31 pages 1 hour read

Marsha Norman

Night, Mother

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


’Night, Mother by Marsha Norman opened on Broadway in 1983, earning the Tony Award for Best Play and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play takes place in real time, with no intermission or breaks in the action, to depict the unrelenting emotional exchange between Thelma and her daughter, Jessie, after Jessie announces that she plans to commit suicide. As Jessie sets her affairs in order, Thelma tries unsuccessfully to stop Jessie’s plan from hurtling toward its conclusion. Norman employs conventions of naturalism, an avant-garde movement beginning in the late 19th century. In this theatrical style, artists endeavored to find truth by depicting realistic life for audiences to observe scientifically and thereby better understand the nature of cause and effect.

When the play premiered in the early 1980s, depression and suicide were poorly understood. Modern antidepressants didn’t come into use until later in the decade, and the stigma of mental illness presented—and continues to present—a barrier to open dialogue. The act of suicide is usually shocking and unexpected, leaving loved ones plagued by doubts, blame, and unanswered questions: Why did they do it? What didn’t I know? How could I have intervened? ’Night, Mother begins with Jessie’s announcement that she’s suicidal and then—through her interaction with her mother—attempts to break open those questions. The play presents a sophisticated portrayal of depression: not open despair and tearful emotion but a gray-washed listlessness and a quiet inability to feel pleasure.

Like most people who have never experienced suicidal depression, Thelma cannot comprehend how her daughter can desire death when her own instincts drive her to fight for survival. Suicide victims who intend to complete the act don’t usually give warning, and survivors often wonder what they might have done or said, if they’d had the opportunity, to convince the person to live. The play reveals a mother who has the rare chance to speak to her daughter in her last one and a half hours, knowing what Jessie intends to do but unable to change her daughter’s reality or lift her depression. In the end, Jessie’s untreated mental illness and her need for relief lead to suicide.

Plot Summary

’Night, Mother is set in the rural home of Thelma Cates, a widow in her late fifties/early sixties. Her daughter, Jessie Cates (who is in her late thirties/early forties), lives with her. As the play opens, Jessie is gathering old towels, plastic garbage bags, and her father’s gun. She announces nonchalantly to her mother that she plans to commit suicide that night. The play takes place in real time, with all clocks onstage set to 8:15 at the start and allowed to run continuously for the 90-minute duration of the play. Thelma attempts to convince Jessie not to commit suicide while Jessie, who has been taking care of her mother, cleans the house and works through a list of household practicalities that Thelma will need to know to remain functional after Jessie is gone. Thelma attempts to call an ambulance or Dawson, her son, to intervene—but Jessie threatens to kill herself before they arrive.

To distract her distraught mother, Jessie asks her to make hot chocolate and caramel apples. Thelma agrees, but she can’t accept Jessie’s vague explanation about sadness and is determined to figure out why Jessie wants to die. The two women delve into a frank and honest discussion about their lives and relationships. Jessie was closer to her late father, with whom she shared a stoic kinship—but whom her mother admits she did not love or understand. She married Cecil, a carpenter Thelma hired with the ulterior motive of introducing him to her daughter. They had a son named Ricky, who became a criminal. Jessie rarely, if ever, leaves the house. She has suffered from epilepsy since a horseback-riding accident, soon after which Cecil left her and she moved back in with her mother.

Thelma confesses that Jessie’s epilepsy began in childhood and that her father also suffered from seizures—but that neither Jessie nor her father was aware of them because Thelma had cared for them and covered up the incidents. Despite Thelma’s bargaining, pleading, threatening, and persuasive logic, Jessie is determined to commit suicide. She tells her mother what steps to take after her death and gives instructions for her funeral. Jessie explains that their intimate conversation that evening is private—and Thelma ought to tell people who ask that Jessie simply said, “’Night, Mother” (53) and then went to her room and unexpectedly killed herself. Jessie tells her mother that it’s time for her to go, and Thelma screams and begs at her locked bedroom door until she hears the gunshot. Then, in shock, she follows Jessie’s directions and calls her son.