Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713
This intense drama, Marsha Norman’s first play, opened on Broadway in March, 1983. It was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The long conversation between mother and daughter demonstrates the fact that a mother can live in the same house with her daughter and think she knows her quite well while she actually knows very little about her. Jessie understands herself quite well; on this last evening of her life, she talks more than she ever has and demonstrates for the first time a sense of determination and purpose, a peaceful energy, her newly discovered self-confidence, and a “quirky” sense of humor that has never amused anyone except herself. She firmly believes that her decision to commit suicide is the best one she has ever made and that it is right for her. She also seems to be confident that her mother is capable of taking care of herself and that she will be better off doing so.
The previous lack of communication between the two is perhaps the major theme of the play. It is ironic that a woman who talks as much as Thelma has neglected to say so many truly meaningful things. Jessie has never asked questions, shared her opinions, or chosen to talk to anyone except her father. When Thelma asks what the two of them whispered about, Jessie replies that they were discussing important things such as why black socks are warmer than blue socks. Jessie has been very secure with her father’s habit of just sitting, of being quiet, and of not doing anything; Thelma has never understood it. In making strings of paper “boyfriends” and animals for Jessie, her father has given her the only memory of her childhood that she seems to value.
Thelma has a deep lack of self-confidence that becomes apparent for the first time after Jessie questions her about her lack of love for her husband. She says that Jessie’s father married her because he wanted a plain country woman and that is what she was and continues to be, yet she always thought he expected and wanted her to change. Like Jessie, she has been lonely and has felt misunderstood and unappreciated.
Jessie insists that she must use her father’s gun to kill herself and has to have her mother tell her where it is. She also has her former husband’s gun, however, just in case she cannot find her father’s. Her brother Dawson has told her how to get the bullets. The gun is obviously a phallic symbol indicating her assuming for the occasion an unaccustomed sense of masculine assertiveness. Until now, she has been virtually sexless as well as selfless.
In order to save face with her family, Jessie had written a note and pretended that Cecil had left it for her; she explains that she had never expected to go with him, knowing that a person rarely takes his garbage with him when he moves. Jessie knows that Cecil tried to make a success of their marriage; he tried to interest her in horseback riding and other things he enjoyed. He took pride in his skill as a carpenter and worked to help Jessie find herself and find a medical way to deal with her epilepsy, just as he worked so long building a crib for Ricky.
Each of the items in the box Jessie gives to Thelma to deliver to family members and to keep for herself has inherent symbolic significance. She leaves her grandmother’s ring to Thelma and sees no more value in the heritage she has received from the past than she does in the house slippers Dawson gives her each year. She has never worn any of them; he has bought them to fit Loretta rather than her, and she wants her mother to tell him this. Her genuine thoughtfulness and her understanding of her mother’s appreciation of the little pleasure in life are demonstrated in the little gifts she wants her mother to open one at a time as she feels the need. She also knows that Thelma needs something to look forward to and tells her that she has made out lists of gifts for Dawson to buy for her for several birthdays to come.