Getting Mother's Body Themes

The main themes in Getting Mother's Body are motherhood, racism, and treasure and wealth.

  • Motherhood: Billy, who is pregnant, has a complicated relationship with her deceased mother, Willa Mae. After digging up Willa Mae's body, Billy is able to grieve and to accept her aunt June as a mother figure.
  • Racism: As a young black woman in the 1960s, Billy contends with racism, as do characters like Homer.
  • Treasure and wealth: A need for money motivates the characters as they go in search of the treasure rumored to be buried with Willa Mae's body. Billy uncovers symbolic treasure in the form of her relationships with June and Laz.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on March 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002

Motherhood

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Getting Mother's Body is defined by the overarching theme of motherhood. When Billy is introduced, she is pregnant and eager to become a mother, believing that Snipes will marry her and thus confer upon her the respectability her own mother never achieved. Billy's relationship with her own mother is a complex and difficult one: other people often remark that she is very similar to Willa Mae, but Billy rejects this idea, desperate not to repeat the mistakes of her own mother's life even as she, to the consternation of her family, sets off down the same path toward unwed motherhood. Once Billy realizes that Snipes has no intention of marrying her, she becomes fixated on the idea of aborting her child in order to escape the fate that met her mother—despite the fact that she has long decried the fact that Willa Mae died as a result of a botched abortion.

At the point of Willa Mae's death, Billy declared, "Good riddance." But she is not rid of Willa Mae, whose specter haunts the story in the form of flashbacks and haunting songs from the perspective of the dead woman. Only when Billy digs up her mother's body and is confronted with the truth of her death is she finally able to vent her grief and lay Willa Mae's ghost to rest. In terms of motherhood, this also has other effects in the wider story. Not only is Billy able to accept that a good man, Laz Jackson, loves her and is willing to legitimize her own motherhood, she is also able to recognize that a would-be mother, June, has been in her life all along. June is a woman who is "missing" a piece, in physical terms—she has only one leg—but also in a spiritual and emotional sense, due to the fact that she is unable to have children. She has always tried hard with Billy, believing that if she and Teddy loved her as mothers and fathers love their children, then Billy would eventually become their daughter. This has never yet proven true, but over the course of the treasure hunt that results in the uncovering of Willa Mae, Billy and June come to a closer understanding of each other. When Billy refers to her unborn child as a "grandbaby" of June's, she is recognizing that "blood to blood" is not all that makes a family and that she has a mother in June after all.

Racism

The racism that typified American society in 1963 is a significant factor throughout the novel. As a young, unmarried black girl, Billy is in a more vulnerable situation than a white girl would be, as Teddy observes when he decides she cannot be allowed to travel to her mother's grave alone. As a black woman, she is already vulnerable to attack because of the relatively lesser value her life is accorded by society. As an unwed pregnant woman, these risks are massively multiplied.

The community in which Billy and the Jacksons live in Lincoln is almost entirely black. As such, when they arrive at Estelle's home, they are discomfited by the fact that it is in a majority white neighborhood. People in the homes around them twitch their curtains and stare at the car, and the group recognizes their fear—that this is a new family about to move in, thus lowering the value, as they see it, of the neighborhood as a whole. Estelle's family represents the beginning of social change, as black families become wealthier and begin to move in to previously white-only neighborhoods. However, it is made clear that their wealth does not protect them from societal injustice. On the contrary, Homer Beede is arrested seemingly for the crime of driving an expensive car and kept in jail overnight, where he is forced to bribe policemen and has his watch stolen. The society of 1960s America is changing, but racism still pervades it, regardless of how much money a black family might possess.

Treasure and Wealth

The theme of money, and the lack of it, is prevalent throughout the book. Billy is perpetually short of cash and suffers for it. When Snipes gives her $63, she is delighted; this money represents, to her, that he is making provision for her. She is able to charm Mrs. Jackson into selling her a dress for far less than the asking price, because she is young and beautiful but also because Mrs. Jackson's formalwear business is subsidized by her husband's funeral home, which makes money because people never stop dying. Later, when Billy learns that Snipes is already married, she needs money for another purpose: to procure an abortion for the child she no longer wants. Dill, meanwhile, is known to be both excellent with money and completely unwilling to share it; Billy approaches her for the money to drive to her mother's grave and, when she is refused, simply steals Dill's truck.

Meanwhile, the motivations of most of the Beede family seem to be connected to the idea of a "treasure" having been buried alongside Willa Mae. While June and Teddy are interested in the treasure because they want to be able to help Billy, Homer is driven purely by his own greed. When Willa Mae's body is finally dug up, the coffin is found to contain a diamond ring: the ring which the usually-savvy Dill has hoarded all these years turns out to have been a fake all along. At the same time, Billy has uncovered treasure in more than one sense. By confronting the reality of her mother's death, she is finally able to accept the love of her aunt June and her would-be lover, Laz; Laz also brings her treasure in that he offers her marriage and also withdraws all his savings for the purpose. Finally, he is able to present her mother's ring to her, all the more valuable because of what it represents, rather than for the cash that might have been generated from the sale of it.

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