Was John Thornton a "Mama's Boy"?

The BBC's Hannah Thornton comforts her son.

The BBC's Hannah Thornton comforts her son.

This month, I'm taking a closer look at one of the most fascinating mother-son relationships in romantic literature. 

My immediate response to the occasional accusation that John Thornton is a mama's boy is a vehement "no," but then again there is a very strong bond between John and his mother. The trials they suffered and conquered together forged a deep trust and admiration between them. There's something profound about a relationship between two people who have endured deep waters together. If a strong bond between mother and son makes a man a "mama's boy" then perhaps he is one.

So what exactly is a mama's boy? According to Merriam-Webster, a mama's boy is "a usually polite or timid boy or man who is extremely or excessively close to and solicitous of his mother."  Well, that doesn't sound too condemning, does it? Although I hardly think the term "timid" applies to Thornton's general nature, nor do I think he's excessively solicitous of his mother. 

I'm guessing that part of the reason one would call Thornton a mama's boy is the fact that he and his mother still live in the same home. From a modern American point of view, a man of Thornton's age shouldn't be living with his mother. But there's a very great distinction to made in the fact that Thornton isn't living in the old family homestead, still tethered to his mother's apron strings. His mother is living in the home that he worked hard to provide for his family. She's living with him, not the other way around. And it would be perfectly normal for Thornton to take care of his widowed mother in this way at that time. 

But what about all the negative connotations that go with the term 'mama's boy'? It's meant to be derogative, isn't it? Oh yes, and the derogative meaning of the term comes to light when Merriam-Webster goes on to explain the meaning of the phrase for English language learners:  

a boy or man who is seen as weak because he is controlled or protected too much by his mother.

Ouch! That strikes at a man's masculinity and sense of independence. And the Oxford Dictionary isn't much nicer in their definition of  'mummy's boy:'

 a boy or man who is excessively influenced by or attached to his mother.

I revolt against these more demeaning definitions.  Is a mama's boy defined by how he acts or how his mother acts? Or is it a combination of both? I concede that on Hannah's part, she is excessively attached to and vehemently protective of her son. John is her heart's pride and joy. The world revolves around him in her view. But the center of John's universe has become his work, not his mother.

Although "excessively influenced" by his mother might have defined him in his teenage years, I don't see Thornton influenced by his mother's opinions as a man. In fact, there are several instances in the book where we see that Thornton makes his own decisions, despite his mother's strong opinions. She thinks John is wasting his time studying the classics with Mr. Hale. And when Mr. Bell asks if Mrs. Thornton helps with the workers dining hall, Thornton replies: 

Not a bit .... She disapproves of the whole plan, and now we never mention it to each other.

Clearly, John moves forward with whatever he thinks is important without his mother's approval.

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As for controlling her son, there's only one instance in the story where Hannah stops him from doing what he intends to -- when she asks him not to go to see Margaret the night of the riot.

And he doesn't. It's the only time we see him abide by her demands.

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However much Hannah would like to be in control of her son's social agenda, it's John who controls his mother. He must demand that his mother and sister go call on Mrs. Hale and Margaret, even though Hannah and Fanny put up quite a bit of resistance. And is there any doubt that it was John who requested the Hales be invited to the Thornton dinner party? Months later, he asks his mother to go offer womanly counsel to Margaret.

Hannah's attempts to influence her son against falling for Margaret, taking up the classics, and working more sympathetically with his workers all fall flat. If anything, I see John shaping and molding his mother throughout the book. He refuses to let her unbending ways keep his thought from expanding into new realms, and prods her into at least outwardly following his sense of kindness to the Hales. 

I like to think that Hannah mellows, her heart softens, and her defensive barriers lower little by little as she watches her son's happiness and contentment grow as a husband and father. And when those grandchildren come on the scene, Hannah can indulge all her fervent watchfulness, protective solicitude, and bursting pride upon the new little creatures of her son's lineage. 

What do you think of Hannah's influence on her grown son?