The Stories

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

At the Bottom of the River is a series of ten short, impressionistic pieces that might almost be better called “prose pieces” rather than stories. Though the stories develop and have plots, they do not follow most narrative conventions. They do, however, form a tightly connected unit, in that at the center of each tale is the pain of separation of a daughter from her mother.

Although At the Bottom of the River resists easy categorization, categories are helpful in understanding it. To an extent, the pieces in this book can be read successfully as poetry in that, as in poetry, the use of realistic detail is suggestive rather than extensive. For the most part, the stories take place within the landscape of the narrator’s mind, and the external “real” world is only an occasional focus. Then, too, the language has the compact beauty and grace of lyric poetry, and the prose is sensitive to the rhythms and sounds of language. As in poetry, readers must be alert to subtle shades of meaning in the language and images of the text. In another sense, however, because the thematic content of the book is so carefully unified, a reader might want to call it a novel. Because the form and appearance on the page is most like that of a collection of short stories, however, and because its novelistic and poetic aspects are aspects of short stories as well, the work is usually classified as a collection of short fiction.

The first story in the collection is “Girl,” and most of it is a monologue of instructions from a mother to a daughter, with the daughter’s two attempts to reply indicated by italics; these replies are largely ignored by the mother. Implicitly, the mother’s directions are directions for becoming a young lady and a proper wife, but they are given to a girl who is still too young to appreciate or fully understand them, especially because they contain apparent contradictions. The mother advises her daughter not to appear too sexually provocative, but also tells her how to smile at men so they will not ignore her. Similarly, the mother advises the daughter on how to love a man—but then remarks that, if the suggestions do not work, “don’t feel too bad about giving up.” The mother advises her daughter not to sing “benna,” folk songs that draw on African tradition, on Sundays, implying that her Christian heritage must be privileged over her African heritage. On the other hand, the mother also gives her daughter herbal and medicinal advice that derive from African tradition. A grown woman might be able to reconcile such apparent conflict, but the young girl is clearly overwhelmed. Further, there is reason to doubt the mother’s maturity; the advice she gives her daughter includes information on how to spit in the air and how to play marbles. When the daughter tries to protest that she does not do the things her mother thinks she does, it begins to seem likely that the mother is projecting her own conflicts onto her daughter without attempting to understand the girl.

Like “Girl,” many of the stories in this collection are remarkable for their ability to suggest feelings and states of mind from childhood. In “Wingless,” the narrator identifies herself with young wingless insects, such as caterpillars that have not become butterflies. The story begins with a school scene of children reading together but then goes into the mind of the young narrator, who is imagining what type of woman she will be. Like most of the stories in this collection, “Wingless” uses an imaginary landscape of memory and desire; the writer is trying to express the desires for womanhood as felt by a child. The red woman, who...

(The entire section is 1504 words.)

At the Bottom of the River

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Occasionally a new literary voice emerges that is so distinctive, so original, that critics and readers have difficulty in knowing exactly how to respond to the work. Such is the case with Jamaica Kincaid, a young Caribbean writer whose first collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River, has recently appeared. Kincaid, who was born on the island of St. John, Antigua, in the West Indies, is now a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Paris Review. This first collection of her short fiction is a slim volume of pieces reprinted from these magazines, where they originally appeared. Several critics, including Susan Sontag and Derek Walcott, have praised Kincaid’s work, while others, such as The New York Times book reviewer Edith Milton, have expressed reservations about her lack of clear characterization and plot and the resulting obscurity of some of her sketches.

Part of the difficulty in responding to Kincaid’s work is the lack of any of the conventional elements of fiction. One might almost say that her work is “deconstructed” to the point of presenting a pure, unstructured narrative of her major character’s memories, impressions, and recollections of her Caribbean childhood. Time, place, and point of view are scrambled in a collage of physical sensations, dreams, and disembodied voices. Her style, so intensely lyric, so rhythmic and evocative, approaches that of the prose poem. She presents a world of fresh, urgent, unmediated childhood impressions, some pleasant and comforting, others threatening and disturbing, a compilation of raw and undigested experiences of her family, village life, and the lush physical environment of the Caribbean islands. Her stark and vivid impressions of her world leap from the pages like disturbing dreams, graphic and unforgettable but puzzling and indecipherable. Often, more than one character is present in a sketch, and Kincaid leaps from consciousness to consciousness with few narrative hints as to who is speaking or thinking. The result is an almost surrealistic sensation of a frightening and disturbing world about to overwhelm the small, vulnerable, childish consciousness of the narrator.

The reader may infer a few clues about the continuity and meaning of these ten sketches from the dominant, first-person point of view of the narrator, a young Caribbean girl, at times a small child, in other sketches an adolescent or a young woman. The jacket illustration, the painting Green Summer (1868) by Edward Burne-Jones, sets the tone for the collection in its depiction of a group of wistful, Pre-Raphaelite maidens sitting in a lush green meadow listening to one of the young women reading from a book. The dominant feminine perspective of Kincaid’s sketches ranges from the matter-of-fact, domestic quality of the first story, “Girl,” to the darkly Freudian, dreamlike mood of the title piece, “At the Bottom of the River,” which appears last.

