Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Some critics call At the Bottom of the River a novel; others call it a collection of stories. Certainly the stories’ interconnections lend a sense of continuity to this thin volume. Much of At the Bottom of the River is a recollection of Jamaica Kincaid’s childhood on the Caribbean island of Antigua. The author captures the identity of this region and its people with remarkable accuracy in her sketches. By telling her stories largely from a child’s point of view, Kincaid gracefully intermixes the outside world with her protagonist’s mental world of dreams, images, fantasy, and mysticism.
The book’s ten stories dwell upon racial and mother-daughter relationships. The daughter is obsessed by her mother, an overpowering love object for her. Her attempts to break from her maternal dependence are central to many of the sketches. The sketch “My Mother” recounts with great poignancy a girl’s emotional odyssey from early childhood to the point of needing to loose herself from a reliance upon the mother she dearly loves. The narrative is disarmingly simple and direct. The child’s dreamworld intrudes constantly upon the outside world, with which she must necessarily merge. She cries a “pond of tears” at separating from her mother. The girl’s exile, expressed in the words “she [the mother] shook me out and stood me under a tree,” is connected to her memory of the childhood punishment of being banished, when she had misbehaved, from her house to take her dinner under the breadloaf trees. This story is about lost innocence and the attempt to recapture it.
The sketch “At Last” considers the essence of things. The child asks what becomes of the hen whose feathers are scattered, whose flesh is stripped away, whose bones disappear. Kincaid broaches similar universal questions in “Blackness,” in which she deals with the mystery of the generations, with the child who grows up to become a mother to the succeeding generation. The questions posed in this story are questions that puzzled the ancient Greek philosophers and that still puzzle thinking people everywhere.
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In the first of the six sections that constitute this story, the third-person narrator defines a “terrain” that is at once external and internal. From the mountains of its origin to the flat plain of its mouth, the river poses a philosophical riddle of its own cycle of creation and destruction, which awaits the human sensibility “that shall then give all this a meaning.” The unnamed narrator then shifts abruptly to describe “a man who lives in a world bereft of its very nature.” As an individual, the man is incapable of reconciling his own alienated existence with his participation in the larger cycles of natural and human history. He “cannot conceive” of a contentment that comes from “the completeness of the above and the below and his own spirit resting in between.” Further, he is unaware even of his own alienation or of a contradiction within him; consequently, he “sits in nothing, in nothing, in nothing.”
Although the second section continues the third-person narration, the mood and tone of the narrative voice become more familiar, even autobiographical, than they were in the first section. The scene shifts to a detailed but detached domesticity: a man, his wife, and his child. As the father, a skilled carpenter and a subsistence farmer, contemplates what he has accomplished, he meditates on the joy and futility that seem to possess him: “First lifted up, then weighed down—always he is so.” He delights in the beauty of ordinary events—the color of a sunset, the flight of birds, and the dance of insects—but he mourns the passing of the natural world. Despite a loving family and his domestic stability—he has built his own house, read books, planted fruit trees, educated his child, and provided food—the father seems to stand uncertainly “on the threshold” of spiritual identity, for he “imagines that in one hand he holds emptiness and yearning and in the other desire fulfilled.” Analogous to the first section, which offered a universalized figure, this section offers a particular man who succumbs to the futility of an amorphous but vast silence, to “Nothing.”
As the third section begins, the tone becomes even bleaker: The narrator recites a litany on the inevitability, the ultimacy of death. The mood deepens from futility to despair as the narration changes in mid-paragraph to the first-person interior monologue of the man, who decides that “life is the intrusion,” and, subsequently, so, too, is his sense of beauty and truth in his own accomplishments and in his love for his family, an intrusion into the absolute context of death. Sorrow, grief, and regret as well as joy, innocence, and knowledge are “bound to death.” The speaker here, however, claims to regret, not this awareness of the pervasive presence of death, but the powerlessness of “my will, to which everything I have ever known bends.” The fragility of human will and achievement constitutes despair, not the fact of death itself.
Midway through this third section, a folk parable intervenes in the manner of a riddle. An exotic caterpillar is stung by a honeybee; its pain becomes pleasure as it balances “remembering and forgetting” in its life “inside and outside” the mound in which it...
(The entire section is 1328 words.)