(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jamaica Kincaid wrote Annie John shortly after the publication of At the Bottom of the River (1983), a volume of short stories. Though very different in tone and style from her first book, Annie John deals with much of the same material. Where the writing in At the Bottom of the River is ornately textured and impressionistic, however, Annie John adheres much more closely to the conventions of realism. The result is that the two books read as companion volumes. At the Bottom of the River is a highly subjective treatment of the growth of a young girl from Antigua who has to separate herself from a close relationship with her mother, while Annie John is an attempt to present the same material to an audience in a more objective manner—though still in the first person and still with many subjective impressions.

Like the earlier work, Annie John is difficult to classify precisely by genre. While it has the unity and structure of a novel, the eight individual chapters are all self-contained short stories. The point of view remains consistent in each chapter, the chapters taken together tell a consecutive narrative, and, while knowledge of earlier chapters is not essential to an appreciation of later ones, the stories build on one another, allowing readers to find connections and themes between the individual stories.

In the first chapter, “Figures at a Distance,” Annie develops a child’s fascination with death. “For a short while during the year I was ten,” the chapter begins, “I thought only people I did not know died.” Her awareness that anyone, even someone she knows, even a child, can die is her first glimmer of her own mortality, and she starts attending funerals of people she does not know simply out of her fascination with death. When Annie’s interest in death leads her to imagine herself dead and to imagine her father, who builds coffins, so overcome with grief that he is unable to build one for her, it becomes clear that this interest in death is also the beginning of a separation from her parents. This process of separation has only begun, however, as the chapter’s ending shows: Annie’s mother punishes Annie when, fascinated by the funeral of a girl she knew, Annie forgets to buy fish for dinner. The mother, however, relents on a threat not to kiss Annie goodnight. The identification between mother and daughter has been questioned but not yet seriously threatened.

It is in the second chapter, “The Circling Hand,” that Annie first begins to glimpse the truth that she and her mother are separate beings and, worse (for her), that her mother will expect Annie to define herself as separate from her mother. The mother wants Annie to form her own separate identity but also wants to control the terms on which this...

(The entire section is 1161 words.)

Annie John Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Narrated exclusively by the fifteen-year-old, first-person protagonist, Annie John explores the inseparable bond between mother and daughter as it provides both the illusion of security and the movement toward psychological separation. Influenced greatly by autobiographical elements, the novel traces Annie’s coming of age, from her innocent adoration of her mother, who has the same name, through her rejection of her mother in the effort to establish her own individual identity, to her departure from home, the island of Antigua in the West Indies. Annie’s quest is not only to emerge in adolescence with her own self-identity but also to integrate the complexity of her Caribbean heritage with its legacies of colonization, cultural differences, and pluralist ideologies. She seeks an individuality based on her separateness from all those around her.

In the opening chapters, the book’s languid rhythms, sensuous imagery, and sharply honed sentences revolve around the dominant image of Annie’s mother’s hand. At ten, Annie learns of the death of a girl younger than herself who has died in her mother’s arms. She spends her childhood completely within her mother’s world. She studies her shopping in the market, talking to her friends, eating her meals, and laughing with her father. She bathes in her mother’s intimacy, reveling in the scents of oils and flowers in their common bath. When Annie learns that her mother has helped to prepare a dead girl’s body for burial, she recoils in horror. Her innocence broken by the reality of death foreshadows the end of her childhood and initiates the inevitable separation from her mother as Annie moves toward adulthood.

Arriving home early one day, Annie finds her mother and father in bed together, and she sees her mother’s hand circling on her father’s back. Having established her innocence in a world of female activities, she recognizes intuitively that her father is her chief rival for her mother’s attention; she feels in danger of being shut out of her mother’s world. Her ambivalence toward her mother...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Annie John Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel, is a story of a girl’s coming-of-age. On a conscious level the protagonist is contemplating death, friendship, sexual desire, and the developments in her body; she is also experiencing a deeper need to cut herself off from her mother, even if in the process she must hurt them both. The novel is set on the Caribbean island of Antigua. As a young child, Annie John clings to her beautiful and loving mother. She likes to caress her, smell her perfume, take baths with her, and wear dresses made of the same fabric as hers. At school, Annie shows that she has a mind of her own, but at home she takes note of everything her mother says or does.

Soon, however, Annie begins to realize that human relationships are fragile. They can be dissolved by death, by infidelity, or by changes in one’s feelings. At a new school, Annie finds herself abandoning her best friend, Gwyneth Joseph, for a dirty, defiant red-haired girl. At home, Annie betrays her mother’s trust and love. She lies to her about unimportant matters, such as whether or not she has any marbles, and she even insults her. To some degree Annie is acting out her feelings about her parents’ lovemaking and about her own sexual development. Annie is also reacting to her mother’s evident embarrassment when Annie assumes a woman’s identity. On a deeper level, Annie’s love for her mother is so strong that only by rejecting her can she establish a...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Annie John Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ten-year-old Annie John is in Sunday school, remembering when she first observed death. A little girl Annie knew had died in her mother’s arms. Annie starts to obsess about death, and she fears its nearness in her own life.

Annie is now twelve years old, and she is going to a new school, one sponsored by the Anglicans. She is wearing a new uniform, and her clothes no longer match those of her mother. Annie wants to fit in with the other girls, and she finds the best way to fit in is to beat them at marbles. The affections and opinions of peers take on a new importance for Annie.

A rift begins between herself and her mother, especially after Annie’s loss of innocence in catching her parents making love one day. The rift widens as Annie begins to withhold information from her mother about her school friends, such as Gwen and the Red Girl. Annie’s mother still reacts lovingly toward her, but Annie does not trust the facade. Annie is earning a bad reputation at school among the teachers because she does not do what she is supposed to do, even though she is a top student. She is not happy learning only what she is taught, and wants to know more. Her grades begin to fall. Also, she tries to hide that she plays and wins at marbles by hiding them under the house, and her mother never finds them. Annie gets away with much mischief and meanness toward others, troubles that eventually go away.

Annie develops a high fever and gets very...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Annie John Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Annie John’s eight short chapters can be read separately as narrative sketches. Together, however, they trace the course of Annie John’s fall from the innocent Eden of her childhood into an angry alienation from her mother and her island home, which have both nurtured and stifled her. In the first chapter, Annie recalls how, when she was about ten, she began to think about death, realizing that even children can die. She becomes so obsessed with the idea of funerals that she lies to her mother about where she has been in order to attend the funeral of a child she has never even known.

In the second chapter, Annie details her everyday life with her mother, revealing their loving relationship. They shop...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Annie John Summary

Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John tells the story of a girl's painful growth into young womanhood. Annie Victoria John, the narrator,...

(The entire section is 1308 words.)