The Dead or Absent Mothers of Literature

I saw a blog opening up the floor to celebrate great motherly characters in literature for Mother’s Day. I scanned my shelves for a bit, because the only one that was jumping to my mind was Mrs. Weasley. I tried to think of books not on my shelves, and still wasn’t coming up with much.

Meanwhile, I noticed just how many books involved orphans, or characters with very little familial contact. Or if they do, it tends to be a negative family dynamic, especially with parents.

And it made me wonder why?

The last book I can remember that I would say had a truly positive depiction of Mom and Dad was If I Stay by Gayle Forman.  Or maybe Tris’s parents in Divergent, but again: they all die.

Harry Potter’s parents are dead. Katniss Everdeen’s father is dead, and her mother is a wreck who can’t provide for her kids physically or emotionally. Lisbeth Salander’s mother is a whore and her father is a psycho kingpin.

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I am not quite sure why this is so common, to be honest. I mean a lot of people have dead parents and a lot of people have really crappy parents. But a lot of people have really great parents too. My parents weren’t perfect, but they are pretty great, really. The older I get, the more I realize that they made a lot fewer mistakes than I ragged on them for when I was younger, and I see more things I want to emulate as I become a parent.

I think this bad or missing or dead parent thing provides tension in a story for sure. That is probably part of the reason we write it so much. I find that I do this a lot too.

But perhaps we are overusing it a bit. Perhaps we should be looking for some other tension somewhere, and let the mothers and fathers of literature be alive and well and kind now and again. I would like to see it a bit more I think. Not too much, just more.

*What do you think? Is the dead or absent parent trope overused?*

*What are some other positive parent figures in books you’re reading?*

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2 thoughts on “The Dead or Absent Mothers of Literature

  1. This is just my guess on the subject:

    Child protagonists have a lot less available in terms of life experience. I would think it’s much harder to write a struggle for a child with loving and supportive parents, but it isn’t impossible. It just makes a different kind of book, for example, the Ramona or Little House series, or even the Wrinkle in Time series (once the kids rescue their father in the first novel). All of those have caring and present parents, though it’s worth noting that the Wrinkle in Time series, like Potter and Hunger Games, seems to loosely follow the hero’s journey, resulting in the child leaving the known for the unknown whether the parents are there or not.

    That being said, when I was a kid, half the books that were coming out had the protagonists best friend dying (A Taste for Blackberries, Bridge to Terabithia, On My Honor). Death in general seems to be an easy way for an author to present an obstacle with high enough stakes to make the main character’s progress and development both interesting to the audience and necessary within the framework of the story.

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    • Hmmm that is a good point about death in general as an easy way to provide an obstacle. I would definitely agree. Oftentimes, the dead parents were good parents prior to becoming dead, such as Harry’s parents, etc.

      Child protagonists do probably have a smaller number of difficulties to pull from. That is a good point.

      Even in adult novels, though, I would argue that parent relationships, if they come in to play, tend to be negative. Lots of stories with estranged parents and that sort of thing.

      All of it probably boils down to tension, I suppose.

      But it is an interesting trend.

      Liked by 1 person

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