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Profound Portraits of Motherhood in Literature and Film – Exploring 7 Genres That Reveal the Depth of Maternal Figures in Stories

Motherhood in Literature and Film

Motherhood in Stories – How Literature and Film Shape Our Views

Motherhood in stories serves as both a narrative element and cultural commentary, providing insights into maternal roles across contexts and mediums. Every year, when spring is in full swing, we dedicate a day to honor and celebrate our amazing moms. During Mother’s Day, we get a chance to reflect on the role of motherhood and its impact both personally and culturally. In our exploration of storytelling, we will dive into the world of one of the most timeless characters in literature and film: the mother.

Mothers are key figures in storytelling, transcending culture and time. In ancient myths, they were depicted as caring and fearless, while in modern narratives, they are portrayed as complex individuals. In literature and film, mothers exceed being mere characters and instead become powerful archetypes. They represent love, sacrifice, wisdom, and sometimes, complex human imperfections.

In this blog post, we will explore how the maternal archetype has been portrayed through the ages. Our focus will be on exploring the ways in which different authors and filmmakers have molded the narrative of motherhood.

Let’s celebrate Mother’s Day by recognizing the depth and diversity of maternal figures in storytelling.

Contents

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The Literary Mother

Throughout history, literature has played a crucial role in mirroring society, displaying our fundamental values, fears, and ambitions. Of all these thoughts, the depiction of mothers emerges as a powerful and recurring motif. From the nurturing matriarchs to the conflicted figures, the literary mother is a figure of boundless interpretation.

The Classic Literary Mother

In classic literature, mothers are frequently portrayed as virtuous role models, wholly devoted to the selfless nurturing of their children. Consider the devoted love of Molly Weasley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. During a magical war, she remains a pillar of strength and support, ensuring the safety of her own children as well as the orphaned Harry. She represents the essence of maternal love and sacrifice.

Similarly, in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Marmee March is portrayed as the unwavering moral pillar of her family. She gracefully supports her daughters through the difficulties of poverty and personal loss. Her presence is both comforting and inspiring that showcases the strength often required of motherhood.

The Modern Literary Mother

In modern literature, the portrayal of motherhood is more nuanced, highlighting the individuality, aspirations, and imperfections of mothers. Emma Donoghue’s Room tells the story of Ma, a kidnapped young woman who raises her son in captivity. She explores the boundaries of maternal sacrifice and highlights the creative problem-solving that motherhood demands.

Alaa Al Aswany The Yacoubian Building presents the life in modern Cairo, centered around the lives of various residents in an apartment building. Through its interwoven narratives, the story explores themes of power, corruption, love, and social dynamics. Among these residents is Souad, a mother who navigates complex socio-political challenges in Cairo. She is married to an older man, and grapples with the societal pressures surrounding her role as a mother and wife. Souad’s journey reflects the complexities of motherhood in modern Egypt, exploring family dynamics, cultural norms, and personal ambitions.

Literary Reflections and Society

The evolution of the maternal archetype in literature reflects broader societal changes. Where once mothers might have been idealized or simplified, today’s literary mothers are as diverse and complex as real life. This change not only improves the stories we come across but also helps us understand the various roles a mother plays. Examining literary mothers enhances our understanding of storytelling and provides insights into societal values and historical contexts.

The Cinematic Mother

Cinema, like literature, offers a rich canvas for the exploration of motherhood, but with visual expression. The depiction of mothers in film has influenced and mirrored societal attitudes towards motherhood.

The Classic Cinematic Mother

In the golden age of cinema, mothers often embodied an idealized form of love and sacrifice. A classic example is the 1945 film Mildred Pierce, where Joan Crawford portrays a devoted mother willing to do anything to provide for her daughter during the Great Depression. This film noir explores themes of sacrifice, betrayal, and maternal obsession, highlighting the extremes of motherly love in a patriarchal society.

Another iconic portrayal is found in Stella Dallas (1937), where Barbara Stanwyck’s character makes the ultimate sacrifice for the happiness of her daughter. She chooses to separate herself to allow her child a better future among the upper class. This melodrama depicts societal expectations and emotional struggles of motherhood.

The Modern Cinematic Mother

Mothers in modern films have diverse and complex roles that mirror shifting family and societal dynamics. In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), Laurie Metcalf portrays a mother who is struggling to connect with her teenage daughter, navigating through personal and economic challenges. The movie examines the complexities of the mother-daughter bond, depicting conflicting emotions and deep affection. (Greta Gerwig also directed an adaptation of Little Women (2019))

Another powerful modern example is Caramel (2007) directed by Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki. In this film Gisèle Aouad plays the role of Jamale, a middle-aged actress and mother who faces the dual pressures of maintaining her professional career and fulfilling her maternal role in Beirut. Through her journey, she sheds light on the difficulties of managing societal pressures, especially in an industry that values youth and beauty. Jamale deals with her dwindling career opportunities and the effect on her identity as a mother. Her portrayal captures the complexities of modern motherhood, including cultural norms, professional aspirations, and personal fulfillment.

