A single parent in literature often draws our sympathy.
That person may be depressed about the death of a spouse, angry after a difficult divorce, worried about money, nervous about dating, and more. Amid all that, they’re raising a child or children — which can be wonderful, yet especially challenging and exhausting without a partner to help. Plenty of dramatic fodder for novels and other literary works!
As readers, we might also relate to single-parent protagonists if we’re current or former single parents ourselves (I was among that group). Also, readers in bad marriages or with ailing spouses know that solo parenthood could come their way — making fictional single parents possible models for real-life behavior to embrace or avoid.
Of course, how much sympathy we feel for fictional parents without partners partly depends on those characters’, well, character. Some of literature’s single moms and dads are quite unlikable.
But that’s not the case with Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I recently reread. He’s tremendously admirable — as an attorney fighting racial injustice, and as a widowed father. Atticus’ legal and legislative work keeps him away from home fairly often, but his parenting is patient, affectionate, and at times firm but never harsh. Plus he made sure to have a competent “surrogate mother” (the housekeeper Calpurnia) for his kids Scout and Jem.
Then there are other kinds of injustice — as when Hester Prynne is ostracized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter after her daughter Pearl is born out of wedlock. But like Atticus (who has an A in his name rather than on his clothes), Hester is a great parent and person.
There’s also the injustice of being unfairly detained in a mental institution — as happens to the loving, impoverished single mother Connie Ramos, whose daughter is taken away in Marge Piercy’s partly sci-fi Woman on the Edge of Time.
In a happier scenario, a vacationing single parent meets a charming younger man in Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back. That woman is divorced investment analyst Stella Payne.
Moving back to the 19th century, we have Helen Lawrence Huntington — who, with her young son, flees abusive and alcoholic husband Arthur in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Helen acted very courageously during a time when most women had little choice but to stay in rotten marriages.
Silas Marner, in the George Eliot novel named after him, unexpectedly becomes the adopted father of the girl Eppie. The miserly, melancholy Silas doesn’t initially seem like an ideal candidate to be a stellar single dad, but…
Eliot also created Lisbeth Bede, the mother in Adam Bede who’s eventually widowed. Lisbeth is likable, though perhaps a bit too “clingy” with her adult sons Adam and Seth.
Harder to categorize in terms of likability is the widowed mother who kicks out and disinherits her son in Herman Melville’s controversial Pierre, a critical and sales disaster when published but a rather fascinating novel. The mother had a pretty good reason for doing what she did, but…
James Fenimore Cooper featured more than one widowed father of daughters in his “Leatherstocking” novels, with those dads ranging from sympathetic to mixed in their behavior.
Jane Austen also created a mixed bag of a widower in her Emma novel (the friendly but hypochondriacal Henry Woodhouse) and a less-appealing widower in Persuasion (Anne Elliot’s vain, materialistic father Walter).
The Ida Mancuso character in Elsa Morante’s History doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she’s too tired, scared, and bewildered to be a better single mother to her two sons as she grapples with all kinds of hardships in World War II Italy.
Of course, there are some single parents loathed by readers. One is the buffoonish and irresponsible Fyodor Karamazov, who’s a crummy father to the three titular siblings in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Also unsympathetic is the ambitious and violent Esteban Trueba, who becomes a widower in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Negative in a more subtle way is the passive-aggressive Gilbert Osmond, father of Pansy in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.
Hmm…seems like I included more widowed than divorced parents in this post. There was certainly less divorce before our modern era, and thus less divorce in older fiction.
Who do you think are some of the most memorable single parents in literature?
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