Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Why George Has to Die: Gloria Naylor's Mama Day and the Myth of the Goddess

Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Why George Has to Die: Gloria Naylor's Mama Day and the Myth of the Goddess

Article excerpt

Whenever we reach the end of Mama Day, most of my students are outraged, just as I was when I first read the novel, that Naylor kills off the likable George. The question of why George has to die has haunted criticism. Most answers emphasize his flaws. As Elizabeth Hayes writes, when Miranda, or Mama, Day gives him the instructions she says will save Cocoa, his wife and her grandniece, from a seemingly fatal illness, he follows the first part, to enter the chicken coop and search the nest of the fierce red hen, but not the second part, to bring back to Miranda whatever he finds, instead "venting his fury" by killing all the hens, bringing on his heart attack (679). "He is unable," Lindsey Tucker puts it, "to make a genuine surrender of belief to Miranda, and hence loses his life" (183). Margaret Earley Whitt sees "his resistance to surrender logical thought to the ways of Willow Springs" as responsible for his death: "George lives in a world that must and can be tested, measured, proven; he values empirical data above all. And this position is his undoing" (144). She adds that "He refused the help of those who could have made the difference" (152). He refused to give himself to the power of community and tradition. For Daphne Lamothe, his death "signifies," among other things, "the defeat of his Western, masculinized rationality to the Africanderived matriarchy that rules over the island" (167).

Yet George is not a rigidly conceived representation of scientific rationality or masculine stereotypes.1 His passion is football, but what compels him most about the game is the influence a crowd can exercise over the results on the field through the sheer emotional force of their communal will and belief. And while Cocoa sees the people of New York in superficially conceived and mocking ethnic categories, he sees them with a novelist's eye as varied and interesting individuals in richly distinct neighborhoods; his descriptions of New York are even lyrical. As for his death, it is directly caused by his heart condition, which Miranda herself, unlike some critics,2 does not identify with a flawed emotional nature, calling him "a good-hearted boy with a bad heart" (170). Indeed, that Miranda is immediately fond of him and thinks he is the right man for Cocoa makes it difficult for us to see him as the symbolic villain in a clash of binaries. She repeatedly approves of his reactions to things, and in fact "It scares her sometimes how much she likes this boy" (229). If he doesn't follow Miranda's instructions to make the trek back to her after the coop it is because he is dying of a heart attack. It is difficult to judge him badly in wanting in the agonizing last moments of his life to be with Cocoa rather than to follow instructions and return to Mama Day.3 But if he is primarily a positive character, what exactly is his thematic function in the novel?

As many critics have pointed out, Mama Day engages the myth of the goddess, but what I would stress is that George dies because that is the role of the male in the myth of the goddess. His limitations contribute to the thematic richness of the novel, but he would have had to die had he not had them. David Cowart has given us the most comprehensive study of the novel's use of the goddess, but even he says that Karla F. C. Holloway "surely errs in saying that [Miranda] must sacrifice George" to save Cocoa. He explains that although George is sacrificed, Mama Day does not intentionally kill him or desire his death; rather, in her human fallibility, she "errs to think this death avoidable" (Cowart 459, 454; Holloway 139). But Miranda sent him into a situation in which his pain was virtually a certainty and his destruction a possibility. She herself "wouldn't go near a brooder's nest for nothing in the world" (229). Afterwards, when she surveys the wrecked coop, "she has the time to cry" (302). One assumes she is crying for George more than for the coop and chickens. But there is no indication that she is crying in guilt or that she ever regrets her plan. …

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