At the Bottom of the River Jamaica Kincaid
(Born Elaine Potter Richardson) Antiguan-born American novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, editor, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Kincaid's short fiction collection At the Bottom of the River (1983) from 1984 through 1999.
Kincaid's only short fiction collection, At the Bottom of the River (1983), is comprised of ten short stories, most of which had been published individually in various magazines from 1978 to 1982. Critics commend the semi-autobiographical pieces in the volume for their poignant exploration of familial relationships and the effects of colonialism on Kincaid's native Antigua. A critical success, the collection was awarded the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Plot and Major Characters
At the Bottom of the River contains a series of sketches, considered prose poems by some readers; most of these were originally published in the New Yorker. The stories explore everyday events, but with dreamlike, lyrical language and a combination of narrative forms. The first story of the collection, “Girl,” consists solely of a list of admonitions from mother to daughter, increasingly dichotomous and ultimately manipulative. “In the Night,” the second story, explores the mystery and danger of an Antiguan night from the perspective of an adolescent girl. During an evening walk, the young girl reflects on her relationships with her mother and stepfather as well as the world around her. “At Last” offers another dialogue between mother and daughter, focusing on their one-time intimacy and increasing alienation from one another. The next story in the collection, “Wingless,” chronicles the young woman's search for identity in relationship to her mother and her rising self-awareness. “Holidays” traces the young woman's growing sense of independence when she works as an au pair for an American couple. “The Letter from Home” is a brief, one-sentence story in the form of a letter that lists mundane daily chores. The next story, “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” follows the adventures of a young female narrator walking though an ever-changing and dreamlike landscape. In “Blackness,” the female narrator desires isolation, oblivion, and safety. “My Mother” once again explores the mother-daughter relationship, as the young female narrator strives to gain emotional independence from her mother. In the title story, Kincaid revisits the central themes of the collection, particularly the problematic mother-daughter relationship, as the young narrator comes to terms with her identity and resolves to embrace life and the world around her.
At the Bottom of the River is characterized by an exploration of mother-daughter relationships that serve as a metaphor for the relationship between colonial powers and the countries they rule—between the powerful and the powerless and the mature and the struggling to mature—all informed by betrayal. Some critics regard the collection as a meditation on the stages of mourning: denial, anger, depression, and acceptance. In the individual pieces of the collection, critics note that Kincaid strives to create a dreamlike state, which blurs the line between the reality and dreams, of adulthood and childhood. Several of the stories in At the Bottom of the River are concerned with power: the powerlessness of children in the adult world and the importance of adult power—sexual, physical, mental. As the young female narrator matures and gains independence from her mother, Kincaid highlights her search for identity and self-knowledge. Commentators maintain that the stories underscore the significance of Kincaid's heritage, particularly her West Indian culture, traditions, and folklore. Mortality is also a main thematic concern in At the Bottom of the River, as critics contend that the narrator's reluctance to physically and emotionally mature is a result of her fear of death.
Kincaid's work is regarded as unique among the various schools of Caribbean writing—neither fully feminist nor Afrocentric—and she is one of the most respected of all women authors from the area. Some critics praise her lyrical, sometimes incantatory prose in the stories of At the Bottom of the River. Commentators note that her emphasis on dreams, an important part of Antiguan life, lends weight to the magical realism sometimes employed in the collection. Yet others perceive the stories as fragmented, too personal in nature, and difficult to read. Reviewers have debated the genre of the pieces in At the Bottom of the River—several consider the stories to be closer to prose poems. Critics view the mother-daughter relationship as a central theme in her stories; this recurring motif has provoked extensive psychoanalytic and feminist discussion of her work. They also note her frequent use of folk tales, Obeah, and West Indian rhythms, as well as elements from John Milton and the Bible. Critics have found numerous parallels between the unnamed narrator of At the Bottom of the River and the character of Annie in Kincaid's novel, Annie John (1985).
At the Bottom of the River (short stories) 1983
Annie John (novel) 1985
Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip [illustrated by Eric Fischl] (prose sketches) 1986
A Small Place (essay) 1988
Lucy (novel) 1990
The Autobiography of My Mother (novel) 1995
The Best American Essays, 1995 [editor, with Robert Atwan] (essays) 1995
My Brother (memoir) 1997
My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love [editor] (essays) 1998
My Garden Book (nonfiction) 1999
Talk Stories (essays) 2000
Mr. Potter (memoir) 2002
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SOURCE: Salkey, A. Review of At the Bottom of the River, by Jamaica Kincaid. World Literature Today 58, no. 2 (spring 1984): 316.
