The play “Night Mother” by Marsha Norman relates what happens during a ninety minute period of time during which a mother and daughter are finally able to break through their protective barriers in order to achieve real communication. The catch of it is that these ninety minutes are the final ninety minutes of the daughter’s life, which ends after ninety minutes in her planned suicide. The play was written during the early 1980’s, which was characterized by a general reversal of hard-won women’s rights and thus inspired many female writers to explore issues of feminine lives.
Within this play, Norman presents two of the more common situations in which women might have found themselves – both isolated and alone but one accepting of it and the other supremely dissatisfied with her limitations. The two primary characters – Thelma the mother and Jessie the daughter – are both adults who have long gone through the motions of living without having derived a great deal of satisfaction. This is revealed as the two women spend this last evening together as are the differences between the women that enable one to survive and cause the other to drop any sense of hope.
Thelma is the mother in the story, depicted as being relatively capable of being self-sufficient but not necessarily inclined to follow up on the idea. She is described as someone who “speaks quickly and enjoys talking. She believes that things are what she says they are. Her sturdiness is more a mental quality than a physical one, finally. She is chatty and nosy and this is her house” (1460). As the play progresses, more and more of Thelma’s personality is revealed.
She emerges as a simple country woman who never really sought anything different than what she had known as a child, which she acknowledges herself. “He wanted a plain country woman and that’s what he married, and then he held it against me the rest of my life like I was supposed to change and surprise him somehow” (1475). Although she acknowledges that her life hasn’t necessarily been happy, she has found a means of accepting her limited options. As Jessie points out, she has found satisfaction in her sewing and her friendships, two things Jessie doesn’t have. One of the tools Thelma’s used to coping with her constraints has been perfecting her powers of persuasion.
Thelma’s first reaction to Jessie’s suicide announcement is to try manipulation techniques that must have been effective at one time for her to use these techniques so persistently. However, each point she makes only serves to reinforce Jessie’s conviction.
When she questions the suitability of the gun, threatens to have Dawson (Jessie’s brother) intervene, insists the doctor must be consulted and then instructs Jessie on how she should feel, Thelma reinforces Jessie’s sense of being used and not having any control over her own life. She then explores every option she can think of to change her daughter’s mind – refusal to allow this behavior in her house (reminding Jessie that she has nothing of her own), Jessie’s birthday coming up (reminding Jessie of the emptiness of the gifts she’ll receive), bargaining (reinforcing Jessie’s conclusions about how the “waiting’s the worst part of it” 1467).
As the two women discuss the reasons Jessie has decided to kill herself, these reasons are discovered through Thelma’s unconsciously accurate responses. At the same time, it becomes clear the absolute degree that Thelma depends on Jessie and the reason Jessie sees no other means of escape. She has an apparently distant relationship with her son and her daughter-in-law is still under the impression that she is better than the rest of the family.
The idea that Thelma is nothing more than a simple country woman utterly incapable of keeping up with her daughter’s needs is reinforced by the critics who point out what makes this depiction so realistic for women. “Mama cannot understand the silence of her husband and her daughter. She cannot understand that both use silence as a means of reflection. Mama, on the other hand, uses conversation in place of thought.
It is simply easier for her to talk than to thinks (Metzger). While Jessie can’t live with the thought of a lifetime of her present routine, it is this routine, and her mastery of it, that provides Thelma with her sense of self-satisfaction. “Thelma has satisfied her social needs and combated her loneliness with needlepoint, junk food and candy” (Metzger). Jessie recognizes these coping techniques of her mother, evidenced by her careful preparations, but cannot share them.
Deeper elements of Thelma’s behavior are also noted by critics. “The temporary reversal in which Jessie sits and Mama serves, or more symbolically put, in which the daughter sees the mother as an extension of herself, is quickly shattered by Jessie’s double realization that Mama’s gesture is a ‘false’ and selfishly motivated one, and that neither of them likes the taste of milk” (Spencer).
However, buried within the heart of this character is the reason why Jessie feels it’s necessary to kill herself. “We pity Mama because as a woman she mirrors Jessie’s own problems: of rejection and abandonment, of shame and self-doubt, of failure and lack of autonomy, of buried resentment and hostility. Despite differences in personality and coping patterns, the two characters share similar attitudes toward the meaninglessness of their lives, toward the demands of their husbands and children” (Spencer).
In contrast to her mother, Jessie has a very quiet, subdued personality that strives to have something, anything, completely her own. Her life, as it is revealed in her interactions with her mother, is an endless-seeming round of meaningless activity and inaction. Now that she is thinking clearly, Jessie is aware of the emptiness of her position as well as the degree to which she is confined to these very small boundaries.
She is a divorcee with a troubled son presumably in his 20s and suffers from epilepsy that has only recently been adequately controlled. Toward the beginning of the play, she tells her mother, “I’m just not having a very good time and I don’t have any reason to think it’ll get anything but worse. I’m tired. I’m hurt. I’m sad. I feel used” (1469). Her life is obviously constrained by the needs of her mother, the decisions of her brother and the opinions of her doctor.
This is made clear when Jessie climbs up in the attic looking for her father’s gun. Not only does her mother act to control her actions by babysitting what she’s doing, but she brings up the control the absent Dawson exercises over the house, “I thought Dawson told you not to go up those stairs” (1462). Even in preparing to die, Jessie’s concerns are just to get everything in order so her mother’s life will be as uninterrupted as possible by Jessie’s decision.
Although Jessie seems to see herself as largely worthless, her responses to her mother and her surroundings reveal a very intelligent mind suffocating in its confinement. The analogy she makes to try to illustrate for her mother why she is taking such drastic measures runs exactly parallel to how she sees the rest of her life playing out. “I know you used to ride the bus. Riding us and it’s hot and bumpy and crowded and too noisy and more than anything in the world you want to get off and the only reason in the world you don’t get off is it’s still fifty blocks from where you’re going? Well, I can get off right now if I want to, because even I ride fifty more years and get off then, it’s the same place when I step down to it” (1471). Throughout the play, Jessie’s lines are full of the exhaustion and despair heard in this statement.
Metzger, Sheri. “An Overview of ‘night Mother.” Drama for Students. Galew 1997.
Norman, Marsha. “’night Mother.” Making Literature Matter. 3rd Ed. John Schilb & John Clifford (Eds.). Boston; New York: Bedford/St. Martins Press, 2006.
Spencer, Jenny S. “Norman’s ‘Night Mother: Psycho-Drama of Female Identity.” Modern Drama. Vol. 30, N. 3, (1987): 364-375.