The Image of The Maternal Figure Portrayed in Childrens Literature

The Image of The Maternal Figure Portrayed in Childrens Literature

Posted 2013-12-04 by Bastion Harrisonfollow
Mothers are an important part of growing up; they carry their children for nine months, taking from their own bodies the nutrients their children need to survive. Such a symbiosis creates a special bond and, even after the separation at birth, the mother will look after her child so it can grow up to be a successful individual. She will incite her child’s imagination by reading to it, but the books that she reads no doubt depict a distorted view of the maternal figure. Living in a patriarchal society, men see woman as the ‘other’ ; she is indefinable, and considered unstable due to hormonal changes brought on by the process of motherhood. If these irregularities are caused by motherhood, it is no surprise that children’s literature portrays mothers in such extreme ways. Over the course of this essay, the maternal figure will be explored by looking at the archetypal roles mothers have played throughout the history of children’s literature.

The Abusive Mother

Image from Wikimedia

Since fairytales, mothers have been depicted by two ‘polarised roles…that of the kind protective parent who is enfeebled, endangered or even dead’ or ‘the persecuting mother who plots to harm’ (Phillips, 160). In classic tales such as Snow White and Cinderella, the real mother has died and been replaced by the archetypal wicked stepmother. In both cases, the stepmother is jealous of the daughter’s beauty and wants her either dead or in servitude. Beauty is represented through innocence and purity of heart, which is why Cinderella’s rude and selfish stepsisters are so ugly. And when the wicked Queen drinks a potion in order to kill Snow White, her innocence is lost, so she transforms into an ugly old hag. Even as far back as fairytales, there is the suggestion that beauty comes from within, so acting in an ugly way, results in an ugly appearance.

Fairytales were written by men who did not understand the ‘other’, therefore they ‘excluded from language…feminine discourse’, which necessarily excludes ‘maternal discourse’ (Wilkie-Stibbs, 100). The mothers in fairytales are not images of femininity, but of the supernatural other; they are witches, hags, and monsters, which is why they are such abusive parents.

Image from Wikimedia

The image of the abusive mother carried on into the Victorian age, at a time when childhood was glorified. Perhaps this is why the characters in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Carroll, 1865) are depicted as overgrown children; the Mad Hatter, for example, is stuck in a never-ending tea party, a make-believe game that many little girls play. Then there is the Queen of Hearts, a spoilt brat, who orders ‘off with their heads’ when she does not get her way. She is the ‘phallic mother’ who ‘overthrows the established sexual order of male domination’ (100). The king has no authority and, in the Disney film adaptation, he is all but castrated. Carroll’s characters are caricatures of real people from his century, and original illustrations of the Queen, by John Tenniel, look like the ever-solemn Queen Victoria.

The ironically named Queen of Hearts abuses her power as maternal monarch; everyone bows down to her in fear of their lives, although she never actually “executes nobody” (Carroll, 95), suggesting she is just full of empty threats. The reason the Queen cannot kill anyone is because it is all a dream; she is holding onto imaginary power. Helene Cixous says that ‘the phallic mother has possession of our imaginaries’ (Wilkie-Stibbs, p 100); the Queen controls all of Wonderland – a place of Alice’s imagining. Cixous explains that one ‘must move to silence’ the phallic mother, and just like the Queen of Hearts, they in turn ‘must cut off her head’ (100). Alice is the dreamer, and the Queen the dream, therefore, Alice is the only one able to silence her:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and after staring at her for a moment, like a wild beast, screamed ‘off with her head! Off –’

‘Nonsense!’ said Alice very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.
(Carroll, 81)

Perhaps the Queen allows Alice to get away with things because she is so assertive; the Queen sees herself in Alice, therefore does not cross her because she is like a daughter. While the Queen is ruthless to her subjects, she is protective of her children. At the trial, the White Rabbit declares, “The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts” (113); the word ‘tarts’ could have a double meaning, one that would elude the child reader. In the mid-nineteenth century, ‘tart’ took on the informal meaning of a prostitute or provocative woman, and if it was in full circulation by the time Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland was written, Carroll will have no doubt been aware of the double-entendre. The Queen’s tarts, therefore, could be read as her promiscuous children who have been “taken quite away” (113) by the Knave of Hearts; a knave being a villain, it could be suggest her daughters were raped, and the Queen is now holding the Knave on trial. The presence of the Queen is felt throughout the book. Even though she does not appear until three-quarters in, she is constantly referred to by characters such as the White Rabbit and the Duchess, who are worried about being late to play croquet.

The Duchess is another phallic mother, who is shown to ‘all but mutilate her baby’ (Knoepflmacber, 15). She gives it a “a violent shake” (Carroll, 59) as she sings a lullaby:

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat his when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

Carroll is satirising evangelical Christians, who believed all babies are born evil, and have to be taught good morals. The suggestion here is that the baby is purposely misbehaving, therefore needs to be punished. Carroll mocks this belief by indicating that the ‘Duchess’s sadistic behaviour’ (Knoepflmacber, 17) is ‘directly responsible for the transformation of the infant baby into a pig’ (170). She is a ‘grotesque caricature’ (32) of children’s writer of Sarah Trimmer, the ‘Guardian of Morality’, who found a way to put a moral into all her stories. In the Victorian period, the purpose of children’s books were purely to teach lessons, but Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland revolutionised this idea; Carroll mocks Trimmer with the Duchess who believes “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it” (Carroll, 90). As she said this, the Duchess “squeezed herself up closer to Alice’s side” (91), invading Alice’s personal space in a very intimate way. Almost like a sexual predator, she rests “her chin on Alice’s shoulder” and “dig[s] in” (91), imposing her body onto Alice. She also whispers in Alice’s ear, as if giving sweet nothings. Karoline Leach takes the controversial view that the Duchess and Alice are a ‘possible allegory for those elicit lovers’ (Brooker, 83), Lorina Liddel and Lewis Carroll himself, but this is unlikely. Mrs Liddel was extremely uncomfortable with Carroll’s involvement with her children, so it is unlikely they were having an affair.

The idea of Mother as teacher later formed the image of the governess. In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Aiken, 1962), the real mother is absent due to illness, and is replaced by the authoritarian Miss Slighcarp, who is another version of the wicked stepmother. In Tom’s Midnight Garden (Pearce, 1958), Hatty’s aunt hates her, and provides no love; she even denies the simplest necessities such as food. Hatty wants a ‘forbidden’ apple from her ‘Garden of Eden’, but cousin Edgar warns her not to “leave the core on the lawn” or “you’ll get yourself into trouble” (Pearce, 71).

The Possessive/Oedipal Mother

In contrast to Hatty’s aunt, Tom’s aunt Gwen “intends to spoil Tom for food” (13) with rich delights such as “whipped cream, shrimp sauce, rum butter and real mayonnaise” (15). She has no children of her own, so over-compensates by giving Tom more than he needs. But smothering a child with love can be equally as detrimental as abuse. Cixous suggests the child becomes mutilated by too much food, just like when the pig-baby has too much pepper in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

Image from Wikimedia

When over-mothered, a child is unable to grow up, which is why Mr Darling from Peter Pan (Barrie, 1911), is an over-grown child. He calls his wife ‘mother’, and just like a mother, Mrs Darling still helps him to get dressed. As a result Mr Darling is as childish than his son, Michael, as they both refuse to take their medicine. Mrs Darling’s instinctual drive towards motherhood can become impractical; she is “prejudice in Wendy’s favour” (Barrie, 4) to keep her, even though Mr Darling says they cannot afford to do so. Money is even tighter when John and Michael come along, but that does not stop her adopting the Lost Boys. She is a hysterical figure, who wants nothing more than for her children to be happy, even at the risk of her own sanity. When Barrie breaks the fourth wall of story telling by entering conversation with Mrs Darling, she says she does not want to be told her children are coming back because it would be “depriving the children of ten minutes of delight” (141) She would rather suffer than deny her ‘heartless’ children their surprise.

Wendy is also driven by maternal instincts; she imitates her mother and even pretending to be Mrs Darling, re-enacting her own birth. In Edwardian times, young girls were brought up to be ‘perfect’ housewives, and ‘Barrie’s females comply with patriarchy’s requirements… to comic excess’, as is seen when ‘Wendy nurtures the image of indispensable housewife humorously’ by mocking the adage ‘a woman’s work is never done’ (Chassagnol, 207). Wendy is so eager to play her part right that she becomes over-protective, and is ‘scandalised’ if the Lost Boys are ever up after bedtime. Michael becomes the victim of the ‘possessive mother’ (207) when Wendy insists he sleeps in a crib, because “she would have a baby”. Barrie mocks women by saying “you know what women are” (Barrie, 66), implying that it is a woman’s sole purpose in life to have children.

But Wendy’s love for Peter is not restricted to a mother and son relationship. Peter notes that “there is something [Tiger Lily] wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother”, to which Wendy replies indignantly, “Indeed it is not” (95) She is jealous of Tiger Lily, just as Tinker Bell is jealous of Wendy; they all want Peter, not only as a son, but as a potential husband. Freud proposed that the only woman a daughter hates more than her mother is her sister, because like the three respective women here, she is competition.

The a-sexual Peter, who is still in the pre-oedipal stage, is completely bewildered by their flirtatious manner. Captain Hook, however, is not a child, and is only too aware of Wendy’s womanhood. Most critiques on Hook focus on the Oedipal relationship between himself and Peter because in theatre, the same actor who plays Mr Darling usually performs as Hook too. The story of Oedipus goes that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother, but Peter has no desire to sleep with Wendy because he has no sexual feelings. There are, however, Oedipal connections between Wendy and Hook. Mr Darling calls his wife ‘mother’, and Captain Hook suggests kidnapping Wendy to “make her our mother” (78), alluding to his sexual feelings towards her. These feeling are emphasised by his use of charm and ‘good breeding’, which are highlighted several times in the book.

The Absent Mother

Peter’s relationship with mother figures is complex. He says he hates mothers, but wants to be a “devoted son” (94) to Wendy. He craves the love and attention of a mother, but does not trust them because his own mother betrayed him. After his adventures, Peter flew home to find his window barred: “mother had forgotten all about me and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed” (101). Not only has he been abandoned, but he has been replaced. Peter, therefore, no doubt feels inadequate; he compensates by being cocky to hide his low self-esteem and he bans the Lost Boys from knowing more than he does, because it would undermine his worth. Rose suggests that because of his mother’s betrayal, Peter is unable to grow up. As Barrie states, “no one ever gets over the first unfairness” (82). Traumatised by the abandonment, Peter regressed to eternal infancy and consequently has a poor memory. He forgets everything so he cannot be hurt again. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done.

Peter’s experience is partly biographical, for Barrie never felt his mother loved him enough. Barrie’s brother, David, died in a tragic accident when he was fourteen, and his mother was severely traumatised by the event. Barrie never felt he could live up to David; he lived constantly in his brother’s shadow, losing his own as a result, much like Peter did. Because of David’s death, Barrie was never fully able to grow up, and recruited the Llewellyn brothers as his own set of Lost Boys .

Although not by choice, Mrs Darling becomes an absent mother too; but unlike the absence of Peter’s mother forcing him to remain a child, Mrs Darling’s absence forces Wendy to grow up. According to Wilkie-Stibbs, ‘the bond of mother and daughter must be broken so that the daughter can become woman’ (92). While The Neverland is a place for boys to remain young, and free of responsibility, it inevitably means it is a place where girls must grow up and take charge. Wilkie-Stibbs says ‘language depends on the death or absence of the mother, and on the quest for substitutions for her’ (92). Peter looks to Wendy as a substitute, while in Tom’s Midnight Garden, Hatty becomes Tom’s mother substitute, as she grows into a woman.

