Unlike John, the mother is depicted in an entirely unsympathetic and negative light, with absolutely no redeeming qualities. She is utterly self-obsessed. Whatever condition has forced her to be bed ridden has made her bitter and insular, with no shred of compassion, love, empathy or kindness.
Although the narrative is told from John’s perspective, it is the stinging contempt of the mother’s words that are most memorable. She continually humiliates and emasculates her son, even suggesting that he has some kind of mental illness.
Her comment that this is a condition that is
in your family but not in ours is incredibly revealing. She feels such a lack of affection and disconnection to John that she seems to consider that he is not even related to her. This is especially shocking given the way society idealises the relationship between a mother and her child.
Although her anger and bitterness are palpable and relentless, we never really find out the root of her unhappiness. We can deduce from the comments about John’s father that she treated him with similar contempt. The fact she has been bed ridden for a decade would have an impact on her psyche.
However her particular hatred of her son, who looks after her and upon whom she is utterly dependant, can only be guessed at. Ultimately, her relentless abuse and destruction of his self esteem makes it impossible to see anything positive in this character.
In his descriptions of her, Crichton Smith emphasises her physical fragility and feebleness: she has a
frail white body and a
scraggy neck and is often compared to a bird,
pecking at the bed with a sharp beak and her head
rising like a hen’s out of her plain white nightgown.
Despite her lack of physical strength, Crichton Smith shows us that she is capable of inflicting terrible damage psychologically.
This is a woman who could never be satisfied or pleased; she knows her condition prevents her son taking a job elsewhere but then she paradoxically mocks and belittles him for not doing so. Ultimately though, John’s epiphany renders her powerless and at last he seems he may be able to finally liberate himself from her.