are many days when I still pine for my mother!

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