This is long. This also contains manga spoilers.
The context for this essay is that I have in the last few months really been getting into symbolic/thematic readings of stories. As all of the events surrounding Big Mom have unfolded over the years, I’ve always gotten the impression that Oda has been extremely deliberate with a message he’s trying to communicate through her. While there have been many characters and settings Oda’s created that obviously reference something in our world, Big Mom’s connections are as obvious as any other, which means there is much of the familiar to be found in her, presented in a new and very compelling way. Also, Marco put a gun to my head, but that’s neither here nor there.
One last thing to add before starting is that I’m vaguely aware that there’s lots of Alice in Wonderland symbolism present with Big Mom, especially in the Seducing Woods, but honestly I sort of missed the Alice in Wonderland boat as a child and so I don’t really have much insight to give with those connections. I say this in case it comes across as a kind of loud silence that I don’t mention these at all.
Big Mom: The Witch Queen
The character of Big Mom is a unique collection of archetypes amalgamated into one. Most prominent of these are the wicked witch, the decadent glutton, and the devouring mother. But there’s a twist: underscoring each of these identities, is the reality of an insecure little girl who is trying to please her mother-figure. The purpose of this essay will be to analyse the extent to which she plays these roles (among some others), and how I think Oda brilliantly utilised them in order to deliver a precise and insightful thematic message for the audience, especially as contrasted with her interactions with Luffy and his crew.
The Wicked Witch
The wicked witch archetype is, of course, quite a broad category, and one that just about medieval-setting fantasy story contains or touches on to some degree. One Piece hasn’t shied away at all from the concept, with Nami appropriating titles like “Weather Witch” from pretty early on, and with characters like Shyarly and Kureha having this title associated with them also. But of course the manifestation of the witch in these examples is quite superficial – Nami’s ‘magic’, Shyarly’s crystal ball, and Kureha’s seeming-callousness – whereas by contrast it reaches the very core of Big Mom’s identity. Simply put, she is the witch of Hansel and Gretel. The story doesn’t attempt to hide this at all – her kingdom literally contains edible houses – but then throw in Big Mom eating (the souls of) her subjects, literally eating children (I mean come on, surely THIS one convinces you), her gluttony, her long witchy nose, her singing of fairy-tale-like songs, and her screechy, witchy voice, and she fits the role perfectly.
Before continuing, I’d just like to talk about the concept of the witch more generally, as it is a pattern that speaks to a certain part of our humanity. Please note that a lot of the language is going to be quite gendered: this is not intended to be prescriptive at all, but rather descriptive of what I perceive to be our collective experience based on historical literature. I’m obviously not trying to say anything about what men and women should be like, but simply how those patterns tend to form and be expressed in literature.
The witch represents the traditional feminine turned upside-down – or perhaps inside-out. As a result, it has many points of overlap with the devouring mother, but we’ll talk about that more specifically later. The witch has ostensibly feminine traits, but each hides an evil truth. She can (sometimes) make herself appear beautiful, but underneath she is ugly. This is popularly known as a ‘Glamour’ spell and also is associated with words like ‘enchantment’ and ‘thrall’, and its roots go back at least as far as the Sirens of Greek mythology. She can seem warm and motherly, but really hates you and has an ulterior motive (The witch of Hansel and Gretel fits here, as does the witch of Rapunzel). She can perform wondrous magic, but the magic has a sinister source that people aren’t aware of (usually blood or bone; the original ‘witches’ were thought to have gained their powers through deals with demons).
I think all of those parallels to Big Mom are extremely self-evident: her magic is powered by the souls of her subjects, and her delectable ingredients are harvested through the most immoral and cruel means (the montage of the preparation of the Tea Party shows a beautiful insight into this). Her motherliness towards her children and allies is only in the interest of having them serve her empire, but where she connects with glamour is not so obvious (she’s a bit of a hag after all). In Big Mom’s case, her glamour is not so much her physical beauty as it is her fairy-tale kingdom and her obsession with the illusion of power. Her dream is to create a society in which people of all races can live freely and see ‘eye to eye’, but we can never be fooled into thinking this is genuine. She doesn’t care about anyone except herself. She, childlike, was fed this dream by Mother Carmel, and has never been able to move past it. In her Hunger Pangs at the wedding we find that she’s still waiting for Mother Carmel to reappear, as though she’ll come out from behind a tree one day and say “Here I am, Linlin! I just had to go away for a little while. Wow, you’ve made me so happy with this country of yours!” And this point is not insignificant at all; it’s possibly the most significant insight that we have into her character. To reiterate: her dream – what she has made her life’s work and invested decades of her life into – is the result of a psychological weakness. We’ll unpack the psychological weakness further down, but the point for now is that she couldn’t care less about the people suffering from species-discrimination and giving them a safe place. She couldn’t care less about giving people good lives (except insofar as they praise her for them and contribute to the illusion). In case you might be tempted into thinking she actually might care about those people; consider how she harvests souls from them in order animate every tiny and unnecessary detail of her castle. What, aside from spectacle, is the value of animating a spoon? Salt and pepper? No, all she desires is to make Mother Carmel happy, and to maintain the illusion of power and decadence.