(This film is hard to find on stream but you can get the DVD. Some countries might have access to stream it on Prime, but in the United States, it is currently unavailable as of the time this article was posted.)

Mothers and Cultural Reflections in Film

The evolution of film’s maternal archetype mirrors societal changes in gender roles. Early cinema idealized motherhood, but modern films portray mothers as complex characters with their own desires and flaws. This change not only represents the influence of feminist movements and evolving family dynamics but also provides viewers with a more authentic and relatable depiction of motherhood.

Movies offer a distinct perspective on the maternal archetype by using visual storytelling and dramatic portrayals. Analyzing these portrayals unveils insights into cultural climate and the evolving concept of motherhood.

Literature and Films with known Motherly Figures

Comedy

Books

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: A quirky mother disappears, prompting her daughter to piece together her whereabouts through emails, official documents, and secret correspondence.

Bernadette Fox is a mother who, feeling overwhelmed by her responsibilities and the need for personal space, disappears, sparking a journey of self-discovery both for her and her daughter.

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper: A family comes together in a chaotic reunion when their mother calls them home for their father’s funeral, revealing long-buried secrets and tensions.

Hilary Altman, the mother of the main characters, is a psychiatrist whose candid approach to life and relationships greatly influences her children, especially during the family’s time of mourning.

Films

The Kids Are All Right (2010), directed by Lisa Cholodenko: Two teenagers reach out to their biological father, disrupting the domestic life of their two mothers.

Nic and Jules are a same-sex couple, each mother to their two children, balancing the dynamics of their modern family with warmth and complexity.

Bad Moms (2016), directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore: An overworked and under-appreciated mom teams up with two other stressed mothers on a quest to liberate themselves from conventional responsibilities.

Amy Mitchell, the protagonist, struggles with the demands of modern motherhood, leading her to rebel against the expectations of being the perfect mom, which inspires other mothers to embrace their imperfections.

Horror

Books

The Good House by Tananarive Due: A woman confronts ancient curses and personal tragedies when she returns to her family’s old home after a series of horrifying events.

Angela Toussaint is the mother who returns to her family home, dealing with her son’s tragic past and the supernatural forces affecting them.

Films

Hereditary (2018), directed by Ari Aster: A grieving family discovers horrifying secrets about their ancestry as they try to outrun the sinister fate they have inherited.

Annie Graham, a mother grappling with her family’s dark secrets, faces tragic losses and discovers a chilling fate tied to her lineage.

The Babadook (2014), directed by Jennifer Kent: A widowed mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, only to discover a sinister presence all around them.

Amelia Vanek is a widowed mother struggling with the death of her husband while raising her troubled son, whose fears manifest into the sinister presence of the Babadook, testing her ability to protect and connect with her child.

Drama

Books

Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts: A pregnant teenager is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Walmart in a small town, where she secretly lives until the birth of her baby.

Novalee Nation is a young mother who finds a new life and community in the small town, depicting the growth and challenges of a teenage mother.

Films

Stepmom (1998), directed by Chris Columbus: A terminally ill mother has to settle on the new woman in her ex-husband’s life, who will be their children’s stepmother.

Jackie and Isabel are the biological mother and stepmother, respectively, navigating the complex dynamics of forming a blended family amidst serious illness and emotional challenges.

Science Fiction

Books

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler: After a devastating war, the few remaining humans are rescued by an alien race that requires genetic blending to reproduce.

Lilith Iyapo is a mother and a leader who navigates the complexities of human survival and reproduction with an alien species, overseeing the future of both species with maternal concern and strategic acumen.

The Children of Men by P.D. James: In a near-future society where humans have become infertile and no children have been born for decades, a disillusioned historian becomes involved in the protection of the world’s only pregnant woman.

Films

Aliens (1986), directed by James Cameron: Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of an alien attack, returns to the planet where her crew was killed, this time accompanied by tough space marines.

Ellen Ripley, although not Newt’s biological mother, displays profound maternal instincts and fierce protectiveness, adopting a motherly role towards the orphaned girl amidst the chaos caused by the alien threat.

A Quiet Place (2018), directed by John Krasinski: In a post-apocalyptic world, a family must live in silence to avoid deadly creatures that hunt by sound.

Evelyn Abbott is a mother protecting her children in a post-apocalyptic world where silence is survival, showing immense courage and resourcefulness.

Fantasy

Books

Circe by Madeline Miller: A reimagining of the life of Circe, a powerful witch in Greek mythology who turns men into pigs and challenges gods.

Circe, while known for her role in Greek mythology, is also a mother to Telegonus, raising him in isolation and teaching him divine and human qualities, embodying the protective and educational aspects of motherhood.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik: A young woman is chosen to serve a powerful wizard known as the Dragon, and soon discovers a deadly threat to their world.

Agnieszka’s mother is not a central character but her relationship with Agnieszka shapes much of the protagonist’s world view and moral compass, influencing her decisions as she confronts magical and human threats.

