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Red at the Bone Themes

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:

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...

(The entire section is 1,360 words.)