Born Flame Potter Richardson in 1949 on the small Caribbean island of Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid knows intimately the world of which she writes. Her first book, a collection of short stories entitled At the Bottom of the River (1983), provides impressionistic glimpses into the life of the island. Her second book, the strongly autobiographical novel Annie John (1985), chronicles the growth of a young girl as she struggles to find herself within the limits set by the island culture and by her mother, finally opting to leave her twelve-by- eight-mile island to pursue a career in Fngland as a nurse. With some variations, Lucy, also autobiographical, continues the story of Annie, now renamed Lucy and working in New York as a live-in baby-sitter. The novel opens with Lucy’s first day in New York (although not named, the city is strongly suggested through the descriptions). Waking up to a sunny January day, Lucy slips on a light madras dress unsuitable for the cold of winter. Always on her island, sunshine meant warmth. Thus begins Lucy’s introduction to New York and the first of many adjustments. She will encounter indoor plumbing, apartments, elevators, refrigerators, snow, and daffodils.
Although naive when confronted with the world beyond her island, Lucy has the clear-sightedness that comes from being an outsider. Her critical eye is focused on the lives of Mariah and Lewis, her employers, and those of their upper-class friends. Living in a world of privilege that includes an expensive New York apartment and a large house on one of the Great Lakes, Lewis and Mariah never realize that their life-style is dependent on the subjugation and oppression of people such as Lucy. They never understand that they are the exploiters of nature and that should all Mariah’s fashionable ecological concerns be realized their possessions would be fewer. They “made no connection between their comforts and the decline of the world that lay before them.” Yet Lucy is ambivalent about their extravagant life-style. On the one hand she reacts with anger and bitterness because she is the servant and they the masters, repeating the colonial situation on her island home, but on the other hand she welcomes the luxuries, regretting the absence of a second bathroom when she moves into her own apartment.
Her relationship with Mariah is also complex, resembling the love-hate relationship that she has with her own mother. Lucy treats Mariah with hostility, resentful of her privilege and her picture-perfect world, repeatedly taunting her with “How do you get to be that way?” At the same time, however, Lucy is appreciative of her kindness and understanding. Mariah presents her with a book of photographs that leads her into photography; she encourages Lucy, reassuring her that women are “in society… in history… in culture… everywhere.” She comforts Lucy during an emotional crisis: Mariah “held on to my two hands; she drew me close to her. She must have known that I was about to break apart, and what she was doing was holding me together in one piece.” With her clear vision, Lucy knows that Mariah’s refined and elegantly constructed world will soon shatter. She recognizes the signs of Lewis’ infidelity long before Mariah, whose previous experiences do not include encounters with discord and unpleasantness.
Though young, Lucy understands the politics of race, class, and gender. Her childhood on the then British colony of Antigua (also not named, but again the descriptions indicate this island) schooled her in the nuances of subject-master relationships. She knows that her ancestors were brought to the island as unwilling slaves and that more recent generations were, and still are, servants. She knows that the culture of the ancestors of her grandmother, a Carib Indian, was obliterated as part of the systematic destruction of the indigenous cultures by the colonizers of the New World. As a young girl, Lucy rebelled, refusing to sing “Rule, Britannia.” She is oppressed not only by the colonial status of her island but also by the role assigned to her gender. Her position in the male-dominated culture became clear at the birth of each of her three younger brothers, when her parents discussed plans to send the boy to a university, something that was never considered for Lucy. This disregard for her abilities precipitated the break between Lucy and her mother: “I felt a sword go through my heart, for there was no accompanying scenario in which she saw me, her only identical offspring, in a remotely similar situation… and I began to plan a separation from her.” Even Lucy’s traveling to New York is, in a way, limiting; it provides an opportunity to study to be a nurse, not a doctor. Realizing that nurses take orders rather than give them, Lucy soon rejects the plan. In New York she discovers that sexism is not limited to her island. She notices that the lives of men, but not women, are chronicled in the books shelved in the libraries and that men, not women, have the opportunity to become artists; on a more personal level, she sees that Mariah automatically assumes the guilt and responsibility for her failed marriage. Though Lucy might be ignorant of the physics of elevators, she is well versed in the dynamics of power.
Lucy envisions New York as her chance to escape not only from her island home but also from her mother. She has grown beyond her island and feels constricted by its limits, an island whose people judge her harshly because they have known her since birth, an island where Lucy’s options are limited by the culture and by the available education. Lucy also must create herself as a separate being from her mother. For the first nine years of her life there was almost no separation between mother and daughter: Their dresses were sewn out of the same fabric; they bathed together. Then the birth of her brothers and the onset of puberty caused a rift between them, altering their close, symbiotic relationship. Lucy fears her mother’s perceived power: “She...
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