Jessie's Quest for Autonomy through Suicide in Marsha Norman's night Mother

Seminar Paper, 2001

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


Table of Contents

I Introduction

II Main Part

1 Dependence, Isolation and Hopelessness as the Dominating Feelings in Jessie’s Life
1.1 Childhood and Family
1.2 Epilepsy
1.3 Male Domination
1.4 Mother-Daughter-Relationship

2 Jessie’s Decision to Commit Suicide as a Means of Self-Definition

3 Self-Determination of Death

4 What Has Jessie Actually Reached ?

III Conclusion

IV List of Works Cited


‘night, Mother, a more recent American play, which, in form of a dialogue between a mother and her adult daughter deals with the daughter’s desperation for missing autonomy and her decision to gain control over her life by ending it, has met with controversial reception from critics after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. On the one hand it was celebrated as a successful drama by a female playwright, whereas it was denied on the other hand as betraying Feminism.

Still, in my paper this struggle will not be continued. What I am interested in here is, how the play treats the subject of free death as a specific way of dying. In our current society this subject arouses either greed for sensation or it is looked upon as a taboo and the public treatment or defense of it is normally denied. Examining the plays reception by critics it is striking that the protagonist’s carried out death is mainly deemed positive or even compared with a heroic deed. In the face of this debate I will examine Jessie’s desperation with her life and show, if she is in the end really successful in reaching autonomy and a personal identity through suicide.

The first objects of my research are going to be Jessie’s current situation, her inward state of mind and how she comes to the decision that death might constitute a solution to her problems. The next step will be a discussion of this decision and its justification with the help of two different works on suicide, of which one is rather a scientific study and the other one a philosophical treatise on the topic. Finally, I will have a look at those critiques which are in favor of Jessie’s suicide as a positive and successful action and put them in context with the plot of the play, which will lead to a conclusion of what Jessie has actually reached and in how far her suicide might be seen as a wrong reaction.

1 Dependence, Isolation and Hopelessness as the Feelings That Dominate Jessie’s Life

As the whole play’s presentation itself , Jessie’s decision on this last evening is definite and final. All her proceedings turn out to be planned carefully and are leading straight to the climax of the play: Jessie’s most probable death behind her locked bedroom door. On this ‘claustrophobic stage’ (Redmond 278), which consists just of a center hall and the one door which is ‘the focal point of the entire set’, no escape seems possible. The only exit for Jessie from this constricting living-room involves her bedroom door with its single perspective of ‘absolute nothingness’ (4).

Even the lack of a scene change emphasizes the feeling of hopelessness for a variability in Jessie’s life. What is expressed through formal aspects onstage is only the portrayal of Jessie’s inward situation. ‘Like that of most suicidal individuals, Jessie’s emotional life is dominated by a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and overpowering loneliness’ (Spencer 367).

Therefore I now want to show what causes the feeling in Jessie that there is no other chance for a change than an escape through suicide. Jenny Spencer suggests that ‘the conditions for Jessie’s suicide are naturalistically plausible by clinical standards’ (Spencer 367). And indeed in the course of the women’s dialogue, which seems to be the first profound conversation where mother and daughter achieve mutual understanding, Jessie gives the reader an insight into her thoughts and emotions. We learn several factors about the protagonist’s past and about her situation since she has removed into her mother’s house.

1.1 Childhood and family

Already Jessie’s childhood seems to have been shaped by the absence of communication and of a feeling of authentic love. The only person to whom she has developed a closer relationship and by whom she feels loved is her father. In his chapter about childhood experiences and their influences on suicide later in life Lester points out that especially in young years a child can make experiences which may lead to a suicidal attitude as an adult (Lester 39, 41). For instance disharmony between parents may be such a disturbing factor, leading to a feeling of guilt and making a child turn all the aggression it experiences against him- or herself.

From Mama we learn that Jessie’s parents did not love one another and, much worse, the mother was jealous of her daughter for getting the love and communication from her father, that she was always denied. This must have lead to deep feelings of guilt in Jessie, especially if one is aware of how Mama takes advantage of any opportunity to present her husband in unfavorable light and to refuse his paternal love:

MAMA: He felt sorry for you, too, Jessie, don’t kid yourself about that. He said you were a runt and he said it from the day you were born and he said you didn’t have a chance.

JESSIE ... : I know he loved me. (48)

It is also noticeable that Jessie has adopted her father’s behavior pattern (cf. Nischik 66) which is marked by introversion and a rejection of communication. This identification with her father finally leads to Jessie’s isolation from society and is in the end symbolized in her decision to put an end to her life with her father’s gun: ‘but I’d rather use Daddy’s ‘ (14).

1.2 Jessie’s Epilepsy

Another factor, also out of Jessie’s control, which has brought about a dissociation from her neighbors is her epilepsy. Although we learn from Thelma Cates that during the last years her daughter’s disease has no longer been a greater problem it has nonetheless restricted her whole life enormously. Nischik remarks that her parents’ attempt to conceal Jessie’s epilepsy from childhood has constituted to a missing confidence in her fellow beings and finally in herself (65). Of course the disease has also caused a physical dependence, especially on her mother, and a feeling of powerlessness.

To sum it up in Spencer’s words: ‘Jessie’s epilepsy has resulted in a lack of social experience and an increasing detachment from communal ties: her only ‘friends’ are medical personnel, she can’t get a job or keep the ones she’s had’ (Spencer 367). Added to this is her role as an outsider to which she is constricted by persons like her mother’s friend Agnes, who avoids her for fear of getting infected: ‘...Jessie’s shook the hand of death and I can’t take the chance it’s catching, Thelma, so I ain’t comin’ over... (43).


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Jessie's Quest for Autonomy through Suicide in Marsha Norman's night Mother
University of Freiburg  (English Seminar)
Proseminar: Death in American Literature
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
457 KB
Jessie, Quest, Autonomy, Suicide, Marsha, Norman, Mother, Proseminar, Death, American, Literature
Quote paper
Peter Brüstle (Author), 2001, Jessie's Quest for Autonomy through Suicide in Marsha Norman's night Mother, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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