Issues of Identity and Autonomy

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A critical issue in 'night, Mother is the relationship between Jessie and her mother, Thelma. It is evident in Jessie's preparations for her suicide that she regards herself as her mother's primary caretaker. Jessie is responsible for her mother's diet, for the maintenance of the home, and for her mother's health, or so her Thelma lets her believe. In assuming so much control over her mother, Jessie has reversed the mother-daughter relationship and has become a mother to her own mother. It is little wonder, then, that she cannot imagine an identity separate from her mother's. In deciding that she will kill herself, Jessie is finally establishing an identity of her own and setting a boundary between them that her mother cannot cross. When Jessie announces her decision to kill herself at the end of the evening that she sets in motion a series of events that must end with her death; there is never any doubt that Jessie will die at the play's conclusion because it is necessary for her to die to free herself. The choice she makes is one that only she can make; her mother has no say in the matter. Their dialogue establishes that this may have been the first significant decision Jessie has ever made independent of her mother.

Jessie has always been bound to her mother. She left her mother's home to marry the man her mother selected for her, and, when that marriage failed, she returned home to her mother. And with the example of her parent's unhappy and uncommunicative marriage before her, Jessie accepted that a retreat to her mother's house was her only option. According to developmental psychology, adult maturation is partially achieved through a separation from parental figures, as a person acquires independence and the ability to make independent decisions. This maturation process has been lacking in Jessie's life. She has been sheltered and protected, kept isolated in her mother's home, and closeted with only her family to provide socialization. Consequently, a complete break from her family is the only option if Jessie is to become an individual; the tragedy of this play is that for Jessie suicide is the only avenue to this independence.

The isolation of an existence without friends and a lack of the socialization that accompanies the emotional and physical growth of most young women is an important feature of Jessie's loneliness. The emptiness of her life is the primary reason she offers for her decision to kill herself. And it is the one argument her mother cannot combat. In the series of objections that Thelma raises regarding Jessie's suicide, the closest she can come to dealing with her daughter's loneliness is her suggestion of a dog to provide companionship.

Thelma recognizes and understands Jessie's isolation. She has lived a long time with solitude. Any thought that her daughter would provide companionship evaporated when Jessie demonstrated that she preferred the company of her silent father; but since Jessie, too, has a propensity for silence, it is unlikely that Jessie could ever have provided Thelma with a substantial form of companionship. Instead of conversation, Thelma has satisfied her social needs and combated her loneliness with needlepoint, junk food, and candy. But for Jessie, the craving for something more in her life cannot be satisfied with food or cross-stitching. Indeed, Thelma states that Jessie has never been interested in eating. She needs to fill an emptiness that food cannot satisfy. And like many people who commit suicide, Jessie Cates sees this as the only option left to her; it is the only way to cancel a life...

(This entire section contains 1637 words.)

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filled with hopelessness, helplessness, and emptiness.

In an essay in Modern Drama that examines Jessie's need to establish her identity and autonomy, Jenny S. Spencer began by noting the different responses that men and women had to a performance of 'night, Mother which she attended. She observed that men found the play predictable and without tension. They were not surprised by the suicide. But Spencer noted that the women with whom she spoke found the play realistic and disturbing. On some level, women can empathize and identify with both Jessie and Thelma. Spencer argued that when Jessie articulates her inability to change her life—"[I] cannot make it better, make it work. But I can stop it"—she is trying to establish some control over her life. This speech establishes the purpose motivating Jessie's decision. It provides her with authority, with autonomy, with identity. Spencer maintains that Jessie's suicide, "self-negating as it is, will specifically address that need to protect, to fix, to determine her identity."

