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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 hot chocolate.

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.

June 2001

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