I thought that before reading Go Set a Watchman and weighing in on the troubling questions of Atticus’s fall from his pedestal, and whether Harper Lee wanted the book to be published at all, I would reread To Kill a Mockingbird. Because I had either read it so long ago, or, I only imagined I had read it but knew the story well enough because the book and its plot and Gregory Peck as Atticus are woven into our collective psyches.
So yesterday I read To Kill a Mockingbird and Scout is still a tomboy and Atticus is achingly upright and moral. But then I got sidetracked by another troubling question: why is it that in so many iconic stories with a young female protagonist, the mother is dead? Must the mother be dead in order for the father to bond with the daughter? Must the mother be dead in order for the daughter to achieve narrative autonomy?
Everywhere I looked in the vast and chaotic bookshelf of my memory, I found daughters and fathers, and no mothers. Nancy Drew & Pippi Longstocking were most likely the two characters I most longed to be when I was a child, a child with a very present mother and a mostly absent father. A child in training to contribute mightily to the coffers of psychiatric professionals.
And then so many others:
Cordelia & Miranda
Nora, Hedda and more or less all Ibsen’s heroines
Miranda in The Tempest
Cinderella, Snow White, Donkeyskin, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel and almost every fairy tale I can think of. But they are complicated by the inevitably wicked stepmother.
A quick Internet search (“Motherless female protagonists”) reveals that this is hardly a singular observation.
I can well imagine why this trope is so common in novels. Absent the mother the daughter can grapple with the novel’s dilemma on her own and cement the relationship with the father. Absent the wife, the father pays attention to the daughter in a way he might not have otherwise. Kill off the mother, offstage before the story starts, or onstage in an early chapter, and you have already engineered a compelling novelistic dynamic.
But given that this is the construction of so many of the stories that inhabit the childhood landscape, what is the reader with a living and powerful mother to do?