Friday, November 26, 2010

The Mother Figure: A Conventional Literary Archetype

At the end of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath a starving man suckles at the breast of a young mother. Such an image scandalizes some readers, but this moment in literature is a classic example of another conventional literary archetype, the mother figure.

Mother is the womb, the safe haven where needs, both biological and psychological, are met. She is the crucible in which a fetus changes to become male or female and develops unique features. Mother is the receptacle and the nest.

Mother is also the nurturer. Her body sustains the fetus and infant. Her responsibilities include growing and providing foods that help children thrive. She also nourishes the spirit, kissing boo-boos to make them better and healing wounds seen and unseen. A mother’s love restores us to a state of well-being. She makes us whole because the metaphorical umbilical cord connecting mother and child cannot be severed. Mothers sense when their children are in need. They are aware of subtle differences in their child’s cries, they guide their children in the direction of their true talents, and they differentiate their methods according to the needs of each child.

Mothers are selfless. A mother will take the lesser portion so that her child will not be hungry. She will wear tatters in order to send her child into the world well-dressed. She will push her child to the front and recede into the background unless her child faces foes and competitors. Then, Mother will stand like a shield between her child and oncoming arrows. She will also forgive and love eternally.

Mothers are teachers. By example, they teach love and empathy. They also teach civility and etiquette, and perhaps most important, they teach children to hold in their selfish impulses in favor of sharing and caring.

Mother Nature is perhaps the classic example of mother as womb and nurturer. Earth itself sustains her children, providing beauty to feed the heart and mind, food to feed the body. Her Greek identity is Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, of the sanctity of marriage, and of the cycle of life. She is the mother who mourned her daughter, Persephone, while she was in Hades with her husband. Her heart and the world became wintry awaiting the rebirth of joy and bounty in the Spring and Summer.

Ma Joad, another character from The Grapes of Wrath, also exemplifies roles of mother as safe haven. She is fierce in her ability to weather all hurts without withering. She knows that her family’s hope and strength begins in her; she will endure and persevere to sustain them.

Leah Price, one of the heroic women in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, is selfless. She surrenders her role as dependent in order to provide for her family, taking up the duties of hunter when Nathan shirks them. She sees beyond race and time to the beauty of her husband, Anatole, and all of the Congolese. She chooses to live in Africa, enduring all the hardships of the land. She dedicates her life to love: loving her husband, her biological children, and Africa. She sacrifices in order to improve the lives of others. So does Erin Brockovich, as portrayed by Julia Roberts, when she eats a can of tomatoes and uses her last dollars to buys her kids food.

Elbows off the table, cover your mouth when you cough, and don’t talk with your mouth full are all directives from Mom. She teaches children to apologize, do their best, and play nicely. Ms. Rain, the GED teacher at Precious’ alternative school, is an excellent example of the mother figure as teacher in the movie Precious. Ms. Rain prepares Precious to earn a diploma, she provides her with life skills, and she models love and kindness, two gifts that Precious has never known.

Authors use these expectations of mothers to guide the reader’s understanding of the character and to develop overall meanings. Sometimes, the mother figure does not fare well against the cultural expectations. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is one who fails to put her own desires aside and help her son overcome his grief. Ingrid, Astrid’s mother in the film version of White Oleander, rationalizes that placing her daughter into the foster care system is acceptable parenting. We, the viewers, recognize the mother’s utter selfishness, her failure to provide a safe haven, to nurture, and teach.

Through literary mothers who fulfill society’s expectations, readers witness the godlike qualities within human beings. From mothers who fail, we learn that innocent children pay for the sins of their elders, that their promise is often thwarted by adults who cannot live up to the demands of parenting.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The mother, Orleanna, is a complex character who must make difficult choices. She fails and triumphs as a mother.

Writing Challenge:

Write a fabulous reality in which a mother figure is the central character.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

As promised, the meaning and use of e.g. is the subject this week. It means for example so writers use e.g. to introduce a paradigm, illustration, or example for a statement; e.g.,

Elmore Leonard often creates fabulous realities; e.g., gangsters discuss the meanings and uses of i.e. and e.g.

Here’s a trick to remember when and how to use these Latin abbreviations:

In other words and that is are translations for i.e. Both feature the letter I as does i.e.

For example is a translation for e.g. Both feature an E.

By thinking of I or E, you should be able to differentiate between i.e. and e.g.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach