Is your mother a “monstrous hell-bride”? If not, then you’re one step ahead of Grendel. (see #4) With Mother’s Day just around the corner, it’s that time of year when we all pause to give our moms that extra bit of appreciation. Keep reading to learn about 15 famous literary characters who will make you realize how wonderful your mom is this Mother’s Day! And you know what’s great? You’ll learn some mother idioms, bonus vocab, and popular cultural references while you’re at it!
These aren’t obscure cultural references. While not every native English speaker will know every one of these cultural references, most native speakers will know many of them, depending on their interests and level of education. First, we’ll look at five of the worst mothers in literature. Next, we’ll look at five characters who never got to know their mothers. And lastly, we’ll look at five famous literary characters who had no mothers at all…literally! Eek! By the end of this post, you will be calling your mom and telling her that she really is the best mother ever!
Disclosure: Some of the links in this blog post are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you buy something when you click on them. There is no additional cost to you, and I want you to understand that I only recommend things I truly believe in. If you do buy something (and seriously, no pressure), it’d mean the world if you could do it through these links. Every little bit helps keep me going and helps me continue being able to spend my time serving you, you glorious English learners.
5 of the Worst Mothers in Literature
No matter what pet peeves you have about your own mom, I doubt she comes close to being like any of the malevolent matrons below! (If she does, please stop reading immediately and go seek help!)
What does MALEVOLENT mean?
What is a MATRON?
We’ve all seen that mother who uses her children as weapons against their father. Well, when it comes to weaponizing children, Medea was the OG!
Enraged that her husband had abandoned her for a younger woman—and let’s be fair, Jason was a cad!—Medea stabs her own young sons to death just to hurt her faithless husband. It worked, but what kind of a mother does that?!
Has your own mother ever tried to stab you to death, just to piss off your father? No? Good! Then give her a call and tell her you love her!
Want to read her full story? You can read Euripides’ whole play for free on your computer, thanks to Project Gutenberg. However, the language in this version might be difficult for you. If you’d like an easier English translation, I recommend this version* on Amazon.
What does it mean when we call someone the OG?
What is a CAD?
What does STAB mean?
PISS OFF? What does that mean?
Or how about those mothers who think their children are never good enough?
Hephaestus was the Ancient Greek god of volcanoes, blacksmiths, metalworking, etc. And unfortunately for Hephaestus, he was famously ugly.
So ugly that Hera, his own mother and the goddess of marriage and childbirth, threw him off Mount Olympus when he was little because he had a shriveled foot.
Has your mom ever thrown you down the side of a mountain? No? Then give her a call and tell her you love her!
Want to learn more about the god of volcanoes and blacksmiths? You can read about him on his Wikipedia page…and make sure not to miss the story of his revenge! 😈 While some children are tied to their mother’s apron strings, Hephaestus never forgot the way Hera had spurned him, and he got his own back in a big way!
What is a BLACKSMITH?
What does SHRIVELED mean?
SPURNED? What does that mean?
What does it mean to GET YOUR OWN BACK?
Jocasta was Queen of Thebes in Ancient Greece. A prophecy warned that she and her husband must never have children because the child would kill his father and marry his mother. But things happen. They got drunk one night, and…upsy-daisy! Jocasta found herself with a bun in the oven.
I know the prophecy put Jocasta between a rock and a hard place, but I don’t think any modern court would pardon her for how she handled this sticky situation.
She gave the baby to a shepherd to leave on the side of a mountain, thinking the baby would die from the cold, hunger, thirst, or wild animals.
Did your mother leave you on the side of a mountain as a baby, hoping you’d die? No? Then give her a call and tell her you love her!
Oedipus Rex is one of the most famous plays in all of literature, and most native English speakers are familiar with the basic plot. If you’re interested, you can read Sophocles’ full play online, thanks to Project Gutenberg. Rather have a book? I like this edition* from Amazon, which includes all three of Sophocles’ plays about Oedipus.
What is a PROPHECY?
What do you mean by BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE?
4. Grendel’s Mother
Grendel is one of the monster’s in the epic poem Beowulf, something that most high school students in the United States have to read. So who is Grendel’s mother?
The poem describes her as a “monstrous hell-bride” who sallies forth “on a savage journey” of revenge after her son is killed. She even eats the corpse of the man she slaughtered. The local people describe her as being descended from demons and ghosts, a monster who only “looks like a woman”.
The warriors in Beowulf were strong, valiant men, but every mother’s son of them was still afraid of Grendel’s mother.
Tip: This mother idiom doesn’t only refer to men. It refers to women, too.