The Child-Mother

The child as mother is a recurring theme in children’s literature. Tom watches as Time turns Hatty “from playmate to grown-up woman” (Pearce, 196) She talks to Tom “as if he were a child and she were not” (141), so by their trip to Ely, she is no longer a companion, but a guardian. Tom’s Midnight Garden seems to show Time for males and females as different; girls grow up faster than boys, becoming more mature as they reach the stage of puberty. The Victorians treated girls as little women, but the Edwardians ‘adored impertinent boys and eager, adventurous, ever-young men’ (Chassagnol, 201). The adage, ‘boys will be boys’ (61) allowed them to remain care-free, while girls were brought up to be prim, proper, and obedient.

The role of motherhood is imbibed in girls from childhood; they are given dolls to play with as practice for becoming a mother. At seven, Alice, is already aware of “the proper way of nursing” (Carroll, 60) a baby, and Wendy even dreams of them when she is asleep. She asks for “babies peeping out” (Barrie, 61) her house, and the Lost Boys hope Peter does not order them to find a baby. Their embarrassment implies that unlike Peter, they are aware of how babies are made.

In more modern literature, child mothers leave the metaphorical and enter the literal, with the exploration of teen pregnancy. The shift also created a change in the market, so that teenage fiction could bring an end to children’s literature. When Melvin Burgess published Junk in 1996, there was uproar by critics; it was the first children’s novel to deal with issues of drugs and sex so openly, and people questioned whether it was appropriate. In reality, Burgess was not bringing in anything new; the caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is considered an allegory for drug use, and there is a lot of sexual innuendo beneath the surface of Peter Pan. The only difference in Junk is that Burgess is upfront about the issues and does not hide behind subtext. His portrayal of mothers could not be further from the traditional happy housewife, but neither are they stereotypical wicked stepmothers. As a heroin addict, Lily physically harms her child before it is born, but it is not due to a lack of love. Lily is an unfit mother because she never had one herself; she was never taught ‘morals’ or how to raise a child. She pumps her baby full of heroin, but abhors anyone who suggests she might be hurting it.


Children’s literature has changed radically since its inception, particularly in terms of purpose and readership. While books were originally written to teach moral behaviour, thanks to writers like Carroll, they are now also for entertainment. A lot of children’s literature over the centuries was not originally intended for children at all; the language in Peter Pan, for example, is far too complex for a child to understand, which is why Barrie gave the rights for several abridged versions to be published.
Nowadays, Children’s literature has verged into a teenage market, or in some cases has become all encompassing. Harry Potter (Rowling, 1997-2007), for example, appeals to children and adults alike. Despite these changes, the mother archetype is still very much in use. In Harry Potter, Aunt Petunia is the wicked stepmother who turns Harry into a male Cinderella. Molly Weasely is the over-protective, possessive mother, trying to shield Harry from knowledge even though it directly affects him, because she believes it is too gruesome to divulge. She is reluctant to let her children grow up because she would no longer be able perform her motherly duties. Lily Evans sacrificed herself to saver her son; she is an absent mother, but still holds the role of the Madonna. Finally, Hermione is the child mother, helping Harry and Ron with homework, and lecturing them on how to behave.

Mothers in children’s literature are represented in exaggerated ways. In many cases they are marginalised by the binary role of ‘monster’ and ‘angel’ (Wilkie-Stibbs, 87) because of a ‘male fear of femininity’ (89). The sexual woman is a threat, so becomes the abusive phallic mother with the ability to castrate; in others cases her sexuality is removed, sometimes enfeebling her to the point of being absent from the story all together. But whether absent or over-bearing, the mother is an important figure in children’s literature because she is the staple involved in growing up.


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