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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1362

Motherhood and Sacrifice

By exploring significant life experiences of four generations of women, Woodson illustrates the different forms that motherhood can take. Red at the Bone centers on the complicated relationship between Iris and Melody. Iris, who undergoes various phases of postpartum depression after giving birth to her daughter at age sixteen, initially seems optimistic about her pregnancy, but this optimism quickly disappears when Melody is born. Iris describes how she no longer feels ownership over her own body:

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There was a new sickening permanence to everything suddenly. At dawn Aubrey showed up wide-eyed and full of what can I do for yous just as she was guiding her leaking nipple into the crying, twisted mouth of the baby… Even the tacky netted hospital underwear and the oversize pad they’d given her felt gross and never-ending. Maybe she’d bleed forever. Be this sore for always. Have someone needing and needing and needing her for the rest of her life.

In this passage, Iris depicts her newborn daughter as a foreign entity that feeds from her life force: a threat to her autonomy, her dreams, and her future. She thus begins to plan her escape from this permanence. Consequently, Aubrey takes on the role of a mother figure for Melody. His willingness to sacrifice his future aspirations in order to start a family mystifies Iris, whose deep frustration with motherhood instead motivates her to run away from what she sees as an eternally unfulfilling existence.

Likewise, Sabe also acts as a mother figure to Melody in Iris’s absence. Woodson vividly depicts how Sabe’s intense religious beliefs and commitment to abiding by God’s path affects Iris’s upbringing. For instance, Sabe experiences her own emotional crisis in discovering her daughter’s pregnancy, believing that the hopes and dreams she had for her daughter’s future have been destroyed:

But when your child shows up with a belly and she’s not even full grown yet, you think for a minute that all those blocks of gold don’t mean a damn thing out in the world if you haven’t even taught your own child how to stay pure. How to hold on. How to grow into womanhood right.

In this moment, Sabe emphasizes what she sees as her own failure in raising her child. However, throughout the novel, Woodson also takes care to illuminate the beautiful and redemptive aspects of motherhood. For example, the recurring image of baby teeth symbolizes the hidden layers of maternal love within these relationships. In one flashback to her college days, Iris studies a smiling picture of Melody with a loose tooth, and endearingly expresses a desire to pull her tooth out. Similarly, Sabe explains how her mother taught her to “hold on to your dreams and hold on to your money,” and recalls that: 

Even with all these years on me I remember being a child and asking her about my teeth. Every time one of them fell out, I said, Mama, this is mine. I’m supposed to hold onto it… My mama—bless her heart—said, You don’t have to worry about those teeth. I got them. I’ll hold on to them for you.

In reflecting on this memory from childhood, Woodson subtly parallels how these mementos reflect the deeper, unspoken bond between mother and child.

The Shaping of Identity

As a coming-of-age novel, Red at the Bone is concerned with the crucial transition from childhood to adulthood. Unlike most coming-of-age novels, it traces the maturation of several characters as they each develop a sense of personal identity. In navigating this theme of personal identity, Woodson considers multiple factors, including the roles of race, class, pride, and ambition, while simultaneously reflecting on the fleetingness of youth. For example, the differences between Iris’s and Aubrey’s upbringings exemplify the role of class in shaping identity. Iris comes from privilege, and Aubrey does not. Moreover, Aubrey describes how he experienced racism growing up because of how light his mother’s skin was compared to his:

He knew the system was the white woman on the beach when he was seven years old who asked his mother why he wasn’t in school on a weekday and the grocery store dude who side-eyed him, then asked his mother if she had any other foster children.

In exploring how race and social class shape these families, Woodson shows how certain privileges determine the challenges and opportunities that individuals experience. For CathyMarie, growing up in the system fueled her educational ambitions, and she therefore endeavors to create a better future for her son and his family with the prideful assertion that “her child would never scrub a floor.” On the other hand, Sabe and Iris demonstrate the function of legacy in shaping identity. Combined with the impact that the Tulsa race riot had on their family history, Sabe’s obsession with holding on to her family’s gold emphasizes the fragility of opportunity. This obsession then permeates into the psyches of her family members.

Woodson illustrates how these markers of identity weave together to help form each character’s personal identity. Melody—in approaching adulthood—takes ownership of her identity, expressing at the end of the first chapter that “I am not Melody who is sixteen, I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.” The novel simultaneously investigates how both external and internal forces shape identity. One feels the external forces of parental pressures, religious expectations, and familial history. At the same time, from within, one strives for independence and self-actualization.

Disillusionment and Desire

Throughout Red at the Bone, Woodson explores the vicissitudes of desire, regret, and disillusionment, in particular by emphasizing how love changes throughout our lives. In the first chapter, Iris expresses to Melody that “today, the love is me wanting to see you in that dress… I want to see me in you because Me in that dress was over a long time ago. Sixteen was gone. Then seventeen—all of it.” Accordingly, the novel especially emphasizes this theme by examining how the love between Iris and Aubrey changes, and how Iris’s relationship with her daughter develops over time.

Melody contemplates the mutual desire that her parents once shared. She conceptualizes herself as the fruit of that desire, pointing to “something they were so hungry for in each other becoming me.” Because this love between Iris and Aubrey began at such a young age—and marked so early on with the enormous responsibility of child-rearing—they grow apart. For Iris, this distance is chosen. She is driven to escape, disillusioned as she is by the prospect of spending her future with Aubrey and Melody. When she leaves for college, she describes feeling liberated:

She had expected this feeling to be a stinging in her chest, a heaviness. But it wasn’t. It was a freedom. A letting go. Even this early on she knew she could never be happy at home again. She had outgrown Brooklyn and Aubrey and even Melody.

This freedom from responsibility that Iris feels has consequences: by “letting go” of her family, she also becomes alienated from them. Aubrey, for instance, comes to understand how much his love for Iris outweighs her love for him. Recognizing early on that college “had been her escape route,” Aubrey later reflects on the effect their mismatched desires had on him:

In a minute, he could be left with nothing. Iris had proved that to him. She had walked out that door and disappeared into a world he would never know. Left him in this one.

While he initially feels desperately invested in trying to understand why Iris would leave him, his love for her also changes. In a poignant turn of events, Iris’s feelings towards Jamison during college parallel the desperate desire that Aubrey felt towards her. Just as Aubrey feels abandoned by Iris, Iris feels abandoned when Jamison takes up with another woman. Seeing Jamison with her new lover, Iris feels “red at the bone—like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.”

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