That Jessie lacks an identity is evident from the information given regarding her past. She identifies so strongly with the husband she has lost but still loves that, when he left her, she wrote a note to herself justifying his choice and signing his name. She explains this by saying that she knew how he felt. She excuses her son's behavior by asserting that he is like her and thus doomed to failure. Jessie's self is so apart of her husband and child that she cannot exist separately from them. Thelma further robs Jessie of an identity when she tells Jessie that she is just like her father. She is silent as he was silent, but more importantly, the source of her disability, her epilepsy, is inherited from him; she has his disease. Even the epilepsy that she thought resulted from a fall from a horse is not her own. As she sees the situation, there is no part that is wholly hers. And, of course, she is also her mother. Jessie has become her mother, not only because she is now Thelma's caretaker, but because daughters are always bound in some inexplicable way to their mothers.

As Jessie's identity cannot be detached from her mother's, Thelma's cannot be isolated from Jessie's. Thelma's fear is the one that nags at all mothers: if my child dies, will I cease to be a mother? As Spencer observed: "Mama is engaged in the immediate struggle to save her child's life, a struggle in which her own identity is equally at stake." 'night, Mother is not a play about suicide. It is a play, as Spencer wrote, "about mothers and daughters, about feminine identity and feminine autonomy." The realism of Norman's dialogue speaks to mothers and daughters who can immediately identify with the conflict and tensions that define the Cates's lives. Consequently, women recognize themselves in the dialogue, whereas men see and hear little with which to identify.

As 'night, Mother is played out on stage, the audience is made aware of the passing of time. The play is constructed in one act without intermission. The clocks on stage display real time. Although time is advancing, in many ways the clocks also serve as a kind of countdown. When time runs out, the shot will sound and Jessie will die somewhere off stage. The tension in the audience quickens during this period. As Mama's arguments are met with resistance, the audience becomes aware that Jessie's suicide is inevitable. Serving as counterbalance to this tension is Thelma's almost growing, though unnerving, acceptance of Jessie's decision. She does try a succession of arguments designed to change Jessie's mind, but when they fail, the two begin a conversation about how Thelma should report the death, who she should call, and how she should behave at the funeral. The conversation assumes an even more macabre tone when Mama says, "I'll talk about what I have on, that's always good. And I'll have some crochet work with me." The matter-of-fact nature of this conversation indicates that Thelma also realizes the inevitability of Jessie's loss and her attention turns to how to cope.

In an essay that examines Thelma's reliance on oral gratification as a substitute for emotional involvement, Laura Morrow asserted in Studies in American Drama that "mama prefers surface to substance.'' That is, Thelma uses immediate gratification—in her case candy and junk food—as a means to deny reality. Chatter serves much the same purpose. Mama cannot understand the silence of her husband and her daughter. She cannot understand that both use silence as a means of reflection. Mama, on the other hand, uses conversation in place of thought. It is simply easier for her to talk than to think. That Jessie recognizes these traits in her mother is evident in the preparations she makes before her death. Her immediate concern is with food. Jessie instructs her mother on how to order food and when to have it delivered. She orders a supply of her mother's favorite junk food and candy. Jessie even anticipates that her mother won't eat the foods that she needs and insists that the milkman continue to deliver milk—even if her mother objects. But Jessie is also aware of her mother's other hunger, and so she suggests other people with whom Thelma can have conversations. Jessie's brother Dawson and his wife can also provide company, but Mama rejects this because they only have Sanka (instant coffee). Once again, food takes priority in her life. And yet, it is clear to the audience that Thelma loves Jessie and that Jessie returns that love. The audience can only assume that their love for one another is not enough for Jessie to transcend a lifetime of disappointment and pain.

'night, Mother is a profoundly disturbing play that forces its audience to confront the darker issues that arise in some families. And although Norman conditions the audience to expect it, the offstage sound of the gunshot at the play's end has a power and a shock all its own.

Source: Sheri Metzger, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Metzger holds a Ph.D, and has a strong background in literature and drama education.

I Thought You Were Mine. Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother

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In a nondescript house in anonymous America a conversation unfolds between two women. In the course of this routine and quiet evening at home the revelation shared by one offers up a jolting portrayal of a personal relationship and power. Jessie, a woman in her late thirties or early forties, announces to her mother that she is going to kill herself at the end of the evening. In the ensuing dialogue Thelma, her mother, moves from scoffing disbelief to the stunned realization that her daughter is serious.

No crisis has precipitated this decision. Indeed, nothing has happened at all. But Jessie explains her growing recognition that the prospects for her future are as bleak as her life has been disappointing and filled with failure to that point. She has lived with her mother for a long time. Divorced, alienated from her criminal son, struggling with—and only recently having gained some control over—her epileptic seizures, she lives in a world isolated from outside support and friendship. The father she loved as a child has died. She is not close to, indeed resents, her older, domineering brother and his wife. Jessie explains that she has been thinking about suicide for years and has chosen this moment simply because she now feels good enough to do it. As she relates in poignant understatement, "I'm just not having a very good time and I don't have any reason to think it'll get anything but worse. I'm tired I'm hurt. I'm sad. I feel used."

The power of the play 'night, Mother lies in its relentless movement toward the final gunshot. No matter how much we do not want to believe it will come, we are forced to share with the mother a growing realization that the evening will end with Jessie's death. Death lends to all of human existence an urgency and poignancy, a sense of meaning that arises from the awareness that life will not last. In Jessie's case the knowledge and control over the timing of that end and its immediacy are themselves the source of meaning never before existent in her life. Her suicide arms her with a power, a sense of control over her life. It is the lens through which she offers a view of her existence, an existence so fraught with detachment and boredom that she chooses to continue meticulously in the tedious business of its day-to-day routine until that moment when she shuts it off. But when her life is compressed within the boundaries of that evening, what emerges are a few hours of honesty and intensity that burst like a meteoric glimpse of what this mother-daughter relationship is and what it might have been.

When Jessie chooses suicide, she not only defines the boundaries of her existence, she draws the boundaries between mother and daughter as well. She makes a choice that is not her mother's choice. Thelma does not disagree with Jessie's view of life. She, too, has had her share of disappointments. Her marriage was unhappy and she carries an unreasonable guilt that she was somehow responsible for Jessie's epilepsy. She acknowledges the unattractiveness of her life: "We don't have anything anybody'd want, Jessie. I mean, I don't even want what we got, Jessie". Her life is characterized by limitations, by a sense of detachment and resignation that would have her observe that "there's just not that much to things that I could ever see". But while she does not understand it, she is resigned to getting through life, helped, so to speak, by her attempts to sweeten her existence with dishes of candy scattered throughout the house.

Jessie's decision is a repudiation of her mother's choices. It is her one clear statement that she will not be like her mother. This is in striking defiance of the mother's assumption of oneness in their relationship, an assumption that allows her to say presumptuously, "Everything you do has to do with me, Jessie: You can't do anything, wash your face or cut your finger, without doing it to me". In the end she cannot even keep her daughter alive.

As we are left to wonder how this daughter came to see all of the elements of her life as indicative of failure and alienation, and how this mother's experience contributes to this conclusion, we have only the evidence of this brief, private conversation. As Jessie says, "You're it, Mama. No more." The horrible bleakness of life, the emptiness Jessie experiences is not a peculiarity of female existence. But the significance of the mother-daughter relationship in the daughter's sense of powerlessness is unique to women. This play is not merely about the perils of parenthood or, more specifically, even the precariousness of motherhood in regard to daughters. It is about the problem and the elusiveness of autonomy, one of the stages on which the drama of human development unfolds.…

At some point, most mothers and daughters recognize that they are pitted in an ageless struggle by their mutual efforts to maintain their relationship in its earliest form or to alter it. Like a complicated primitive dance, they perpetually pull together and move apart. The daughter resists her mother's attempts to control her life, yet at the same time resents the mother for what the mother has not been able to provide for her. The mother, on the other hand, simultaneously pushes her daughter away, in an effort to teach her not to expect nurturance but to give it and yet strives to protect and cling to her daughter, to claim her as an extension or possession. From this struggle emerges the opportunity for daughters to make their own choices, develop a sense of themselves, and participate in relationships as more equal partners.

