With Mama Day (1988) Naylor charts a different literary terrain. While her first two novels were grounded in known reality, this third novel allows Naylor to explore, and to question, the concept of reality. Set on a mystical island off the southeast coast, Mama Day forces the reader to suspend disbelief and to shed those faculties normally used to navigate the established world. Mama Day is at once a romantic tale chronicling the emergent relationship of main characters Cocoa and George and also a narrative enigma that delineates every possible influence on this relationship: familial, historical, psychological, social, gendered, spiritual, and mystical. With this broad analysis, Naylor encourages the reader to consider the various factors that shape our lives.
In Mama Day Gloria Naylor questions the notion of fixed reality and offers instead an analysis of individual definitions of, and responses to, reality. The novel focuses on the budding relationship, and later marriage, of Ophelia (Cocoa) Day and George Andrews, residents of New York City. Because they hail from different backgrounds, Cocoa and George enjoy divergent sensibilities and philosophies. Cocoa is a southerner from a small island off the coast of (but not a part of either) South Carolina and Georgia. Presented as a magical and mystical place, Willow Springs is a world unto itself, with no legal or cultural ties to the mainland. George is a native New Yorker, and unlike Cocoa who was raised by family (her grandmother and great-aunt), George was raised in an orphanage. And though his early life was not as harsh as it might have been, he was raised with little opportunity for frivolous activity. His was a practical upbringing, and everything he does subsequent to leaving the orphanage has been planned, focused, and determined. Cocoa, on the other hand, has been catered to by her grandmother Abigail and even by her great-aunt Miranda (Mama Day), though Mama Day has also enforced discipline.
Cocoa meets George in August 1980 when she goes to his engineering firm, where he is co-partner, seeking employment as a receptionist. She is not awarded the job, but George, unbeknown to Cocoa, helps to secure Cocoa a job with one of the firm’s clients. In this way, George and Cocoa retain periodic contact, though each denies a romantic interest in the other, Cocoa thinking George too reserved and aloof and George thinking Cocoa too exacting. Nevertheless, soon after Cocoa assumes her new job, George invites her to dinner. The interaction is strained at best, unsalvageable at worst. However, George still wants to see Cocoa, mainly because he wants to convince her that even after seven years, she has not come to appreciate the real New York. In short, he wants to introduce her to his world, not as an outsider or a tourist, but as a participant. For several weekends following, George serves as Cocoa’s host as he strives to transform her opinion of the city and its people. Before she met George, Cocoa identified persons of different ethnic groups by the food(s) associated with that group, a mode of reference offensive to George. Within a few weeks of their “courtship,” Cocoa engages less in stereotype and comes to appreciate the wealth of New York’s diversity. Suspending her former belief system in favor of George’s perspective of the city, Cocoa uncovers and discovers an entirely new home for herself, and just as she embarks on a new relationship with George. By January 1981 Cocoa and George are married.
The early phase of their marriage is fraught with the typical adjustments: sharing space, dividing domestic responsibilities, managing household finances, all the while trying to retain individual identities. And for the first four years, George still insisted on their taking separate vacations, he to the Super Bowls every January and she back to Willow Springs for her annual August homecoming. Cocoa would have preferred to travel with George, but she tries to remain sensitive to hispassion for sports, which she does not share, and to his obsession with work projects (major ones that always surfaced in August). Finally, in 1985 George agrees to accompany Cocoa to Willow Springs, a decision that would render their lives changed forever.
Even though George does not meet Abigail and Mama Day for four years, he has spoken with them numerous times on the phone, and he has favored them with gifts and money in the interim. In this fashion he has ingratiated himself with the older women, who have since the marriage admonished Cocoa not to badger George about his busy schedule. Satisfied that George is a decent and sincere man, who loves Cocoa unconditionally, they have been content to meet him in his own time. Needless to say, when the day finally arrives, all of Willow Springs is abuzz with excitement, though Mama Day tries to mask her enthusiasm. Never to be outdone or outwitted, she maintains a calm demeanor while Abigail is practically manic as the time approaches.
George and Cocoa’s visit to Willow Springs comprises the second half of this two-part novel. Consequently, the inhabitants of Willow Springs assume a prominent role in the work, especially title character Mama Day. Now ninety years old, Mama Day serves the island as a healer, mentor, counselor, and spiritualist. And though no one would openly refer to her as a conjure woman, her leanings toward the occult are suspect. Both Mama Day and her sister Abigail embody the somewhat surreal quality of Willow Springs. When George first meets the two women, he comments on their rather youthful demeanor, as their spirits seem to defy their eighty-five-and ninety-year-old bodies. It becomes immediately apparent that Willow Springs is another world that is guided by its own rules, mores, and sensibilities. The reality that has defined George’s New York existence will do little good in this marginal place.
Soon after their arrival on the island, George and Cocoa undergo noticeable transformations. While George begins to relish his stay on the island, Cocoa becomes more agitated. To some degree, she is a bit jealous of the way not only her family but also the other residents have taken to George. Ever since she left Willow Springs, Cocoa has always managed to separate her Willow Springs life from her city life. This compartmentalization of her life has given her balance so that no matter what was occurring in her work and personal life, she could always depend on Willow Springs to be her childhood sanctuary. Leaving it as a separate place retained its innocence, and hence her own. But now that she has come home with her husband, Cocoa is forced to reconcile these two worlds. And even though she complained during the first four years ofher marriage that George would not accompany her to Willow Springs, she now finds his presence on the island unsettling. Ironically, George seems, at least initially, to have acclimated himself quite well to the place and the people of Willow Springs. Because Cocoa is accustomed to enjoying undivided attention when she returns home, she is mildly frustrated that she must now share the spotlight with her husband. On the one hand, she is pleased that family and friends like George, but on the other hand, she is offended that her marriage somehow validates her in a way that she never before experienced.
