In 1983, Marsha
Norman won the Pulitzer Prize for her notorious play 'night
Mother, and, in 1986, Universal/MCA made it into a major
motion picture starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft. In
this controversial storyline, the daughter Jessie, played
by Sissy Spacek, announces to her mother that she plans to
commit suicide and indeed does so in the closing moments.
Although many have argued that Jessie's suicide in 'night
Mother is an act of desperation and escape, we will argue
that it is actually symbolic of her self-actualization and
her first independent choice. Through this achieved autonomy,
Jessie is able to create a meaningful emotional relationship
with her mother, Thelma, and find a measure of happiness during
the last moments of her life.
As the story unfolds, Jessie inquires about her past and
realizes she has never spent a moment truly free of another's
grasp. Thelma has maintained power over her daughter by withholding
the fact that Jessie had epilepsy as a child, by choosing
her husband, and by protecting her from the reality of the
outside world. When her husband leaves her, the helpless Jessie
has no skills to cope with life and is thus forced to return
to the confines of her mother's home. Adding insult to injury,
the one person to whom Jessie was truly connected, her father,
dies. The imprisoned Jessie concludes there is no better way
to declare herself "free" than to commit suicide.
This decision allows Jessie to make a choice not even her
mother can control and acts as a sort of rebirth in the Plathian
sense. Throughout the ninety minutes of action, indeed the
last ninety minutes of Jessie's life, we see a quiet, sullen,
middle-aged, mousy woman transform into an aggressive, decisive,
confident, strong individual. Jessie argues that although
she may not be able to change her life, she is able to end
it, controlling her ultimate fate for the first time ever.
She tells her mother, "No, Mama! This is how I have
my say. This is how I say what I thought about it all and
I say no. To Dawson and Loretta and epilepsy and Ricky and
Cecil and you. And me. And hope. I say no!" As self-negating
as Jessie's suicide may seem to be, it specifically addresses
her need to protect, fix, and determine her own identity.
Jessie herself sees her decision as a powerful assertion
of will, of choice. She states, "But I can stop it. Shut
it down. Turn it off like a radio when there's nothing on
that I want to listen to. It's all I really have that belongs
to me, and I'm going to say what happens to it. And it's going
to stop, and I'm going to stop it."
Furthermore, Jessie does not approach the suicide in a cowardly
fashion, alone and unannounced; rather, she states, clearly
and plainly, her intentions, even attempting to explain her
decision to her mother. Jessie is both unhurried and unharried.
She even seems to relish the moments of empowerment succeeding
her decision, drawing them out as she completes everyday tasks
and engages in idle gossip. Jessie finally holds the power
of decision, and we watch as her weak character melts away.
She even tells her mother she never did like that nasty old
Not at all a work about suicide, 'night Mother blooms
with female metamophosis, petals peeling back to reveal the
importance of conviction, self-actualization, identity, and
autonomy. Ultimately, Jessie seizes the opportunity to make
her own choice, to fulfill her own destiny, and, in doing
so, she declares her independence.