In Fiction as in Life, Celebrating Absent Mothers
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Mother’s day is not always easy for people who have lost their mothers or may not have ever known them. As a child, I would have nightmares about losing my mother, possibly triggered by Walt Disney’s heart-wrenching scene of the death of Bambi’s mother, which was doubtless one of the most scarring experiences for young children of my generation.
In fiction, however, characters without mothers live in some of the best stories ever written. The fascination they exert on readers stems from the freedom, independence and wildness we usually associate with growing up without the constraints of a traditional family and its values. Having to fight for themselves from a young age in a hostile and often lonely world makes them stronger, resourceful and unconventional. Here are some of these characters:
1. Huckleberry Finn (from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain).
This is a favorite at all ages. Huck first appeared in the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, who happened to be his best friend. Tom had also lost his mother, but, unlike Huck, was raised by a careful and vigilant aunt. Huck, on the other hand, lived with his drunken vagrant father, did not go to school or work, dressed in rags and lacked an education, formal or otherwise. At the end of the book, both characters become wealthy, having found a hidden treasure. Huck is adopted by Widow Douglas, who has plans to “civilize” him. At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we find Huck bored out of his mind and dying to go back to his free life as a vagabond. He cannot bear the formalities of so-called civilization. To escape the widow and his violent father, he fakes his own death, and, running away, comes across a fugitive slave, Jim, who belongs to Widow Douglas’ sister. The book is about their adventures riding a raft down the Mississippi River in search of freedom, while Huck slowly grows into a mature and morally responsible young man.
2. Jane Eyre (From Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë).
After her mother passes away, Jane is sent to live with the family of her late uncle, Mr. Reed. His wife, however, is cold and unfair towards Jane. Besides, her three cousins, all about Jane’s age, are spoiled and bullying creatures. Jane is unhappy and lonely and finds solace in the company of books. When she reaches a certain age, she is sent to Lowood, a charity school for underprivileged ladies, where she continues being mistreated and ignored. Finally, she is old enough to apply for a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall in the windy moors of Yorkshire, in northern England. The master of the house is the hardened and handsome Mr. Rochester, with whom Jane falls in love. But Mr. Rochester has a terrible secret...
3. Catherine Earnshaw (from Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë).
Catherine’s father, back from a business trip to Liverpool, brings home a strange boy – the gypsy orphan Heathcliff. Nobody knows much about his background. Both Catherine and her brother Hindley at first resent him. It doesn’t take long, though, for Catherine and Heathcliff to find out they are kindred souls and free spirits. They become inseparable, playing and having adventures on the stormy moors of Yorkshire. A powerful passion grows between the two, but Catherine is more grounded and socially aware than her friend, and decides to marry into her own class. This is a terrible blow to Heathcliff, who takes his revenge. The harsh environment in which the story takes place replicates the violent passions of the characters, which is a wonderful experience for readers.
4. Bucky Cantor (from Nemesis by Philip Roth).
The main character of one of Philip Roth’s darkest novels, Cantor, has lost his mother and lives with his loving grandparents. Cantor, a 23-year-old javelin thrower and weightlifter, is the playground director of the Weequahic neighborhood in Newark, USA in 1940s. Due to his poor eyesight, Cantor was unable to enlist in the army. He feels terribly guilty about it, as some of his close friends are fighting in Europe. It won’t be long, however, before Cantor is forced to fight a different kind of war. In the unbearable heat of the city summer, an epidemic of poliomyelitis strikes. Child after child falls sick and many die. Cantor tries to help out and comforts the families of the victims. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, who is working on a summer camp, insists that he leave Newark and join her, to get away from the plague-infested environment. Although conflicted, Cantor decides to leave and join his girlfriend. It is a decision he will regret for the rest of his life.
Other famous characters in fiction who have lost their mothers:
- Harry Potter from the series of books by J.K Rowling
- Mowgli from the Jungle Book by Kipling
- Pip from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- Oliver Twist from the eponymous book by Charles Dickens