In having to reconcile (in essence, marry) her two worlds, Cocoa is forced to mature and accept new challenges. In many ways, her entire relationship with George has been a vehicle for growth. This visit to Willow Springs provides yet another phase of this development. Because George never had a real family, he seems to thrive in the hospitality of the Day family. And once the matriarchs Abigail and Mama Day realize George’s gratitude, they love him even more. Soon he is tirelessly performing chores at the homes of both women, further ingratiating himself with them and stunning Cocoa with his charm.
Soon, however, matters take a turn for the worse. One of the island’s inhabitants, Ruby, an ostensible friend of the Days but one who is now suspicious and jealous of Cocoa, places a curse on Cocoa, the result of which is Cocoa’s systematic physical and emotional deterioration. While George can see that Cocoa’s condition is worsening, he is ill-equipped to comprehend the nature of her sickness. Appreciating the skepticism of a very practical-minded engineer and not wanting to shatter his reality by schooling him on Willow Springs reality, both Abigail and Mama Day are reluctant to tell him the truth (the Willow Springs truth). It becomes apparent, though, that George will have to learn of the “otherworld” practices of Willow Springs if he is to see his wife healthy once again.
Cocoa’s sickness occurs during one of the worst hurricanes that Willow Springs has experienced in the present century. As a consequence, the one bridge that leads to the mainland (the outside world) is destroyed, as are all phone and radio connections. Willow Springs, then, is completely isolated from the world that George knows. As none of the science, practicality, or reason that he relies on can help him or Cocoa, George thinks he has entered a nightmare from which he will never awake.
It is at this stage that the imaginary—from both the reader’s and George’s perspective—world of Willow Springs takes precedence in the novel. As a means of trying to help in the recovery of her great-niece,Mama Day retires to the ancestral home of the Days, referred to as “the other place” and located in a remote section of the island beyond the family cemetery. The family home is a mystical place where known reality is less discernible. In addition to coming here periodically to gather medicinal herbs, Mama Day often seeks sanctuary in the other place to commune with her ancestors and to seek guidance as she tackles yet another modern dilemma. There is none more baffling than Cocoa’s ailment.
After the hurricane subsides, Cocoa’s condition worsens. Suffering not only from lethargy but also from hallucinations, Cocoa almost submits to her “curse.” However, Mama Day knows that she can be saved, but only with the help of George. Somehow she must convince him of the “truth” of Ruby’s curse on Cocoa, because only if he believes, or at least suspends his disbelief, will he be of any substantial help. Desperate for his wife’s recovery and denied access to the world he knows and understands, George, though reluctantly, acquiesces to Mama Day’s demand that he, first, visit her at the other place and, second, participate in a rather provincial ritual. Instructed to retrieve the contents of a particular hen’s nest from Mama Day’s chicken coop and return to the other place, George is supposed to prove his willingness to connect with Willow Springs reality, which is, of course, an integral part of Cocoa’s heritage. According to Mama Day, if Cocoa is to be healed, every one of her closest human connections, especially George to whom she is bonded legally, spiritually, and emotionally, must embrace Willow Springs truths.
In his pursuit, however, George, who is plagued with a weak heart, is attacked by the chickens, suffers heart failure, and dies. He still succeeds in saving Cocoa, though, because he gives his life in sacrifice for hers. Soon after George’s death, Cocoa begins to recover and ultimately regains her former vitality. Three years after his death, Cocoa remarries and, in the ensuing years, gives birth to two sons, naming one after George in honor of her undying love for him and in respect for the sacrifice he made for her.
Major characters in this novel include Cocoa Day Andrews, George Andrews, Miranda (Mama) Day, Abigail Day, and Ruby. Because the novel, for the most part, charts Cocoa and George’s emergent relationship, from courtship through marriage to George’s death, and because George and Cocoa serve as the predominant narrators, the focus is primarily on them. In the course of this work, each of them grows as an individual and as a partner. As they hail from two different worlds (two different cultures), each serves as the perfect sparring partner for the other. Early on they learn that differences breed exposure to the unknown, and in demystifying the unknown, they develop into more emotionally substantive beings.
An orphan who is raised in a state shelter for boys, George, given only the basics of life, is taught early on not to expect much from the future. Instead, Mrs. Jackson, the shelter’s stern but fair matron, teaches, “Only the present has potential, sir” (26). As a result, before he meets Cocoa, George has lived according to this one precept, taking one day at a time and relying only on himself. George is practical and independent to a fault. Never a dreamer, he has simply worked diligently every day of his life, making his way through college and ultimately establishing himself as a partner in the Andrews & Stein Engineering Firm. Though his way has rendered him successful in his professional life, his personal life has gone unfulfilled, that is, until he meets Cocoa.
Once she enters his life George is challenged to become less rigid and more flexible. Even the single act of meeting Cocoa begins to transform George’s world from one of normal absolutes to one of mystery, imagination, and the unknown. George and Cocoa officially meet when she enters his firm to inquire about an advertised job, but they encounter each other earlier in the day at a coffee shop not too far from the firm. Recounting in the narrative the feelings he experiences upon seeing Cocoa bent over her newspaper and coffee, George states, “The feeling is so strong, it almost physically stops me: I will see that neck again. . . . That is the feeling I actually had, while the feeling I quickly exchanged it with was: I’ve seen this woman before. . . . And just imagine, Miss Day, when I passed you I said to myself, Wouldn’t it be funny if I saw her again?” (27–28). Right away Cocoa forces George out of his “only the present has potential” mode. In considering these various “meetings” with Cocoa, George is dismantling the fixed boundaries between past, present, and future. For the first time in his life George is considering the possibility of spiritual connections, mystical alliances, that defy explanations and logical conclusions.
However, duly shaken by such novel realizations, George concludes that any future interactions with Cocoa would be unwise and decides, therefore, to deny her the job. Nevertheless, George will ultimately cometo appreciate this woman who disrupts his equilibrium and, in turn, he will develop into a selfless man who ingratiates himself easily with Cocoa’s family.
