The main theme of ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning’’ is that of forgiveness. The speaker states that her mother’s words at her father’s deathbed have allowed her to realize that the only way to repair the damage that people do to one another is by forgiving them. The speaker obviously sees her mother’s statement as a declaration of absolution for all of the hard times that no doubt accompany a marriage. To the speaker, this is an awe-inspiring act, one that she feels has wider implications for her father’s return. This very Christian concept of forgiveness and redemption is related to the belief that all the people who have ever lived will be resurrected from their graves and judged when the world comes to an end. This may be the ‘‘morning’’ that the speaker’s mother is referring to. In this sense, the word morning is metaphorical, indicating a spiritual awakening rather than a physical one. The mother’s forgiveness, in and of itself, is rather Christ-like, given that Christ is a religious symbol for, among other things, forgiveness, absolution, and redemption.
Redemption, according to Christian belief and to the speaker in ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning,’’ is what follows from forgiveness. True forgiveness absolves the one who is forgiven, and they are thus redeemed. It is this redemption that allows the speaker’s father to return. She indicates that she understands her mother’s declaration of absolution to be one that allows an assurance for her father (and for all who are forgiven) to come back after all is said and done. This is the result of redemption. Through redemption, the spirit of the speaker’s father is allowed to return to the family, to be honored as a father and husband and not as a flawed man who hurt his loved ones. The speaker’s mother redeems the father simply by continuing to accept, if not welcome, his presence in their lives, despite the changed nature of that presence.
The speaker’s mother has the last word at her husband’s deathbed; therefore, it is easier for her to forgive him. Regardless, the finality of death becomes the closing punctuation on their life together. This is how death is represented in ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning.’’ Death is both literally and metaphorically the occurrence that allows the speaker’s mother to bid her husband goodbye and to forgive him. Arguably, it would be difficult to forgive Willie Lee while he was still alive, especially given the near certainty that he would do something else that would require forgiveness. Thus, the finality of death allows for the lasting authority of the forgiveness that is subsequently granted.
Acceptance is related to forgiveness in that one must fully accept the past and what has happened (without anger, sadness, fear, or any other such emotion) in order to truly forgive. Additionally the title of the poem, the essential statement that is made to Willie Lee’s corpse, is one of supreme acceptance. The disconcertingly matter-of-fact tone of this statement is highly stressed in the poem. The speaker’s mother is described as talking to her dead husband in a congenial manner. Much is made of the fact that the speaker’s mother is not crying; nor is she angry or happy. This stress is derived from the noted absence of any strong emotion. Thus, this lack of strong emotion indicates acceptance, not only of Willie Lee’s death, but also of his life. In another reading, one could argue that the opposite is the case, and that the title statement is an act of supreme denial. Rather than bid her dead husband goodbye, the speaker’s mother says she will see him tomorrow. This statement, when interpreted literally, would seem to indicate that the mother does not register the death of her husband. Nevertheless, the speaker’s observations following her mother’s farewell to her husband do not support this second interpretation.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Alice Walker, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009