While I’m on this point, I’d also like to explore this concept of the illusion of power a bit more. Big Mom, no doubt, is an incredibly powerful woman. She is one of the strongest individual fighters in the world, she commands an army rivalling her fellow Yonko and the Marines, she maintains a powerful presence in the underworld, and she has an extremely effective intelligence network. By all measurable standards, she really is worthy of her titles and prestige. So what then is the “illusion”?
The illusion is in large part the same illusion that all superpowers rely on: that she is yet more powerful than she seems, and worthy of being the strongest and greatest. Her true might is not nearly so important to her as being feared as such. Her power is increased not by inspiring loyalty or training her own physical strength, but by political moves and shady power plays. She wants Germa’s tech? Tell a lie, throw a party, and shoot them in cold blood. But of course each of these actions are inherently acts of weakness. Why lie if not out of fear? If she was really so strong, why would she not declare war on Germa and attack them outright? Did she not have the resources to do so (i.e. her military might was too weak)? Was she worried about her reputation and facing some kind of retaliation from another superpower? Clearly it seems to be a mix of both, and a brilliant insight into this was their reaction to Morgans once the Tea Party started turning haywire. They were terrified of word getting out of their failure, and Big Mom was furious to read what they had written the next day.
Consider Pekoms telling Luffy, “This, Straw Hat, is power”, in response to Luffy’s shock to them knowing about Zeff. Of course, pushing the symbol to its limit, Big Mom is not merely content with being an Emperor, but she desires the omniscience of God. She wants to create the illusion that her network knows everything, that nothing escapes her watchful eye, and by extension that she is in complete control. Essentially, what Enel was to Skypeia, she wanted to be (and wanted people to think she was) to the whole world. Just like no one could speak without Enel hearing, Big Mom wanted everyone in her circles to know that none could speak without her knowing. Of course, the difference between Big Mom and Enel was that Big Mom’s network was far more limited in its efficacy. After all, Big Mom still didn’t know where Lola was, and didn’t know about rubber’s immunity to lightning, and a whole slew of other details she overlooked in the time since we met her. Naturally, such a power is terrifying, and let’s not think the concept is alien to our real world. Without getting too political, we hear of similar things happening in extreme communist regimes, with the idea of the police state, “snitching” on your neighbour and not knowing if any particular person was secretly a police officer. Similarly, the modern idea and phenomenon of the government tracking our every move and collecting all possible information about us. If everyone is being watched, no one misbehaves, and if no one misbehaves, then there is complete control. This, Straw Hat, is power.
But it was not, and is not, true power. Just like those governments, the only reason to police the world is out of fear – fear of what is going on in those dark corners that might come out and destroy you. If one indeed had complete power, no such policing/observation would be necessary, since there would be nothing on this earth capable of threatening you. Something similar can be said of Big Mom’s political ‘face’ that she wears to greet guests. She’s just playing a game to obtain power that she would otherwise be too weak to grab directly. Every interaction she has in the world is belied by her belief that “I am stronger than you” – she’s probably known nothing else for her whole life due to her monster strength, and so she enjoys hosting and impressing renowned guests to increase to herself and them her illusion of power. The big-shots revere her, so she must be extremely powerful indeed. And if so powerful, invincible.
All of this is the witch’s glamour, and what Oda accomplishes so beautifully in the story is holding up Luffy as her foil to communicate his thematic messages. He’s the wax to her Siren’s song, the rope that pulls down the facade and reveals the crumbling building beneath, and the mirror that shows the vampire’s empty reflection. Where everyone sees a terrifying, powerful Yonko, he sees a weak old lady trying to keep the illusion up. What Oda does brilliantly is highlight these opposites in every conversation Luffy has with her. You’ll notice that in all their interactions, Big Mom always presumes she knows how the conversation will go, and that she is in control. But there’s always something unexpected that makes her frustrated. Bear with me while I go through them to show just where these moments of magic happen.
On Fishman Island, she begins the conversation thinking she is performing an act of generosity to Luffy in exchange for his spunk. She is the terrifying and undefeatable Big Mom after all, so an upstart like him making these demands is amusing, so she is content to threaten Luffy rather than Fishman Island. You’ll notice a divine undertone already creeping into her language “I’ll have my vengeance against you all!” as though she is possessed with the divine wrath which she can direct against those who displease her. Of course, she probably can follow through on those threats in large part, but see how even with all her power she still has to present it with that transcendent tone. She then makes a point about learning his name, as if to say “see how you’ve garnered the attention of a god” (this is something we see a few times in the show, for example with Mihawk, but in those instances it’s primarily about respect), and then invites him to the New World: as though by accomplishing what he was already intending he is playing into her hands. A few sentences to establish complete control and intimidation – clearly she’s had practice. So, naturally, she is angered at his response to wait for him there so that he can “kick your ass all over the New World” in order to win Fishman Island from her. It’s an inversion of the power play that she just established – instead of him playing into her hands by going to the New World, she is playing into his by waiting for him – and it also communicates a total disdain for her divine pretence and intimidation tactics. He is not intimidated or cowering – not even slightly. Rather, he is angered, and he will direct his vengeance against her, though he does so bluntly and with no divine pretence at all. They both imply destroying the other, but one says “I’ll have my vengeance”, and the other says “I’ll kick your ass”. Additionally, you’ll notice an inversion of their motives. Big Mom just wants to intimidate and control a new rookie, but Luffy’s threat is motivated by a desire to protect Fishman Island: one selfish, the other selfless. Beyond that though, he says that it’s too dangerous in her hands, implying a contempt for her conduct in threatening the citizens as she has been, and with the implication that he will be strong enough to protect it better than she can. Stretched to a limit, it’s an accusation of incompetence in so many words. Finally, she can do nothing but hiss and shriek “You brat!”, showing an inability to control her emotions and revealing Luffy as the winner of the exchange, her illusion of power crumbling to dust in a few short lines.
