Themes and Meanings

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Much of the world of Mama Day is fictitious, even mythical, in a manner reminiscent of William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Naylor even provides her readers with a map of the offshore island between Georgia and South Carolina, but the island, connected to the mainland by a tenuous bridge, seems otherworldly, a matriarchal paradise. The bridge becomes a passage to a mainland world, which Willow Springs residents distrust: “And we done learned that anything coming from beyond the bridge gotta be viewed real, real careful.” The mainland is the source of real estate developers and education that distances students from reality and truth. Miranda cites the example of “Reema’s boy,” the African American anthropologist whose university education has rendered him unable to listen and to understand. Naylor’s readers face a similar task; they read a story that defies logic and are asked to listen and believe, just like George and Ophelia.

Despite the family tree, the bill of sale, and the map, the story of George and Ophelia changes, not for readers so much as for the tellers; as Ophelia says, “there are just too many sides to the whole story.” As Miranda tells about Sapphira Wade, she includes different versions about the death of Sapphira’s husband, Bascombe Wade—Sapphira either poisoned him or stabbed him. However, there is a core of meaning, just as there is a core of meaning in Mama Day, and Naylor invites her readers’ acceptance of truths that do not derive from “mainland” history, reason, and facts.

The best storytellers and listeners in the novel are women, the Day women especially. Despite Miranda’s belief that “we ain’t had much luck with the girls in this family,” the strain that passes from Sapphira to Miranda to Ophelia produces strong, nurturing women, as well as storytellers (at the end of the novel Ophelia is telling “myths” to her son George). Ophelia believes that, together, Miranda and Abigail were “the perfect mother.” Miranda, the midwife, is known as “Mama” Day, and Bernice’s problems having and rearing a child keep the idea of nurturing before the readers.

Mothers nurture so that their children will seek and learn, and the novel suggests that people “gotta go away to come back to that kind of knowledge,” knowledge about “the beginning of the Days.” Religious imagery pervades the novel, and the reference to “Days” suggests the beginning of time, Creation. The knowledge that Sapphira and Miranda had and that which is promised Ophelia transcends this world and makes of this woman something akin to the conjure woman, the seer, the prophet, and the deliverer of truth.

Themes and Meanings

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The primary theme of Mama Day is the education of Cocoa, the woman whose destiny it is to continue the line of Days. Although she leaves Willow Springs after George’s death and later remarries, in a sense she will become “Mama Day” after her great-aunt’s death. In other words, Cocoa has now gained the responsibility of self-knowledge, through which she is initiated into the matriarchy of the family. Symbolizing this responsibility is an intricate wedding quilt that Mama Day makes for Cocoa. The quilt is made from fragments of cloth from all of the female Days, from Sapphira through Cocoa herself, and is intended to give her a tangible object from which to draw strength. The pages explaining the making of the quilt, as well as the pages showing Cocoa’s reaction to it, are central to the novel.

Secondary to Cocoa’s education, but still important, is the education of George. Early in the novel, he is seen as a...

(This entire section contains 370 words.)

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product of New York, which means he has little faith in anything other than himself. George does not respect and honor his heritage as an African American man; in short, he lacks a soul. Mama Day tries to educate him into the ways of his ancestors, but he lacks faith in her and in her magic, leading to his death. Although he saves Cocoa, he cannot save himself.

It is possible, according to some critics, to see allusions to William Shakespeare in Mama Day as another theme. One critic finds many asides to Hamlet (1600-1601), especially in the character of Cocoa, whose given name is “Ophelia,” also the name of the young woman in Shakespeare’s play. Another critic finds the novel more reminiscent of The Tempest (1611), since Willow Springs is an isolated, magical place “ruled” by a person who can control the elements. It is worth noting that Mama Day’s given name is Miranda, which is also the name of the daughter of the sorcerer of The Tempest. Clearly, though, Naylor did not intend for these Shakespearean threads in the novel to take precedence over her primary theme. Instead, they merely serve as a counterpoint to the theme of Cocoa’s initiation into the matriarchy.

Themes

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In Mama Day, Naylor explores the effects of colonization on one group of people. She also celebrates a woman-centered culture and values traditionally associated with women: intuition, emotion, community, family. Several themes emerge from the many strands that Naylor weaves together: the continuity between generations that can serve as both a curse and a blessing, the power of faith and love, the seemingly contradictory importance of both personal autonomy and willingness to yield oneself for the greater good, and the paradoxical importance of valuing eccentricity yet seeking community and balance between extremes. All of these strands are essential components of the battle between good and evil that arises at the end of the novel.

Cocoa and George represent the mating of seemingly opposite principles on which the novel is built. They exhibit often polarized experiences and world views. Cocoa is hot-headed and passionate, often letting emotion guide her reactions. She takes for granted her connection to previous generations, makes visits home a priority, and is so steeped in her family's history and the islanders' rich heritage that she is unable to really see New York. George was brought up in the boys' home by a stern woman who emphasized focusing on the present, not the past. Cut off from his history, George lives in a highly rational world with little room for emotion, an exacting world dependent on maps, charts, clocks, and mathematical formulas. The "heart trouble" he has suffered since childhood is both literal and metaphorical.

George's typical approach becomes an obstacle when Cocoa is ill and the bridge washes out during the storm. Rebuffed by the islanders when he draws a plan to rebuild the bridge and sure that Cocoa's only hope lies outside the island, George becomes so frantic to get help that he determines to row a boat across the sound even though he cannot swim. Frustrated and angry that the men have taken apart the boat and used the wood for the new bridge, he finds their actions irrational; to him it is unthinkable that the cure for Cocoa's illness may lie in Miranda's power and his own ability to make room for what does not make logical sense.

