The Number One thing you need to know about Julian's mother: the entire story is written from Julian's perspective, so we never get an objective look at her—despite that fact that he claims to be objective.
Just look at the way she's described:
Do these descriptions sound like they're written by someone objective? Uh, no. Clearly, Julian is projecting his feelings about his mother onto her. At the same time, we get the sense that she's not beautiful to look at. We know that she's overweight, because she's taking a reducing class; we know that her teeth are crooked, because she got Julian's fixed instead of hers. Oh, and she's wearing a really ugly hat.
Like any high school bully, Julian seems to think that her physical ugliness is a reflection of her inner self. But is it, really?
We're not saying that we want to bring Mrs. Chestny home for dinner. She's racist, snobbish, and kind of annoying. Just look at her little monologue, as she's telling Julian about buying the hat:
the world is in such a mess. This hat looked better on me than any of the others, though when she brought it out I said, "Take that thing back. I wouldn't have it on my head," and she said, "Now wait till you see it on," and when she put it on me, I said, "We-ull," and she said, "If you ask me, that hat does something for you and you do something for the hat, and besides," she said, "with that hat, you won't meet yourself coming and going."
This is the kind of woman you definitely do not want to get stuck on a plane with. She's petty, repetitive, and frankly doesn't seem too smart. She's afraid to ride the buses at night "since they had been integrated," and she is pretty good at the guilt trip, saying that "Julian could at least put himself out to take her, considering all she did for him."
And that irritating way of talking doesn't even touch on her racism and classism. She says that she's "always had a great respect for my colored friends," and that they should rise "on their own side of the fence," and she believes that not wearing a tie amounts to being a "thug."
No, she's not calling anyone any names. But this is hardly equality-speak. She thinks fondly of her family's slave-owning days, and she imagines herself being condescending and "gracious" to the people in her reducing class who aren't her "kind of people." Nice lady, right?
Actually, maybe she is. She doesn't mind living in the run-down, slummy area because she considers herself "adaptable." She enjoys going to the reducing class, even though she considers herself better than her classmates. And she's friendly and playful with the little black kid, Carver. Yeah, she tries to give him a penny, which we could see as insulting. But that's not the way she sees it. She genuinely likes the little boy—she thinks "little Negroes [are] on the whole cuter than little white children"—and she would really rather give him a nickel.
In a lot of ways, she's way more likeable than her stuck-up son. Take a look at what we learn about her, outside of Julian's prejudiced (yep, we said it) view:
Fact 1: She's a widow.
Fact 2: She struggled most of her life to feed, clothe, and put Julian through school; she let her teeth go unfilled so that his could be straightened.
Fact 3: She always supports her son.
Knowing all this, it's hard to see her as the villain Julian makes out to be.
Throughout the whole story, Julian fantasizes about teaching his mom a lesson. ("Liv[ing] according to the laws of her own fantasy world" is apparently something that both of them do.) But maybe he's the one who should take a lesson from her. His insecurity and meanness make him incapable of engaging with the world. Even though he wants to have black friends, his mom is the one who actually plays with Carver.
Why? As she says, "I most certainly do know who I am," and "I care who I am." She may be as "innocent and untouched by experience as … when she was ten," but we're starting to think that she's the one who comes off better.
Did she deserve being punched by the black woman? Did she deserve the stroke? Maybe. What she did was definitely offensive. But maybe we should also consider her action in the context of her life and experience: for all that she's a racist bigot, it might be her son who needs the sense knocked into him.Timeline