Of course the next primary interaction is after Luffy has been captured by Big Mom and is in her prison. Ostensibly, he is completely in her power. So, as Nami begins to talk about Lola, she really has no reason to lose composure or throw a tantrum, yet, because she is far weaker than she pretends to be, her frustration is triggered, and she goes on a rant about how badly she wants Lola dead. An insightful line she drops here is “Children don’t know how indebted they are to their parents as they say!”, which displays an exceptionally immature strategy of disguising one’s own personal frustrations as some kind of universal wisdom (this is something I’ve seen before in real life). Of course, Big Mom ate her own mother figure, so doesn’t really have much of a leg to stand on to be preaching about honouring one’s parents (to be fair, perhaps she is speaking from a place of devotion to Mother Carmel’s ideals that she thinks everyone should share, but I doubt it). Then she lays out the charge against Lola: she ran away from the “biggest-ever political marriage”. Of course, the translator could have chosen another word, but the superlative plays its part well. Whether it was “biggest-ever” or “greatest” or “most important”, her use of such language only emphasises her insecurities. It had to be the “biggest-ever”, because otherwise her rage would be irrational. She had a picture of how the plan would play out, and a single rebellious act turned her plans to ash. It had to be the event that prevented her from being Pirate King, because otherwise she’d have to accept that the blame lies squarely on her own shoulders. There’s really little reason to think that it would have gone the way she hoped at all anyway, as though a single marriage could make the difference between becoming the Pirate King and not.
And Luffy doesn’t miss a beat of this. While Big Mom throws a tantrum on her throne, and all the onlookers are recoiling in fear – even as her threats begin to terrify Nami – Luffy shatters the illusion. “What a boring story. Lola didn’t marry. You didn’t become King of the Pirates. That’s all”. This is partly a callback to Luffy’s constant indifference towards people’s backstories, but of course his simplicity saw right to the heart of the issue. By her own admission, Big Mom is not strong enough to become King of the Pirates. He believes he is strong enough, and so, with his arms nailed to a wall and totally at her mercy, he sees himself as being the stronger, and has nothing to fear. He then tells her he’s picking a fight again, and then delivers another bombshell: “Don’t get cocky just because you’re a Yonko”. She who uses her title as part of her illusion of power is being told that he sees past it. ‘Yonko’ is just a word, and she’s been hiding behind it for decades to intimidate anyone who crossed her path. Imagine if literally anyone else told that sob story about not becoming Pirate King because a political marriage fell through. We’d laugh them out of the room. Yet because she’s the almighty “Big Mom” people take it seriously: we have here a case of the Emperor (Yonko) has no clothes, and Luffy is the one to call it out. He then, having shattered the illusion, reasserts his aims and intentions by saying that he will escape with Sanji and they’ll have the last laugh. From one point of view, a lunatic in prison who’s in denial about his hopeless situation. From another, the future Pirate King locked in the cage of a weaker foe and with full confidence in his future escape and ultimate victory. Luffy had no doubts as to which was the illusion, and which was the reality.
The last exchange I want to comment on is between Brook and Big Mom in her treasure room. Of course, there is no coordination or agreed-upon plan between Luffy and Brook as to how they’ll interact with Big Mom, which really helps give this exchange a touch of magic. It’s not only Luffy who can break her glamour, but some of the other Straw Hats as well. We all know, Brook included, that he doesn’t stand a chance against her, which adds so much more depth to the exchange since his confidence is not in his own strength, but Luffy’s. Once she confronts him about grabbing the Poneglyph copy, he makes no attempt to manipulate her or lie about what he was doing. He perfectly calmly admits his intentions. She, predictably, loses her composure very quickly and demands he come down (presumably to surrender), but he then makes his way down and is ready to fight. The inversion that Luffy accomplished with his speech on Fishman Island, Brook recreates in deed here. She thinks he is terrified and in her thrall, and that he is complying by coming down, yet, especially considering that Brook had the Poneglyph copy by this point and had to come down anyway, he shows that she is playing into his hands instead. Admittedly he does pull off a bit of manipulation next in confessing he hasn’t completed his mission in getting the rubbing, which does show a bit of weakness, but it’s hard to blame him given his position. He then puts his life on the line and fights her, knowing there was no way out for him aside from being saved.
