Girl by Jamaica Kincaid. What do you think are the mother’s true messages and concerns for her daughter, and how does the daughter receive them? What is the mother teaching her: how to wash...

Girl by Jamaica Kincaid.

What do you think are the mother’s true messages and concerns for her daughter, and how does the daughter receive them? What is the mother teaching her: how to wash clothes and cook, or is the mother is trying to impress another message on her daughter?

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e-martin | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Let's take two views of "Girl" here. Despite the brevity of the story, Kinkaid creates a variety of interpretive opportunities and we can consider more than one way to understand the intentions behind the mother's advice and the daughter's reception of that advice.

If we take an abstract view of the message(s) being conveyed from mother to daughter in "Girl," we might characterize the mother's concerns, advice and wisdom as mainly pointing to how a to be a respectable woman in a specific social/cultural world. There is an implicit accompanying message here as well, which is that in order to be a respectable woman one has to be competent and knowledgeable as well.

According to the mother, to be a respectable woman one must be knowledgeable of social mores and also know how to remain clean via practices of strategy and restraint. On the most basic level, this is a message about values. The mother's lessons might be read as a list of virtues, implied and coded, perhaps, but all pointedly moral in the sense that virtue is always a moral category.

The mother is teaching her daughter all of the individual, practical household lessons here -- "this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard" -- and she is also teaching the fine points of social carriage, one by one.

These more social pieces of advice are not limited to ways in which a person can show an understanding of etiquette or demonstrate that she is cultured. The social lessons extend to issues of power and desire and carry the weight of values as well. 

"this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man; and if this doesn't work there are other ways, and if they don't work don't feel too bad about giving up"

Not only is the mother telling her daughter what is possible (in bullying and being bullied) and what is desired (love). She is also teaching her daughter about how much one should value love. There are limits, her message suggests, to how much one should pursue or suffer to attain love. 

This notion is critical in light of the other advice regarding constraint the mother presents. 

The repeated warning about becoming a slut is matched by advice about how to throw away a fish without getting dirty ("this is how to throw back a fish you don't like, and that way something bad won't fall on you") and why a person should not pick other people's flowers ("you might catch something"). The ethos of remaining clean through these practical strategies resonates with that of the overtly sexually-oriented reprimand repeated by the mother. 

The daughter does not resist the claims about becoming a slut, but does deny the first claim the mother makes about singing benna at Sunday school. The girl's willingness to refrain from denying the mother's other claims is not explained, but we might wonder if she has already internalized the larger idea of showing restraint that underlines the mother's lessons. 

Another way to generalize the mother's advice is to see her as giving power to the daughter. The lessons and advice may all be taken as ways to empower a woman in a household and on the streets, providing her with the necessary skills and knowledge to decide her own fate. Advice on how to avoid men and how to get them is presented along with advice on how to get the most out of money spent. 

The daughter's response to this ethic of empowerment is expressed in her concern that the baker may not let her touch the bread to test it according to the mother's advice. What if she follows all the advice and makes all the right decisions of restraint and practical effectiveness yet still finds that her power to make decisions for herself fails to allow her to decide who she is in the world? 

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