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...
(The entire section is 346 words.)
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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...
(The entire section is 1328 words.)