Feather Crowns Themes
by Bobbie Ann Mason

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Feather Crowns Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Feather Crowns, themes of family, motherhood, identity, religion, imagination, superstition, public reaction and sheer survival weave in and out of the story. A sensitive woman among common farm folk, Christie finds herself teetering on the brink of insanity more than once during this epic-long story of one woman's coping mechanism with life. Living among people who consider the birth of her quintuplets comparable to that of a pig's litter, Christie struggles to find her own meaning in an outrageous event from which, at times, she feels completely divorced. Having dealt with growing misapprehension about what type of creature was forming in her body over her nine month pregnancy, Christie alternates between feeling cursed and blessed after the appearance of the five babies. Mason ties the pregnancy and birth, and the mystical feelings it arouses in Christie, to an outdoor camp religious meeting which Christie and her best friend Amanda attend while Christie is pregnant. A sensual woman, Christie has what she considers evil dreams regarding the young preacher who leads the revival. As her babies begin to die, one by one, her sorrow leads her to try to place the guilt for their deaths upon her sin of unclean thought. She also wonders whether she and James might not have sinned in having sex as often as they did. Her musings are complemented by a discussion of the meaning of various signs by those around her. Mason takes advantage of the situation to present a startling and amusing array of superstitions of the time. One of those is connected with the Feather Crowns, swirls of feathers found within the babies' coverlet after they die. In the opinion of Amanda, the crowns represent a type of halo, indicating the babies were holy creatures whose spirits have ascended to heaven. Others believe the crowns represent death.

Mason presents an apt study of the macabre through the public's reaction to the birth and death of the quintuplets, using the setting of a carnival to frame her study. A local mortician offers to embalm the babies at no charge, so they may remain on display at his mortuary. Hundreds of curiosity seekers file through the mortuary to gaze upon the babies, not caring whether they see the famed quintuplets alive or dead. The unfeeling relentless pursuit of sensationalism by the public remains as unabashed following the deaths of the quints as it did following their births. Contrasting with such insolent attitudes are those of the grieving strangers who have lost children, or never had any. They seek contact with the newborn quints, as if the babies are an affirmation of their hopes to have children of their own. After the quintuplets' deaths, when Christie and James accompany their bodies on a tour about the country, Christie justifies the tour by saying she's going to let the public know that they were responsible for the infants' fates. However, she begins to change her mind as, "every day, amid the curious stares, she met someone who told her of losing a baby, or pressed upon her a photograph of some dead child . . . she didn't know what solace the sight of the five lifeless babies could give. Could her babies' deaths really have been a greater gift to the world than their lives might have been?"

The ever-present racism of the South is accented through the character of Mittens, a black wet nurse who helps feed the babies day and night with unceasing loyalty. James wonders aloud following the death of his babies whether it was not due to "nigger milk." Unendingly grateful to Mittens for her dedication to and love of the babies, Christie shocks the local community by pulling Mittens into the whites-only mourning room where the infants remain on display. When she and James travel across the deep South, a portion of the first letter she sends back to the local newspaper contains comments regarding the situation of the blacks: "And the Negroes are still living in the same quarters accorded to the slaves in pre-War times,...

(The entire section is 1,070 words.)