Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Terry McMillan uses style and technique to reinforce the theme of Ma’Dear’s solitude, sometimes taking literary license to do so. The term “Ma’Dear” is a truncated endearment for “Mother Dear.” In African American families, the appellation typically is applied to mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and other beloved females who display maternal characteristics. Not only does Ma’Dear in this story have no children, there is no indication that she is maternal. She lavishes her love on a man who has been dead for thirty-two years. The only children mentioned in the story are those of Thelma, Jessie’s niece, who is not comfortable with leaving the children in Ma’Dear’s care for long periods of time.

Ma’Dear’s isolation is emphasized further by McMillan’s failure to assign the principal character a first or last name. The only other character with no first or last name is the caseworker toward whom Ma’Dear directs much of her time and energy.

The sparseness and context of dialogue also are telling. There are only eight lines of quoted text. Two are contained in Ma’Dear’s fantasy about having pursued a career as an interior decorator. Five are part of a conversation with Gunther, a nursing home resident, and concern his grandson. Two of the quoted lines are with the caseworker.

Perhaps to underscore Ma’Dear’s solitude and her intense relationship with the unnamed caseworker, McMillan confers stereotypical characteristics on the caseworker. She further stresses Ma’Dear’s isolation in describing the character’s ability to overhear conversations while under the hair dryer in the beauty salon. McMillan would have the reader believe that Ma’Dear is so removed figuratively from other people that she has honed her auditory sense so sharply that she can overhear conversations under a commercial bonnet hair dryer.

Ma’Dear’s emergence from the self-imposed isolation that depresses her is forecast in the final paragraph of the story. After the caseworker leaves, Ma’Dear plans to go to a museum and look at new paintings. The reader is left to wonder whether during this visit the caseworker will find a lonely old widow who is merely waiting to die.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Dandridge, Rita B. “Debunking the Beauty Myth in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale.” In Language, Rhythm, and Sound: Black Popular Cultures into the Twenty-first Century, edited by Joseph K. Adjaye and Adrienne R. Andrews. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Dandridge, Rita B. “Debunking the Motherhood Myth in Terry McMillan’s Mama.” CLA Journal 41, no. 4 (1998): 405-416.

Ellerby, Janet Mason. “Deposing the Man of the House: Terry McMillan Rewrites the Family.” MELUS 22, no. 2 (June 1, 1997): 105-117.

Nunez, Elizabeth, and Brenda M. Greene. Defining Ourselves: Black Writers in the 90’s. New York: P. Lang, 1999.

Patrick, Diane. Terry McMillan: The Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Richards, Paulette. Terry McMillan: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.