Cocoa also changes as a result of her marriage to George. Because she is an only child, and because she was raised by her grandmother, Miss Abigail, who feels a particular obligation to make this parentless child happy, Cocoa is somewhat spoiled and self-centered, though not in an irredeemable way. Also instrumental in her life has been Mama Day, who has tempered Abigail’s leniency with discipline and structure. Consequently, Cocoa has developed into an independent woman, exemplified in the fact that she has left her southern home and has made a life for herself in New York. Still, when she and George begin dating, she deliberately tests him for no reason other than to play childish games. She insists that he prove over and over again his love for her. George is passionate about sports, especially professional football. During the season, his only request is that Monday nights be honored as his television night. However, Cocoa complains that if he loves her, he would be willing to forgo those nights every so often. But when George presses her on the issue and asks if she has some specific request for a Monday night out, Cocoa demurs. George then gets angry and accuses Cocoa of being insensitive, stating that she evidently wants to torture him for the mere sake of torture, because if she truly has no specific need on a Monday night, why must they engage in a needless hypothetical discussion.
At one point during the courtship George considers purchasing a VCR so that he can record the Monday-night games but then decides not to, thinking instead that if he and Cocoa are to have a future, she will have to accept some aspects of his life. Ultimately, Cocoa will compromise, and for the first four years of their marriage, she accepts the fact that she and George will take separate vacations, when he insists on attending the annual Super Bowl games. That George provides an opportunity for Cocoa to grow and to compromise is evident in comments Mama Day makes upon learning, via Cocoa’s periodic letters, of the conflicts in the courtship: “She’s hard-headed and she’s spoiled, and this is one who won’t let her have her way. I’m starting to like him already” (109). Mama Day is certain that there must be something special about this new boyfriend, because George is the first man whom Cocoa has introduced to her family, even via letter. And Mama Day, pleased that Cocoa has met a man who will not relent to her every desire, appreciates the fact that Cocoa’s continued development as a person and as a woman is contingent on her being challenged and defied at every opportunity.
In short, Cocoa’s and George’s growth is dependent on their remaining bonded to each other. That is why it is significant that they narrate the bulk of the novel. Each is writing to the other in an effort to record all of those feelings, anxieties, frustrations, and joys that punctuated their life together. Even after George’s death (he, after all, is writing from the grave) and even after Cocoa’s new marriage, Cocoa and George are still connected. He relinquishes his life for hers; and she, in compensation for that sacrifice, honors him not only by naming her second son George but also by documenting his life and by acknowledging his continued impact on her, even fourteen years after his death.
As title character and as matriarch of the Days, Mama Day serves as foundational character for the entire novel. Even before the focus moves completely to Willow Springs in the second half, Mama Day’s presence is felt consistently in the New York segments, not only because Cocoa’s visits to Willow Springs are interspersed in these segments, but also because Mama Day observes, assesses, and even impacts Cocoa’s life from afar. She is an integral part of all that affects Cocoa. When Cocoa makes her first trip home after interviewing for the job at George’s firm, she tells Mama Day and her grandmother Abigail that she will not get the job because the bosses wanted her to start work right away, and since she simply would not forgo her annual trip to Willow Springs, she knows they will not hold the job for her. Nevertheless, Mama Day urges Cocoa to write to the firm, thank them for their consideration, and inform them that she is still interested in employment. Though Cocoa thinks this will do no good, she, at least in her estimation, humors Mama Day and writes.
Completing the task, Cocoa gives the letter to Mama Day who insists on mailing it herself. Upon receiving the letter George admits that he had almost forgotten about Cocoa, and when he opens the envelope he notices a fine powder has been sprinkled inside. Unable to identify what it is, George finds himself reluctant to brush it away. From all indications the letter (the writing of which Mama Day initiated) has potentially served a dual purpose: sparking George’s memory of Cocoa and renewing his affection for her. It is obvious that Mama Day sprinkled the mysterious powder in the envelope. Unbeknown to Cocoa, then, Mama Day, with her mystical prowess, is partially responsible for Cocoa’s relationship and ultimate marriage. From the very beginning of the novel Mama Day is presented as a forceful woman who perhaps possesses supernatural powers.
All of the inhabitants of Willow Springs respect Mama Day’s skills,whether in healing the sick or in warding off what they think may be curses exacted on them by an ominous practitioner. Even Dr. Smithfield, the mainland physician who visits the island in extreme cases, bows to Mama Day’s ability. That Dr. Smithfield admires Mama Day adds credibility to her practice, even though she needs no such validation. Because she believes in the primacy of, and has witnessed the success of, natural cures, Mama Day feels obliged to offer her services whenever they are requested. And since she takes her job seriously, she absolutely refuses to be compared to the likes of Dr. Buzzard, the island’s resident bootlegger, conjure man, con artist, and gambling cheat. Soon after George arrives with Cocoa in Willow Springs, he meets up with Buzzard, who proudly informs him that Mama Day is a bit jealous of the competition he offers to her practice, that they have a little professional rivalry afoot. When Mama Day hears of this insult she is incensed that the “shiftless, no-good, slew-footed, twisted-mouthed, slimy-backed” (191) Buzzard would even speak her name.
Clearly, Mama Day thinks that Buzzard somehow diminishes her efforts in doing legitimate work. Any practice that smacks of voodoo Mama Day disdains, and she would never identify herself as such. Still, when Cocoa suffers her debilitating illness at the hands of Ruby, the extremely jealous practitioner of the occult and victim of low self-esteem, Mama Day realizes that she must battle this adversity in kind. Calling upon all the fortitude she can muster from the other place, Mama Day connects the rational world with the mystical world when she asks George to honor the promise he made to Cocoa in the rational world, but to do so by obeying the rules of Willow Springs. In a phone conversation with Mama Day soon after he and Cocoa marry, George assures her, “She [Cocoa] has all I have” (136). Later challenging him, Mama Day wants George to open up his life just enough to accept an important part of Cocoa’s Willow Springs world. Of course, in order to do so, he must suspend his rational beliefs from the outside world. Though the ritual that Mama Day insists he perform may seem ludicrous and ill-fated, he must execute the task. As the voice of reason and promise (which entails hope and having faith in the unknown), Mama Day, in fact, must bridge these two worlds. As a vital figure in the novel, she remains consistent throughout, believing in the possibilities of a better day even when circumstances seem to indicate otherwise.