Many of Kincaid’s pieces are very short; such is the case with the opening selection, “Girl,” a set of household and domestic instructions narrated in a singsong, staccato manner which suggests English spoken with a Caribbean accent. Here, a mother seems to be lecturing her young daughter about the household skills she needs to learn in order to become a woman in her culture. The mother’s advice is frank, practical, and colloquial, as she instructs her daughter when to wash which clothes and where; how to dry and iron them; how to prepare and cook fish, pumpkin fritters, and pepper pot; how to walk and behave like a lady “and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming”; how to clean and sweep the house; whom to speak with at church and Sunday school; how to set the table; how to shop for fresh bread and produce; how to garden and fish; and how to treat men in all of their moods. This three-page “story” consists of a single continuous sentence, a Joycean sentence flavored with Kincaid’s distinctive blend of shrewdness, common sense, folklore, and superstition.

The second selection, “In the Night,” shifts from the daytime world of domestic chores to the nocturnal world of mysterious sounds and impressions. Here, the author does a marvelous job of evoking the hot, lazy night rhythms of Caribbean life, as recorded in the child’s consciousness. “What is the Night?” this sketch seems to ask, in all of its dark, mysterious, palpable immediacy. A jumble of commonplace sounds—the chirp of a cricket, the house creaking, a distant radio playing, a restless sleeper, a domestic argument, the rain falling on a tin roof—is mixed in the child’s consciousness with the sounds of ghosts, vampires, a jablesse (a female vampire). As the child sinks into sleep, sounds from the outside world are mingled with dreams in a Blakean account of babies turning into lambs and eating green grass, interrupted when her mother awakens her—she has wet the bed. Impressions of her father follow—random associations, disjointed memories of his job as a night soil man, his favorite clothes, birthday celebrations, the time he went to the hospital, his favorite songs and interests. The child’s dream then shifts to flowers and to a confused sense of adulthood; she imagines marrying an older, “red-skin woman” who will take care of her.

In the next piece, “At Last,” the dream sequence seems to shift to adulthood in a confusing dialogue between the narrator and an unidentified voice, the two perhaps being mother and daughter. The impressions here are of house and yard, representing the protective world of the home as mediated by dreams. Perhaps this is the fearful child’s sense of adulthood, womanhood, motherhood, with its threats of death, decay, and loss, or perhaps it is the mother’s brooding regret for the loss of her daughter, now grown to be a young woman and gone from home. The mother’s memories of her life with her daughter come rushing back in a torrent of powerful recollections as she sits musing about the past. Past and present are telescoped in the mind’s attempt to hold onto threads of memory as the narrator’s life unravels before her.

The following sketch, “Wingless,” projects the child’s wistful and girlish sense of her own innocence, fear, and vulnerability. The sketch opens with a group of small children reading a passage from the Victorian children’s story The Water Babies (1907) by Charles Kingsley and quickly moves to a bewildering set of impressions of childhood games, songs, fears, anxieties, and questions. The narrator sees herself as “a defenseless and pitiful child,” quick to tears and sorrow, a “primitive and wingless” creature, now frail and vulnerable but hoping someday to “grow up to be a tall, graceful, and altogether beautiful woman” capable of imposing her will...

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At the Bottom of the River Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Kincaid’s style embodies the very process of creation that the story describes, for she re-creates elements from traditional and modern genres. On one hand, she draws on the pastoral mode of the idyll, framing scenes of a rural, tranquil beauty that are emblematic of a simple happiness; yet, in contradiction, she further extends her pastoral images into biblical echoes of incantatory repetitions to emphasize the complexity of those magical moments of earthly content. Moreover, she evokes the historical development of the idyllic mood, perhaps reminiscent of Robert Browning’s Dramatic Idyls (1879-1880), to juxtapose psychological crisis and the innocent rapture of the Caribbean folktale. On the other hand, the haunting...

(The entire section is 326 words.)

At the Bottom of the River Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

At the Bottom of the River has been called ten short “pieces” rather than stories because its unconventional, lyrical style suspends linear narrative and realistic characterization. Kincaid’s balancing of what is said with how it is said emphasizes language, an issue of concern for many women writers. Threads of language from the Bible, epics, and folk tales are woven together into fragments of the world as seen through the eyes of an African Caribbean girl. Most of these pieces appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, yet together they form an extraordinary Bildungsroman organized around themes of language, power, identity, and metamorphosis. The narrator struggles for identity...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

At the Bottom of the River Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

At the Bottom of the River contributes significantly to the body of work by Caribbean women who have until now remained in the shadow of their male counterparts, including Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, C. L. R. James, George Lamming, and V. S. Naipaul. Kincaid’s work shares the syncretism exhibited in literature from areas of the world previously colonized by Europe. Syncretism is a blend of influences which informs all cultural production; thus references to the Bible, William Shakespeare, obeah, and West African folk tales are not inconsistent but reflect a diverse literary heritage.

Kincaid’s imagination has been influenced by having lived in what she calls a very unreal place with an unreal history, a...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

At the Bottom of the River Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 “Antigua Crossings” and At the Bottom of the River charting the emergence of Kincaid’s writerly identity.

Cudjoe, Selwyn R., ed. Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux, 1990. Includes an informative interview with Kincaid in which the writer discusses her name change, her mother, and Caribbean writing, among other...

(The entire section is 605 words.)