[In the following review, Salkey discusses the defining characteristics of the stories comprising At the Bottom of the River.]
Jamaica Kincaid's ten stories in At the Bottom of the River are not so much fictions as they are meditations, snippets of autobiographical essays and, in one instance, a Polonius-type exhortation. Their tone is narratively askew, echoic and, at the same time, distanced and abstract. Their compositional fabric is made out of a piling of minutiae of descriptive information, often in faux-naïf diction, concerning human quirks, superstitions, family intimacies and Caribbean cultural history.
The stories are based on the format of the folk riddle, on the truncated scenario of the reverie and dream, on the swirl of events of sentimental memory and, most of all, on metaphorical equivalence. Indeed, I personally felt compelled to recall the fulminating gold of Dylan Thomas, Amos Tutuola and Gabriel García Márquez, as Jamaica Kincaid's own kept flashing through her narratives, which seem to be told with arms akimbo rather than with a beckoning, glittering eye. I enjoyed every moment.
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SOURCE: Timothy, Helen Pyne. “Adolescent Rebellion and Gender Relations in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.” In Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, edited by Selwyn R. Cudjoe, pp. 233-42. Wellesley, MA: Calaloux Publications, 1990.
[In the following essay, Timothy finds parallels in the mother-daughter relationship found in “At the Bottom of the River” and Kincaid's novel Annie John.]
Perhaps the most puzzling moments in Jamaica Kincaid's “At the Bottom of the River” and Annie John are those involving the emotional break between the mother and daughter and the violence of the daughter's response to her mother after that break. In the early stages of the narrative, Kincaid, chronicling the intense emotional bond in which they are wrapped, is at pains to detail the warmly affectionate upbringing Annie received from her mother. To the child the relationship was so satisfying that the father was almost shut out; in fact he operated on the periphery:
As she told me the stories, I sometimes sat at her side, leaning against her, or I would crouch on my knees behind her back and lean over her shoulder. … At times I would no longer hear what it was she was saying: I just liked to look at her mouth as it opened and closed over words or as she laughed. How terrible it must be for all the people who...
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SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. “At the Bottom of the River: Mystical (De)coding.” In Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, pp. 7-35. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Ferguson views colonialism as a central theme of the stories in At the Bottom of the River.]
I can see the great danger in what I am—a defenseless and pitiful child. Here is a list of what I must do.
I looked at this world as it revealed itself to me—how new, how new—and I longed to go there.
—At the Bottom of the River
By her own admission, Jamaica Kincaid views her first publication, At the Bottom of the River (1983), as the text of a repressed, indoctrinated subaltern subject: “I can see that At the Bottom of the River was, for instance, a very unangry, decent, civilized book and it represents sort of this successful attempt by English people to make their version of a human being or their version of a person out of me. It amazes me now that I did that then. I would never write like that again, I don't think. I might go back to it, but I'm not very interested in that sort of expression any more.”1
I want to argue that Jamaica Kincaid through diverse discussions of mothers sets up a subtle...
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SOURCE: Simmons, Diane. “At the Bottom of the River: Journey of Mourning.” In Jamaica Kincaid, pp. 73-100. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
[In the following essay, Simmons asserts that if read together and within the context of Kincaid's other work, the stories in At the Bottom of the River “trace an emotional journey, a journey of mourning.”]
The ten dreamlike stories that make up At the Bottom of the River are the most difficult of all Kincaid's works to date. Speakers go unidentified, identities merge, fantasy and reality are inseparable. Critics have wondered whether the stories are finally “too personal and too peculiar to translate into any sort of sensible communication” (E. Milton, 22). But, if taken together and read in the context of Kincaid's other work, the pieces cannot be dismissed as brilliant but indecipherable dreamscapes. Rather, the ten pieces trace an emotional journey, a journey of mourning. What is mourned is the loss of a prelapsarian world, a childhood paradise of perfect love and harmony in which time stands still and in which betrayal—including the great betrayal of death—is unknown.
