Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Annie John, a slim novel—the chapters of which originally appeared as short stories in The New Yorker—is a first-person account of the childhood and adolescence of Annie John, a girl reared on the small Caribbean island of Antigua.
Annie experiences a childhood paradise. Her island home explodes with bright colors: the brilliant, flamboyant flowers, white sand, and blue sky and sea. The close community nurtures her. Mr. Earl and Mr. Nigel catch the fish that Annie and her parents eat. Mr. Kenneth, the butcher, offers Annie a piece of raw liver, one of the few foods that she enjoys, and Miss Dewberry bakes the buns that Annie’s parents serve at tea. Annie is also part of an affectionate and supportive family. Together, she and her father, a carpenter, select the lumber that he will fashion into her bedroom furniture. Most important, however, Annie loves and is loved by her mother. Her mother teaches Annie about washing (white clothes are to be bleached by the sun on a stone) and about cooking traditional dishes (such as pumpkin soup, banana fritters, and stewed salt fish)—skills that Annie will need when, it is assumed, she establishes her own household on the island. Annie enjoys the days spent with her mother, days filled with walking to the grocer’s; arranging her mother’s trunk that holds memorabilia such as Annie’s wool booties, certificates of merit, and dresses worn on special occasions; bathing together in water...
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Annie John (Magill's Literary Annual 1986)
When her first book, At the Bottom of the River (1983), appeared, critics and fellow writers praised the originality of Jamaica Kincaid’s voice and vision. Susan Sontag hailed an “unaffectedly sumptuous, irresistible writer” of “splendid stories about personal and cosmic desire”; Derek Walcott promised that the book would “burn” on its readers’ shelves, “too choked with love to invite envy, too humble for admiration, and too startling to escape astonishment.” In her first novel, Kincaid more than justifies that early praise in a beautifully crafted and subtly modulated work, in which her voice and vision are focused on the story of a sensitive young girl’s coming-of-age in the West Indies.
In a sense, Annie John elaborates the persona, emotions, and experience of the finest stories in At the Bottom of the River, reweaving those threads into a stunning tapestry of ecstasy and loss. Like the self-conscious young girl in “Holidays,” Annie is “filled with sensations.” “I feel,” the girl in the story says, “oh, how I feel. I feel, I feel, I feel.” Like the narrator in “Wingless,” what Annie feels most are the disappointments of growing up. “Tears, big, have run down my cheeks in uneven lines,” that narrator explains. She identifies the cause of those tears as her disappointments:My...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Annie John, originally published as a series of short stories in The New Yorker magazine, is the story of the title character’s childhood and adolescent years in Antigua, West Indies. The novel is divided into eight chapters, each with its own title and internal unity of plot. Set in Antigua, these eloquent and engaging chapters chronicle Annie’s confused understanding of the rift between her happy, carefree girlhood years of adulation for her mother and the power struggle and rebellion that mark Annie’s transition into adolescence. The tale is told simply, with unrelenting and unapologetic candor, in the hypnotic narrative voice of a young schoolgirl. Annie presents the tension and alienation that she experiences from her mother; the separation from her friends as she outmatures them physically, academically, and emotionally; and, finally, her separation from Antigua, her island home.
Images of separation pervade each of the eight stories. In “Figures in the Distance,” for example, Annie speaks about her fascination with death and dying, specifically about the deaths of Nalda, the mud eater, and of the humpbacked girl, whose hump Annie wished she had tapped to see if it was hollow. The images of the “black and white sticklike figures” bobbing in the distance in what turned out to be a cemetery, the peculiar curiosity about funeral parlors, and the compulsion at the tender age of ten to attend funerals of people she does...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Many women writers of color are not averse to the idea of feminism. They are still grappling, however, with the issue of being placed in the feminist category, their writing read exclusively within the feminist protest tradition. Consciously engaging in a feminist discourse is not a choice for many of these writers. While Kincaid detests the idea of claiming to belong to, or of being categorized as belonging to, any school of writing or thought, she confesses in a 1989 interview to owing much of her success to the idea of feminism. Her writings make a major contribution to women’s literature in that they examine the feminine role. By using the autobiographical first-person narrative and protagonist, Kincaid offers a voice that articulates the female coming-of-age experience.
Praised for giving new meaning to familiar things and of having a remarkable eye that sees minute details in a different light, Kincaid, along with several other women writers of color, offers new myths of female development. As she has noted in an interview, if her writing is an intensely personal, interior kind of writing, one which is characteristic of the nature of feminist discourse, it is because that is the way she could write. Indeed, her first two novels, At the Bottom of the River (1983) and Annie John, stories about a girl and her mother, confirm Kincaid’s claim that the “fertile soil” of her creative life is her mother. Even though her mother did...
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Contact, Colonialism, and Independence
Originally inhabited by the Siboney people, the Island of Antigua, the setting for Kincaid's Annie John, was populated by Arawak and Carib Indians when Christopher Columbus arrived there during his second voyage in 1493. He named the island after a church in Sevilla, Spain, named Santa Maria de la Antigua. Thirty years later it became an outpost of the Spanish Conquistadors. In 1629, the French made a base there as Spanish power descended and the British had not yet taken control. French control was brief, however, and the English arrived in 1632. The Treaty of Breda formalized this situation in 1667.