After fighting a while, their conversation resumes, and he tells her that the reason he’s so adamant to get the rubbing is so that, should Sanji choose to stay, at least he’d know that they hadn’t wasted their journey. It’s a remarkable line that shows the kindness of Brook’s own heart, contrasted with the rot of Big Mom’s who couldn’t piece together what he was saying. Her only assumption was that he was getting it since he had “nothing else to do”, because she had never felt that love for anyone else to anticipate his conclusion together about doing so for Sanji’s sake. The vision he lays out is either Sanji chooses to sacrifice himself and they leave safely, or they rescue him, and naturally this intrigues her because it doesn’t account for her stopping them and killing them. She dismisses this as foolishness, but when she mocks him for this oversight, he shatters the glamour in possibly his greatest line to date: “Young lady, what kind of fool plans to die?” Another bombshell that hits right at the heart of her character. The “young lady” puts her in her place as he is older than her, but of course it bluntly declares to her that he too sees past the Yonko title. She is just another person in this world of people, and her attempts to cover her identity do not work when you’re in the future Pirate King’s crew. The use of ‘fool’ flips her mockery of him back to her, as she is the one with the foolish logic. Of course they planned to succeed: that’s the essence of every plan that’s made. They’ve known from the moment they boarded the ship that they could die – Luffy explicitly says this to Coby in the very first episode – so what use could planning for death possibly be? As though they could factor in “if we die, then we’ll have a contingency”. They’ll succeed, or they’ll die. Obviously. What kind of fool would plan to die? And this coming from Brook, who has died. I know I’m gushing a bit, but again, it’s another flip. She has come to this conversation under the impression of having effectively already won, having out-planned the Straw Hats at every turn, having the superior status and title, and having decades of experience on this rookie pirate crew, and in one swift sentence he flips all these identities upside down. She has not already won; the Straw Hats’ plan is still in effect while he stands. She does not have the superior status; she is just a “young lady” compared to him. She does not have the advantage of experience over him, he has literally died before, so his existential experience and maturity far outmatches hers. Her glamour, again, is left in tatters.
The conclusion to her glamour can be seen in her last couple of chapters before her defeat at the hands of Law and Kidd (namely 1039 and 1040). Notably, she is not defeated by Luffy, and at a meta level this reduces her from being considered a primary antagonist to simply a side adventure in Luffy’s journey. In this final fight we see how truly deeply ingrained her illusion is in her own soul. That her glamour, more than anyone else, has affected herself. The fight is reaching its conclusion; defeating the two upstarts is taking far longer than she assumed, and she’s long since lost her rationality. She insists on pulling rank on them: “You’re nothing! The time for dreaming is over! Listen up, you brats! We’ve sunk hundreds of people just like you into the sea! We’ve been reigning as emperors for decades! Since the days before you were weaned off your mothers’ milk!”
To what end does she say this? To intimidate them? In the hopes they will surrender? To terrify them in the confidence she is about to annihilate them? But surely it’s too late for any such strategy. No, of course the most likely reason is that it’s because she cannot accept the possibility of her defeat. She is throwing up these titles and accolades as a defence against the reality that she might not win here. It’s what you say to a bug that you’ve whacked three times but is still crawling around. She is confident that they must be afraid of her, as are all the other bystanders, and will thus be vulnerable to her Soul Pocus. But, seeing through the glamour, Kidd says, “Why should we be afraid of an old hag who’s outlived her welcome?” Her magic, finally, has failed her, and the reality has pierced through.
The final silencing by Law is of course a brilliant thematic move. You can think of it as the difference between covering one’s own ears to the siren’s song, or closing the siren’s mouth. The former protects only yourself, the latter protects all the rest. And so there’s no recourse for Big Mom as she plummets to her final defeat. Nothing to scream out or say. Just a sad, old, evil woman falling to her doom. Of course we don’t know if she’s truly dead at this point – that’s yet to be seen – but it’s interesting in her final moments seeing her brain doing the same thing as always. Just like it was Lola’s fault that she wasn’t Pirate King, it’s now Roger’s fault that she’s defeated. If only he didn’t provoke the Great Pirate Age, then these guys wouldn’t have set out to sea. There is no introspection. There is no desire to be stronger or look at her own faults. No, just like a little kid at the supermarket who’s told she won’t be getting the toy, internally she is jumping up and down, blaming everyone and anyone for her misfortune, and bargaining with voices who will never hear her. She is trying to cast her glamour on reality itself, and has been rejected.
So what’s the story of One Piece trying to tell us with how the witch was defeated? Well, in a practical way, it tells us not to place our trust in our own illusions. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in your role, or how well-respected you are in a given field. What matters is your ability. To learn, to grow stronger, and to take every challenge seriously. Luffy was weaker than Big Mom in almost every way when he arrived on Whole Cake Island. Now he is (probably) stronger than her. He was determined to grow, she was determined to stay exactly where she was. We learn lots of other lessons of course: that people and things are not always what they seem, that there are some elders we probably shouldn’t respect, and tyranny of all kinds is fought by looking it in the eye and telling the truth. Oda here demonstrates what this series has always embodied: that it is better to die than to lose one’s soul to fear, and that by showing courage, even the most terrifying monsters can be made to stumble.
