During the shutdown last spring, one of the unexpected blessings of quarantine was reconnecting with college friends on Zoom. We all had nowhere to be, so a group of us would meet about once a week to catch up. All of us were English or Classics graduates, so literature naturally came up as a topic of conversation.
On one particular night, there were four of us on Zoom, and someone brought up this question: who is the best mother in literature? The four of us (all of whom have graduate degrees) were completely stumped. Even with our Great Books education, we were struggling to come up with a concrete answer.
A smattering of answers were put forward, and the conversation meandered. Many of the mothers in Jane Austen novels were dead, and we were not going to put Mrs. Bennet up as a paragon of motherhood. I suggested Lucie Manette from A Tale of Two Cities, but that suggestion did not take off. (The counter-argument was that you see Lucie more as a devoted wife than a mother in the novel.) Sonya from Crime and Punishment was suggested, but she didn’t have any of her own children. Marmie from Little Women was a strong contender for a while. Finally, my dear friend (and a mother of three girls) suggested Antonia, the titular character of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. We all came to a half-way agreement that the suggestion seemed logical, and the conversation turned to Cather’s Shadows on the Rock.