Our favorite mothers in the St. John’s Program

They say that behind every great character is a great mom. Though Hamlet may disagree, there certainly is no shortage of great motherly characters that we get to explore throughout the St. John’s College program. In honor of Mother’s Day happening this month, we wanted to highlight some of our favorite mothers in the St. John’s College program.

Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter

Illustration of Hester Prynne


As the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is one of the most iconic mothers in all of American Literature. Living in Puritan Massachusetts, and bearing a child to a man other than her own husband, Hester was scorned by society and forced to wear the iconic red letter “A” for the rest of her life. She bears this punishment and refuses to allow community officials to take away her child, Pearl, and perhaps most importantly, teaches her child to have pride in herself, despite the shame which might be imposed on her from society. An important woman protagonist in American literature, and one of the earliest, Hester has taught many generations the difficulties and complexities of being a mother and woman.

Penelope, The Odyssey

Penelope and her suitors


While she is often more so associated as a wife than a mother, we should not forget that Penelope was the mother to Telemachus, and as one of the earliest and most important characters encountered in greek literature, we just had to include her. She employs an incredible wit and sense of devotion to her family by staving off countless suitors at home in Ithaca, while her husband Odysseus makes his way back home to her.

Lucy Vincy, Middlemarch

Lucy’s children, Rosamond Vincy and Dr. Lydgate


Though not the brightest character in the George Eliot’s sprawling novel, Lucy wins points for us for being as loving and well-meaning as she is. Her son Fred and his wife Rosamond go through a shaky relationship with finances throughout the progression of the novel, which bears weight on the relationship of the two of them. Despite this, Lucy is committed to supporting her son and daughter-in-law, maintaining that the two are the finest couple in Middlemarch throughout the entirety of the novel.

Ursela Buendia, 100 Years of Solitude

Ursela Buendia


The longest-living character in Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, Ursela serves as a backbone to the entirety of the Iguaran family, living with and supporting them through six of the seven generations taking place throughout the novel. She is a testament to the power that matriarchs hold not only in context of their own families, but also in relation to the community around them. Throughout the many happenings in the story, Ursela finds herself at many points of action, to the extent that she finds many of her family members recreating the mistakes of their ancestors. She adds a tremendous, timeless perspective to the book.

Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 movie adaptation


Preparing for a party throughout the first half of Virginia Woolf’s modernist classic, we are invited to a first-hand account of Clarissa Dalloway’s stream of consciousness throughout the beginning of the novel. She has trouble reconciling her own internal thoughts with the external world she experiences. She has a seventeen year old daughter, Elizabeth Dalloway, who throughout the novel seeks an experience separate from the upper-class lifestyle set up for her by her parents. She seems taken with the idea of having a career, a new social path for women of the era. Their relationship shows the pressure on women in early 20th century england to subscribe to a limiting set of social norms.


These characters highlight the complexities of motherhood in such varying ways. We hope you’ll take some time to read a bit more about these characters, and perhaps thank a mother in your life for everything they have done for you. Are there any great mother characters in books that you’ve read recently? Let us know!

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