Girl Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Like Kincaid’s other short stories, “Girl” is extremely brief and can hardly be said to have a plot, although the reader can easily imagine a dramatic context in which this monologue might be spoken. The central voice is that of the unnamed mother; the reader must assume that the “girl” of the title is her daughter, although the relationship is never stated. Twice the daughter’s voice (indicated by italics) interrupts the mother to protest the implications of her instructions, but the mother continues her directions.

The mother is directing her daughter about how to live as an adult woman, and many of her comments comprise practical advice. From the first clause, when the mother tells her daughter to put freshly washed white clothes on a stone heap and to wash the “color clothes” on Tuesday, the reader recognizes that the story’s setting is not the United States. The speaker tells the daughter how to soak salt fish, how to cook pumpkin fritters, how to iron her father’s shirt and pants properly, how to grow okra and dasheen, how to sweep the house and yard.

Also early in the story, the reader senses that the daughter is at the edge of sexual maturity. The mother’s direction to her daughter to “soak your little cloths” as soon as she takes them off—a reference to menstruation—establishes that fact. Throughout the story, many of the mother’s directions are aimed at preventing the girl from becoming the “slut” her mother obviously thinks she longs to be. She directs her not to sing popular music in Sunday school, not to talk to wharf-rat boys for any reason, and not to eat fruit on the street, because it will make flies follow her. This sort of advice is intermingled with commentary about practical matters of cooking and cleaning, but the speaker’s primary motivation is to prevent her daughter from becoming a “slut”—or at least from being perceived as one. She also tells her daughter about a medicine for abortion and makes the observation that if her directions about how to love a man do not work, the girl should not regret giving up.

The mother’s sexual advice is intermingled with social advice. She tells the girl how to smile at someone she does not like, as well as how to smile at someone she likes very much, and tells her how to avoid evil spirits (what looks like a blackbird, the mother says, may be something else entirely).

The two-and-a-half-page monologue does not actually include the instructions for all these activities; instead, the parallel clauses introduced with “this is how . . .” suggest the ways that adults model behavior for children. Presumably, the daughter is watching and learning. At the same time, the mother’s negative tone indicates that she has little hope of her daughter’s growing into decent adulthood, so that the daughter’s two protests create the story’s tension. Nevertheless, the mother has the last word. When the girl asks what to do if the baker will not let her test the bread’s freshness by squeezing it, the mother wonders if her daughter will become the “kind of woman the baker won’t let near the bread.”

Girl Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A West Indian mother orders her daughter to learn how to perform mundane domestic chores (such as washing white clothes and putting them on the stone heap on Monday and washing the colored clothes and putting them on a clothesline to dry on Tuesday). She also offers her daughter advice ranging from commonsensical health precautions about walking bareheaded in the hot sun and practical tips on cooking pumpkin fritters and soaking salt fish overnight to more intimate advice on personal hygiene.

From what appears to be relaxed lessons on blouse making and cooking, the girl’s initiation to “womanhood” escalates to more serious matters of etiquette and female respectability (“you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys”). These matters include practical abortion instructions (“to throw away a child before it even becomes a child”) and ominous chants.

The mother soberly hands down the baton of womanly attributes and duties, tested and sanctified for generations, to her daughter, arguably in the very same way her own mother had received and handed them down to her. The mother accomplishes a generational and gender mandate, as it were, in the wake of the inevitable mother-daughter separation and distancing usually marked by creeping adolescence.

In the absence of conventional dialogue, only two lines in the story reveal the daughter’s response to her mother’s sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh, sometimes distant, sometimes accusatory, “do’s,” “don’t’s” and “how to’s.” However, there is nothing against which the daughter can protest in the female initiation process circumscribed by her mother’s list—particularly not its prohibitions. False assumptions that all-knowing adults make too quickly about youthful behavior and blatant accusations by one’s own (domineering), too often suspicious mother are difficult to accept or even comprehend. To an earlier interrogation (“is it true that you sing benna at Sunday school?”) and its accompanying admonition (“don’t sing benna at Sunday school”), the daughter intimates inaudibly, as she only can (“but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school”). To the mother’s overwhelming, browbeating warnings against becoming a slut, the daughter’s exasperated, again inaudible, “but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?” speaks her confusion at her predetermined destiny.