In “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid uses various types of imagery—visual, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, and auditory—to compose a mother’s lecture to her daughter about proper behavior and appearance. Kincaid drives home the mother’s emphatic lessons to the daughter through contrasting images as well as imagery that appeals to different senses.
In the story’s opening lines, for example, the visual images of freshly laundered clothing contrast each other in color and placement:
Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry
Symbolizing purity, the white clothes must be kept separate from the colored clothing. The former is set aside on a special stone heap; the latter is hung on a commonplace clothesline.
The next two pieces of advice,
don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil,
combine visual and tactile imagery that leads into gustatory, olfactory, and auditory imagery. The reader sees a bare head under bright sunshine and feels the sun’s heat outdoors; this heat continues inside as the reader moves into a hot kitchen where tasty, fragrant pumpkin fritters sizzle in sweet burning oil.
Later, auditory imagery morphs into gustatory imagery with
is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach
The reader can hear “benna” or seductive folk music sung inappropriately in a church setting. The benna’s awkwardness parallels the sound of food being chewed loudly and slurped, resulting in a dining companion’s nausea.
Additional striking visual imagery contrasts what the mother considers to be negative/disreputable to what she thinks is positive/proper: the “bent” posture of a “slut” contrasts the walk of a “lady." The dirty “wharf-rat boys” resemble the filthy “flies” feeding on fruit sold on the streets. She promotes the importance of respectable clothing—like a skirt hem that does not fall down or pressed khaki shirts and pants without any creases.
In fact, Kincaid uses repetition of visual imagery (but with slight variations) in order to stress the mother’s housekeeping lessons to her daughter:
this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard
The reader can picture each increasingly large area as well as hear the sound of a sweeping broom. Then the mother stresses the important appearance of table settings for different occasions—small, large, formal, or casual:
this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast;
Finally, when the mother offers tips on cooking, Kincaid provides much tactile, gustatory, and visual imagery. For example, the mother cautions,
when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it
The reader can taste the dasheen or taro and feel it scratching the throat when swallowed. With her cooking advice, the mother deftly slips in a tip for terminating an unwanted pregnancy:
this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child
The bread pudding becomes spicier dishes like “doukana” and “pepper pot” which then lead to treatments for a common cold and an abortion.
The story ends with tactile and visual imagery:
always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?
The reader pictures a loaf of bread and feels its softness, but then is left with a disturbing tableau of a scorned woman admonished by a baker in white clothing holding the bread away from her.