“Who can forget the forget the character of Mrs. Jellyby in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House… She is obsessed with the plight of the Borrioboola-Gha Tribe on the banks of the Niger River. So concerned with their plight, she ignores the well being of her children. Mrs. Jellyby is one of those people who had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if… they could see nothing nearer than Africa.”The Tyranny of Cliches, Page 265
In one of the all-time greatest jokes ever given to us by Seinfeld, we see Elaine and Kramer fighting a bitter dispute over the ownership of a bicycle that both have laid claim to. Unsure how to mitigate the situation, they take the issue to Kramer’s friend Newman who is brought in to serve as wise counsel for the ownership of the bicycle. Once he’s heard both sides of the story, he renders his verdict: the bicycle must be cut in half. Elaine, furious, agrees and is willing to destroy the bike rather than lose it. Kramer, however, willingly forgoes his claim and states that the bicycle is too beautiful to destroy. With this, Newman determines that Kramer is the true moral owner of the bicycle because he loved it enough to give it away rather than see it destroyed.
Most viewers are likely aware that this joke is a reference to the story of the Judgment of Solomon in the Old Testament of the Bible. King Solomon is met by two women who claim to be the true mother of an infant and he renders a very similar verdict and moral lesson.
“Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king. And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other. Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof. And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.“1 Kings 3:23-28 KJV
The moral works because it speaks to the nature of true love. Arguments and legal claims can only get you so far in human disagreements. King Solomon, known as one of the wisest characters in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, sees that a mother’s love is so much that she would rather lose her child than see her child destroyed. The truth is revealed through true love because the true mother will always put her child first above herself.
This moral takes on a new light in context with the rise of the “Karen” phenomenon. COVID has created a unique space for people who cruelly lash out at others for insufficient commitment to public health. It seems to bring out a certain kind of authoritarian, doding personality type that mothers and prods at strangers in public for minor infractions.
Is your mask slipping? Is your nose sticking out because your glasses keep fogging up? Are you wearing the wrong kind of mask? Is your infant child not cooperating by wearing a mask? Are you mildly violating social distancing protocols or merely standing within six feet of another person?
If so, prepare to be yelled at by a random person in public for a minor slip.
I’ve experienced at least two minor variations of this phenomena where I was slipping in my COVID preparedness in public and someone snapped at me and told me to back off or fix my mask, or else. The internet is filled with similar paranoiacs who believe that everyone must obey the rules and that THEY must see to it that they’re enforced for the greater good of public safety.
A friend of mine was almost given a lifetime by a major airline when his infant son wouldn’t comply with the mask mandate during a long flight.
The phenomena really came into a new space recently during the omicron lockdowns as mothers were actively harming their children in the name of quarantining them.
Several bloggers have bragged of locking their infected children in their bedrooms and refusing to allow them to leave for two weeks in the name of quarantine.
One woman, a doctor no less, bragged about how she refused to take her son, who had just twisted his foot and severely injured it, to the hospital because it would violate quarantine. She deleted the tweet shortly after posting it.
These stories crescendoed in the recent story of a Texas woman who locked her child in the trunk of her car so that he could be quarantined for the car ride to a COVID testing center. She was subsequently arrested.
The “Karen” phenomenon is a useful descriptor because it captures a kind of cruel detachment among certain kinds of people. The stories though have a certain emotional pain when mothers do these things to their own children. It’s one thing if I get yelled at in the line at Home Depot. It’s another thing when a mother actively quarantines her own child.
What should be said of these sorts of mothers? They may care for and want something good for their children but they’re listening on the other side of a locked door as their sick child calls out to them.
They are like Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, caring people for whom the act of caring is distant, detached, and cruel, and in fact, entirely theoretical since the people she loves are strangers to her. They contain love but it is a sort of unreal love and a useless love. Their love is cruel. They’re closer to the woman who is willing to let a child be cut in half to keep the child from going to another woman than to the true mother.