The Characters

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Annie is presented as an extraordinarily bright and talented girl, but also as a series of contradictions that make her seem quite typical in many ways. For example, as a young girl, Annie cannot bear to think of her mother disapproving of her; at the same time, however, she has a strong independent streak that leads her to act up when she is sent first to deportment lessons and later to piano lessons, so that she is dismissed from both. Similarly, when Annie’s mother discovers she has been playing marbles, Annie both lies and hides the marbles to protect the secret, even though her secret has been exposed and her mother does not believe her.

Annie’s mother is a central character who is viewed differently as Annie grows up. The young Annie worships her mother and wants to be exactly like her. As Annie begins to grow up, her mother appears to Annie to be overbearing, dominant, and a bit contradictory in her assertions that Annie has to become her own person but also has to follow her mother’s rules. Cumulatively, though, a portrait of Annie’s mother emerges as a woman who separated herself from her own mother by adopting specifically Western habits. She wants to inculcate Annie into that culture, although she herself is not completely certain of her place within it.

Ma Chess is one of the most engaging figures in the novel, although readers do not see very much of her. Annie’s maternal grandmother, Ma Chess is presented as a powerful conjure woman and healer. Representing a culture that Annie’s mother has specifically rejected, Ma Chess arrives and leaves mysteriously, and she pointedly rejects the idea that the Western style of life Annie’s mother has established is the only valid one. At one point, Ma Chess tells Annie’s father that one does not need a house to live in; a hole in the ground serves just as well. It seems to be from Ma Chess that Annie’s independence of spirit descends, and by extension, the adult narrator’s (and perhaps Jamaica Kincaid’s) ability to use words as a medium for conjuring feelings and healing emotional scars also descends from this ancestor figure.

The men in the novel are much less clearly developed than the women. Annie’s father is older than her mother and is a carpenter, but he is seen only distantly. Similarly, Annie’s maternal grandfather, Pa Chess, is glimpsed only briefly. Readers learn little about him except the fact that, when his son got ill, he refused to let Ma Chess treat him, instead sending the son to a doctor, and the son eventually died.

Of Annie’s two close friends, Gweneth Joseph and the Red Girl, the Red Girl is the stronger figure. Even her name presents her as a mysterious, potentially powerful presence. Gwen, by contrast, proves to be far more conventional than Annie, and though her friendship endures longer, it is not as intense.

The Characters

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Annie Victoria John, as she imagines her mother might address letters to her, is the figure of fear both of changing and not changing that is present in every adolescent. She dominates the poetic narrative through her internal monologues, her dreams, her fantasies, her distant associations, and her precise observations of all that goes on around her. Her steady pace through anxieties over origins, identity, sexuality, and maturation arrives at an uneasy anticipation of independence in England—ironically so, given that Antigua, in Kincaid’s childhood, was still a British colony. Similarly, it is just as Annie leaves that...

(This entire section contains 449 words.)

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she realizes the potential for a reunion with her mother’s love, yet she knows too that she must leave her mother for that reunion to become real in the future.

The protagonist’s mother emerges from the ambivalent images bestowed on her by her daughter’s passage from childhood to adolescence. Annie’s mother appears at times as tender and at others as nearly monstrous. Her compassion, however, is never far from the reader’s grasp; she cares for Annie’s father, modeling loving adult relationships. Yet she also knows that Annie must become herself, and her seemingly harsh responses to her daughter are only typical, caring parental warnings and discipline.

Alexander John, Annie’s father, is perceived by her as distant and aloof until she moves into puberty. Actually, her father is a kind and nurturing man but is representative of West Indian male attitudes. He regards himself as free to assert his manhood in the society, yet he is particularly attentive to Annie’s mother. Both Annie’s initial bonds with her mother and her refuge in her father’s attention as she separates from her mother are the result of his distant but dominating presence.

Gwen, Annie’s first girlfriend, is the type of character that Annie must both accept and later reject if she is to reach adulthood with her own identity. She is a comfortable bridge from Annie’s early security in her mother’s intimacy to her first taste of independence.

The Red Girl, embraced as Annie rejects the motherlike qualities of Gwen, evokes Annie’s sexual awakening. When Annie fears her father’s appeal, she moves outside the home but remains in the safety of woman’s bonding. The Red Girl is wild and free, signaling Annie’s own yearning for defiance and personal freedom.

Ma Chess, Annie’s maternal grandmother, plays a vital role in Annie’s recovery from her self-induced illness. Offering both sustenance and security, she feeds her and bathes her, just as her mother had once done. Consequently, Ma Chess preserves the potential for a loving mother-daughter relationship.

Characters Discussed

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Annie Victoria John

Annie Victoria John, a smart, sensitive young black girl growing up in Antigua, in the British West Indies. Annie identifies with her mother and has a hard time separating herself, but she is a bright, imaginative, high-spirited girl who has a hard time following her mother’s instructions and orders. She leaves home at the age of seventeen.

Annie John

Annie John, Annie’s mother, who married a carpenter much older than herself. She gave birth to Annie at the age of thirty. Annie’s point of view is so intently focused on how her mother deals with her that it is hard to get a precise sense of who the mother is. Her attempts to discipline Annie and force her to grow cause Annie to be hurt and confused.

Alexander John

Alexander John, Annie’s father, a carpenter who makes coffins for the local community. He is considerably older than his wife and is presented as somewhat distant from Annie. He is important in her life but outside the close bond of Annie and her mother.

Gweneth Joseph

Gweneth Joseph, Annie’s best friend. When Annie and Gwen meet, they immediately fall in love and make promises to love each other forever. Shortly after Annie begins menstruating, she falls out of love with Gwen. The two of them remain friends, though not close friends, until Annie leaves home.

Ma Chess

Ma Chess, Annie’s grandmother, a powerful healer. When Annie falls ill and a medical doctor is not able to find anything wrong with her, it is Ma Chess who brings Annie back to health.

The Red Girl

The Red Girl, Annie’s name for a friend on whom she develops a powerful crush, at about the time she falls out of love with Gwen. Annie’s mother intervenes, however, because she discovers Annie has been lying to her. The Red Girl moves away with her parents for reasons unrelated to Annie.