For daughters, and thus for all women, the struggle is played out continuously in relationships. It is the choice between security and risk, loyalty and self-assertion, submission and power. They must choose to replay intricate patterns of dependency and need or courageously engage in equitable partnerships. Given the unique dynamics of this first important relationship, women are in greatest peril of failing to develop an adequate sense of meaning and autonomy when they confront the temptation to accept a sense of meaning assigned to them by others, assigned to them initially by their mothers.

This is the tragic realization to which Jessie comes too late. Jessie's isolation and exclusive reliance upon her mother as sole companion are insufficient to provide her with a sense of self, to provide her with a sense of power, a sense of meaning in life: "What if you are all I have and you're not enough?" "It's somebody I lost, all right, it's my own self. Who I never was, or who I tried to be and never got there. Somebody I waited for who never came. And never will.''

The healthy course, to participate in relationships as an equal partner rather than as a dependent or recipient, requires giving up the security of an unequal relationship. It requires being strong and hopeful about one's own future while tolerating the pain of knowing the limitations and diminishment of the one with whom one may be most identified. It also implies staying around to confront the consequences of honesty, something of which Jessie's choice of suicide relieved her.

Honesty is a casualty of unequal relationships. The lack of honesty in mother-daughter relationships is not always intentional or malicious and usually arises out of a desire to protect. Mothers alter the truth in an effort to shield their daughters from what well may be a harsh reality. In doing so, however, they fail to equip their daughters to deal with reality, whatever it may be. I am reminded of a friend's story of how, as a young girl, she could not tolerate spending even one night away from home. When she called home her mother always insisted that everything was fine in the same tone of voice she always used, even in the presence of disaster. The mother's reassurances became red flags that pitched the young girl into a frenzy of anxiety and fear.

If Thelma is at fault, it is only in believing she could provide everything for this daughter, that she alone could be enough. So pervasive is this expectation, that even Jessie shares it, only realizing the bitter consequences of it on the evening of her death. She says of the decision to return to live with her mother, "If it was a mistake, we made it together."

In the end, whatever this particular mother did would have been wrong, just as whatever any mother does is wrong. As long as she is made to feel ultimately responsible for her daughter's well-being, a mother is thrust into unyielding, conflicting expectations. She encourages her daughter's dependency and identification with her while struggling with her own ambivalence about rearing a child who may serve to remind her of her own limitations. She must enable the daughter to develop a sense of self-sufficiency while being charged by society to engender qualities that may not contribute to a sense of power or well-being. The qualities that we think of as characterizing a good mother are not necessarily qualities that enable young daughters to attain autonomy. Mothers either love their children too much or not enough. And their daughters either love or hate them whatever they do.

As the interaction moves on to its jarring conclusion, we sense the inevitability of its outcome. It is not that there was anything missing from this relationship, though this might be a more reassuring assessment. Jessie and Thelma were not more or less honest than most other mothers and daughters. This mother did not deprive her daughter, at least not any differently from the ways many mothers deprive their daughters when they pass on to them their insecurities and needs and sense of resignation. Nevertheless, Thelma is left to wonder what she could have done wrong, just as she has wondered all her life how she could have altered the reality of her daughter's epilepsy or failed marriage or any other experience in life she could not have controlled. Thelma's helpless questioning mirrors our own disturbing questions. How could it have been possible for Jessie to feel a sense of anticipation in her life of good things to come rather than the certainty of failure and deprivation? Confronted with such a small universe and a limited set of options, how could she have developed a strong enough sense of self to survive?

In the end, the only reality we can know is that self which we cannot help being, the self known first in that most primary of relationships, the private affair between mother and daughter, those two selves that merge and painfully pull apart and that ultimately cannot bear the burden of existence for each other. But the frightening prospect of randomness in this relationship is that it can lead in either of two ways. As that relationship is reenacted again, for every daughter, in all subsequent relationships, one either learns the courage to experience meaning in life and the power of a separate self, experienced in relation to others, or one shares the painful expression of this woman's reality—that the only power one has is the power to say no.