While Mama Day has been responsible for providing Cocoa with discipline, Abigail has been the source of comfort and encouragement, most often coddling and spoiling her granddaughter. In short, Abigail functions as a foil to Mama Day. Early in the novel when Mama Day and Abigail are drafting one of their responses to Cocoa’s monthly letters, it is Abigail’s responsibility to write and to temper whatever harsh comments Mama Day has made. With painstaking effort Abigail forms euphemisms to mitigate what she considers Mama Day’s offensive tone. And during some of Cocoa’s visits, when Cocoa gets angry at Mama Day for trying to run her life yet again (Mama Day especially disdains Cocoa’s insistence on accompanying her old friends to social clubs) and threatens to shorten her visit and leave, it is Abigail who must intervene, salve egos, and convince Cocoa to stay. Because she is the tamer of the two women, one might perceive her to be a flat character, but she ultimately emerges as strong and as determined as Mama Day or Cocoa.
Appearing only sparingly in the first half of the novel, Abigail emerges more fully in the second half, once George and Cocoa arrive in Willow Springs. Her strength of character is revealed during Cocoa’s illness. Even as Cocoa’s condition worsens, Abigail remains steadfast in her determination to be strong. Never attempting to force George to participate in Mama Day’s ritual, never badgering him about his obligations as a husband and soul mate, Abigail simply shows her own concern by caring for Cocoa in a quiet, unobtrusive, selfless manner. And though Cocoa is mostly incoherent during the height of her ailment, even she appreciates Abigail’s fortitude and sincerity “Reflected off the clear brown of her irises” (287). The trustworthiness of Abigail’s eyes highlights the loyalty of the woman, and her refusal to shed tears underscores her determination to be a stabilizing force during this tragedy. Resisting melodramatic outbursts, Abigail instead validates the seriousness of Cocoa’s illness by not redirecting the focus on herself. By the time the novel ends, Abigail has been dead for nine years, having died five years after George. She lived to fulfill her promise, to see Cocoa returned to health. But after she is confident that Cocoa has made not only a physical recovery, but also a reasonable emotional recovery, Abigail finally takes her sleep, as her duty has been fulfilled.
Ruby emerges as the villain by the end of the novel. Because she is jealous of Cocoa’s happy marriage (her own marriage to a younger Junior Lee is in shambles) and because she feels threatened by Cocoa, Ruby decides to put a “curse” on Cocoa. Even though Cocoa survives the illness caused by the curse, because George’s life is sacrificed to save Cocoa, Ruby has indirectly caused George’s death. Throughout the greater portion of the novel, Ruby seems like a minor character, yet she is a major plot tool. Her presence changes the lives of George and Cocoa forever.
Minor characters include Bernice and Ambush Duvall, Pearl Duvall, and Dr. Buzzard. Bernice and Ambush, childhood friends of Cocoa, serve as the model married couple, each devoted to the other unconditionally despite the negative attitude of Ambush’s mother Pearl. The Duvalls have been trying for some time to conceive a child, and because Pearl latches on to any excuse to criticize Bernice, she spares no opportunity to blame Bernice for the infertility. Bernice and Ambush emerge as likable characters, in part for their kind natures and in part because of their stark difference from Pearl, whose self-righteous behavior makes her less attractive to all. Sympathetic to Ambush and Bernice, Mama Day, at Bernice’s urging, agrees to “assist” them in conceiving. Mama Day, unlike the self-absorbed Pearl, humors Bernice by supplying her with different herbs and by providing her with tasks to occupy her time, because she understands that Bernice has become high strung in her impatience to be pregnant. Dr. Buzzard serves as Mama Day’s nemesis because of his unabashed experimentation with the occult. Though everyone on the island knows that Mama Day practices magic, she does not openly admit her leanings. And to have anyone believe that she and Buzzard are “colleagues” is offensive to Mama Day.
The bridge connecting Willow Springs to the U.S. mainland serves as an important symbol. One of the key thematic issues in the novel is “bridging,” or drawing comparisons between seemingly disparate entities. The title character, Mama Day, serves an important role in this function. A bridge between the rational world and the mystical world, Mama Day underscores the necessity of being receptive to various forms of reality. Anytime she requires inspiration, Mama Day retires to the other place where she can commune with the spirits of her ancestors, and after receiving their messages, she returns to her regular life to be guided by what she has learned. By portraying Mama Day as the stabilizing force in the novel, Naylor validates both Mama Day’s mystical presence and her rational presence. In this way, neither world takes precedence over the other. One’s imaginative reality becomes as important, as one’s sensate reality, and sometimes more so.
On yet another level Willow Springs represents the imaginative world, while the U.S. mainland (more precisely, New York) represents the sensate world. During the early stages of the novel, much comment is made about the difference between Cocoa’s Willow Springs existence and her New York identity, a contrast brought on largely by her belief that the two locales are markedly different. Reconciling the differences between these two settings introduces yet another important theme: selfdiscovery. Part of Cocoa’s discovery, and self-discovery, in fostering a relationship with George is uncovering the similarities between the two places. Highlighting these similarities while trying to school Cocoa on the uniqueness of New York, George describes the city as “a network of small towns . . . a handful of blocks, a single square mile hidden off with its own language, newspapers, and magazines—its own laws and codes of behavior, and sometimes even its own judge and juries” (61). New York, then, is composed of individual enclaves that project their own identity, much like Willow Springs. When Mama Day accompanies Cocoa to New York after George’s death, she discovers these similarities. Instead of accepting Cocoa’s suggestion that she take a guided tour of the city, Mama Day wanders about alone, visiting tourist traps and also meeting some of the people of New York. That Mama Day would find “right nice folks” in the city suggests again an apparent link between it and Willow Springs.