Your mother may be over-protective, but has she ever killed and eaten your enemies? She may get cranky from time to time, but would you say that she’s descended from demons and ghosts? No? Then give her a call and tell her you love her!
If you like tales of battle and honor, you’ll love Beowulf. The language can be a bit difficult, but you’re up for the challenge, right? You can read the full story of Beowulf for free here. If you’d prefer a hard copy, the most famous version is Seamus Heaney’s translation*.
What is a CORPSE?
SLAUGHTER? Is that the same as KILL?
What does CRANKY mean?
5. Just About Every Fairy-Tale Stepmother Ever
Whether it’s Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, or Snow White, children in fairy tales tend to have really bad luck with their stepmothers! Snow White probably had the worst of it, so we’ll talk about her.
Snow White’s stepmother was jealous that Snow White had become more beautiful than her. So what did she do? She asked a huntsman to take the child into the woods, kill her, and bring her heart to the queen to prove he’d done the deed. She even salted, cooked, and feasted on the heart he brought back! Luckily for Snow White, it was an animal’s heart, not hers.
When the queen discovered that Snow White was still alive, she found her in the woods and strangled her with lace. And when she discovered that Snow White had survived that, too, she tried killing the girl with a poisoned comb. And when that didn’t finish the job, either, she went back yet again and tried to kill the girl with a poisoned apple! You might say that murder was mother’s milk to Snow White’s wicked stepmother!
Has your mother devised countless schemes to murder you? Do you think she’d cook your heart and have it for dinner? Probably not? Then give her a call and tell her you love her!
There are many different versions of the fairy tales, but I love the volume I have! If you’re interested, you can get your own copy here*.
What is a HUNTSMAN?
What is a DEED?
I thought FEAST was a noun, but you used it as a verb. What does it mean when it's a verb?
What does STRANGLE mean?
What is a SCHEME?
5 Literary Characters Who Lost Their Mothers in Infancy
You’re lucky if your mother isn’t evil, but you’re also really lucky if your mother was there to raise you! Some unfortunate literary characters lost their mothers when they were just babies.
Is your mother still around? Then give her a call and tell her you love her!
(If she’s not, I’m so sorry. Big hugs!)
6. Romulus and Remus
Many civilizations have myths about their founding. The founder of the Incan civilization was said to have been born when the sun god Inti lifted him up out of the waters of Lake Titicaca. And although we have historical records surrounding the more recent George Washington, there are still legends surrounding America’s first president, such as the famous but untrue tale of George Washington and the cherry tree.
Ancient Rome was no exception. According to Roman mythology, Rome was founded by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who had the great misfortune of losing their mother when they were just babies. The king saw them as a threat, so he ordered their mother imprisoned and told a servant to kill the boys.
The servant left the babies to float down the Tiber River, and they were discovered by a she-wolf who had recently lost her own cubs. She suckled Romulus and Remus, allowing them to survive until a shepherd eventually found and adopted them.
Poor Quasimodo also never knew his mother. In Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the deformed baby is abandoned in the cathedral. He ends up being raised by the thoroughly reprehensible Archdeacon Frollo and living a life that is marked by one tragedy after the other.
The story has been adapted into numerous movie versions, too! If you’re learning English with your kids—or if you just like cartoons!—you may enjoy the Disney animated version*. The music in this version is beautiful!
What does REPREHENSIBLE mean?
8. Anne of Green Gables
Anne Shirley is a horse of a different color. Although her mother died of a fever when she was just 3 months old, and although she led a perfectly tragic life until she was 11, Anne never lost her determination to see things in rosy, romantic ways. And in the end, unlike Quasimodo, she has a happy ending. (Yay!)
Still though, losing your mother when you’re only a few months old takes its toll on a person, and when she was still a child, she referred to her life as “a graveyard full of buried hopes”.
Anne of Green Gables is one of those classic novels that many girls read, although it’s just as enjoyable for adults. It’s so popular that Anne tourism is an important part of the economy of Prince Edward Island, where the novel is set. In fact, visiting PEI is on my bucket list for this very reason!
There is also a charming made-for-TV series of movies, which you can buy here*. Watching these was a rite of passage amongst my female friends. We all saw them when we were girls, and we all still love them. (In my opinion, these movies are far superior to the newer Netflix show.)
9. Harry Potter
Chances are you already know about Harry Potter. His mother was killed by the evil wizard Voldemort when Harry was just a baby…in front of Harry. He ends up being raised by his aunt and uncle, two miserable mortals who forced Harry to live in the cramped cupboard under their stairs.
