As Philip Larkin wrote in the Greatest Poem of All Time (GPAT): “Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself.” This doesn’t hold true for every parent, but it certainly would’ve been good advice to give to any of the mother monsters listed below. Take our quick and terrifying tour through some of the worst mothers in literary history, and feel grateful all over again for your own.
Margaret White (Carrie, by Stephen King)
Most people concentrate on the monstrous teens in King’s iconic novel, the cool kids who torment Carrie until she has history’s worst psychotic break. But the kids aren’t the villains of this story, and neither is Carrie: it’s her awful, awful mother. How awful? Not only is everything—including the conception and birth of her own daughter—a sin to Margaret, she also seems to believe disciplining a child should involve locking her in a closet. Constantly. Margaret White is one of the few mothers who completely and richly deserves her terrible fate.
Charlotte Haze (Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov)
While Charlotte Haze isn’t the brightest bulb in the literary universe and might be excused for not noticing Humbert Humbert is, how shall we say this, a predatory criminal, her true monstrosity becomes clear when you look a little deeper. Charlotte is enamored with Humbert not because she craves love or companionship, but because she wants “the finer things” and believes Humbert, with his European manners and fussy, academic airs, can provide them for her. She doesn’t so much not notice his attentions towards Lolita as ignore them lest they ruin her chances for a “good life” she can barely define.
Corrine and Olivia (Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews)
The brilliant trick of V.C. Andrews’ novel about incest, greed, and spectacularly bad parenting is that it initially presents Olivia, the grandmother, as the true Monstrous Mother, and Corrine, the mother, as a goodhearted parent who is guilty of incredibly poor decision-making but not true evil…then it slowly turns the tables, not by making the grandmother a better person but by making Corrine the worst person. Poisoning your children slowly (while forcing them to hide in the attic) in order to assure your inheritance is actually more horrible than locking them in closets for days on end. At least Carrie got to attend gym class from time to time.
Fiona Brewer (About a Boy, by Nick Hornby)
Sometimes a humorous novel can distract us from the horrible people populating it, as with Nick Hornby’s touching, funny, and somewhat disturbing story of an awkward, unhappy boy and a slick, unhappy man. Fiona Brewer initially seems a bit strange in an amusing way, and fiercely protective of her son—but then you realize she attempted suicide in a way that pretty much guaranteed her son would walk in on her cold, dead body, and that most of his social anxiety and awkwardness is due to her own cynical view of the world. In the end, Fiona does not completely belong in the Hall of Fame for bad mothers, for she rallies over the course of the book to demonstrate true love for her son, which leaves her a long way from the sullen, unhappy, and resolutely selfish woman we meet in the beginning.
Sophie Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth
If it isn’t a standard belief that mothers should not stand outside the bathroom while their sons defecate and then demand they not flush so their output can be examined, then by gum, it should be. Sophie Portnoy is the sort of mother only novelists and psychiatrists can imagine, a woman so smothering and domineering she’s at the root of all her son’s “complaints”—including the (frequently awful and disturbing) sexual ones, which push her well into Monstrous Mother territory despite the black humor surrounding her every utterance and action in Roth’s infamous novel.
So there you have it—the Injustice League of Bad Mothers. Which fictional moms did we miss?