Quarantine Reading: Literature’s Famous and Infamous Mothers and Fathers

By Carole Reedy

Each May and June we honor mothers and fathers with a special day. In Mexico, Mother’s Day is always celebrated on May 10 and is, practically speaking, a national holiday. Though group celebrations will be curtailed this year because of the coronavirus, children will thank their parents according to the customs of their individual cultures.

One of the advantages of the isolation dictated by the virus is the time now given us to think, reflect, and remember. The approach of May and June gives me pause to reflect on the mothers and fathers of the literature I have so loved over the years.

Just for fun, I’ve devised some awards for the outstanding literary figures of a few favorite authors.

The Queen of Jewish Mothers:
Sophie Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)

The Urban Dictionary provides a succinct definition of a Jewish mother:  “an unstoppable force of nature that will feed you, pamper you, and pester you at the slightest provocation, known to spout Yiddish randomly. Be warned: if you come to my house, you WILL leave with a full stomach and a bag of leftovers.”

There is little doubt that Sophie Portnoy maintains the title to this day.  Perhaps Estelle Constanza (of Seinfeld fame) holds second place, but as Lev Grossman reported in Time magazine, “There could be no Estelle Constanza without Sophie Portnoy.”

For those of you who might not be familiar with Sophie Portnoy (really?), she’s Alexander Portnoy’s overbearing mother who dedicates her life to the task of raising her son, going as far as checking his bowel movements on a daily basis. The novel thrust Roth into fame as one of the most accomplished and loved American novelists of the 20th century.

The novel’s platform is the consultation of young Alexander and his psychotherapist.  Publication of such a novel in 1969 sparked two controversies. First, the detailed description of masturbation by young Alexander, as well as obscenities and other sexually explicit adventures that were revolutionary 50 years ago. Second, some members of the Jewish community were offended by what they viewed as an irreverent depiction of the Jewish people.  The book was even banned by some libraries in the US.

Nonetheless, Philip Roth went on to prove himself to be a master of the contemporary American novel. Sadly, he died before receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was surely his due (though that remains a bone of contention).  He did, however, garner countless accolades in his lifetime as one of the great American writers.

The Bravest of Single Mothers:
Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

It would take a lot of courage to stand up to the least flexible, most cantankerous of religious fathers as well as an intolerant community. Yet this is precisely the action taken by Hester Prynne, protagonist of The Scarlet Letter. In 1642, the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hester becomes pregnant, her husband thought to be lost at sea, and she faces the wrath of her community as an adulteress. She must wear the scarlet A letter as punishment and degradation.

Hester leads a tough short life, her daughter Pearl being rebellious also. All the involved characters suffer from inward guilt that affects them physically. It is a sad tale. Hawthorne didn’t expect the book to be popular with the general public, but he was wrong. The Scarlett Letter was an instant success and has become a worldwide classic.

The Most Naive of Grandfathers:
Daniele Mallarico from Trick by Domenico Starnone (2016)

Highly respected Italian writer Starnone and his equally famous translator, Jhumpa Lahiri, bring us a different twist on the family saga. The main characters here are the grandfather Daniele and his grandson, the four-year-old Mario, who are spending a week together while Mario’s parents leave the city for work-related matters. Although one might think this combination would present a light, humorous, sentimental novel, it’s quite the opposite.

The relationship of these two, along with that of Mario’s parents, is bluntly and honestly frustrating and difficult. While discussing the book with friends, we all wondered how the 70-year-old grandfather ever agreed to spend a week babysitting a four-year-old, which is the reason I name him the most naive of grandfathers.

The Most Successful Yet Heartbroken of Fathers:
Seymour Levov from American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

Seymour Levov (“The Swede” – a nickname since childhood because of his blonde hair and Nordic appearance) had it all: He was a successful Jewish-American businessman with a house in the suburbs, the trophy wife, popularity from an early age on and off the football field, friends, and family. Midway through the novel, Swede’s life begins a slow deterioration after his teenage daughter is involved in a terrorist act.

Roth’s ability to take the reader into the hearts and minds of his characters is exceptionally present in this novel, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. And while a feeling of unendurable pain permeates the second half of the book, there are many memorable scenes. For me the description of the glove factory that Seymour’s father created is one of the finest in literature.

The Gentlest of Fathers:
Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Even though Mr. Bennet’s main concern is securing good marriages for his daughters, it is evident that he also wants their happiness too. While Mrs. Bennet is in a tizzy, he is the calming hand in the family.

Probably the best film portrayal of this gentle father is the 2005 production directed by Joe Wright, who chose an acting master, Donald Sutherland, to play the role in part because Sutherland reminded him of his own father. He also thought Sutherland “showed the strength to be able to handle those six women.” Of all the Mr. Bennets, Sutherland is my favorite, and now it is always he whom I picture in my mind’s eye when re-reading the novel.

The Most Controversial of Fathers:
King Lear from Shakespeare’s play of the same name (c. 1606)

Since the 17th century, surely the most famous of fathers is King Lear. Every distinguished actor has played the role William Shakespeare created for British audiences more than 400 years ago. The play has evolved greatly over the years. Early on, men played women’s roles and then later women played men’s roles. Modern actor Glenda Jackson even played the demanding lead in both 2016 and 2019.

When the Puritans ruled England, theaters were shut down from 1642 until the Restoration (1660) and then again, under the mad rule of George III, from 1811 to 1820, so no King Lear was presented during those crazy eras.

The most ridiculous turn of events was the adaption of the play by Nahum Tate after the Restoration, which survived until the mid-19th century. It was entitled The History of King Lear, and in that version Lear and Cordelia live, and Cordelia marries Edgar. The Fool was eliminated totally in this rewrite. Fortunately, in the mid-19th century, Shakespeare’s original plot returned.

For the next three centuries, we’ve seen productions of Lear in most theater repertoires, movies have been made, three opera companies (Japanese, Finnish, and German) have produced it, and recently in 2018 a novel was published entitled The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton. The original play has had a long history, and here’s hoping it will endure long into the future.

The Most Confused of Modern Parents:
Toby and Rachel Fleishman from Fleishman Is in Trouble
by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019)

Toby and Rachel Fleishman are getting divorced and it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s outright upsetting for the reader, who hears both sides of the story. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s been done before, but not like this. Brodesser-Akner’s style is compelling and agitating. It presents in a non-analytical way the frustrations of both parties. Reviewers are comparing the author to Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe as someone who brings contemporary society’s problems to the fore with a bang, but in the end does not leave us hopeless.

Katy Walkman, astute reviewer for The New Yorker, sums up the trouble of Fleishman, observing that the title may “refer to our collective exhaustion with a certain type of male protagonist. Brodesser-Akner is not simply knocking her main character off of his throne. She is, perhaps, staging a rescue.”

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