What are the best short stories about the theme of motherhood? And who are the best mother characters in short fiction? Below, we select and introduce some of the most famous, and most widely studied, short stories which deal with the subject of mothers and motherhood.
These stories range from female-authored to male-authored works, from stories about young mothers to stories about daughters’ attitudes to their mothers; there is even a story about a woman who never knew what it was to become a mother until she has to look after a neighbour’s children for a short time.
All of these stories shed light on some aspect of motherhood, and collectively they offer us an insight into how writers have viewed this vital aspect of so many of our lives.
Kate Chopin, ‘Regret’.
Let’s begin with a late-nineteenth-century story about a woman who isn’t a mother, but who thinks a great deal about it in this short story by the American writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904).
It was written in September 1894 and it originally appeared in Century magazine the following year, before being reprinted in her 1897 collection A Night in Acadie. This collection met with some hostile reviews, with one critic objecting to the ‘unnecessary coarseness’ of some of the subject-matter.
‘Regret’ is about an unmarried woman, Mamzelle Aurélie, who looks after her neighbour’s children and comes to realise that she deeply regrets never having married and had children of her own. Although she has the animals on her farm and her dog Ponto, the closing
sentence of the story suggests that she views these as a poor substitute for human company and for having a family of her own. It is only when she reluctantly has to care for another woman’s children that she comes to recognise what a change a family can make to a house.
James Joyce, ‘A Mother’.
This is one of the short stories included in the 1914 collection Dubliners by the Irish modernist author James Joyce (1882-1941). By this point in the collection – which roughly follows the passage of life from childhood through to late middle age – we’re focusing on middle-aged Dubliners, many of whom are married or have children.
‘A Mother’ focuses on a mother’s efforts to secure some concerts for her daughter, a talented pianist. Behind the story is Mrs Kearney’s own thwarted ambition: she had shown promise as a musician herself, but gave it up when she got married and became a mother …
Katherine Anne Porter, ‘He’.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) wrote just one novel and fewer than thirty short stories, yet she is regarded as an important twentieth-century American writer, with ‘He’ among her most celebrated and critically acclaimed works. An important theme of Porter’s work is the search for meaning in a modern and increasingly materialist world.
This 1927 story is about a poor American family. The mother, Mrs Whipple, loves her second son best of all: a boy who is identified only as ‘He’ and who appears to be mentally and physically weak.
J. D. Salinger, ‘Down at the Dinghy’.
This is a short story by J. D. Salinger, originally published in 1949. As in some of Salinger’s other stories, notably ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, ‘Down at the Dinghy’ involves an adult speaking to a child. However, in this case the theme of the story – which remains largely in the background until the end of the story – is anti-Semitism.
The story is about a young boy who runs from home and goes down to the nearby lake, where he gets into a dinghy and refuses to speak to his mother. ‘Down at the Dinghy’ also involves the conversation between two of the family’s servants, one of whom has made derogatory remarks about the father of the family (as well as his son). The story ends with the mother being reconciled with her son and bonding with him over his dinghy.
Cynthia Ozick, ‘The Shawl’.
This is the best-known and most widely studied short story by the American writer Cynthia Ozick (born 1928). Published in 1980, ‘The Shawl’ is about a Jewish mother and her infant daughter and niece, living in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War.
The story contains some very harrowing imagery and is noteworthy for its surrealism, or even magic realism, which Ozick uses to explore the darkest time in twentieth-century European history.
Amy Tan, ‘Rules of the Game’.
‘Rules of the Game’ is one of the most popular stories which form part of Amy Tan’s 1989 book The Joy Luck Club. The story is about an eight-year-old Chinese American girl who teaches herself chess and becomes a child prodigy, winning many national tournaments. But ‘Rules of the Game’ is also, like many stories in The Joy Luck Club, about a daughter’s fraught relationship with her mother; as such, Tan’s story – which concludes our pick of great motherhood stories – might be productively compared with Joyce’s ‘A Mother’ above.
The story is narrated by Waverly Place Jong, a Chinese American woman who recounts her childhood as a young Chinese daughter of immigrants growing up in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Jong is named after the street where she lived in a flat above a Chinese bakery, but she is known as Meimei, meaning ‘Little Sister’.
After she becomes a chess prodigy, Meimei dislikes the way her mother parades her around in town and shows off her famous daughter. Meimei confronts her about this, telling her mother that if she wants to show off, she should learn to play chess herself. When her mother grows angry at this, Meimei runs away through the streets.