Should we condemn Mrs. Bennet, the hilariously inept matchmaker in Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice,” for repeatedly sabotaging her daughters' prospects with her own uncouth behavior and transparent gold-digging?
Or should we commend her as an island of warmth and practicality in a sea of social snobbery?
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The answer, of course, is both, and therein lies the problem with the traditional Mother's Day book story, the one that offers up the "best moms" of fiction or the "worst" for public judgment. The most interesting figures in literature are rarely entirely bad or screamingly good, they're somewhere in the middle of the spectrum — where, let's face it, you'll find most human beings, literary or otherwise.
So with Mother's Day here, let's honor the literary moms who, for better and/or worse, are simply unforgettable.
Among them: the unstoppable Mrs. Bennet.
"She's so much fun," says Beth Sutton-Ramspeck, an associate professor of English at The Ohio State University at Lima. "She's definitely the best-written mother in literature; I have no doubt that she's No. 1 as a character. She's just so memorable."
Mrs. Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen
She fusses, she flutters, she takes to her bed in a fit of anxiety just when she's needed most. But if Mrs. Bennet is neurotic, she's gorgeously, unpredictably, authentically neurotic. If she's frantic, she has reason to be so. Her family really is in crisis, with five daughters raised for upper-class idleness and no fortune to fall back on if wealthy husbands don't materialize. The refined Mr. Bennet may conduct himself with relative dignity, but his elegant passivity is part of the problem. Say what you want about Mrs. Bennet, you can't accuse her of sitting around waiting for a miracle.
The evil Queen in the fairy tale "Snow White"
Mirror, mirror on the wall — who's the most interesting fairy tale character of all? Nothing against Snow White, but it's the lady with the poisoned apple. In a society awash in images of airbrushed youth, getting old can feel like a crime, so we're not without sympathy when the Queen declares herself wrongly convicted. Is she really so different from the "Real Housewives" who can see everyone else's plastic surgery bloopers but not their own? In her solution she is, of course, but in her misplaced rage she's another "Housewife" descending on a younger, smoother specimen like a lion closing in for the kill. There's something universal — and scary — about this generational drama, and no one embodies it like the evil Queen.
Anna in "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy
Forced to choose between her beloved son, whom she will give up if she divorces, and her swashbuckling lover, Anna agonizes, wavers and pronounces herself undone: "I love those two beings only; and the one excludes the other! I can't unite them, yet that is the one thing that I desire."
The drama is outsized, but the tension between a mother's love for her child and her need to be true to herself is keenly observed and shockingly modern. No one evokes the biological ache of mother-love better than Tolstoy: "Anna experienced an almost physical pleasure in feeling (her son's) proximity and caresses, and a moral solace when she met his simple, trustful and loving gaze and heard his naive questions."
Olive in "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout
Big-hearted, gruff and volatile, our larger-than-life heroine is a challenge to everyone who crosses her path, and that would most definitely include her semi-estranged adult son, Christopher. Strout shows us Olive's deep loneliness and her intense yearning to connect with her beloved only child, but also her stubbornness and her remarkable capacity for self-sabotage. You want so desperately for Olive to make this relationship work, even as you suspect that the obstacles she faces are largely of her own making.
Lily in "Geek Love" by Katherine Dunn
Failed aerialist Lily Binewski doesn't just start a family, she embarks on a "creative collaboration" with her husband, Al, the owner of a traveling carnival. Breeding a family of elite carnival freaks is Al's idea, but Lily signs on with enthusiasm, ingesting pesticides, prescription drugs, cocaine and arsenic during her pregnancies and becoming the proud mother of an "aquaboy" with flippers instead of limbs, Siamese twins, a hunchbacked albino dwarf and a boy with telekinetic powers.
The twist, or one of them, is that Lily's motives are pure. A Boston Brahmin who has given up everything for love and art, she's delighted with her progeny: "What greater gift could you give your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?"
Nara Schoenberg is a Tribune lifestyles reporter.
Other notable moms
Among the fictional moms that Caroline M. Grant, editor-in-chief of the online magazine Literary Mama (literarymama.com), just can't get out of her mind:
The mother badger in "Bread and Jam for Frances" by Russell Hoban: When Frances goes through a picky eating stage, Mother whips up a solution at once simple and brilliant. "There's a persistence to her that I love, and a refusal to give in to her child," says Grant. "I've come to that (as a mother), but that was not how I was with my first toddler. I wasn't quite so confident or secure."
Kate Murry in "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle: With her husband away, the scientist mom in this young adult classic is parenting four kids and actively pursuing her career in a lab next to the kitchen. "She has a Bunsen burner, and the family eats a lot of stews and long-simmered meals because she can cook them on the Bunsen burner as she's doing her experiments," Grant says.
Ma in "Room" by Emma Donoghue: The mother in Donoghue's 2010 novel is being held captive in a single room with her 5-year-old son. "She is (her son's) world, and she's made a world for him that's totally satisfying and fun and magical, and you embrace his perspective," Grant says. "It's really an extraordinary piece of writing, and she's one of those mothers I will never forget.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun