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Jamaica Kincaid has portrayed troubled mother-daughter relationships extensively throughout her work, but her 1978 story “Girl,” from her first short story collection At the Bottom of the River, remains her most succinct depiction of this theme. Her fraught relationship with her own mother, Annie Richardson, undoubtedly fueled Kincaid’s preoccupation with mothers, daughters, and their often contentious bonds. In an interview with The New York Times, Kincaid admits of her mother, “[T]he way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me. I can’t help but think that it made me interested in the idea of myself as an object” (qtd. in Kenney 6). Thus, the mother figure in “Girl” is likely a fictionalized portrayal of Kincaid’s own mother. Like most of Kincaid’s work, “Girl” addresses the acculturating influence of mothers on their daughters. In that sense, “Girl” seems a story of disempowerment. However, if one assumes the narrator of the story represents Kincaid’s mother, the subversive nature of “Girl” becomes apparent. Kincaid emancipates herself from the tyranny of the mother by co-opting her voice and diverting it from its original purpose. What is initially intended as a tool of acculturation and colonization becomes, in Kincaid’s hands, a nuanced yet unflinching critique of those same practices. In this sense, “Girl” is ultimately a story of empowerment.
A continuous monologue from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, presumably the mother of the titular girl, Kincaid’s “Girl” superficially consists of a stream of imperatives concerning domestic life. At the outset, the mother’s commands seem innocuous: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil” (306). In this way, critic Diane Simmons asserts, “‘Girl’ can be read as a kind of primer in the manipulative art of rhythm and repetition. The story begins with the mother’s voice giving […] simple, benevolent, and appropriately maternal advice” (467). The reader, like the girl, “is lulled and drawn in by the chant of motherly admonitions” (468). However, as the narrative progresses, the mother’s advice grows increasingly disconcerting, particularly her advice on “how to bully a man” and “how a man bullies you” (Kincaid 307), as well as her instruction, “[T]his is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child” (307), which implies a self-induced abortion. Meanwhile, the girl herself is notably silent, save for two italicized sentences of protestation, and her half-hearted attempts at self-defense go unacknowledged by the mother, who, it gradually becomes apparent, is consumed by a single goal: to prevent her daughter from becoming “the slut [she] is so bent on becoming” (306).
Many of the mother’s more questionable injunctions are directly related to sex. According to critic J. Brooks Bouson, “[T]he unnamed mother in ‘Girl’ admonishes her daughter to be a good, dutiful daughter and to follow the mother’s—and society’s—rules of proper behavior so that she will not become the ‘slut’ that her mother repeatedly accuses her of being ‘so bent on becoming’” (25). The mother’s discourse both limits and controls the sexual proclivities of the daughter: “[O]n Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; […] you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the streets—flies will follow you” (Kincaid 306). While the age of the girl is unclear, the mother’s reminder to “soak your little cloths right after you take them off” (306) suggests that the girl has at least begun menstruating. Therefore, the implications of the mother’s monologue are clear: the entire story, in essence, becomes a thinly-veiled treatise on how to navigate the potentially perilous world of sexual adulthood. Bouson further argues, “The thrust of the mother’s message is that the daughter should be a good and dutiful girl and should not bring shame on her family” (25). Shame, in this particular context, is omnipresent. To the mother, even the simple act of purchasing bread can conceivably be complicated by a woman’s sexual history. When the girl asks, “[B]ut what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?” the mother responds,“[Y]ou mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?” (Kincaid 307). Shame, then, becomes both a crucial element of control in the mother’s discourse and a regulating force in the life of the girl.
In addition to circumscribing the girl’s sexuality, the mother’s discourse also reinforces traditional gender roles. “This is how your iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease,” says the mother, and “this is how your iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease” (306-307). In this instance, the mother implies that a woman’s job is to take care of the men in her life, even down to the most mundane details. Similarly, the mother dictates how a respectable girl should behave, particularly if there is an eligible bachelor present: “This is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you don’t completely” (307). The message is plain: a girl must always be outwardly affable and agreeable, even toward people she detests.
Herself a native of a former British colony, Kincaid tacitly invokes a comparison between the dominating voice of the mother and colonial discourse. Much like the mother in “Girl,” “the colonial system, in pretending to nurture the child, actually steals her from herself (Simmons 466). And much like Kincaid’s own mother, the colonial tradition writes the life of its subjects for them through the implementations of metanarratives, or overarching accounts or interpretations of events and circumstances, that provide a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and give meaning to their experiences. The rhetoric of “Girl” comprises a kind of metanarrative of its own, one in which young women devote their lives to cultivating the domestic sphere, maintain a facade of sexlessness for the sake of public approval, quietly abort the babies they do not want, and certainly “don’t sing benna in Sunday school” (Kincaid 307).
Kincaid, however, combats the metanarrative of the mother, and thus the colonizer, through writing. Bouson states, “If the mother’s internalized voice is a potent force in the development of Kincaid’s writing, Kincaid also finds her writing an effective way to talk back to her mother, allowing her to get the final word in her ongoing, internal dispute with her mother” (26). In this case, Kincaid achieves the “final word” through her usurpation of the mother’s voice. After all, “Girl” is ultimately Kincaid’s story, not her mother’s. Viewed through this lens, what on the surface appears to be a litany of instruction designed to indoctrinate and acculturate the girl becomes an ironic critique of the mother’s rhetorical purpose. As Bouson argues, “[I]n capturing the mother’s controlling and assertive—and also insulting—speech, Kincaid, in effect, uses the mother’s speech to condemn her” (26).
Kincaid also similarly emphasizes the nuances and subtleties that complicate the simple, orderly world of the mother. The mother’s instruction “this is how to make a medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child” (Kincaid 307) is especially subversive as it provides the girl with reproductive agency over her body. However, because this motherly wisdom is contingent on the girl’s sexual activity, there is also the implication that the mother imparts this advice to the girl as a way to preserve her reputation should she engage in premarital sex, which the first half of the mother’s monologue seems to caution against. This suggests that the mother is at least subconsciously aware that the values she works so tirelessly to inculcate in the girl are not always realistic or even desirable. To further complicate the gendered metanarrative, the mother also recognizes and prepares her daughter for the potential reality of domestic abuse and even gives suggestions as to how the girl should exert power over her future husband: “[T]his is how you bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up” (307). The mother, clearly, is not wholly blind to the perils of being a woman in a patriarchal society, and the subtleties of her rhetoric reflect this awareness.
In a way, the mother figure paradoxically represents both the colonizer and the colonized. Her discourse works to absolve her daughter of agency and circumscribe her identity, yet, as a colonized subject herself, she peppers her rhetoric with subversive hints that undermine the legitimacy of the colonial metanarrative. Kincaid, by assuming her mother’s voice, exposes this paradox and destabilizes the authority of the mother and, by proxy, the imperial regime that produced her. In so doing, Kincaid assumes a degree of power that was likely not afforded her as a child growing up under her mother’s thumb in Antigua. Through her writing and damning portrayal of her own mother, Kincaid reinscribes herself in a new context—that of the colonized subject liberated from the confines of colonial discourse.
Bouson, J. Brooks. “‘I Had Embarked on Something Called Self-Invention’: Artistic Beginnings in ‘Antigua Crossings’ and At the Bottom of the River.” Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: State U of New York, 2005. 19-36. Academic Search Complete [EBSCO]. Web. 20 Feb, 2017.
Kenney, Susan. “Paradise with Snake.” New York Times 7 Apr. 1985: 6. The New York Times on the Web. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. Ed. Tobias Wolff. New York: Vintage, 1994. 306-07. Print.
Simmons, Dianne. “The Rhythm of Reality in the Works of Jamaica Kincaid.” World Literature Today 68.3 (1994): 466-72. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
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