As the relationship between George and Cocoa dominates the novel, it is important to note how the theme of “bridging” functions with their story. Early on George and Cocoa are described as being very different, in terms of personality, family background, personal expectations, and general temperament. Cocoa complains that George is too exacting in his ways and not very imaginative, while George argues that simply sharing space with a woman is challenge enough. Yet as different as they are, an inexplicable quality draws them to each other. Their emerging relationship— confusing, mysterious, erratic, yet enduring and magnetic— defines the paradoxical nature of life that Naylor is highlighting. That we accept the mysterious nature of relationships (no two people who are radically different can explain why each is drawn to the other) but perhaps cannot accept the validity of other mysteries is, to be sure, contradictory and confusing. But in linking the George/Cocoa marriage to various opposing entities, Naylor forces the reader to examine the discrepancy. This point is made abundantly clear when Mama Day, in her attempt to convince George that he must engage in the mystical ritual in order to save Cocoa’s life, reminds George that he and Cocoa arelinked together in an intangible, yet binding way. And because of this emotional bond, one that defies simple logic, George must function in the Willow Springs world if he is to save his wife: “You see, she done bound more than her flesh up with you. And since she’s suffering from something more than the flesh, I can’t do a thing without you” (294). In addition to highlighting the mystical bond between George and Cocoa, Mama Day also highlights the link between the mysticism of that bond and the mysticism (inexplicable circumstances) of Cocoa’s illness, which entails the mysticism of the Willow Springs world.
While focusing on the relationship of George and Cocoa it is also important to note the narrative structure of the novel and its impact on the bridging theme. As noted earlier, both George and Cocoa, with little interruption, share narrative duties, as they speak intermittently to each other about their life together. George is, of course, narrating from the grave, and as such, he links death with life. Just as Mama Day bridges the gap between life and death when she visits the other place to commune with the spirit of her ancestors, George’s narrative sections make a similar bridge. Though he is dead, he still impacts Cocoa’s present life, and the memory of their life together will always be a part of Cocoa’s existence.
Still another significant link made in the novel is the one between the past and the present. Of course, Mama Day constructs such a link when she visits the ancestral home located at the other place; even stronger links between past and present are made in the plight of Bernice Duvall and in the plight of Mama Day’s and Abigail’s mother Ophelia (for whom Cocoa was named). Bernice comes to Mama Day to request Mama Day’s assistance in helping her get pregnant. Having tried to give her husband a child for some time now, Bernice is desperate to ensure Duvall offspring. Ultimately, Bernice conceives and later gives birth to little Charles, whose short life spans the length of George and Cocoa’s marriage, 1981–1985. How he dies is a mystery never solved, but his death is especially tragic to a mother like Bernice who wanted nothing more than to give her husband a child. Her loss is linked to the loss suffered by Ophelia Day in 1900. When Mama Day (Miranda) was five and Abigail was three, Ophelia mistakenly dropped their baby sister Peace down a well, a tragedy from which Ophelia never recovered and one that has forever plagued the family. When Peace (now a mystical and allegorical figure) was lost, peace was lost.
Ophelia’s loss is linked not only to Bernice, but also to Cocoa. Though Abigail regrets the day her own daughter Grace named her baby Ophelia(Cocoa) and, in so doing, visits upon Cocoa the horrors of Ophelia’s tortured life, somehow Mama Day and Abigail are comforted that Cocoa, by being the child of Grace (allegorically, grace), will survive whatever ills befall her. These details reveal varying connections. Ophelia’s tragedy is linked to Cocoa by virtue of ancestry and by virtue of Cocoa’s given name (Ophelia). Bernice’s loss, as a mother, is linked to Ophelia’s and is thus indirectly linked to Cocoa’s. But Bernice’s loss is also directly linked to Cocoa’s ultimate tragedy (the loss of George), because little Charles lived the exact number of years that Cocoa and George’s marriage lasted. The act of saving Cocoa and sacrificing George becomes part of a larger story of healing and recovery, two concepts that emerge as secondary themes. In rescuing Cocoa, peace (recall Peace) is restored, and Ophelia’s pain is put to rest.
In placing this story on a practically uncharted, and all-black, island, one officially unconnected to any mainland state, Naylor bows to an almost forgotten component of African-American history. Just as Africans were imported to various coastal regions on the eastern seaboard in the antebellum days, many were also imported to islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coast, known as the Sea Islands, to work on isolated plantations. In the days following the end of the Civil War, many of these ex-slaves were forgotten, but they continued to thrive, albeit provincially. The most significant aspect of their postwar existence is that they lived without measurable intrusion from the outside world. In short, they forged ahead as an intact African (American) community, maintaining cultural nuances and linguistic patterns from the distant past. Willow Springs might seem like a completely fictional place, but it does bear the stamp of reality given its connection to this historical truth.
Mama Day also borrows from African-American folklore in its rendering of the Day family history. Periodically alluded to throughout the novel is the history of Sapphira Wade, the great-grandmother of Mama Day and Abigail, who, after birthing seven sons to slave owner Bascombe Wade, somehow persuades Wade to deed the land to his progeny. No one is sure exactly how Sapphira accomplished such a feat. Some speculate that she even killed Wade after persuading him and then suddenly disappeared, perhaps on her way back to Africa. This part of the Sapphira Wade story is directly linked to the legend of Ibo Landing. In1858 the slave ship Wanderer arrived on Ibo Landing, an island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Myth suggests that as soon as the would-be slaves disembarked and saw their new home, they turned and proceeded to walk across the ocean on their way back to Africa, in a kind of reverse Middle Passage (the term applied to the slave journey from African shores to the Americas). Rituals of departure and return are a part of African (American) folklore. This legend serves in part as foundation of the history of African-American resistance and agency (the idea of taking action in one’s life instead of accepting passively one’s fate).
Willow Springs in general, and the Day family in particular, is created in the spirit of African-American agency. Because Sapphira Wade ensured an inheritance for her children, Willow Springs has been allowed to flourish in the present, largely free of outside (European) encroachment. Naylor alludes as well, though, to the harsh reality of African- American land ownership. While Willow Springs is still intact, its primacy has been threatened over the years by crafty and greedy developers. In the 1980s, when Naylor was in the throes of crafting this novel, unsettling stories were emanating from the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina concerning the plight of poor African Americans whose families had owned waterfront properties for generations (land gained largely because whites had formerly thought such land was worthless for agricultural purposes). Now that such land was deemed valuable as a place for the construction of resorts, these blacks were swindled out of their holdings, or if they refused to acquiesce, their taxes were summarily raised and because they could not afford to maintain payment, they lost land that developers then scooped up for a pittance. This is the harsh history that Naylor is also addressing. Willow Springs is a testament to what might have been.
In terms of literary history, one important predecessor is Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide, an account of the author’s brief tenure as a white schoolteacher on Yamacraw Island, one of the all-black Sea Islands off the coast of Beaufort, South Carolina. Conroy’s is a paradoxical tale of one who wishes to provide the children with an education appropriate for the modern world but who also understands the cultural sacrifice made by his encroachment upon their lives. In addition, an immediate forerunner to Mama Day is Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and, remotely, the other works in Morrison’s canon that predate Beloved. Like these Morrison novels, Mama Day employs magical realism, or speculative fiction, as a dominant genre. In such a work, the reader is presented with a changed, altered, or distorted reality in order to challenge his or her notions of the real and the known. Representation emerges as a concept more important than fixed reality. For example, in Beloved, the valid question is not, “Is Beloved a ghost?” or “Is she the child that Sethe murders years before?” Rather, the question is, “What does this illusory figure represent?” Likewise, in Mama Day, the question concerns not whether Mama Day is a conjure woman or if in the other place unnatural (or supernatural) events occur; rather the question concerns whether or not someone socialized in one perspective (one reality) can relinquish a single point of view (comfort zone) long enough to consider another point of view, especially if, as in the case of George, one’s willingness involves the life of a loved one.
Such literature transcends time, space, and memory. And because fixed reality is not a given luxury, the reader is left to confront the unknown world without the benefit of normal sensory tools. As the narrative voice states about the story of Sapphira Wade, “[She] don’t live in the part of our memory we can use to form words” (4). And according to George, “The clocks and calendars we had designed were incredibly crude attempts to order our reality. . . . All of those numbers were reassuring, but they were hardly real” (158).
In addition to her use of magical realism, Naylor also defers, if only briefly, to the futuristic novel. And while Mama Day is neither Utopian (a futuristic novel about an ideal imaginary world) nor Dystopian (a futuristic novel about a problematic imaginary world), it does acknowledge a future time. The George and Cocoa story technically ends with George’s death in 1985, and the publication date for the novel is 1988, yet Naylor ends the novel in 1999. With this technique Naylor ponders possibilities far beyond what one knows in the present moment. Though Cocoa has moved on with her life and, to some degree, beyond the tragedy of George’s death, she is still linked to that past, and in the same way, she is inextricably bound to an unknown future. Neither bad nor good, this future simply is. Just as Sapphira Wade’s actions in 1823 set a course for the future of her family, so too will Cocoa’s actions from 1985 on set a course for her sons and the progeny to follow thereafter.
Unlike her first two novels, which are structured around a series of ministories that collectively constitute the larger text, Mama Day focuses mainly on one major plot. In theory, then, the novel boasts a traditional linear format, but in reality Naylor manipulates the would-be chronological nature of the narrative movement in favor of a more original structure. After the prologue, the novel is divided into two sections: before Cocoa and George’s visit to Willow Springs and then the events following their arrival on the island.
The prologue is narrated by one unifying voice that represents the people and the culture of the island. This voice provides the history of Willow Springs, particularly in regard to the Day family. Though set in 1999, with the narrative voice looking back not only on events from the extended past but also on the events to be chronicled in the novel’s plot, the prologue recounts details from Willow Springs myth and legend as a means of establishing a cultural and a historical context, extending its time line from 1823 to 1999. This prologue also serves to show how the past is ever-present in the contemporary moment; in fact, it completely disturbs the notion of isolated moments in time. Instead, time is of a more fluid nature, with past merging with present and also with future.
As a means of underscoring this point, the narrative voice reveals the importance of 1823 as the year when the legend of Sapphira Wade (matriarch of the Day clan) is born. Different stories detail different methods she used to kill her master, Bascombe Wade, who is also the father of her seven sons, but not before he deeds his holdings to his mixed offspring. One story has her actually marrying him and then killing him after persuading him to will his land to her children. Other stories suggest that some of the sons are not Bascombe Wade’s. Nevertheless, 1823 has gone down as a banner year in shaping the future of Willow Springs, in fact to such an extent that the present-day inhabitants of the island use “18 & 23” as a colloquialism, either as a verb or noun to indicate something unusual, unexpected, unacceptable, or potentially deceptive. Its meaning actually fluctuates to accommodate the context of the statement. In this way, the Sapphira Wade story is always active in the lives of Willow Springs denizens, if only indirectly.
The prologue also establishes the context for the novel’s plot. The reader learns that Cocoa is now living outside Charleston with her second husband and two sons and that she now visits Willow Springs often to meet up with her first husband, who remained in Willow Springs after Cocoa left. She and her first husband, George, talk for over two hours during these visits. And it is one of these visits that serves as the narrative vehicle for the novel. Not until the end of the novel does the reader realize that George is dead and that Cocoa, in making these visits, must go to the cemetery.