As the ten pieces move through the stages of mourning—from denial, through anger and depression, to a vision of peaceful acceptance—they seem to fall into three groups. The first four stories, “Girl,” “In the Night,” “At...
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SOURCE: Ahearn, Edward J. “Visionary Women: Wittig's Guérillères and Kincaid's At the Bottom of the River.” In Visionary Fictions: Apocalyptic Writing from Blake to the Modern Age, pp. 136-59. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Ahearn provides feminist interpretations of At the Bottom of the River and Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères.]
The [chapters of Visionary Fictions] have traced a remarkably persistent tradition of writing, though one with a variety of permutations. In one way or another, all of our authors are visionary in that they reject the apparently solid world of reality in which most of us seem to exist. Both Blake and Aragon use the word visionary itself to describe their effort to transcend or dissolve the perceptual experiences that we take to be true. Blake's fourfold vision and Swedenborgian “Memorable Fancies”; dreams, imagination as “magic idealism,” the fantastic form of the Märchen in Novalis; dream, trance, and insanity in Nerval; even the antivisionary writing in Maldoror; the various versions of the surreal in Breton and Aragon; and finally the drug and sex transmutations to other levels of experience in Naked Lunch—these are the diverse means of access to the visionary. And we have seen the range of writing, of visionary “textualities” that are thereby generated and...
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SOURCE: Berrian, Brenda F. “Snapshots of Childhood Life in Jamaica Kincaid's Fiction.” In Arms Akimbo: Africana Women in Contemporary Literature, edited by Janice Lee Liddell and Yakini Belinda Kemp, pp. 103-16. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
[In the following essay, Berrian identifies and discusses recurring motifs in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.]
Increasingly, books by English-speaking Caribbean women writers concerned with the female protagonist's recollection of childhood memories and her fight for self-independence within the context of close family relationships have been showing up in bookstores in North America, England, and the Caribbean. One writer—and one who has captured the admiration of well-established writers like Andrew Salkey, Derek Walcott, and Anne Tyler—is Jamaica Kincaid of Antigua. In 1983, Kincaid, then a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, published a collection of ten unusual short stories under the title of At the Bottom of the River, seven of which had previously appeared in The New Yorker. Two years later, Kincaid's first novel, Annie John (1985), one of the three finalists for the 1985 international Ritz Paris Hemingway Award, appeared and became the first novel published by an Antiguan woman.
Upon reading At the Bottom of the River, one realizes that the terminology...
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SOURCE: Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. “At the Bottom of the River (1983).” In Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion, pp. 49-83. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Paravisini-Gebert offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of the stories in At the Bottom of the River.]
At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid's first book, gathers most of the fiction she had published in various magazines from 1978 to 1982. Of the ten stories in the collection, seven had appeared in the New Yorker; one (“What I Have Been Doing Lately”) had been published in the Paris Review; another (“My Mother”) echoes material included in a segment of “Antigua Crossings” in Rolling Stone. Of these stories only one, “Blackness,” was previously unpublished.
Kincaid's “prodigal use of wildly imaginative metaphors” makes the stories of At the Bottom of the River dense, sometimes difficult texts for the reader to decipher (CBY 1991, 332). Barney Bardsley, writing for the New Statesman, argued that it was not a book “to read straight through,” but rather to delve into slowly in order to “unlock a piece of yourself you did not even know existed” (33). Other critics have not been so generous; Anne Tyler, writing for the New Republic, called the stories “insultingly obscure” (33), perhaps because of the...
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Dutton, Wendy. “Merge and Separate: Jamaica Kincaid's Fiction.” World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (summer 1989): 406-10.
Explores the connection between At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.
Ismond, Patricia. “Jamaica Kincaid: “First They Must Be Children”.” WLWE 28, no. 2 (autumn 1988): 336-41.
Considers the theme of childhood in Kincaid's work.
James, Louis. “Reflections, and The Bottom of the River: The Transformation of Caribbean Experience in the Fiction of Jamaica Kincaid.” Wasafiri, no. 9 (winter 1988-89): 15-17.
Discusses issues of self-awareness, alienation, and female identity in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.
Additional coverage of Kincaid's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Ed. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 2; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 63; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 125; Contemporary...
(The entire section is 254 words.)