Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482
Jessie Cates, a pale and somewhat physically unsteady woman in her late thirties or early forties. Overweight, afflicted with epilepsy, unable to hold a job, abandoned by her husband, and plagued by a delinquent son, Jessie faces a discouraging future: life with an aging mother and years of...
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Jessie Cates, a pale and somewhat physically unsteady woman in her late thirties or early forties. Overweight, afflicted with epilepsy, unable to hold a job, abandoned by her husband, and plagued by a delinquent son, Jessie faces a discouraging future: life with an aging mother and years of thoughtless holiday gifts from an insensitive brother and sister-in-law. Deciding finally to make a choice about her life, she calmly announces early in the play, “I’m going to kill myself, Mama” and then single-mindedly goes about the business of setting the household affairs in order. She explains the details of running the house to her mother, fends off the older woman’s attempts to change her plans, describes how her mother should act after the suicide, and finally goes into her bedroom, locks the door, and shoots herself. Jessie’s suicide is not an act of despair; on the contrary, her decision to kill herself is a positive act—an attempt to take control of her life, to act instead of passively allowing life to diminish her.
Thelma Cates, Jessie’s mother, a woman in her late fifties or early sixties who possesses a mental sturdiness that allows her to believe that things are what she says they are. Before the evening on which the play takes place, no one has challenged her beliefs. She denied Jessie’s epilepsy, stating instead that Jessie simply suffered from “fits.” She is a homebody whose living room is decorated with her needlework and whose greatest pleasure in life seems to be the consumption of the candy and pastries with which her kitchen is liberally stocked. A talkative woman, she tries to prevent Jessie’s suicide by asking questions, making suggestions, demanding explanations, scolding, reminiscing, even briefly baring her soul, and finally simply forcing conversation. Reduced to frantic hysteria when she finally realizes her powerlessness to stop Jessie, Thelma—after she hears the shot from the bedroom—succumbs to a lifetime of stoic coping and proceeds to follow Jessie’s last instructions by telephoning her daughter-in-law.
Dawson, Jessie’s brother. He does not appear onstage. She does not want him to come before she kills herself because she says that he will make her feel stupid for not having committed suicide ten years ago.
Loretta, Jessie’s sister-in-law, who does not appear onstage.
Cecil, Jessie’s husband, picked for her by Thelma. Jessie says that she tried to please him, but he knew that she was trying, so it did not work. He has left Jessie and moved away; she says that he gave her a choice either to quit smoking or to quit him, and she chose to smoke.
Ricky, Jessie and Cecil’s son, a teenager who has “gone bad.” Jessie does not know where he is. He does not appear onstage but comes up in conversation.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423
Jessie is somewhere in her mid-thirties or early forties. She suffers from epilepsy, and this, combined with her perceived failure in relationships, provokes her decision to commit suicide. She views this act as the ultimate means of asserting control over her life. She has an ex-husband whom she still loves. Her marriage was precipitated by her mother—if not outright arranged—when Thelma hired Cecil to build a porch she did not need. Jessie has a son, Ricky, who is a petty thief and has problems with drugs. For most of her life Jessie's epilepsy has made it impossible for her to work. As the play's action begins, drugs seem to have brought the disease under control, yet Jessie is too frightened of the outside world to venture into it. She sees her life as empty, without purpose, and without a future; an existence that is utterly beyond her control to alter. Jessie has suffered several losses: the death of her father (perhaps the closest relationship in her life), the break-up of her marriage, an absent son whom she regards as a failure, and the death of her dog. Her combined depression and fear of interaction with people other than her mother has led her to believe that the future holds no hope of change or any increase in autonomy; Jessie feels that she is a puppet acting out a life over which she has no authorship.
Thelma is Jessie's mother. She is a widow and has one other child, a son named Dawson who lives with his wife. In the course of the play, she reveals that she never loved Jessie's father and that they had little communication. She spends much of her time on needlework, and her creations clutter the family home. At first appearance she seems to be an elderly woman dependent on her daughter for many everyday necessities. It becomes clear through the course of the play, however, that she has allowed Jessie to take over these chores, not because she is incapable, but because she felt that Jessie needed a purpose.
At Jessie's announcement that she intends to commit suicide, Thelma displays a series of emotions: disbelief, anger, fear, desperation, and, finally, a degree of acceptance. She loves her daughter and makes every attempt to talk her out of killing herself. Yet there are intimations throughout the play that many of Jessie's problems may have been caused by Thelma's behavior toward and treatment of her daughter.
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