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Its Relatively Taboo, but...

Mother Son Incest in Classic Literature

Psychologists and other experts maintain that father daughter relationships are the most prevalent form of incest, with brother and sister sexuality following as a close second. Further, much has been written in this regard concerning the topic of incest in literature. But after a reading of novel, Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray, I was reminded how prevalent the theme of mother and son incest in classic literature is in actual fact.


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While the social taboo of mother son incest is only implied in some of the literary works, a cursory reading of Pendennis leaves one sensing the lust of the mother for her son. Thackeray's classic 19th century novel presents a theme of incest that is totally unmistakable. Helen Pendennis, the mother of its central character Arthur, obviously lusts after her own son. What really surprised me about the incest in Pendennis is how blatantly it was presented.


The character, Helen Pendennis, is a lonely but sexually alluring widow who in the story is very much aware that her own son is the object of her lust. She broods constantly over her son's love affairs, and even throws one young lady out into the street because of the lady's interest in her son. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote in his Pendennis, "I have no doubt there is a sexual jealousy on the mother's part, and a secret... pang."


Helen Pendennis is described several times as being in her son's bed. In one case, she nurses him through an illness "with her Bible in her lap." The introduction to the book, has John Sutherland insisting that not only is the "holy book is significant" to this scene, but "so is the part of the body it is covering." He points out that "Helen positions herself in a posting by Arthur, her son's bed, and describes her as less a nurse than a virtuous dragon."


Sophocles famously wrote the most bizarre work of incest centuries before Thackeray's writing of Pendennis. Oedipus the King not only slept with but married his mother, Jocasta. Several children were also birth to this mother and son union. Despite the unquestionable sexual intimacy between Oedipus and his mother, this tragic Greek hero and heroine are easier to forgive than Athur and Helen Pendennis. Oedipus never realized his mother was Jocasta until after the incestuous deed and marriage had already been performed, unlike Thackeray's hero in Pendennis.


A similar case of mother son incest is evident in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Throughout the entire length of the play, the Dane is depicted as overly fond of Gertrude, his mother. In a scene out of Act V, he even joins her in her bed. With Gertrude, his mother, the feelings for her son are not quite so obvious. However, an ‘unusual attachment' cannot be denied. Even so, the Dane's mother does not seem quite as obsessed with her son to the same extent as Helen Pendennis. Hamlet's mother, in fact, especially encourages her son's love affair with Ophelia.


You can also see clearly incestuous undertones in George Eliot's story, Adam Bede. Here, the widowed mother is depicted as having an unhealthy obsession over her oldest son, Adam. She constantly insults her husband to such an extent it causes Adam to end up disliking his father up until his father's death. Adam's mother then seems quite relieved that her husband passed away, obviously so that any obstacle to sexual relationship between her and her eldest son has been removed. However, Mrs. Bede does not appear as obsessed as the Helen Pendennis character. Mrs. Bede never discourages her son's affair. She is, in instead, the major advocate for Adam's marrying the female preacher who his brother is so much in love with.


Of all the implied or blatant literary examples of the universal incest taboo, Helen Pendennis is clearly the most interested and determined mother to maintain an incestuous relationship with her son. She lusts after her son to the extent that she sabotages any chance Arthur might ever have at a romance with other women.

* * * *

Medieval Incest

It's Relatively Taboo...

Classical and medieval incest stories offer some striking examples of what might be called positive inbreeding, or eugenics, who can be grouped in three categories: the beautiful, the virtuous, and the heroic. Adonis, the epitome of human beauty and beloved of Venus herself, was the result of father and daughter incest; and according to Lydgate at least, the short-lived son of Canace and Macareus was also notably beautiful. Father Cenci had some justification for his claim that the children of incest grew up to be saints: legendary holy men conceived through incestuous relation-ships include Gregorius, Albanus, and in the Irish tradition St Cuimmin. Cuchulain, Hrólf, and Siegfried are examples of heroes produced by incestuous liaisons. The notion that a special child is born as the result of some form of sexual transgression is found in myths and legends all over the world. Rudhardt draws attention to a Greek tradition that Zeus not only slept with his sister Demeter but also with their daughter Persephone, and that the result of this father daughter incest was Dionysus.

Incest was associated with the birth of Christ throughout the Middle Ages, but far from being a source of reproach, it was a matter for celebration: the description of the Virgin Mary as being both mother and daughter of Jesus Christ, the so-called mater et filia topos, is one of the oldest of the paradoxes applied to her.