Films

Maleficent (2014), directed by Robert Stromberg: A dark fantasy that tells the story of the iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty, revealing the events that hardened her heart.

Maleficent becomes a surrogate mother to Aurora, showcasing a complex evolution from vengeance to nurturing, highlighting the transformative power of maternal love.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), directed by Guillermo del Toro: In post-Civil War Spain, a young girl retreats to a brutal, yet mesmerizing fantasy world to escape the harsh realities of her life.

Carmen, Ofelia’s mother, is frail and pregnant, striving to secure a stable future for her daughter by marrying a fascist captain during post-Civil War Spain, though her health continuously deteriorates throughout the movie.

Historical Fiction

Books

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah: Two sisters fight for survival and resistance in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.

Vianne Mauriac is a mother struggling to protect her daughter and help her community survive during the German occupation of France in WWII, embodying resilience and sacrifice.

Films

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), directed by Justin Chadwick: Two sisters contend for the affection of King Henry VIII, and what begins as an opportunity for their family turns into a deadly rivalry.

Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire, is the ambitious mother who pushes her daughters into dangerous royal favor games, reflecting the complexities of maternal ambitions in a patriarchal society.

Belle (2013), directed by Amma Asante: The mixed-race daughter of a British Navy Admiral is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle in 18th-century England.

Maria Bell, though not Belle’s biological mother, plays a motherly role in her life, helping her navigate the complexities of race and inheritance in aristocratic England.

Mystery/Thriller

Books

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: A troubled journalist returns to her hometown to cover a series of brutal murders and uncovers chilling secrets about her family.

Adora Crellin is the mother of the protagonist, whose complex and toxic relationship with her daughters unfolds amidst a series of violent crimes, revealing dark family secrets.

The Secret Mother by Shalini Boland: A woman’s life spirals out of control when a little boy shows up at her house claiming to be her son.

Tessa Markham returns home to find a young boy in her kitchen who claims she is his mother, leading her into a deep psychological mystery that questions her sanity and uncovers her deep-seated maternal instincts.

Films

The Others (2001), directed by Alejandro Amenábar: A woman living in a darkened old house with her two photosensitive children becomes convinced that the home is haunted.

Grace Stewart is a protective and somewhat strict mother coping with her children’s unusual condition and the eerie occurrences in their secluded mansion.

Gone Baby Gone (2007), directed by Ben Affleck: Two private investigators working in a working-class neighborhood in Boston are hired to find a kidnapped girl, uncovering a series of dark secrets in the process.

Helene McCready is the troubled mother of the kidnapped child. Her character presents a complex portrait of flawed motherhood, tangled in crime and poor life choices yet showing glimpses of genuine concern and vulnerability for her daughter’s fate.

Themes of Motherhood in Literature and Film

1. Sacrifice: One of the most prominent themes, both mediums frequently explore the selflessness associated with motherhood. Characters like Marmee from Little Women or Annie from the film Hereditary showcase the lengths to which mothers go for their children, highlighting the emotional, physical, and sometimes existential sacrifices involved.

2. Unconditional Love: The deep bond between mother and child often forms the emotional core of many stories, such as in Room or The Joy Luck Club. This theme can be portrayed as nurturing and comforting, or more complex, revealing the tensions and contradictions that sometimes accompany familial relationships.

3. Complex Relationships: The portrayal of motherhood often delves into the nuanced dynamics between mothers and their children, particularly as these relationships evolve. Films like Lady Bird and books like Sharp Objects explore these multifaceted relationships, revealing how cultural, generational, and personal factors shape the bond between mother and child.

4. Resilience: Motherhood is often depicted as a journey of endurance and strength, where mothers navigate numerous challenges. In The Nightingale or A Quiet Place, maternal figures confront societal, cultural, and even existential obstacles, showcasing resilience in their roles.

5. Cultural and Societal Expectations: Both literature and film explore how motherhood is influenced by cultural norms and societal pressures. Caramel and The Yacoubian Building reflect on how motherhood intersects with cultural identity and societal expectations, while other works portray the broader influence of these portrayals on personal and societal views.

If you’d like to understand further on mother archetypes, check out Holly Riddle’s article from Scribophile.com What is the Mother Archetype? With Examples. This article breaks down the different types of mothers throughout storytelling from The Nurturer to The Wicked (Step)mother.

Final Thoughts

The portrayal of motherhood in literature and film offers a comprehensive examination of this crucial role. They present a deep understanding of its intricacies, difficulties, and virtues. From sacrificial figures to those navigating societal pressures, these portrayals highlight diverse dimensions of motherhood. Through stories like Little Women and films like Caramel, we see how maternal figures can mirror the evolving norms and expectations of their respective eras.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, these stories remind us of the varied experiences and emotions associated with motherhood. They invite us to reflect on how maternal figures shape our understanding of motherhood across generations, in both individual lives and cultural narratives. By exploring these depictions, we gain an appreciation for both the art of storytelling and the enduring impact of mothers on our lives.