Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

At the age of seventy-one, "too dilapidated to be considered an active menace to society," Mrs. Ostrowsky has been paroled into the care of her son from the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Northhampton. She is a nasty person who believes that her killing of her husband was...

(The entire section contains 478 words.)

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At the age of seventy-one, "too dilapidated to be considered an active menace to society," Mrs. Ostrowsky has been paroled into the care of her son from the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Northhampton. She is a nasty person who believes that her killing of her husband was his fault. Disch uses the problems society has in warehousing and caring for the mentally ill as part of the background for his tale.

The Silver Pillow: A Tale of Witchcraft focuses on a mother and her grown child. Although their relationship is a perverse one, its exaggerated tensions reflect common psychological aspects of mother-son relationships. Mrs. Ostrowsky is domineering, constantly bossing her son around. In this, she represents the role mothers must play if a small child requires constant supervision. On the other hand, as an old and frail woman, she is really at her son's mercy. After she has lived in his home for a few years, her son Bill realizes that he is more her jailer than her servant. Their roles have reversed, with Bill controlling much of his mother's life. Tension is created by Mrs. Ostrowsky's desire to continue to control her son, who has a quiet, sad life of work and sexual denial that he tries to keep distinct from his life with his mother. A preternaturally evil woman, Mrs. Ostrowsky slowly exerts psychological pressure on her son through her constricting personality. Her death should liberate him, but through her silver pillow her spirit remains, talking to him, badgering him, and demanding to accompany him when he goes out.

The pillow symbolizes that part of a mother that remains a permanent part of her child. It is a common part of adult experience to find oneself repeating parental mistakes and advice, as well as remembering the rules of conduct learned during one's childhood. In the case of Mrs. Ostrowsky, the rules were nasty ones that stunted Bill's growth and maturity. He becomes a regular patron of a pornographic movie theater; ugly and socially maladjusted, he cannot have a mature relationship with a woman. Under the pillow's influence, he becomes more and more like his mother. The pillow constricts his life and demands that he harm women. At the last, the theme of the mother-son relationship is resolved logically. To become an adult, Bill must assert his own selfhood as a man responsible to himself, not his mother. When the pillow commands him to murder a prostitute, he defies it, thus asserting his own mature moral code over the debased one of his mother. By attacking the pillow, he symbolically kills the Mrs. Ostrowsky within himself. Her killing him is a hollow victory, because he dies not merely as an extension of herself, but as a grown man who chooses to do what is right, even though it is contrary to his mother's wishes.

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