After the prologue, the novel is narrated, with rare exception, intermittently by both George and Cocoa, each providing a perspective of their short life together. Each is ostensibly talking to (or thinking about) the other—sharing thoughts, feelings, frustrations, aspirations, disappointments, and joys, with George, of course, narrating from the grave. While there are no chapter breaks, interspersed throughout are section dividers. When neither George nor Cocoa is narrating, the collective voice of Willow Springs speaks, or Naylor uses extensive dialogue to convey the characters’ thoughts. The bulk of the novel, with its focus on George and Cocoa, is set in the years between 1980 and 1985. Periodically the collective voice is inserted to offer a historical reference to the moment. (See Character Development and Thematic Issues sections.)
At the very end of the novel, Naylor returns to 1999, now with Cocoa looking back on the events of 1985 just prior to George’s death. Fourteen years have elapsed, but Cocoa is still affected by her loss, though not as intensely as she was before. In the prologue the narrator, in explaining “18 & 23,” recalls “that ’18 & 23 summer’ [when] the bridge blew down” (4), referring, of course, to the hurricane of 1985 that preceded George’s death. In this way, 1823 is connected—spiritually, emotionally, and narratively— to 1985 and, by extension with Cocoa’s remembrances, to 1999. In order to appreciate the comprehensive nature of these cross-generational ties and the open-ended structure of the narrative, it is important to recall that the publication date for Mama Day is 1988. This said, it is obvious that Naylor is extending the novel’s story to the far-ranging future. Just as the Sapphira and Bascombe Wade stories are not fixed in a moment of time, neither is the George and Cocoa story. The imaginative world of Willow Springs lives on. The family chart that precedes the prologue reveals Sapphira’s birth year as 1799, yet she is one who impacted the next century. Likewise, the events that Cocoa is recalling in 1999 will impact the following century. And the story (-ies) will live on. This thought is embodied in the title character who, in 1999, is still living. Abigail died in 1990, but Mama Day still thrives on at 104 and will probably live to witness the next century. Born in 1895 Mama Day is the spiritual and narrative connection (hence her importance as the title character) linking the nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, and more than likely, the twenty-first century. And with her bond to Sapphira Wade, she is retrospectively linked to the eighteenth century.
It is also important to note that with this third novel Naylor confirms an intertextual link among the works in her canon. With this technique Naylor shows how each novel is not just an entity unto itself. Rather, each novel’s story is a part of a larger, more inclusive African-American story. No work, then, is a finite product. Each must be considered in response to yet another one. For example, Cocoa Day is the first cousin of Willa Prescott Nedeed, the wife of Linden Hills patriarch Luther Nedeed, both of whom suffer a tragic death at the end of Linden Hills. This tragedy occurs just one year before George and Cocoa begin dating in Mama Day. The reminder of this sudden death gives Cocoa all the more reason to consider marrying this man George with whom she initially thinks she has nothing in common. The mystery of what happened to the Nedeeds also affects Mama Day, but only to intensify her suspicions of urban life and northerners. The events presented in Linden Hills provide a backdrop for the ensuing events in Mama Day.
Similarly, Naylor also anticipates her fourth novel, Bailey’s Cafe, while writing Mama Day. To some degree Bailey’s Cafe is a prequel of Mama Day. George Andrews is born at the end of Bailey’s Cafe and is turned over to the Wallace P. Andrews Home for Boys. In a heated argument just prior to his marriage to Cocoa, George reveals the fact that he was born in Bailey’s Cafe. Mama Day, then, looks back to past events from Linden Hills while simultaneously looking back (in terms of narrative time) and looking forward (in terms of publication of text) to Bailey’s Cafe. Hence, the second, third, and fourth novels are tightly woven together. Even The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills are linked, if only tangentially. Kiswana Browne of The Women of Brewster Place hails from the Linden Hills neighborhood, but as Willie and Lester observe in Linden Hills, she had sense enough to leave.
The narrative techniques that Naylor employs, then, are not reserved for whatever individual work she is crafting at the moment. Instead, she is developing a whole universe of characters who shed light on various aspects of the African-American experience. Her method of rejecting the linear narrative for any single work becomes even more understandable when one realizes that each work does not stand alone. Rather, each is connected to the other. And together they penetrate past, present, and future.
A PSYCHOANALYTICAL APPROACH
A helpful way of assessing this work is a psychoanalytical approach. And because the definitive scholar on modern psychology is Sigmund Freud (1856–1939, Austrian psychiatrist and founder of psychoanalysis), his concepts are the most useful. Freud observed that most people’s conscious lives are troubled by unconscious fears or desires, often relating to childhood experiences. In order to help the patient escape this mental anguish, Freud invited the patient to talk freely about his or her childhood, dreams, and/or fantasies, whatever might yield insight into this unconscious mental territory. A secondary, but integral, component to this theory included Freud’s notion that sexual energy (the most basic human force and the entire drive toward physical pleasure) caused the human mind much confusion, because such energy, as it stood in conflict with the mandates of a civilized society, was summarily repressed. Yet this repressed energy had to display itself somehow, if not in constructive ways, then in destructive ones. Sexual energy and childhood experience are also linked in Freudian theory. As a child’s first sexual yearning is linked to the opposite-sex parent, according to Freud, these parent-child relationships are crucial to understanding the adult child’s relationships with others.
A psychoanalytical reading of a literary work allows the student to investigate more thoroughly the conscious and subconscious motivations of key characters. This form of criticism provides the reader with tools for understanding the relationship between a character’s feelings or mental state and the character’s actions. Such an analysis can be indispensable in gauging character development. When relevant, a psychoanalytical critic might also be concerned with the author’s motives and how such motives have affected the creation of characters and story line.
