Themes and Meanings
Jamaica Kincaid’s unconventional one-sentence, bare-bones narrative is an initiation story about a girl’s coming-of-age set at the moment of separation between the age of innocence and the confusing, transforming entrance into adult experience. It is the story of a mother’s attempt to train her adolescent daughter to learn appropriate cultural customs and more important, the rules of social behavior, especially that of proper sexual conduct befitting a well-reared girl.
Although the story is specifically about a West Indian mother’s “gender grooming” her adolescent daughter for her impending female domestic role, it could be about any family, about any culture, and about any adolescent daughter’s relationship with her mother. Its imperatives, prohibitions, directives, interrogation, “how to’s” and accusation suggest the universality of mother-daughter relationships and the inevitability of tension. The girl’s age is not specified but appears to be between ten and fifteen because of the nature of the values that the mother is attempting to inculcate in her. By the end of the sketch, there is nothing but a series of imperatives, “how to’s” and accusation, prohibitions on doing the laundry, personal hygiene, sewing, proper table manners, setting the table, Sunday school conduct, gardening, house cleaning, entertainment, superstition, fishing, homeopathic medicine, abortion, love, and budgeting.
The first of ten sister stories in Kincaid’s first collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River (1983), “Girl” focuses on the theme that pervades all of her fiction: growing up female. It is through this general theme of feminine sensibility that Kincaid inquires into the feminine role in her novels. Strongly autobiographical, At the Bottom of the River complements Kincaid’s first novel, Annie John (1985), much of which is a full development of the sketches in the former. The themes of female initiation, separation, and distancing—which characterize mother-daughter relationships—are juxtaposed with the theme of the experienced voice of womanhood perpetuating the traditional female gender roles that are circumscribed by patriarchy. More important, underlying these themes is the inquiry into the very existence of sexual difference and structure. For example, the very structure of “Girl” bespeaks its protest against the predetermined destiny of the daughter, a destiny that, unfortunately, the mother nurtures with single-minded purpose.
Although the relationship between the mother and daughter is not fully explicated because of the absence of narrative details, it suggests an all-consuming relationship. It is one in which a domineering and strict mother commands complete control, leaving no room for negotiating the terms of female respectability or middle-class “culturedness.” The fragmentary nature of the mother’s monologue also suggests tension, the forced and implicit announcement of separation that marks a hastening of the distancing often inevitable in mother-adolescent daughter relationships. More important, the tension is exacerbated by the seeming ambivalence of the mother’s own value system, which consists of Caribbean/creole and European cultural norms. Paradoxically, in this conflicting bicultural value system, the mother underplays the value of her Caribbean culture in favor of European cultural norms because the latter embody middle-class values that will guarantee a rise in social status. Thus, the mother’s seeming groundedness in Caribbean folk wisdom, myths, superstition, and traditional herbal medicine and systems of healing yields to Christian training and good conduct in Sunday school, appropriate ladylike etiquette, and proper sexual conduct. As the ultimate terms for respectability and acceptability, these strictures are carried to the point of sanitizing sexuality to avoid “sluttishness.”