Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother is a play about most people’s inability to communicate meaningfully, even when an obvious crisis requires it. Suicide is merely the catalyst that forces Jessie and Mama to talk with one another. It seems that Mama, at least at first, considers it a considerable sacrifice when she volunteers not to watch television that evening. It is no surprise, then, that the two women learn more about each other in less than two hours than they had in a lifetime of living together.

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Jessie, and perhaps her mother as well, had never realized the degree to which the older woman had resented the special relationship of father and daughter. Yet, despite significant discoveries such as this one, neither woman experiences any great insight. Jessie never sees that her father’s withdrawals might have indicated a medical condition similar to her own. Mama remains childlike to the end; her wants are all sense-related and can be satisfied by eating a cupcake, watching television, or opening a trinket from the grab bag Jessie has left for her. There is no indication that Mama feels any guilt for Jessie’s death or that she will assume some new maturity. In this reversal of roles, the child, Jessie, becomes her mother’s guardian, but only long enough to make sure that all is in order. Jessie rises to a certain nobility, but its only lasting effect is self-destruction.

Some might consider that Norman suggests here that suicide is an acceptable alternative to living a life one considers intolerable, but Jessie’s view is not necessarily that of the playwright. Norman does not take an authorial point of view at all; she simply allows the women of her play to speak frankly. The result is that ’night, Mother is a tragedy only in the sense that its characters have missed a lifetime of opportunities to understand each other and reach only a limited mutual insight in Jessie’s final hours. Unlike characters in classical tragedy, neither realizes the full extent of her loss.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1009

Alienation and Loneliness
Alienation and loneliness are important themes in 'night Mother, Jessie has become totally isolated as a result of her epilepsy and her failed attempt at raising a family. Her mother hid the disease to protect Jessie, but in doing so, she also isolated the child from the world. She is so alone that the only way she can meet a man and marry is for her mother to hire him to so some construction work on the house. Jessie cannot work because of her disease and by the time her epilepsy is under control, she is too frightened and set in her ways to attempt life in the outside world. Jessie's decision to kill herself results from the isolation and loneliness of her life.

Free Will
Jessie's choice to kill herself is her attempt to take control of her life. In a small way she took control when she chose smoking instead of her husband, but that provided a bitter and hollow victory, since she still loved Cecil. Her epilepsy and her mother's efforts to shelter her from any knowledge of her disease in some way deprived Jessie of the free will to make decisions about her disease and, more broadly, her life. Free will means assuming responsibility for an individual's actions and an acceptance of the consequences; Jessie's choice of suicide is her effort to assert control and act upon the free will that she feels has been absent from her life.

The theme of death—by definition the utter lack of life—lies at the center of 'night, Mother . Preparation for her death is the reason for Jessie's actions and the purpose behind the dialogue that carries the play's action. It is her effort to provide closure that motivates Jessie to tell her mother of her pending suicide....

(The entire section contains 1352 words.)

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