Richard’s contentious relationship with his mother may be traced back to his early childhood, when Ella administers a beating that nearly kills him. This strife continues throughout Richard’s early years, as he commits endless punishable offenses in a setting where his mother is often the only authority figure around to deliver punishment. Despite her sometimes brutal discipline, Ella is devoted to her children and is fiercely determined to raise them successfully after her husband abandons the family.
Ella shows a special tolerance and affection for Richard that we do not see in any of the other major characters. When Richard publishes “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” for example, the rest of the family attacks him, but Ella shows compassion through her concern that Richard’s writing might make it hard for him to get a job. Similarly, Ella walks on her weak legs to give Richard a hug when she learns that he will get a job in defiance of Granny’s and Addie’s wishes, suggesting that she takes genuine delight in her son’s success.
Much of the meaning of Ella’s character lies in her illness, as she symbolizes those elements of life that are at once unpredictable, overwhelming, and unfair. In Chapter 3, Ella’s suffering effectively becomes a symbol of everything wrong with the world for Richard. In a just universe, he concludes, the unfriendly and harmful people would be sick, and Ella would enjoy vigorous health, unimpeded in going about the business of raising her sons and earning a living. However, the reality is, of course, that Ella is constantly sick and suffering. In light of the seemingly cruel fate his mother endures, Richard finds it difficult to deny that the universe is unjust. The injustice he sees afflicting his mother mirrors the injustices he himself faces: poverty, hunger, a severely abridged education, and the mere fact of being black in the Jim Crow South. Taken together, these accidents of life constitute a major obstacle that Richard must overcome in order to live the life that he wants.