Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The book in which “My Mother” was first published, At the Bottom of the River (1983), is a collection of short stories connected by theme, style, and content; each story challenges a reader’s expectations of what a short story can be. The central concern uniting these stories is the intimacy between a young girl and her mother, an intimacy that becomes increasingly strained as the girl grows. The earlier stories trace the central character’s movement not only away from her mother but also toward the edge of a nervous breakdown, which is represented in the story “Blackness.” “My Mother” is about the narrator’s recovery and her attempts to assert her own individuality to her mother, while still seeking her mother’s affection. Critic Wendy Dutton has argued that At the Bottom of the River tells of the initiation of the young narrator into a world of matriarchal knowledge. Accordingly, in “My Mother,” the narrator mimics many things that her mother does, such as growing larger, but is never able to surpass her. The peace she finds at the end seems to be a retreat to a preadolescent state of mind at finding herself continually bested by her mother.

A secondary theme relates to the narrator’s position as a subject in a colonized land. When the mother sees a lamb, she remarks that the lamb is miserable because it lives in an unsuitable climate. The lamb represents British Christianity out of place in Caribbean soil; when the narrator tries to turn herself into a lamb, her mother remarks that she now looks cross and miserable, implying that she is trying to act British. The preadolescent bliss to which the narrator returns at the end is also marked by the presence of a lamb running across the pasture, implying that she has retreated to a state of cultural infantilism that cannot last.