Unlike Cocoa and George, Miranda is a model of wisdom and balance, able to approach healing both scientifically and intuitively. Not only does she represent the potential of both George and Cocoa as they mature and integrate unacknowledged parts of their personalities, but she also stands in stark contrast to Ruby Lee. Miranda uses her power rooted in an intuitive understanding of natural forces only for good or for righteous revenge, as when she puts the spell on Ruby.

While Miranda represents the power of the family's women, the absence of strong men in recent generations has thrown the family off balance. It is George who must begin to restore that balance. But he is locked in his rational viewpoint, unwilling to believe the islanders who tell him about Ruby's spell. He is unable to conceive of Miranda's role in creating the lightning storm to get revenge on Ruby; instead, George characteristically ponders at length the mathematical probability of lightning striking twice in the same place.

When Miranda instructs George to seek out the hen's nest, George dismisses her instructions as "mumbo jumbo." What Miranda asks George to do seems more symbolic than practical; in bringing together the ledger and cane that were passed down by strong males and the eggs that are essential in many of Miranda's mystical rituals, he unites male and female. Terrified of chickens, George is required to face his fear as well as his lack of faith. Because of Miranda's warning to George that the hen may act "evil"—a colloquialism for the hen's bad temper—the hen becomes representative of evil itself. But the hen's attack is, for George, the last straw. Unable to understand what Miranda wants of him, which may be only to carry out her instructions and demonstrate a belief in something beyond himself, he becomes angered at the hen's attack and begins to fight back, smashing the hen's skull. In an earlier conversation, Miranda and Abigail have acknowledged that love and faith are the only forces that can overcome the power of destruction; here George acts out of love but has no faith and ends up also choosing the way of destruction. He becomes more of a Christ figure than Miranda intended, collapsing with his "gouged and bleeding hands" as his heart bursts, inadvertently giving his life to save Cocoa's. Mournfully, Miranda observes, "He went and did it his way, so he ain't coming back."

Themes

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SupernaturalMama Day is imbued with supernatural occurrences. As part of the hoodoo religion they have inherited from their slave ancestors, the inhabitants of Willow Springs believe in the supernatural. Near the end of the novel, readers learn that George, one of the narrators, has been dead for fourteen years and that Cocoa speaks to him regularly.

But it is Mama Day who embodies the supernatural. She possesses a "gift" that she inherited from her great-grandmother, the slave Sapphira Wade. According to Willow Springs legend, Sapphira was a "conjure woman" who "could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of the lightning to start the kindling going under the medicine pot.… She turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four." According to the bill of sale for Sapphira that prefaces the novel, she "has served on occasion in the capacity of midwife and nurse, not without extreme mischief and suspicions of delving in witchcraft."

This language expresses the white world's view of Sapphira's power, but the novel goes to great lengths to demystify and present in a positive light the powers Mama Day possesses. In the world of Willow Springs, where all the inhabitants are descendants of slaves, magic and the supernatural are everyday parts of life, and Mama Day's gift is something to be respected and occasionally feared.

The novel makes a clear distinction between the kind of conjuring or hoodoo that Mama Day practices and two other kinds: the trickery of Dr. Buzzard and the evil practices of Ruby. Mama Day uses her powers for benevolent purposes, healing the sick, helping women to give birth, and helping Bernice get pregnant. As she says, she gets "joy … from any kind of life." Her job is "bringing on life, knowing how to get under, around, and beside nature to give it a slight push." She works in concert with nature to help things grow, while Ruby uses spells, poisons, and herbal mixtures with graveyard dust to kill and drive insane the women whom she fears are after her man. The only time Mama Day kills is when she attracts lightning to Ruby's house in revenge for Ruby's poisoning of Cocoa. And while Dr. Buzzard also claims to heal, his remedies are fake, consisting mostly of alcohol and nothing of any real medicinal value. He also exploits the villagers' fears and beliefs in ghosts to hawk his charms and talismans.

Mama Day's practices are described in great detail to emphasize that what she possesses most of all is a vast knowledge of effective herbal remedies. She also uses her understanding of psychology, such as when she helps Bernice by giving her black and gold seeds, which, rather than possessing supernatural powers, represent her negative feelings about her mother-in-law and her hopes for her baby. Naylor therefore demystifies some of Mama Day's practices and shows the reader that her supernatural powers are natural extensions of her understanding of the "real" world.

Cultural Heritage
The lesson that Cocoa must learn in Mama Day is that she cannot escape her past. Even though she has spent the last several years in New York, in the last half of the book she must come to terms with Willow Springs and her heritage, which means the loss of "peace" that the women in her family have suffered.

George cannot help her with this because he has no past and no understanding of the rich heritage of the Day family. He does not understand why they have to put moss in their shoes when they walk in the west woods where her ancestors are buried. She can only say, "It is a tradition," and "It shows respect." He is intrigued by the "other place," the Day ancestral home, and wants to become a part of it without knowing its sad history. While Cocoa hears voices telling her that "you'll break his heart," George hears nothing and tells her that "we could defy history."

When Cocoa becomes ill from Ruby's poisoning, Mama Day goes to the other place to find out what she has to do to save Cocoa. She realizes that Cocoa has put a significant part of herself in George's hands and that he must help her. When he is unable to join hands with Mama Day and make the "bridge for Baby Girl to walk over," he must sacrifice his life to save Cocoa. Only with his death and his letting go of Cocoa can Mama Day's remedies return Cocoa to health and her cultural heritage, making her the first Day to learn "the meaning of peace." And only in death can George become a part of the island and its heritage. He is buried on the island, and Cocoa names one of her sons from a subsequent marriage after him.

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