The Decadent Glutton
Being a glutton is of course a core part of her character. It is the “Big” in “Big Mom”. Gluttony in general is characterised by irrationality, greed, and insatiability. The glutton never says “I am satisfied, I never need to eat again”. Rather, they demand to be filled until they are physically incapable of continuing, and then at the next opportunity they resume filling the bottomless hole that is their stomach. Gluttony often presents itself in media as the person eating decadent food without abandon in a way that tends to disgust us – even if the food itself looks delicious. You can think here of the infamous chocolate cake scene from Matilda (not that I’m blaming the kid of course), or of the scene in Lord of the Rings where Denethor is eating his lunch while Pippin sings (this isn’t exactly gluttony but it has the same vibe). There’s also a scene from Netflix’s Dragon’s Dogma that has a good image of this in the gluttonous nobleman from the “Gluttony” episode, but it’s kind of a niche reference and I really wouldn’t recommend that show lol. And Big Mom is no exception: when we see her eating, she’s usually unceremoniously shovelling fistfuls of delicious-looking food into her gigantic mouth – even doing the same with the souls of people under her Soul Pocus – in what cannot be described as a pleasant sight.
But Big Mom is not simply an insatiable glutton. She’s also known for her “Hunger Pangs”, which occur when she obsesses over a particular food and will not be satisfied until she consumes it. What the Hulk is to wrath, the Hunger Pangs are to gluttony. In this state she manifests the pure spirit of gluttony, consuming all around her, even people, yet never satisfied until she has whatever she’s fixated on. She becomes a natural disaster in her own kingdom, endangering her citizens and taking lives – of even her own children – wantonly. In her Hunger Pangs she becomes a victim of her psychological condition, yet equally a perpetrator of countless atrocities. She is unable to recall her activities with much clarity, and no one ever holds her to account for her crimes. She has also taken no steps to mitigate the damage she might inflict upon her own citizens in her Hunger Pangs, and so takes the brunt of the responsibility of the damage caused, even if she’s not mentally strong enough to handle it as it happens.
Something that may be tempting to do is to attribute her Hunger Pangs to strength due the impressive damage she can cause. We already know that Big Mom has the brute strength of a hurricane, but for her to lose control on a semi-regular basis is, frankly, pathetically weak. She has had every opportunity to know she is susceptible to these things, and to take precautions. She has never (to our knowledge at least) bothered to try and improve her situation through practicing fortitude and developing techniques to cope and mitigate the havoc she wreaks. Her Hunger Pangs, as we see in the events that transpire after the wedding, make the difference between a coordinated empire and an empire in chaos. Imagine how things would have played out if she chased after the Straw Hats with a clear mind, rather than detouring to eat the wedding cake.
In fact, it is through these events that Oda makes it abundantly clear how pathetic gluttony is: how chasing after that one moment of desire robs you of your relationships and dreams, and leaves you defeated and humiliated once you snap out of it. Big Mom sought to prevent the Straw Hats’ escape, to defeat them and avenge her failed plans on them, and she had more than enough power within herself to do so. But because she was too weak to control herself, she failed, and as her world was crumbling around her, all she could do was scream for wedding cake like a toddler throwing a tantrum. And it’s important to note, the moral here doesn’t just encompass food. Think of any desire that we chase after that can never really be satiated: money and pleasure being obvious ones. Here we have a classic lesson about the importance of mastering our passions, delivered in this multi-layered gluttony of Big Mom.
The Devouring Mother
Some may have heard of this one before, but even if not, it’s quite self-explanatory and easy to see how it applies to Big Mom. This time it’s the “Mom” of Big Mom. The devouring mother is another inversion of the feminine, but specifically applied to motherhood. The role of the mother fundamentally is to love and nurture a child, and prepare them for independence to be able to function autonomously as an adult. It is a service done out of love and in the best interests of the child. And so the inversion is when the child ends up serving the mother’s needs and desires rather than the mother serving the child. Whether that’s emotionally, financially, or physically, the child becomes necessary for the mother to maintain her lifestyle, and as such is incapable of severing ties with the mother and living independently. This description of course encompasses Big Mom’s very model of motherhood.
All of her children serve her in her crew, and the only one who left freely was declared a traitor and despised. She only shows affection to her children in the measure that they can serve her needs and increase her status and power on the global stage. Children are to be in political marriages and to serve in the pirate crew; even her husbands seem to be chosen from different races in order for her to obtain blood-bound servants with a wide spectrum of abilities, with no hint of affection or attraction present in these relationships. Big Mom sees nothing but nodes of power in all her children, and all of their relationships with her as a result are based on this dynamic. They all feel some affection for her (or at least respect) – presumably because they don’t know any better – and serve her out of this loyalty. But the weaker children, or those who have less potential to add to her empire, are treated worse and disregarded by her. And when push comes to shove, as we see with Muscat, she will devour her own children without a second thought.
Incidentally, the most famous example of the devouring mother is the witch from Hansel and Gretel (strange how she keeps coming up, hey?). The concept is that this is the maternal figure who will keep feeding you and feeding you so that she can eat you – in Big Mom’s case she is the mother who will keep nurturing and facilitating her children’s growth purely so she can ingest them into her empire. Her actual gluttony of course is intimately connected with this other kind of gluttony for power. There’s a marked difference between using your children in this way out of necessity (e.g. poor families who need their children to work to survive), and out of gluttony. Big Mom has everything she could possibly need for her own survival. All of her endeavours are to satisfy her own selfish goals, so there’s no fathomable justification for the way she abuses her children as she does.
