A Brief Analysis Of Marsha Norman
’s Night Mother Essay, Research Paper
Marsha Norman?s ?night, Mother illustrates a central point about the nature of what
creates drama in a play: the anticipation of an outcome. In this case, that means that
Mama, and the story’s audience, learns early on of Jessie’s plans. And because of learning
Jessie’s plans, both Mama and the story’s audience are thrust deep into the heart of this
story’s question: Will Jessie really kill herself, or can Mama find a way to stop her?
What’s at stake in this story is also made very clear: Jessie’s going to kill herself. Can
Mama talk her out of it? The central issue that ‘night, Mother delivers is that the more
reasons Mama tries to grasp to convince Jessie not to kill herself, the more she reaffirms
Jessie’s belief that her life is useless and it’s simply better to end her suffering with a clear
The play opens on what appears to be a typical Saturday night for Jessie and
Mama. Mama finds the last snowball — some junk food — in the fridge, Jessie asks for
some black plastic bags. It’s on their schedule that Jessie will give Mama a manicure.
Then Jessie asks: JESSIE: Where’s Daddy’s gun?
Life for Jessie and Mama is such a dull routine, Mama doesn’t even pause to
consider the request odd. She evens helps Jessie figure out where the gun is kept. It’s not
until half a column later that Mama asks:
MAMA: What do you want the gun for, Jess? JESSIE: Protection.
Mama at first considers that she and Jessie have nothing to steal, and what was
valuable was stolen by Jessie’s son, Ricky.
MAMA: I mean, I don’t even want what we got, Jessie.
Jessie begins cleaning the gun, and soon the stage directions set out that Mama is now
concerned about it. JESSIE: The gun is for me.
MAMA: Well, you can have it if you want. When I die, you’ll get it anyway.
JESSIE: I’m going to kill myself, Mama.
At first Mama yells at Jessie for her bad “joke,” but Jessie patiently insists she’s
serious. Mama then insists the gun won’t work because the bullets are fifteen years old.
Jessie tells her that Dawson, her brother, told her where to buy new bullets. As Jessie
describes Dawson’s enthusiasm for telling her about bullets, the author has found another
avenue to introduce a major, if unseen character, Dawson. Mama threatens to call
Dawson, to have him come and take the gun away. This leads Jessie to insist that if
Mama makes the call, she’ll kill herself before Dawson can get there, and she and Mama
won’t have that last evening alone together.
JESSIE: I’m through talking, Mama. You’re it. No more.
Mama responds that the likelihood is that Jessie will only shoot off her ear and
turn herself into a vegetable. This is an important exchange, because it sets the story on a
course of exploring the emotional terrain of both Jessie’s life and her life with her
mother. And from the moment Jessie made her pronouncement about her impending
suicide, everything about the terrain now stands in bold relief.
Mama continues trying to find something that will give her leverage over Jessie.
Jessie isn?t allowed to use her towels when she kills herself. She then switches tactics, to
try and find out why Jessie wants to kill herself. This continues the story’s exploration of
Jessie’s life and her relationship with her mother. Finally Jessie says:
JESSIE: And I can’t do anything either, about my life, to change it, make it
better, make me feel better about it. Like it better, make it work.
But I can stop it. Shut it down, turn it off like the radio when
there’s nothing on I want to listen to.
This brillantly written line cuts right through to the heart of Jessie’s reasons for
wanting to die.
In the next series of exchanges, it comes out why a friend of Mama’s refuses to
come into her house, because she’s seen the death in Jessie’s eyes. The struggle to find
peace in death has caused Jessie to explore the reality of her life. For probably the first
time ever in their relationship, Mama begins to speak a deeper truth to Jessie. This leads
Jessie to ask whether her mother ever loved her father. Again, Mama speaks a truth she’s
never voiced before. It leads up to a revelation that Mama suspected that Jessie’s father
also suffered from the seizures that have plagued Jessie’s life. The secrets Mama has kept
hidden spill out in a torrent. She reveals that Jessie’s father never really went fishing; he’d
just go sit by a lake in his car. Mama even starts to get into this new mood, by threatening
to not cook again, or do other things. It comes out that Jessie has mentioned Mama’s
friend as a way to introduce the friend living with Mama when Jessie is gone.
Next, Jessie and Mama talk about Jessie’s ex-husband, who Mama conspired to
introduce to Jessie. During the marriage, Jessie fell off a horse, and the accident was
thought to have led to her seizure disorder. But one of the truths that has come out was
that Jessie began having seizures as a child, but Mama covered it up. It was something
she didn’t want to think about, so she found a way to simply go on.
MAMA: I don’t like things to think about. I like things to go on.
As Jessie talks about her former husband, another area of her life comes into stark
relief. Again, the author has found a way to use Jessie’s impending death to give each
revelation about her life a jewel-like quality of clarity. When it comes out that because of
her medication Jessie can now think more clearly, Mama jumps on that as a reason to
live. But for Jessie, the medication had another effect:
JESSIE: If I’d ever had a year like this, to think straight and all, before
now, I’d be gone already.
As the time nears when the “night” will be over, in desperation Mama tries to find
some way to forestall Jessie:
MAMA: I didn’t tell you things or I married you off to the wrong man or I
took you in and let your life get away from you or all of it put
But as that final moment of Jessie’s life draws near, Mama becomes calm and
pliant. She simply accepts that Jessie will end her life. She repeats back to Jessie her
suggestions about what Mama should say to the people who come to Jessie’s funeral.
Jessie goes into her room to do the deed. Mama collapses and cries out:
MAMA: Jessie, child…. Forgive me. (pause) I thought you were mine.
The gunshot answers with a sound like “no.” Mama, following Jessie’s
instructions, goes to the phone and calls the home of her son and asks to speak to
This is a profoundly moving play. The principle that I want to point out one last
time is that it develops its drama not from hiding what’s at stake — Jessie’s impending
death — but by setting it out in a way that the storyteller develops drama around the
outcome of the question: Will Jessie kill herself?
Drama only works if there?s a reason the story action was set into motion. I don’t
mean a blunt or obvious reason. `night, Mother is an example of where something blunt
and obvious — Jessie’s impending death — can give dramatic meaning to mundane events,
making some cocoa, eating a caramel apple. The author who fails to set up the issue at
the core of a story in a way that it connects with an audience risks assembling words and
images that create characters and events to no particular dramatic purpose. By making
what’s at stake in a story clear and direct, the author frees themselves to begin the real
task: Bringing an audience fully into and involved with the world a story’s characters
inhabit and seek to shape.