To some extent Naylor constructs her narrative around psychoanalysis. As George and Cocoa reminisce about their life together, they reevaluate every aspect of their journey together. The sections that they narrate read very much like journal entries, the effect of which is to heal former pains and frustrations. With this “free talk” method, both narrators reveal seemingly unconnected aspects of their individual personalities, only later to discover that these various components make up who they are, imperfect though each person is. Yet when they unite in matrimony these components create a complete unit. For example, what is lacking in Cocoa is compensated for in George, and vice versa. George’s practicality helps to ground Cocoa, while her temperamental behavior constantly challenges him.
George and Cocoa fully appreciate their compatibility only after George is dead, however. During much of their short-lived marriage they challenge each other in ways they do not fully understand. As Freudian theory suggests, human behavior is linked to childhood issues. This is certainly the case with George and Cocoa. Each of them suffers from a sense of loss (of the parents they never knew). Because Cocoa has never had a consistent male presence in her domestic life (her father abandoned her mother before Cocoa was born), she exhibits a subdued anger about men, an anger borne out of feelings of insecurity that fuels erratic behavior in her adult interactions with them. In short, every man must pay for the mistake made by her father. Two important examples support this assertion: Cocoa’s initial attempt to force George to choose between his love of Monday-night football and his love for her; and her apparent jealousy when George adapts so well to life in Willow Springs and gains the love and respect of her family. Whenever she is denied George’s undivided attention, Cocoa transforms into the little girl whose emotional void was never quite satisfied. Such a conflict is presented in one of the most crucial scenes in the novel, marking the worst altercation of their married life. On the night of their arrival in Willow Springs, Mama Day and Abigail honor them with a reception. Before the guests arrive, Cocoa, feeling particularly anxious and insecure, asks George how she looks, a question that George thinks requires an honest answer. But because Cocoa wants to make a notable impression on her old friends, she needs ego stroking from George, not for him to tell her that her foundation is too dark. This is a particular blow to her ego because Cocoa has always been self-conscious about her skin color. Lighter than all of the other girls in Willow Springs, she was often referred to as a leper and made to feel freakish. So returning home now with a husband was to satisfy two purposes, one conscious and one subconscious. She wanted to prove to everyone that she could find a man who would find her attractive enough to marry; and subconsciously she is filling an emotional void that has plagued her for a lifetime.
Likewise, George is reacting in the present moment to issues extending to his childhood. Because he was raised in the structured, emotionless environment of a state shelter, George functions, as noted above, in a practical, undeviating way. For him, everything operates on logical principles. There is a solution to every problem. Yet George still needs his emotional hunger fed, which is evident in the fact that he constantly refers to the practical teachings of Mrs. Jackson, the matron of the shelter. George tries to convince himself that her methods were sufficient, but in reality some aspect of his development is missing. Because he never interacted with a sensitive, caring mother, George is less prepared for his relationship with Cocoa. Like Cocoa, he exhibits puerile behavior when he feels abandonment or neglect. Soon after George and Cocoa are married, Cocoa, one day while conducting her morning ablutions, moves George’s heart medicine to make room for her toiletries, only to witness George react in a volatile manner. Because he storms out of the house for what Cocoa considers only a minor change in his life/routine, she fears that George will not fully accept her presence in the house, the biggest change of all. To Cocoa, George overreacted for what was, at best, only a slight offense. While she can understand the importance of his needing to locate his medicine, she cannot understand his brusque behavior since she moved it only a bit. But for George, now that he has finally found a woman to love, and who loves him, he does not want to witness even the slightest disregard for his feelings and needs. While he does have an actual heart ailment, it is also his metaphoric heart that ails.
As stated above, Freud argues that children’s sexual awareness (and subsequent sexual and/or behavioral issues) is directly connected to their relationships with the opposite-sex parent. For the boy, according to Freud, early sexual awakening begins when the mother nurses the baby; her breasts become the objects of his sexual desire. As noted earlier, George is denied this interaction since he never knew his natural mother. And it is a phase of life that he misses. This assertion is made evident in an important scene presented soon after Cocoa and George’s arrival in Willow Springs. While the two are having dinner one night with Cocoa’s old friends Bernice and Ambush, the topic of naming babies emerges. Bernice, arguing that a child needs only its given name, not a nickname, unknowingly makes a faux pas: “My own mama never gave me no outside name but the one I was born with. And your mama didn’t either, did she, George?” (201). Because Cocoa feels guilty for not ever having warned Bernice about George’s mysterious parentage, she dreads George’s later retaliation for this silent humiliation. Her fear, as she undresses for bed later that night, is that George will vindictively criticize the size of her breasts, an insecurity she has long harbored. But instead of attacking Cocoa in this way, George responds in a subtle, yet emotionally charged way. Cocoa describes their interaction after they are in bed: “Your face stayed turned and it was barely a whisper: I’d like you to nurse our children. I said nothing as I waited. The silence grew longer and longer. The silence stayed. You slipped under the covers, cradled your head between my breasts, and we never spoke about the tears” (202). Clearly, Bernice’s question triggers an insecurity in George about his being denied any interaction/intimacy with his natural mother. And later with Cocoa, in a symbolic gesture, George yearns to be embraced in the bosom of a mother figure, this time Cocoa.
Mama Day. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988. Rpt. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Christian Century, November 16, 1988: 1047–48.
Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1988: B1–2.
Essence, July 1988: 28.
Kirkus Review, December 15, 1987: 1695.
Library Journal, February 15, 1988: 179. Ms., February 1988: 74.
New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1988: 7.
North Dakota Quarterly 57 (1989): 176.
Publishers Weekly, December 18, 1987.
SAGE 6 (1989): 56–57.
Southern Review 24 (1988): 680–85.
Times Literary Supplement, June 3, 1988: 623.
Village Voice, March 15, 1988: 52.
Washington Post Book World, February 28, 1988: 5.
Source: Wilson, C. E. (2001). Gloria Naylor: A critical companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.