Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “Customs of the Country,” Madison Smart Bell exposes readers to the lower stratum of southern society, choosing as his narrator a woman of limited financial means who has been caught up in a life of petty crime and drug abuse. By creating such a narrator, Bell gives readers new insight into a universal commonplace in American society, a mother’s love for her child.

Despite her hard life, the narrator is able to evoke sympathy from readers who can see that she is struggling to re-establish a relationship with a child whom she had lost through her own abusive behavior toward him. The narrator’s description of her time with her son is a poignant reminder of the way the maternal instinct drives women to make significant sacrifices for their children.

One might also assume that the story is an indictment of the social welfare system that separates a mother from her child and makes reunification of the family exceedingly difficult. From the narrator’s point of view, the bureaucrats who determine the fate of her child seem to have no understanding of how deeply she cares for Davey. What becomes apparent to astute readers, however, is that the case workers are acting in the child’s best interest because the narrator is actually unfit to raise Davey. As the narrator herself makes clear, when she is with her son she behaves more like an older sibling than a parent; they are like two children playing together. Even if it is not clear to...

(The entire section is 492 words.)