As far as relates to her selfish motherhood though, Oda didn’t really resolve this as clearly, and perhaps we will see something of a conclusion to it in the aftermath of Onigashima. Maybe her children will lose all respect for her and abandon her and take over her pirate crew; that’d be quite a fitting end indeed. We did, however, get these great moments that gave us a glimpse into how this role fit into Oda’s story. For example, Opera’s silence about Luffy and Nami’s escape. He knew that if he confessed his failure, he’d be “eaten” by Big Mom (you can take this as either literally being the victim of Soul Pocus or more symbolically as being destroyed by the agents of the witch’s empire; even his own siblings potentially). And so here we see Oda turning the devouring mother against herself: in abusing her children, they betray her, allowing her enemies to escape and gain the advantage over her. If she had been a truly loving mother, then this would never have happened, and Opera would have raised the alarm in no time.
Another moment is in Chiffon’s rebellion against her. She experienced the truly cruel side of Big Mom’s motherhood, and wanted no part in it. In being victimised, she fled to the protection of Bege and his crew, and ultimately supported in the plan to execute her own mother. One of the terrifying and tragic realities of the devouring mother is that your mother has become your most potent enemy, and in this environment, some will choose fight rather than flight.
Pudding’s split personalities are an excellent illustration of the damage that this inverted mother can do to a person. On the one hand, she is your mother and greatest (material) supporter, but on the other, she is your enemy and greatest danger. She is the one feeding you, but also the one who will eat you. In Pudding’s case, she ended up turning on her own soul in order to become the effective double agent that her mother wanted, but of course it was never enough to win her mother’s love, since she had no love to give. Always undercutting their relationship was Big Mom’s openness about how weird and creepy her daughter’s third eye was and that she should hide it. She could never be fully accepted, yet she was constantly praised for her cunning. This culminated in this split that takes place as the part of her soul that had been trained to please her mother fought with the other part that simply wanted to be loved. And so, after being fully accepted for the first time by Sanji (three-eyes and all), she begins making her own decisions against her mother’s interests to support her enemies.
To grapple with failed and abusive family dynamics is often a difficult thing to accomplish in children’s media, yet by making Big Mom into this gratuitous caricature of the evil witch and mother, Oda provides the audience with a template of characteristics of how to identify such a figure in our own lives, and by example, shows us how we might be able to deal with them. There is certainly something to be said for the fact that her dozens of children did seem to form meaningful connections with each other in spite of Big Mom’s oppression, but that’s a topic for another day. Perhaps Oda just wanted to show us that when people endure the same suffering together, it can bind them together and become a small beam of light in the darkness.
The Little Girl
This isn’t so much a trope as it is the final reflection on what Oda has accomplished with the three above tropes that Big Mom has played in the story. It is not sufficient that these three archetypes have an embarrassing and ultimately unsuccessful resolution that teaches us how to defeat them, Oda also takes it a step further and undermines the legitimacy of their origins. There is rot at both the end and the beginning. Of course this isn’t the first time this has happened – Doflamingo comes to mind as another villain with a fleshed-out origin story – but it is quite powerfully done, especially seeing how Big Mom rather explicitly calls back to those childhood moments even now so deep into her seniority.
We meet the girl Linlin being abandoned on the shore, her original hometown deciding she was too difficult to manage and leaving her in the hands of the rumoured ‘Holy Mother’. There are already a great deal of interesting writing choices here to remark upon. The first is that her monster strength is an accident of birth. At just five years old her hand alone was larger than either of her parents, and she had already caused considerable casualties in her hometown. She’s not the result of some experiment, nor was she otherwise desired to be as she was, but rather she was touched by the gods in this way, and was born into an environment that did not know how to control or help utilise her strength in a positive way. And so, her parents rejected her. At the age of five she was deprived of love and left to fend for herself, being abandoned to the mercy of mere rumours about a mysterious motherly figure who might help. So here she sits and wails, unwanted and rejected, until Mother Carmel comes along.
The Christian imagery associated with Mother Carmel should not be dismissed as simply an arbitrary creative choice. The tale of Catholic nuns starting and running orphanages is one as old as time, and they are meant to represent the mercy of God in the world. When all the world rejects you, God accepts you, and this is the role the nun plays in the lives of these children. Of course, it’s a beautiful and noble sacrifice to make on behalf of these children – when done for the right reasons. This is underscored by the language in “The Lamb’s [Sheep]’s House”. There is a famous story in Christianity of God as the shepherd searching for the single sheep that went astray, and here it represents those children who have been rejected in a very similar way. Mother Carmel embodies the divine mercy in her ministry and accepts and loves the rejects. We see her forgiving Linlin’s violent escapades and encouraging others to do the same on account of her kind heart and good intentions. Her virtue softens the hearts of even the hardest warriors, and through her intercessions Linlin is even saved from capital punishment.
The story makes it clear that Linlin completely trusts and loves Mother Carmel. She is always looking out for her and acting in her best interests. Finally, in this lonely world, Linlin is made to belong by love. The divine powers that brought her into this world with her inexplicable curse of hugeness and monster strength have cast the light of their mercy on her. But there’s a twist.
I’ve thought about and wrestled with the reasoning that was behind making Mother Carmel secretly a child trafficker with ties to the World Government. The whole thing was very on the nose, and rather disjointed in its application. Again, this essay hasn’t been written at the conclusion of the whole series (I’m writing in Feb 2022, just after Chapter 1040 dropped), so perhaps there is still something left of it that Oda will utilise or develop later, but I will be operating on the assumption that there is nothing else left to tell of that story.
