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...

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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.

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.

Themes

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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.

Death
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 play is an hour and a half of preparation for the act of dying. The audience also sees and hears the emotions that are usually reserved for after the death of a loved one: the pain, the grief, the fear, the anger, and the reluctant acceptance.

Human Condition
The human condition is often identified as a component of the basic human need for survival. In 'night, Mother, Thelma's hour and a half effort to save her daughter's life reveals much about the nature of the human condition. The audience is given a glimpse of the nature of the Cates's lives, their pain and anguish and the barren quality of their existence as Thelma tries to find a reason to deter her daughter's suicide. That Jessie can so easily dismiss her mother's pleas and offers of help discloses that there is no single reason as to why she wants to die; in Jessie's mind the overwhelming sensation is that there is no single reason for her to continue living.

Identity
An important issue for Jessie is her attempt to create an identity. She tells her mother that her brother calls her "Jess like he knows who he's talking to.'' She also says that her son Ricky is "as much like me as it's possible for any human to be"; Jessie identifies them both as failures. She so identifies herself with her husband that when he decides to leave her she writes herself a note telling her what she knows he feels. Jessie's identity is so tied up in the identities of those she loves—and she is too weary to attempt to assert a new identity in life— that she feels the only way to separate herself is through death.

Limitations and Opportunities
Jessie's choice to die is a direct result of the lack of opportunity in her life. She can see no future and no change and thus no purpose in her continued existence. Her epilepsy and her life's choices have resulted in an existence bound by limits and lost opportunities. Although her disease is now under control, a lifetime of limitations have conditioned Jessie to not look beyond the moment. Suicides are often characterized as individuals who cannot see that they have another choice. Jessie certainly fits this model.

Natural Law
Natural law is often described as the survival of the fittest (as Charles Darwin notes in his study of evolution The Origin of Species). It can be applied as simply an evolutionary term that accounts for the survival of one species over another. It is sometimes used to account for why one individual survives and another does not. Certainly there are applications to 'night, Mother, since not all epileptics commit suicide (most lead normal lives that involve active socialization and work), nor do all women who are divorced or have failed personal relationships kill themselves. Jessie's death can be described as keeping with the natural law of survival—it should be noted, however, that it is Jessie who feels the world holds no place for her, not vice versa. Were she willing to make the effort, it is clear that Jessie could function in and be a part of the world. The manner in which natural law plays a part in the play is wholly created in Jessie's mind; part of her reasoning is that she is not strong enough—she has been condition to believe—that she is too weak to live.

Success and Failure
Success and failure are important themes in 'night, Mother because they account for the reasons behind Jessie's actions. Jessie chooses suicide to escape a life that is empty and which she sees as likely to remain empty. While she does not describe her life as a failure, it is clear from her failed marriage and her son's behavior that she sees little reason to celebrate her life achievements as successes. She regards her life as a failure and even describes her inability to work as a failing. That she cares for her mother cannot be regarded as a success, since Jessie also recognizes that her mother allows Jessie to care for her as a means to keep her busy, not out of any actual need.

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