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Mothers as Foils(In Writing and in Life)

The WRite Life


My character, Julie in my manuscript SELF PORTRAIT, as well as her mother Roberta are as real to me as many people in my life. I know them both well. My editor suggested I make Roberta a foil to Julie. I have been developing both these characters in this novel for many years. At first, I was taken back by the suggestion because I didn’t see the mother as a foil.

Roberta, the mother is not necessarily like Julie, her daughter, but she isn’t her opposite either. Both women take mothering to heart. Both love and sacrifice for their children. Maybe that is what I was holding them together with, but their similarities stop there.

A foil in literature or in film is a person that exposes the protagonist’s character by displaying opposite traits. This is accomplished through contrast and comparison. It is often done using physical, emotional, intellectual and personality traits.

If you think about it philosophically it deepens the idea. We can’t understand light with knowing darkness. Can there be acts of good if there are no acts of evil? Or can we perceive of a heaven without thinking of a hell? These are questions philosophers at least since Socrates has posed.

In writing we create physical attributions to give our readers the means to visualize our characters. Sometimes this is accomplished by having a foil that looks differently.

· Dark hair to light hair.

· Tall to petite.

· Well-dressed to carelessly dressed.

· Breast implants to small breasts.

More importantly the foil is used to show a character’s personality and motivations. These attributes almost always drive the plot.

· Greedy to generous.

· A rule keeper to a rebel.

· Intelligent to simple minded.

· Spiritual to religious

There are foils in most of literature and in most of film. Here are some examples that come to mind.

· Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer

· Macbeth and Banque

· Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

· Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby

· The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

· Celie and Shug Avery

· Lennie and George

· Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes

Here is a couple examples from movies you may have seen.

· Luke Skywalker and Han Solo

· Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan


In Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize novel, The Age of Innocence, May Welland is a foil to Countess Ellen Olenska. May relinquishes herself to what her family and society expect of her. She is never upset be these standards. She never questions what is expected of her, to marry young and marry well. She is even light haired and dresses conservatively. Whereas her cousin, the novel’s protagonist, Ellen with her dark hair* and dresses made in Paris chooses to live by her standards. Ellen leaves her husband, a man with a title of Count. She associates with men married and not. Eventually she must leave America for Paris because she feels she cannot keep New York Society’s standards as May is capable of.

Without May in the novel, Countess Olenska’s character would not be as chiseled. The juxtaposition creates tension and as readers we see Ellen more clearly. Though, Ellen is not May’s mother, she is the older, more worldly relative.

*Director Martin Scorsese changed the hair color in his film, The Age of Innocence. This, I am sure, was a casting decision. Michelle Pfeiffer was perfect for the part of Countess Olenska; whereas, Winona Ryder made an excellent May Welland.

In literature and in film, mothers are sometimes played as foils to their daughters. We see this in the Joy Luck Cluband Disney’s version of Rapunzel with her “step mother.”


This talk of foils and mothers and daughters started me thinking. Are mother’s always foils for their daughters in real life as in novels? Is my mother my foil? More importantly am I my daughter’s foil?

When I am honest and raw, I think the answer on some level is yes. Sure, when I was a teen and young woman, I knew all the ways I would not be like my mother. My mother was uneducated. I worked my tail off to be the first person in our family to earn a degree and then a graduate degree. My mother sought a man’s approval. I struggle with wanting to go on a date. Oh and my mother has dark hair and mine is blonde. I love to be outside and enjoy physical activity. My mother prefers to be inside, siting and reading.

Am I my daughter Anika’s foil? Absolutely not! I am yelling. Except for those days I made her wear pink tights and pinned her hair tightly on top of her head. At four, I had Anika in ballet. I felt for certain that she’d love it, and someday she’d be en pointe and would pirouette alongside the other lead dancers. I had no plans of her going into dance professionally, but become as good as she could. Or do I mean as good as I wanted to be?

I love ballet. I don’t understand who doesn’t at least think it is amazing. It is the perfect balance of beauty and crazy ass strength. When I was 45, I took up ballet. And by the time I was 48, I made it en pointe. I was in the local studio four nights a week and often on Saturday mornings.

Three nights for me and one for Anika. She’d cry when I brushed her hair tight on top of her head and stabbed in the pins.

When she was seven, I said while she cried while getting ready for dance, “You signed up. Let’s finish this out.” Ugh. Awful, awful parenting.

Yes. I was her foil. Anika wanted to run and climb trees. She is a gifted soccer player, and basketball player. She practices when she gets home from practice. She dribbles in our kitchen while I am making dinner.

Anika and I laugh about all this now. “Remember when you were a dancer?” I ask.

“You mean when you wanted me to be dancer.”

I kiss her and say, “Sorry about that.”

“No worries, Mom. You came around.”

Anika has chestnut hair with auburn highlights and earth-colored eyes. Her stomach is all muscle. She yells and lets me know when she is upset. She climbs trees and surfs. She reads dystopia novels and I read Virginia Woolf.

She says, “You are that woman in a painting looking pensively out the window. I am the painting of the girl the with sword.”

I may be her foil, but she is my hero.

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