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What would you do if a loved one nonchalantly informed you that later on in the night he or she planned to take his or her own life? This is the news Thelma Cates is faced with after returning home to her daughter Jessie, in the play ‘night, Mother by Marsha Norman. Sick with Epilepsy, Jessie is a divorced middle aged woman who see’s no point of going on any further in life. Unlike her almost emotionless daughter, Thelma see’s life in a more positive and optimistic light. Thelma and Jessie have completely different ways of constructing meaning to their lives throughout the play. This results in conflict between the two characters and an unfortunate but foreshadowed ending.
At the beginning of the play, Thelma is coming home from a carnival with her friend Agnes, while Jessie is at home straightening up and preparing for her mother’s manicure. The personality differences between Jessie and Thelma is the first piece of evidence that shows the audience how Jessie and her mother construct meaning differently in their lives. Thelma’s character seems to be a social butterfly, who gets excitement out of talking with Jessie, spending time with her grandchildren, and her friend Agnes. Norman describes Thelma as, “chatty and nosy” before scene one begins (Norman 1). On the other end of the spectrum we have Jessie, who, according to Norman, “doesn’t feel much like talking,” due not exactly knowing how to communicate with others (Norman 1). Jessie seems to take after her father health wise, because Thelma reveals to Jessie she thinks her late husband had Epilepsy like Jessie, stating, “I think your daddy had fits, too” (Norman 13). It is more than likely Jessie also takes after her fathers personality because Thelma describes his life in a dull perspective, saying all he ever did was, “farm and sit,” but Jessie stands up for her father, saying she liked him sitting in his chair even though he was quiet (Norman 9). This shows how different both women are in a social aspect, which has a lot to do with how they may see what’s meaningful to them in their lives.
Throughout the play, Thelma tries to be as optimistic as possible when trying to talk her daughter out of suicide. She tries to get Jessie to give life another shot before deciding to just check out; she attempts to bribe her daughter by saying, “We could get a new dog and keep him in the house. Dog are cheap! […] Something for you to take care of” (Norman 7). Thelma constructs meaning to her life by having something exciting to do and tries to get her daughter as excited as she gets about things. When Jessie declines getting a dog she explains to her mom she essentially has nothing to do, she explains, “I think you’re pretty happy, yeah. You have things to do […] like crochet” (Norman 7). Thelma offers to teach her daughter to give her something to do as she discussed her boredom with life, but again Jessie declines. Thelma gets desperate and lists off things her daughter could do such as taking up a hobby such a puzzle building, starting a garden or getting a job (Norman 7). Frustrated, Thelma tells Jessie that good times don’t just come looking for you, that you have to go out and try to have a good time (Norman 7). She tries getting Jessie excited about the future, hoping to provide anything to give her something to look forward to, but Jessie is focused on finally being in control of something in her life. Thelma looks at the things in her life with optimism and hope for the future, she admires the little things in life like eating sweets, but Jessie shows little interest in the things that excite her mother, which exemplifies how differently these two women look at life.
It is clear that Jessie see life completely opposite than her mother. Jessie seems distant from society and even her own family members. After informing her mother of her plot to take her own life, Thelma offers to call her brother Dawson or sister in-law Loretta, Jessie completely withdraws from her mother and becomes cold, snapping, “If you call him, I’ll just have to do it before he gets here. Soon as you hang up the phone, I’ll just walk in the bedroom and lock the door. Dawson will get here just in time to help you clean up. Go ahead, call him” (Norman 4). Jessie then goes on to complain about her family but in specifics her brother Dawson, saying that he doesn’t really know her and she doesn’t like her family’s talk and gossip. Thelma tries to comfort her daughters troubles saying, “Family is just accident, Jessie. It’s nothing personal, hon. They don’t mean to get on your nerves. They don’t even mean to be your family, they just are” (Norman 5). Throughout her daughters negativity, her patience and encouragement for her daughter to overcome her depression demonstrates how both mother and daughter have different perspectives on life.
Unlike her highly sociable and hopeful mom, Jessie lives her life in a pessimistic manner. Thelma admits to not exactly living the greatest life, confiding to Jessie, “We don’t have anything anybody’d want, Jessie. I mean, I don’t even want what we got, Jessie” but still tries to make the best out of her aging years (Norman 2). As Jessie pushes on through the night convincing her mother to let her go so she can act out her plan, she excuses what she is doing by saying, “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,” and going on about how she doesn’t like what’s happening in the world (Norman 6). Jessie’s negativity and unenthusiastic attitude illustrate how she doesn’t take on her mothers positive perspective of life. Refusing to accept that Jessie wants to give up, Thelma snaps and tells Jessie to quit feeling sorry for herself, “You’re acting like some little brat, Jessie. You’re mad and everybody’s boring and you don’t have anything to do and you don’t like me and you don’t like going out and you don’t like staying in and you never talk on the phone and you don’t watch TV and you’re miserable and it’s your own sweet fault” (Norman 7).
By the end of the play, Jessie is still showing no positive emotion regarding the future. Thelma reminds Jessie of her rapidly approaching Birthday or even enjoying the holidays but Jessie refuses to let anything change her mind. Thelma tries to get Jessie to hold on to hope the future will improve and suggests Jessie’s son Ricky will straighten his life out. In attempts to convince Jessie she’ll grow older like Thelma and enjoy the company of grandchildren or a garden like she herself does. Thelma pleads with Jessie to live to do things she thinks Jessie will enjoy, “Maybe one day you’ll put in some begonias up the walk and get just the right rain for them all summer. And Ricky will be married by then and he’ll bring your grand-babies over and you can sneak them a piece of candy when their Daddy’s not looking and then be real glad when they’ve gone home and left you to your quiet again,” but because they see view life and things differently, Jessie still is dedicated to killing herself (Norman 15).
Due to the fact that these two characters do see life differently and construct their own happiness for their own lives separately, Jessie did end up committing suicide before 10 o’clock that night. Two people can have similar ways of constructing meaning to their lives, but ultimately no one constructs the exact same meaning around particular things in life. For Thelma, her friend Agnes, her grandchildren, and garden were enough to appease her, but for Jessie these things are nothing and didn’t contribute happiness to her life like they contributed to her mother’s.
Works Cited: Norman, Marsha. ‘night, Mother. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. Print.
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