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5 Tragic Mothers in Literature

Kira Walton shares her favorite literary Moms - from the classic Mrs. Dalloway to recent bestseller Room to debut novel Mother, Mother.

Mother’s Day has me thinking about some unforgettable Mom characters.

There’s Harry Potter‘s always-unruffled Mrs. Weasley, the strong and smart Mrs. Murray from A Wrinkle in Time, and the hard-working and loving Marmee in Little Women.

These are among the favorite fictional moms our readers mentioned this week. Without a  doubt, they’re all impressive women, model mothers, and yet . . . the Mom characters I can’t stop thinking about are of a different type altogether.

Maybe it’s because I like my novels on the dark side, maybe it’s because these women haunted me long after I turned the last page.

Whatever the reason, these five Moms top my list, and they’re all tragic mothers in literature.

Room by Emma DonoghueMa in Room by Emma Donoghue
This book devastated me. I devoured it in one sitting, then walked around my house for hours in a daze. Narrated by five-year-old Jack, Room is the shocking and surprisingly tender story of a woman and child living in unspeakable circumstances. Jack’s mom, Ma, manages to make a room feel like a world for her boy.

The Awakening by Kate ChopinEdna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Back when I was teaching college English, this was one of my favorite classics. My students loved to debate the ending: did she or didn’t she? (I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t read.) Edna is a bird in a gilded cage: trapped in her domestic life, she desperately wants to experience something that’s just for herself.

Sophie's Choice by William StyronSophie in Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
I would read the phone book if William Styron wrote it. His writing is that exquisite. In Sophie, he introduces us to one of the most tragic characters in 20th century fiction. “Sophie’s choice” is now a noun, used to describe an agonizing, impossibly difficult choice. If you haven’t read this novel, do it now.

Mother, Mother by Koren ZailckasJosephine Hurst in Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas
The author of the bestseller Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood turns her hand to fiction, with startlingly good results. Watching the “perfect” domain of this always-in-control mother begin to crumble around her is a dark delight. She may not be an empathetic character, but she’s one you’ll never forget.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia WoolfClarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
I adore Clarissa: she’s one of my very favorite voices in fiction. The entire novel is one rather ordinary day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s genius is how she discusses life, death, war, and love – all from the perspective of a well-to-do British woman busy planning a party. It sounds dull, but it’s not.

Do you have a favorite “tragic Mom” from books, film, t.v.? Tell us in a comment!

About the Author

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life. She’s worked as a college English teacher, a bookseller, a book club consultant and author, a marketing director at a publisher, and now editor at Read It Forward. When not reading, she’s doing yoga, meditating, or hiking with her dog, her husband and his daughter. As much as she loves living in the Colorado mountains, she misses her favorite place to read: the NYC subway. Read It Forward is brought to you by a team of readers who love books as much as you do. Questions? Comments? Contact us at readitforward@randomhouse.com.