This article was written by Chris Ciolli.
Most of us have our ups and downs with moms. We love-hate them, a typical reaction to anyone that is sometimes too close for comfort and armed with “I told you so’s.” While many moms keep a secret stash of psychotic to flash at severely misbehaving offspring, most are a far cry from the villainesses that seem to spring fully formed from so many writers’ minds (something to be thankful for). What is it about great books that inspires writers to create such awful matriarchs? From Greek Classics to modern-day children’s books, crazy mom and her bosom buddy, bad mom, make their appearance in all kinds of writing, sometimes as that hard-to-vanquish cross species, evil, crazy mom.
In literature as in life, bad moms may have some crazy around the edges, but it’s rarely enough to send them to prison or get them institutionalized. Two of my favorite examples of bad, and fairly batty mothers are Zinnia Wormwood and Mrs. Bennet. Both are hilarious products of celebrated British authors’ wry sense of humor and uncanny ability to make the ridiculous believable.
- Zinnia Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda
Only Roald Dahl could make such a horrible mother so hilarious. Zinnia Wormwood, Matilda’s mom, can’t cook, doesn’t read, and is generally trashy and unpleasant, but worst of all, seems to have no interest whatsoever in nurturing her brilliant daughter, leaving her at home alone unsupervised, and letting her father destroy her library books and force her to watch television. So it’s only mildly surprising when Matilda flees the Wormwood family to live with her school teacher, Miss Honey. In fact, the nicest thing Matilda’s mom does for her in the whole book is signing her over to Miss Honey’s custody. Matilda begs the question. Is her mom crazy, stupid, or just a really bad mother? I’d vote for a combination of all three.
- Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Foolish and seemingly without social graces, Mrs. Bennet pushes her daughters towards marriage with any man available with no regard to their health or future happiness. We see her disregard for her daughters when she sends Jane out in the rain on horseback to visit Bingley, and also when she tries to convince Elizabeth to marry the disgusting and obnoxious Mr. Collins. Not to mention how she allows, no, encourages Lydia to behave like a tramp, and Mary to torture others and embarrass herself demonstrating talents she doesn’t have. The miracle is that Jane Austen manages to make Mrs. Bennet amusing, as opposed to annoying.
Truly crazy moms don’t make stellar caretakers by any stretch of the imagination, but at least they often have a dramatic excuse (the tragic death of a loved one, a cheating spouse) for their flights into lunacy. Of course there’s more than one kind of crazy when it comes to moms. There’s falling-off-the-deep-end, suddenly crazy like Medea, and then there’s cold, calculating, sociopath crazy also known as evil-crazy mom (like Mama Elena from Like Water for Chocolate).
- Medea in Euripides’ Medea
It’s hard to beat the Ancient Greeks when it comes to writing crazy moms. And when it comes to literary mothers who went off the deep end, no one falls further or harder than Medea. Even Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother-wife, is a only runner-up next to Medea. In this Greek tragedy based on the myth of Jason (of golden fleece fame) and Medea, the barbarian witch that saved him and bore his children, Euripides has Medea killing her own children (some sources say in earlier versions the children were killed by angry locals after Medea killed their king and princess). While her need for vengeance is understandable–after Medea saves Jason and follows him to a foreign land, he rewards her by demoting her to mistress status to marry a princess—killing her kids to punish her ex, as opposed to just offing the other woman and the man that broke her heart—that’s the ultimate in crazy mom.
- Mama Elena in Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Mama Elena in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is not going off the deep-end temporarily psychotic like Medea or Jocasta. She’s also not a relatively harmless batty mom, like Mrs. Bennet or Mrs. Wormwood. She’s a consistently evil insane that permeates almost every page of Esquivel’s masterpiece about this Bernarda Alba-esque family of a mother and three daughters. A family in which tradition dictates the youngest daughter must stay at home with the mother until her death, never marrying or moving on with her life. Staying at home with mom may not sound like the end of the world, but Mama Elena is physically and emotionally abusive. Far worse, Mama Elena encourages Pedro, the man Tita loves, to marry Tita’s older sister, and then puts Tita in charge of all the preparations for the wedding. Even as a ghost, Mama Elena will not leave Tita be, at one point setting Pedro on fire.
If nothing else, reflecting on the nightmare moms imagined by authors puts our relationships with maternal figures into perspective. Mom may have embarrassed you showing your significant other childhood photos, or screamed her head off when you came home past curfew, but chances are she’s got nothing on the literary matriarchs described above. So this mother’s day smile at the memories (good and bad), spend some time with her, and be thankful.
Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, and check out her art at TriflesandQuirks.com.