From 1674 to 1834, the island was one large sugar plantation. Slaves were imported from Africa because the indigenous peoples fled or had been killed. The end of slavery brought freedom but no opportunity to be free. For the next hundred years, Antigua and surrounding islands were under the jurisdiction of one and then another federation. Greater independence was achieved in 1967, with statehood within the British Commonwealth granted in 1981. Finally the seven islands of the East Caribbean formed a merger. The single nation of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) came into being in 1987 and included the former British colonies: Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, St. Vincent, Tobago, and Trinidad.
Latin America and the...
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Point of View
The first person ("I") retrospective narrative is constructed with episodes. The prime person in Annie John is, of course, Annie. Therefore, the Antigua shown the reader is that which is filtered through Annie. There are eight episodes highlighted in the chapter headings. During each episode, more information is given about Annie. The timeline jumps, but there is a steady progression from Annie as a young girl to her departure from home as a young woman.
This narrative, however, is ironic because an adult Annie establishes the reality of the story as if it was the perspective of little Annie. In other words, Annie knows her own story's outcome but tries not to reveal this. The novel opens by literally noticing figures in a distance and also by placing the story at a distance, "during the year I was ten." Thus the effort on the part of the young Annie to show her mother as an Old Testament deity is offset by the adult attempt to reconcile. The mother remains beautiful and loved though the literal story might say she is simply left behind.
The most important symbol of the work is the trunk. Each of the characters has a trunk—a place where their identify formation blocks are kept. In the case of Uncle John, it is all that is left. For Annie, the trunk with all of her baby things is a fun thing to clean out because she then hears stories about herself. When she leaves Antigua, Annie—...
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Topics for Further Study
Working from the example of Annie and her mother, what is the psychological make up of the family? Is there one working model or do we all have individual relationships?
Compare how families—especially mothers— are portrayed in today's media with the novel's portrayal. Use examples of television sitcoms, cartoons, and movies for your findings.
Think about Annie's illness and the help she received from the obeah woman; does your family use any home remedies? Ask your parents what their parents did for them when they were not feeling well and compare that with how your family currently treats illness.
Research the politics of travel or photographic hunting. What, if any ethics are involved with the pursuit of recreation or game? What impact does the multi-billion-dollar tourism industry have on native peoples and the environment?
Respond to the following excerpt from Kincaid's essay, A Small Place: "Have you ever wondered why it is that all we seemed to have learned from you is how to corrupt our society and how to be tyrants...? You came."
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What Do I Read Next?
A story similar to that of Annie's is Kincaid's more recent Lucy (1990). This novel tells the story of a young woman (17-19) as she struggles to form herself in her new life in America. Many of the themes developed in Annie John are further explored here. Especially evident is the affinity of the young girl with the biblical and Miltonic Lucifer, whence Kincaid took the character's name.
Written twenty-four years earlier than Annie John, Miguel Street, by V. S. Naipaul, is set in similar surroundings and with a similar plot. The author wrote in absentia, as did Kincaid, but his story was that of a boy growing up in the pseudo-Victorian society of Trinidad.
Derek Walcott, poet of the Caribbean and Nobel prize winner in 1992, has two collections dealing directly with the themes in Kincaid's work—writing in absentia, in America, and being estranged from home. The two works are The Fortunate Traveller (1981) and MidSummer (1984).
Annie refers to her favorite writers throughout her narration. One writer referred to is Charlotte Bronte and her novel Jane Eyre. The comparison is revealing as Jane must also struggle to form her identity but against dead parents and an overbearing, cruel step-family. Curiously, Jane becomes the governess for Mr. Rochester's little girl whose West Indian step-mother is kept in the attic—she is insane.
Linking again with the same themes of the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures London, Routledge, 1989.
Jacqueline Austin, "Up from Eden," in VLS, No. 34, April, 1985, pp. 6-7.
John Bemrose, "Growing Pains of Girlhood," in Macleans Magazine, Vol. 98, No. 20, May 20, 1985, p. 61.
Paula Bonnel, "'Annie' Travels to Second Childhood," in The Boston Herald, March 31, 1985, p. 126.
H. Adlai Murdoch, "Severing The (M)other Connection. The Representation of Cultural Identity in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John," Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 325-40.
James Nagel, "Desperate Hopes, Desperate Lives; Depression and Self-Realization in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John and Lucy," Traditions, Voices, and Dreams' The American Novel since the 1960s, eds. Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegal. Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1995.
Ike Onwordi, "Wising up," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4313, November 29, 1985, p. 1374.
Allan Vorda, "Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," Mississippi Review Web Edition, http://sushi St usm edu/mrw/9604/ kincaid.html, 1996.
For Further Study
John Bemrose, "Growing Pains of Girlhood," Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 98, No. 20, May 20, 1985, p. 61.
In this complimentary review, Bemrose...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Austin, Jacqueline. “Up from Eden.” Review of Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid. Voice Literary Supplement, April, 1985, 6-7. An enthusiastic review that also tries to locate Kincaid’s work in the larger tradition of Caribbean writing.
Bouson, J. Brooks. Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Study of the representation of motherhood and maternal relationships in Kincaid’s writing. Includes a chapter on Annie John that focuses on the role of the mother in enabling the daughter to become a writer.
Cudjoe, Selwyn R., ed. Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux, 1990. Includes an informative interview in which Kincaid discusses her name change, her mother, and Caribbean writing, among other things. Helen Pyne Timothy’s essay provides a helpful reading of rebellion in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.
Dutton, Wendy. “Merge and Separate: Jamaica Kincaid’s Fiction.” World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (Summer, 1989): 406-410. An excellent article, one of the best resources available for someone wishing to compare At the Bottom of the River and Annie John as complementary texts that explain and expand upon...
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