Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
When Mama Day first appeared in 1988, the novel was met with mixed reviews. Some reviewers had a great respect for Naylor's ambitious book and its accomplishments, while others were simply confused. Those who liked the book commented on its power to absorb the reader in its magical world. As Rachel Hass wrote in the Boston Review, "The rhythm of the prose pulls you inside the story like a magnet." And in the Los Angeles Times, Rita Mae Brown urged, "Don't worry about finding the plot. Let the plot find you." But she also admitted, "Naylor's technique can be a confusing one to read." While Brown found this difficulty to be surmountable, leaving readers with rich rewards for their efforts, others did not.
What seemed to bother reviewers most were the novel's diversity of speakers and its mixture of realism and fantasy. Linda Simon, in the Women's Review of Books, criticized Naylor for not "opt[ing] for character development in a more realistic setting." In the end, Simon felt that too many questions were left unanswered because of the novel's reliance on magic to resolve the situation. But for Bharati Mukherjee in The New York Times Book Review, it was the sections about the magical world of Willow Springs that carried the novel. Naylor "is less proficient in making the familiar wondrous than she is making the wondrous familiar," she concluded. Overall, although some reviewers found the novel confusing, many believed that Naylor had established herself as an important author with Mama Day.
In the 1990s, the novel has received substantial attention from critics and scholars who have found it a rich and multi-layered text deserving serious analysis. Some specifically deride earlier reviewers for misunderstanding the novel. Missy Dehn Kubitschek wrote in a Melus essay, for example, that "the major reviews of Naylor's 1988 novel, Mama Day, refuse in crucial ways to grant the novel's donnée, even when they are generally positive." They do so, she argues, because they oversimplify the novel's message, seeing it as belonging to "one or another overly exclusive tradition." The wide variety of analyses of the novel, which focus on many equally important aspects of the novel, attest to Kubitschek's claim that Mama Day is a much richer text than reviewers first realized.
Some of the most prominent interpretations of the novel focus on the use of quilting imagery, the importance of magic and hoodoo traditions, and allusions to The Tempest. Scholars such as Susan Meisenhelder, in the African American Review, and Margot Anne Kelley, in Quilt Culture, have emphasized the importance of quilting to both the form and substance of Mama Day. As Meisenhelder argued, "Naylor repeatedly stitches past, present, and future together," and “Mama Day is … a complex narrative quilt of distinct voices." This structure of the novel as quilt helps reinforce the novel's message for Meisenhelder, which she interpreted as the "failure to see 'the whole picture,' to see history, community, and relationships between men and women as quilts, dooms black people to the madness and suicide characterizing white tragedies."
Others have seen the use of magic as the defining aspect of the novel, including Elizabeth T. Hayes, who argued in The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor that "the magical is as quotidian in Mama Day as peach pie," making the novel a prime example of "magic realism." Hayes also linked this approach to African-American culture, as do other critics like Lindsey Tucker, who explicated in her article for the African American Review the importance of conjure women such as Mama Day to Southern black folk culture, and Helen Fiddyment Levy, who in her book Fiction of the Home saw Naylor's use of magic and myth as powerful themes linking her characters to the African-American community.
Finally, many scholars have seen many direct connections between Mama Day and works by Shakespeare. Peter Erickson argued in his book Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves that Naylor revises Shakespeare, questioning the importance of the white literary tradition he represents and elevating the black folk tradition represented by the community of Willow Springs. As he and other critics, including Kubitschek, have pointed out, Naylor specifically engages The Tempest by making Willow Springs an island community that appears on no map, naming her protagonist Miranda, and having a hurricane descend upon the island at the novel's climax. But Naylor revises Shakespeare's play, as Erickson argued, by "rewrit[ing] the exchange between Prospero and Caliban concerning ownership," giving the slave descendants ownership of the island, and by making Miranda (Mama Day) a wise old woman with divine gifts and matriarchal power, as opposed to the innocent daughter of The Tempest. Miranda, in effect, becomes the Prospero figure, with a significant difference: she does not abuse her power.
Some critics also point to links between Mama Day and Hamlet and King Lear. In addition to these main interpretive approaches to Mama Day, there are still many others, most notably emphasizing black sisterhood, motherhood, and generational heritage in the novel. Overall, the criticism of Mama Day exhibits the text's many interpretive possibilities.