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Berenice Sadie Brown is one of the most interesting mother figures in literature. Like thousands of families in the south at the time the novel is set, the Mr. Addams has his African-American housekeeper raise their daughter. Berenice is responsible for running the house and for raising Frankie almost single-handedly all for six dollars a week, not even enough money to be able to pay her own way for a day of fun with friends. Berenice isn’t living on this money by herself. She takes care of Big Mama, an invalid who lives in her house, of unnamed relation, and she supports her nephew Honey, who seems unable to manage steady employment. Still, Mr. Addams doesn’t hesitate to complain to her about the amount of food eaten in the house with the implicit accusation that Berenice is taking some of it home.
Berenice treats Frankie with a kind of rough love. When Frankie throws the knife past Berenice to hit the wall under the staircase, Berenice isn’t afraid to call her "Devil!" She is the first to tell Frankie that her crazy plans to join the wedding and go off with her brother and his fiancee on their honeymoon are never going to reach fruition and to warn her against falling in love with such things as weddings.
Berenice’s method of teaching is telling slow stories to the children. Part of the time it seems as though she’s talking to herself. Sometimes she seems to forget that she’s talking to young children and has to catch herself before she says too much for them to understand. Berenice is lonely. Caught in a life of work from dawn till dusk in a kitchen with two bored and restless children, Berenice talks herself into comfort. In doing so, she teaches Frankie the art of storytelling. Frankie thinks of Berenice’s storytelling as a sort of a song she knows and has heard often but which gets under her skin and stays with her.
Most of Berenice’s stories are about her one true love, Ludie, her first husband who died of pneumonia after years of a good marriage. Berenice tells the children that she sometimes wishes she had never known Ludie because it showed her what life could be and made her lonesome for it for the rest of her life. After Ludie, Berenice married several men who reminded her of Ludie but who turned out to be terrible for her. The last at the mere mention of whose name startles her into fright hurt her so badly that he put her eye out. Now she has one blue eye which Frankie regards with superstitious awe.
Berenice carries on her present life with the persistence of a woman who shoulders
great responsibility and who has little power to make the world just for
those she loves. The end of the novel sees the tragedy of this great woman
reduced to despair. Her nephew has been put in jail and she has run around
town trying to get white people to speak for him or give her money for
his bail. It’s clear that her efforts will have been in vain. Honey will
undoubtedly serve his nine years in hard labor and come out even more
broken in spirit than when he went in. The white child she essentially
adopted, John Henry West, has died a horrible death of meningitis. She
has watched in horror as his body is twisted with pain until he can no
longer cry out. Now she is left to lead her life outside the stifling
Addams kitchen and Frankie has moved on to other preoccupations and isn’t
mature enough to recognize the loss that Berenice’s absence will be.
John Henry has a fairly small part to play in the novel. He is the embodiment of the sweet and innocent child. His fantasies for a new creation are fantasies of empowerment. He wants an arm that will reach miles distant to get what he wants or a tail like a kangaroo’s that will enable him to have a seat wherever he is. He wants people to be re-created as half boy and half girl and when Frankie teases him that they will put him in the freak show, he closes his eyes and smiles delightedly at that thought.
John Henry knows no gender boundaries yet. He loves the doll Frankie’s brother gave her and which she threw away as too childish. He loves to dress up in Berenice’s shoes and wander around the kitchen. He dresses in Frankie’s girls’ costumes and follows her around town looking like a shrunken old woman. John Henry’s death symbolizes the death of Frankie’s childhood. The violence of his death symbolizes the fundamental injustice of the cosmos.
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TheBestNotes.com Staff. "TheBestNotes on The Member of the Wedding".
. 09 May 2017