Jack describes his mother as a "damned expensive present." Mrs. Murrell (we never do learn her first name) is quite a piece of work. Though Jack knows quite a bit about her, he's not sure how to interpret any the information he has. It seems as if Jack wants understand her by trying to get us to understand her, so he shares with us all the juicy details on his mom. In the end we do get a good sense of her character. Like Jack, she is burdened by the secrets that drove Ellis Burden from his grandfather's house in Burden's Landing.
Mrs. Murrell is an extremely private person about certain things, namely her love for Judge Irwin. The Judge would rather die than tell Jack the truth (as we discuss in the Judge's "Character Analysis) But why? Why do the Judge and Mrs. Murrell hide their love? Jack tries to find and explanation, but comes up completely short, as do we.
Maybe it's similar to what happens in the Cass Mastern story. A single act of betrayal has dire consequences. People get hurt and the ones left standing are so ashamed that they will do anything to hide their guilt. Like Cass, Mrs. Murrell is freed by the truth. But also like Cass, it takes a man shooting himself for the truth to be known.
Let's look at a couple of the pivotal aspects of Mrs. Murrell that define her for Jack for much of the book.
Mrs. Murrell's cheeks are major part of Jack's vision of his mother. He first describes this unique facial feature in the following way: "The firelight defined her small poised features […] and emphasized the slight, famished, haunting hollow beneath the cheekbones […]" (3.5) Jack thinks this phenomenon is what lures men to his mother: " The hollow in the cheeks: the hungry business" (3.7).
Jack seems to both admire and loathe his mother's talent for attracting men. He gives us the rundown. After Ellis Burden (his presumed father), there was Daddy Ross, who died, Count Covelli, who left, and Theodore Murrell, whom Jack calls the Young Executive. The Young Executive is about 45 to Mrs. Murrell's 55. And ten years is a big deal to Jack. Again, he seems to both loathe and admire his mother for getting a younger man.
In any case, Mrs. Murrell's famished cheeks are what Jack uses to explain his mother's talent for drawing men. To him, the cheeks imply an emptiness, and a kind of predatory aspect to his mother. It's almost like Jack thinks the men are falling down in to the hollows of his mother's cheeks, unable to escape. Jack fears he is one of these men.
Jack's fears come to a rest when he learns that his mother loved and continues to love his real father, Judge Irwin. Knowing that his mother is capable of love allows Jack to see past her man-eating cheeks, and get in touch with his mother as a person. Does the way Mrs. Murrell sees Jack change as well? The book doesn't give us any indication either way, so we'll leave it to your imagination.
In our discussion of Jack as furniture (see Jack's "Character Analysis") we talk about how Jack's mom makes her 35-year-old son lie on the couch with his head on her lap, and how she doesn't let him get up when he wants to leave. We suggest that she treats him like furniture. Obviously, it goes deeper than furniture.
What makes this scene uncomfortable is the way Jack describes it, as if his mother is purposely exercising hypnotic powers over him. To make matters worse, she uses it make some kind of point to her husband, Theodore. Is she using her son to try to make Theodore jealous? To show him she is powerful? Is it some kind of coded message that only Theodore can understand? If Jack understands it, he doesn't clue us in. We get the feeling, though, that this isn't the first time Mrs. Murrell has played out this scene with men.
Does this behavior have anything to do with Jack being Judge Irwin's son and Mrs. Murrell loving Judge Irwin? Perhaps she does is to flaunt a kind of secret knowledge. Jack is the secret evidence of their love, a love from which her husbands will forever be excluded. But let's not judge her too harshly. Like Jack, we don't know anything about her childhood, her relationships with her parents, or her lovers (if any) before Ellis Burden. Yet, Jack still comes to understand her enough to finally soften toward her. Knowing that she is capable of love, and therefore is human, is enough for him.