Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The overriding thematic concern of the stories in At the Bottom of the River is the pain of separation from a mother for a young girl growing up. “Holidays” and “The Letter from Home” both seem to speak of a temporary separation or vacation of the girl from her mother, a separation that proves to be a first attempt at adulthood from which a return to childhood becomes impossible. In “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” the daughter no longer feels herself to be a perfect extension of her mother; rather, the mother now is a demanding presence who makes life hard for the daughter. In “Blackness,” the peace of darkness and nighttime that is evoked so beautifully in “In the Dark” has become predatory and threatens to drag the daughter into an emotional chasm. The mother, looking on, is separate enough from her daughter to not see her as suffering serious problems, but she is also separate enough to see a strength in the daughter of which the daughter may not be aware.

The story “My Mother” in some ways encapsulates the main themes of the book, in that the mother and daughter are presented as in constant competition. At the end of the first section of this story, the narrator describes herself and her mother watching each other warily and being careful to flatter one another, because a poisonous lake now exists between them; if they are not careful, they may hurt one another. At one point, the daughter tries to distinguish her own...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

At the Bottom of the River Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

What remains unanswered at the end of Jamaica Kincaid’s imagistic yet abstract story is the question of the name that creates her identity anew. When the narrator’s final persona emerges from her transforming vision at the bottom of the river, she accepts her own inevitability of death in the knowledge that she can create herself beyond it: She accepts the mature artist’s role of creating works in the midst of a modern world marked by alienating futility. To achieve the confidence of the creative will, the narrator had to endure passage through a number of identities, which led from her own childhood innocence through the pain of both her father’s and her own experience of pain and death to the uncertainty with which she must live. Seized by the reluctance to acknowledge the limits of creation, to face death, the narrator must immerse herself in the unconscious psychological and spiritual turmoil that she imagines in her father and experiences within herself.

The reader is privileged, then, to witness the birth of an artist and to experience—through an empathetic identification with the narrator—the struggle of the creative will to come into being. Obliquely autobiographical, the narrator describes an island world where natural beauty threatens to overwhelm the creative energies of humanity. Constrained by an implied experience of isolating poverty, the narrator knows too well the agony of her father’s alienation and the futility that has...

(The entire section is 429 words.)