Even when he finds friendship and love at Hogwarts—a boarding school for young witches and wizards—he continues to wonder what his parents were like, and he always longs for them to be in his life. The Mirror of Erised at Hogwarts shows people “the deepest and most desperate desire of [their] hearts”, and when Harry looks into it, he sees his dead parents. In the mirror, his mom puts her hand on his shoulder, although she’s not there in real life.
What is a MORTAL?
What does CRAMPED mean?
And what's a CUPBOARD?
What's a BOARDING SCHOOL?
10. Tyrion Lannister
If you follow Next Step English on Twitter, you’ve probably caught on that I’m a complete Game of Thrones fanatic. And that series offers us our next motherless character, Tyrion Lannister.
Tyrion’s mother died giving birth to him, something for which his sister and his father never really forgive him. In fact, they’ve both wanted him dead ever since it happened! His sister, Cersei, may be a mother hen when it comes to the rest of her family, but where Tyrion is concerned, well…she ends up offering a reward for his head!
It’s bad enough to grow up without a mother, but imagine being hated by your own family because of it! Poor Tyrion hit the mother lode of bad luck!
(Warning: Do not watch this show if you’re not prepared for nudity and violence. It’s a great story, but the show isn’t for everyone.)
5 Literary Characters Who Didn’t Have Mothers At All…Literally
So, we’ve looked at mothers who make the worst person you know look like an angel, and we’ve met characters who lost their mothers when they were babies. Now, we’re going to look at a few poor souls who never had mothers at all, never even for a moment.
I think you know what I’m going to say now…
Do you have a mother? Yes? Then give her a call and tell her you love her!
You probably remember Athena as the Ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, warfare, and handicrafts. You might recall that she was also the patron goddess of the city of Athens, the Greek capital city that still bears her name today.
But did you know that Athena didn’t have a mother? She was a daddy’s girl through and through because, well, she only had a father.
Some accounts tell us that she was originally conceived in the belly of Metis, another goddess. But Zeus swallowed Metis, and “gave birth” to Athena himself. He was overcome with the mother of all headaches (no pun intended!), so a few of his compatriots on Mount Olympus opened his head with an axe. (Ouch.) When they did, Athena popped out of his brain, fully grown and already wearing a suit of armor!
What is a DADDY'S GIRL?
What is a COMPATRIOT?
In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman. And unlike the rest of us, she wasn’t actually born. Instead, she was sculpted out of clay by Hephaestus!
Why, you might ask, did Hephaestus create her? He did it on the orders of Zeus…to punish men!
And, according to Greek mythology, she did. She was given a jar containing disease and lots of other troubles, and when she opened that jar, she unleashed those evils forever. So, everyone and his mother has Pandora to thank for all the woes in the world. Thanks, Pandora!
What does it mean to UNLEASH SOMETHING?
What are WOES?
Whereas Pandora was created to punish humanity, Galatea was created by a king named Pygmalion as his ideal woman. He sculpted her and then prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to make her a living, breathing woman. His wish was granted, and Galatea came to life!
In Italy, Pinocchio was born when a poor puppeteer named Geppetto carved him from a block of pinewood. Geppetto was a kind and indulgent father figure, but like the other literary characters in this section, he never knew a mother’s love.
Prefer to watch the movie? The Disney version changes certain key elements of the story, but it’s still very popular. You can get your own copy here*.
15. Frankenstein’s Monster
Frankenstein’s monster had a face that only a mother could love—Mary Shelley tells us “his yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath” and he had “a shriveled complexion and straight black lips”—but the poor creature never actually had a mother. In fact, he was never even given a name! Instead, he is called things like “wretched devil”, “vile insect”, “abhorred monster”, and “fiend”.
So how was this famous literary character born? The scientist Victor Frankenstein created him using experimental chemistry and alchemy. He was never a baby. In fact, he was eight feet tall the very first time he opened his eyes!
Bonus tip: The name Frankenstein refers to the scientist, not the monster. Even native speakers get this wrong sometimes, so you’ll impress people when you get it right!
What does ABHOR mean?
What is a FIEND?
I know what chemistry is, but what is ALCHEMY?
Mother’s Day English Quiz:
Mother Idioms and Literary Characters
with Complicated Mom Situations
How many of these mother idioms do you remember? How about these famous mom-themed cultural references? Take the quiz to find out!
And above all, don’t forget to call your mom and tell her you love her!
*The links marked with an asterisk are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you buy something when you click on them. There is no additional cost to you, and I want you to understand that I only recommend things I truly believe in. If you do buy something (and seriously, no pressure), it’d mean the world if you could do it through these links. Every little bit helps keep me going and helps me continue being able to spend my time serving you, you glorious English learners.