What do I mean by “on-the-nose”? Well, consider how I’ve unpacked Big Mom’s role as the “Witch” and the “Devouring Mother” over the course of hundreds of chapters. In about one and a half pages, Oda dumps both these associations onto Mother Carmel. She literally goes from “[Devouring] Mother Carmel” to “Mountain Witch”. The Mother who, in the imitation and mockery of the divine mercy she supposedly represents, earns your complete trust in order to sell you to the highest bidder. The witch from Hansel and Gretel physically devoured her victims, Big Mom devoured them into her empire, and Mother Carmel devoured them into funds.
The next section will be dedicated to deconstructing this decision and why I think it was rather poorly executed, but it’s not really necessary for the whole thesis. That said, I feel like it’s unfair to just dismissively say it was poorly done and expect you to believe me, so I’ll put it in a spoiler tag, and if you like you can skip it and assume it says nothing except “The decision to make her the Mountain Witch was poorly implemented”.
So the primary problem here is that the decision added nothing to the story, except a bit of random lore about John Giant and that the WG wasn’t above using child traffickers to gain agents, which doesn’t really surprise anybody at this point. If you remove those pages entirely, you don’t change the story at all. I vividly recall at the time that as this chapter and the one after it (with the ‘disappearance’ of Mother and the kids) dropped, I was insistent that Mother Carmel was probably still alive since it wouldn’t make sense for the Mountain Witch detail to be added without any impact. The Chekov’s Gun argument I found to be far too compelling, especially as it had successfully been used to argue that Sabo was still alive back when that hadn’t been revealed yet (i.e. that Sabo wouldn’t have been included in Luffy’s backstory at all if Oda didn’t plan to reintroduce him, then lo and behold he was reintroduced). Yet, I eventually needed to abandon this position and accept that it is probably something that will never come up in the main story again, especially since Mother Carmel would be long since dead and buried even if she survived by the time of Luffy’s voyage.
Another reason I think it was clunky was because it doesn’t seem to fit with Mother Carmel’s lifestyle. It’s one thing to want a luxurious lifestyle and be willing to put up with a long scam to achieve wealth – Captain Kuro did exactly this – but why on earth would she need maintain it for a whopping fifty years?! It’s not like she ever accessed her accumulated wealth while playing her role; didn’t exactly have a villa she would spend her nights in. And where was her wealth meant to be stored? Surely not on Elbaf which she would’ve lost access to after Linlin’s rampage? If it was brought over; how was it done undetected? If it was far away, where?? What good was it doing for her out of reach? Did she really just bet her entire career on having a good retirement? But isn’t fifty years just insane; especially considering how the smoking would shorten her lifespan?? There’s no answer to my mind that justifies her being as wicked as she is yet still making the sacrifices she made. Surely she’d have plenty to retire on within just five years? Ten? Why is it only now with Linlin that she thinks she can finally make the money she needs to retire? A good answer might be that she did it because she enjoyed it, but clearly she doesn’t based on how she says she’s eager to “wash my hands of this business”. There isn’t even a hint of an answer that would adequately address all these different angles. It seems like the only victim of her scam is herself: she truly did serve these children and deliver them to the government and apparently reaped none of the rewards.
OK, so having established those narrative difficulties with the Mountain Witch, why then might Oda have included that detail? To be honest, I find this level of clunkiness a bit too unusual for Oda, so my best guess is that it was a last-minute decision to include it, and I think that it was included for purely thematic reasons. And I don’t blame him if that was his motivation, because there is plenty of thematic gold to unpack in this new dynamic. That said, it’s also possible that this decision was shoehorned in (maybe with pressure from an editor or something) to make it easier for the child-audience to accept the decision to kill Mother Carmel like that. Far easier to accept the gruesome death of a wicked witch than a saintly old woman. That explanation would also account for the peculiar timing of the revelation as being directly before the event. But leaving all that to the side, let’s go through its thematic significance.
Of course immediately after this revelation about Mother Carmel, she mysteriously vanishes, with the audience left to conclude that Big Mom had eaten her in her Hunger Pangs along with the rest of the kids. The devouring mother had been devoured. Certainly there is something of Icarus in this decision: in her arrogance Mother Carmel flew too close to the sun, and was killed for it. Since biblical language seems appropriate given her character, she sowed the wind by taking Linlin in, and reaped the whirlwind.
We also see an interesting decision to sow doubt in the religious and charitable institutions of our world. Not everyone who does good is doing so for the right reasons. It’s interesting that he picked on specifically this recognisable Catholic Christian role to highlight as playing host to corruption. We’ve seen main characters assume the role of “God” (Enel) and “priest” in the story, but never have they been so explicitly associated with an institution in the real world like Mother Carmel is. We actually saw something similar all the way back at Whiskey Peak, where the bounty hunter Miss Monday had dressed in the guise of a nun. The little research I’ve done hasn’t yielded much about what kind of school Oda went to, but perhaps he went to a Catholic school and wasn’t too fond of how the nuns went about educating the kids, so he sneaks in these small jabs at them. I don’t think it’s that superficial though - the Catholic church famously has had its horrendous scandals in the last few decades with kids being directly victimised, and so he might be operating from that place of wanting to tell kids “don’t blindly trust religious institutions or religious representatives”.
