Mama Day Summary

Gloria Naylor.

Mama Day

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Mama Day Summary

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Mama Day is a 1988 novel by Gloria Naylor. It tells the story of the tragic love affair of Ophelia “Cocoa” Day and George Andrews. It uses Shakespearean tropes and takes place in the same fictional universe as her two other novels.

The story is told both in the third person as the story of Mama Day, and in the first person as a conversation between her grandniece Ophelia and George Andrews. Mama Day is the matriarch of the island where Ophelia, otherwise known as Cocoa, grew up. They are the descendants of slaves and live on a private island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina that the slave master deeded their ancestors when he freed them.

Mama Day keeps their culture alive, but her grandniece has gone mainland and is living in New York City now. Cocoa has fallen in love with George, a straitlaced engineer, and though they seem to have nothing in common, they are in a relationship. George has a past shrouded in shadows.

In the preface, we are given the family tree of those on the island. Sapphira was a slave suspected of witchcraft; when the slave master died, he left everything to her and her descendants. Mysterious things have happened on the island ever since.

The story moves to the day that Cocoa and George meet in a coffee shop. She applies for a job at his company but does not get it. He eventually asks her out, and they begin a relationship. At first, they vacation separately with Cocoa returning to her home on the island.

The plot also revolves around the healer Mama Day, a well-respected matriarch of the island and Cocoa’s great aunt. Bernice, a woman on the island, seeks Mama Day’s help in getting pregnant but is unsatisfied with the results, taking matters into her own hands. That does not work and eventually, Mama Day helps her. Another woman, Ruby, is Mama Day’s dark counterpart, a rumored conjure woman whose jealousy is notorious.

In the second part of the book, Cocoa and George return to the island together. He is welcomed into the family and begins to get to know their stories and traditions. Ruby, however, suspects that her husband has eyes for Cocoa, and she takes matters into her own hands. During the party, Cocoa and George fight and Ruby’s husband hits on Cocoa. Feigning sympathy, Ruby offers to do Cocoa’s hair.

When Cocoa wakes up, she discovers she has contracted a mysterious illness. Mama Day figures out that Ruby has done something to her. Ruby refuses to meet her and Mama Day takes her retribution.

A storm passes through doing a lot of damage, including destroying the only bridge to the mainland. George threatens to swim across to find help for his wife if they do not do something. He refuses to believe that hoodoo has been done against her, and tries to help fix things. In the end, when he finally listens to Mama Day, it is too late for him. He falls victim to a heart attack and dies.

Cocoa is cured but in mourning. Mama Day flies to New York to help her clean out her apartment, and Cocoa moves to Charleston. She eventually marries again and has children. Mama Day knows that her time is coming and she is comforted knowing that her great niece has finally found peace.

A lot of the story is an elaborate magic in which the reader is asked to believe in events that cannot possibly be true and yet happen anyway. We do not know the nature of Sapphira or her relationship with the slave owner, but we do know that through some series of events, she inherited his wealth when he died. This created the place where Cocoa’s extended family lives to this day, a fictional island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

George is akin to the reader. He is a reasonable man, not prone to fanciful thinking. When he arrives on the island, he is taken in as family, and he begins to think he might like to stay. As he hears more about what goes on, he is in disbelief at the strange stories. However, in the end, he is forced to come to terms with something wholly unlike anything he has ever experienced. Just as the reader must come to terms with these forces, so, too, does George ultimately accept what is happening though it is too late for him.

Many critics see allusions to some of Shakespeare’s most famous works, including Hamlet and The Tempest. Naylor does not make them the focus of the story, but rather as a complement to the education of Cocoa to take her place as the matriarch of the traditions when Mama Day herself dies.

Naylor’s story asks us to examine our histories and our pride in our family traditions. George has no faith in anything but himself, a fact that ultimately leads to his death. Through the events on the island, we understand how family and tradition tie Cocoa to her home.