Who is speaking in "Girl"? What do we know about him/ her?

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emilyknight7 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jamaica Kincaid's story "Girl" is a short story--a conversation between the main speaker (presumably a mother or mother-like figure) and the "girl" of the title, who we can infer is the main speaker's daughter. Most of the words of the story are dialogue spoken by the mother to the girl, and consist of instructions on proper behavior and the best way to complete chores and errands as an adult married woman.  

Readers can (and, indeed, are forced to) make several inferences about the speaker and her daughter. First, where do they live? We can guess, based on the dishes like "pepper pot" and "doukona" that they live in the West Indies. It's the kind of place where you grow your own okra and leave your wash to dry on the stone heap or the line. It could even be the island Antigua, where Kincaid herself grew up, if we read the story as partially autobiographical. 

Additionally, we can infer that the mother is somewhat between worlds, and her daughter will be too. Take, for example, religion. Though the daughter attends Sunday school, suggesting they are a Christian family, the mother also makes references to traditional Obeah practices as well. Obeah (or Voodoo or Ju-Ju or several other names) is the belief and practice of using supernatural beings to cause harm or mischief in the human world. The mother's instruction that the girl not "pick people's flowers— [she] might catch something" and that she avoid throwing stones at blackbirds, "because it might not be a blackbird at all" suggest that she holds Obeah beliefs in addition to Christian ones. This suggests that the family is, like many West Indies families, caught between ancestral beliefs and the beliefs of the European colonizers. 

We can also infer the mother's complex feelings towards her daughter. The fact the she is giving all these instructions implies that she wants her daughter to grow up to be a proper lady: she teaches her to set a classy table, sew and iron neatly, even how to walk like a lady. Still, her tone seems overly negative and even harsh, particularly the critiques that involve calling the girl a slut:

"this is how to behave in the presence of men you don't know very well, and this way they won't recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming." 

As harsh as that sounds, though, the mother's ultimate goal seems to be setting the girl up to successfully navigate the world, which is appears to be distinctly patriarchal. The mother seems to understand that in order for her female child to succeed, she needs to be perceived as sexually virtuous and ladylike: she can't squat down to play marbles, or talk to "wharf-rat boys" or have a hanging hem. Whether she actually is sexually virtuous seems less important to the mother, who also teaches her how to brew medicine to abort an unwanted child. As critical as she is, it does seem that the mother loves her daughter and wants her to grow up fully equipped to survive in the world.

Read the study guide:
Girl

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