What’s far more interesting though is how this decision affects Big Mom’s place in the world. Namely, that the only real experience of love that she had as a child was a lie. There is not a single person in this world who ever loved Charlotte Linlin. No one has ever sought the best for this girl, and her children (who come the closest to loving her), are far too terrified of her to tell her the loving truth, and also have their own motivations of power and stability for the empire affecting their interactions with her. From the beginning she has been used and abused for her monster strength and her ability to make other people profit. By the time she reached maturity, that was all she knew. No surprise then, how she treats her husbands and children. All relationships are built on “what can we get out of each other?”, and as a hidden corollary, “and how can I get more than you?”. Oda is showing us how the devouring mother is created: through the devastating absence of love in one’s life. To compound on this, Big Mom actually blames Mother Carmel for disappearing. Not that she ever found about the trafficking, but that she still believes in her heart that Mother Carmel had just stepped away for a moment. Not in a way that makes her lose trust in her or makes her stop loving her, but in a way that she almost seems to expect her to return at any moment and explain it all away. It’s not, “Mother, what happened to you?”, but “Mother, where did you go?”. Just like a small child asks when their own mother steps out for a while without explanation. It’s honestly heartbreaking to contemplate: since no one has ever loved Linlin since, she has dedicated her whole life to chasing after Mother Carmel’s love. Perhaps when Mother’s dream country has been created, she will return, and bestow upon Linlin the love that vanished along with her all those years ago. Beneath the stomach that is perpetually filled with the finest foods the world has to offer, is an empty soul that is still, some seventy years later, starving for the only taste of love its ever known.
Not only was her experience of love a lie, but her dream was a lie. In her own words: “I’m gonna make a country that’ll make Mother happy!” (Ch.868). But it wouldn’t make Mother happy. Mother just wanted to sell you and make a profit. She just told you what she thought you wanted to hear to make you like her. Big Mom has dedicated her life to – has committed countless atrocities in the name of – a dream that no one ever even had. Of course that’s not to discount her achievement in creating the paradise that is Totland, only to undermine its very reason for existing. The world Big Mom has created and the identity she has given herself has never been real. From the very beginning, she has been thrust into fantasy after fantasy. First Mother Carmel, then Streusen, then herself. She knows nothing except to chase after lies, and has spent her life chasing only after shadows. Not seeking her own good or betterment. Not seeking the romance of life like the heroes of One Piece do. But seeking someone else’s aims.
This final bait-and-switch by Oda to make Carmel the Mountain Witch has cemented the fact that Linlin is truly a pathetic character. She has chosen to never grow up. She has become foul and manipulative and unloved and wretched by choosing to stay in the fantasies that were fed to her. Oda made her brilliant – outstandingly cunning, powerful without equal, insightfully manipulative, foresightful and diligent in information-gathering, and holding the highest status attainable on the planet for not being of noble birth. And after making her brilliant, he made her wretched – chasing after non-existent dreams, never knowing love, constantly deluding herself, never taking responsibility, and a victim of her own gluttony. To wrap up this section on Mother Carmel on a Christian note: there’s a saying in Christianity that goes “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” Oda shows us a brilliant example of this in Charlotte Linlin. She has the world at her fingertips. She lives in a sea of decadence, has abundance beyond measure; short of becoming Pirate King she has fulfilled all her dreams and has attained the highest status in all the known world. Yet, she has long since lost her soul, and Oda has gone to great lengths to convince us that in spite of all this, we have nothing to envy in her – if anything we should pity her. To have a single person in our lives who truly loves us is to be far richer than Big Mom – with all her material wealth and unlimited candy – ever will be.
And that is how the little girl ties all her other identities together. To no one’s surprise, Big Mom is still that little girl underneath her glamorous presentation. It is lurking just beneath the surface, and comes out in the moments when her mind is weakest – when the picture breaks or when she gets amnesia (I won’t go into it, but I think the amnesia was also a poor narrative decision made with a strong thematic motivation). She just wants to make everyone happy and to find friends who accept and love her. She is delighted to help people and has a very strong sense of justice (consider the bear she slapped for eating the wolf). She is incredibly trusting and believes what she hears at face value. But because she refused to grow up, and she had been so severely starved of love, all of these traits became twisted. Her constantly being manipulated caused her to abandon the concept of being loved and accepted, and with it her drive to help others and make them happy. Her sense of justice warped into the abomination she calls her roulette wheel. Her childhood gluttony has increased unrestricted into adulthood. Her universal trust became universal distrust; if you define “trust” as “someone behaving as you expect them to”, then it’s not difficult to understand why she maintains leverage on every person she interacts with. If I threaten Sanji’s father figure, I can ‘trust’ him. If I can establish a worldwide intelligence network and know everything about everyone, then I can know their weaknesses, and so with everyone under my control, I can finally ‘trust’ them all. The unspoken, secret dreams of a little girl – who in herself possessed no great evil character traits – have hideously morphed into the real, lived nightmares of an evil, old witch and the people she has devoured into her networks of power. Oda here is telling us that those parts of ourselves that we don’t allow to grow up, will only ever grow stale and poison our lives and the lives of those around us.
These are the true and tragic identities of Big Mom, and what Oda has sought to teach us through them in the magic of his storytelling.