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...
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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 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.