How does the short story "Girl" embody plot, setting, and symbolism?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree it's a little disconcerting to have to find these three literary elements in what appears to be just a huge list of "dos and don'ts" written by a mother to her daughter. A closer look, however, will reveal them. 

Let's start with plot. This list is actually the story of a day, and then a life, of a young girl becoming a woman in this particular culture.  It outlines chores for the day: sweeping, laundry, cooking, shopping, entertaining, gardening, fishing... and the list goes on.  These are the everyday chores, traditions, and activities which a mother must teach and a daughter must learn.  Add to that the intricacies of maturing (white cloths and medicine to "throw a child away") and relationships (smiling and bullying and singing), and this is a lifetime worth of learning experiences. 

The setting is actually the simplest element to identify, as it is embodied in the plot.  This is obviously a more simplified, non-American, tropical culture, one in which growing things and working hard are expected.  We do only have the women's perspective, but we can imagine the same kind of conversation happening as fathers teach their sons to repair roofs and provide for their families.  As you examine the specifics of this list, the setting becomes clearer.

Symbolism is a bit more difficult to identify because it's a culture with which we have little experience.  One consistent symbol includes things that are and are not appropriate in this culture.  Singing benna in the wrong places is obviously potentially dangerous to a young girl's reputation.  So is smiling in the wrong way or improperly setting the table for guests.  And if the baker knows of your sullied reputation, everyonemust know (thus making him a symbol of society). Reputation is clearly important, and it is the consequences of these kinds of symbolic actions which can make or break one's reputation.

While "Girl" may not look like a traditional short story, it does contain the key elements of plot, setting, and symbolism. And, while this may not be your culture, you can understand it in the context of getting advice from a parent on how to live a successful life--and the consequences if you choose to flaunt the rules.