Source: Sally Browder, '"I Thought You Were Mine'. Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother," in Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 109-13. A frequent author on themes of personality and development, Browder is a clinical psychologist and program director specializing in women's psychiatric treatment.

The Artistic Merits of 'night, Mother

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The hyperbole machine is operating on Broadway again. Upon a modest two-character play with nothing flagrantly wrong with it—but not much to get excited about either—the reviewers have lavished nearly their whole stock of ecstatic adjectives, to which encomiums a Pulitzer Prize has just been added. Even before Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother reached New York City, Robert Brustein likened it to Long Day's Journey Into Night. (That Brustein's American Repertory Theater had given the play its premiere, in Boston, might have had something to do with that wild comparison.) Well, O'Neill's best play and Norman's do have something in common: they both bring us unpleasant news about the family.

The play takes place one evening in a house "way out on a country road" in the South. A middle-aged woman and her thirtyish daughter live here. The mother is silly, self-indulgent and totally reliant on her daughter in practical matters; the daughter is heavyset, slow-moving and morose. Early in the evening she informs her mother that she is going to kill herself that night. "I'm tired," she says. "I'm hurt. I'm sad. I feel used." From then on the play details the mother's frantic efforts to dissuade her daughter and the young woman's stolid insistence on carrying out her plan.

The mother makes absurd suggestions: the daughter could take up crocheting; they could get a dog, rearrange the furniture. The younger woman grimly makes her preparations, showing her mother where things are in the kitchen, telling her how to pay the bills and so on. As the mother begins to grasp her daughter's seriousness, her arguments become the "reasonable" ones any civilized person would make, but the daughter beats them back, saying she wants to turn life off "like the radio when there's nothing on I want to listen to."

Up to this point the play is moderately interesting as a moral inquiry (do we have the right to kill ourselves?) and moderately effective as a tale of suspense. But then the women begin to talk about the past, the daughter's childhood in particular, and what emerges is commonplace and predictable. I don't mean their lives are commonplace and predictable—that's a given—but dramatically the play falls into domestic cliche. The mother confesses that she and her husband, the girl's father, had no love for each other and, in response to the daughter's lament, says, "How could I know you were so alone?"

Next we learn that the daughter suffers from epilepsy. She says it's in remission and isn't the reason she's killing herself, but the fact of the illness, and especially the fact that the mother for a long time hid the truth about it from her, enters our consciousness as a diminution of mystery. So too does the daughter's admission that her own husband left her partly because she refused to stop smoking.

The effect of these revelations is that the suicide becomes explicable on the one hand—epileptics, neglected children and abandoned wives have a hard time "coping''—and ludicrous on the other—if nicotine is more important than marriage, what can you expect? The play might have had a richness, a fertile strangeness of moral and philosophical substance, had the suicide been undertaken as a more or less free act; had Norman not offered as the executor of this fascinating, dreadful decision a character with so many troubles. When the shot sounded (from behind a bedroom door) I wasn't startled, dismayed or much moved; it was all sort of sad, sort of lugubrious.

Norman writes cleanly, with wry humor and no bathos. Kathy Bates as the daughter and Anne Pitoniak as the mother give finely shaded performances. But the only way I can account for the acclaim, 'night, Mother's been getting, besides the hunger for "important," "affecting" dramas that gnaws at our educated theatergoers, is that this domestic tragedy doesn't succumb to the occupational disease of its genre: an "uplifting'' or at least a consoling denouement. But what a negative virtue that is, and what a comment on our impoverished theater! Yes, the play's honest, yes it's sincere; but have we reached the point where we find such minimal virtues something to rave about?

Source: Richard Gilman, review of 'night, Mother in the Nation, Vol. 236, No. 18, May 7,1983, p. 586. Gilman is an American educator and critic whose works include The Making of Modern Drama (1974) and Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet (1979).


Critical Overview