Masterpieces of Women's Literature Annie John Analysis

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The three most striking features about Annie John are its poetic language, its exploration of the sensory and the magical, and its use of dreams. To read Kincaid’s prose is to experience the work of a writer who enjoys a love affair with and a manipulative power over language. The fluidity of words and images in her hands transforms even the simple and ordinary into the magical. For example, the description of Annie’s surreptitious relationship with an unkempt, red-haired girl takes on the mysterious; the details of laundry day at the John household translate into theatrical movements on a garden stage; and the graveyard scenes during recess and after school with innocent girl talk about biological endowments (or lack of) could fill a motion-picture screen. Her fond use of litanies juxtaposed with paradoxical images creates a hypnotic, incantatory effect reminiscent of the biblical Old Testament, thus engaging the reader at a sensory level. The childlike simplicity of the narration betrays an intricate and unique style replete with repetition, echoes, and parallelism, as well as a keen eye for detail described in simple images.

Even in the silence of the fabled trunk that holds the very symbols of Annie’s life lies a vibrant language which Annie’s mother transforms each time she engages the ritual retelling of Annie’s own “before you were born” story to her early kicking in the womb, to the childhood of undifferentiated unity of mother and daughter. Kincaid’s linguistic trademark, her lyrical and incantatory phrasing, is illustrated in an almost two-page inventory of Annie’s trunk: diapers, booties, blanket, christening outfit, baby bottles, first and second birthday dresses, first pair of shoes, first straw hat, first straw basket, report cards, certificates, and so on. The skillful weaving of the many stories contained in this childhood trunk will empower Annie for her rebellion and her initiation into adolescence. This tradition of ritually retelling “being” stories best explains Kincaid’s unabashed reference to her own mother’s significant role. She calls her mother not only “the writer” of her life but also “the teller” of the story of that life. This act of retelling transformed Kincaid into a writer and initiated her into a tradition of writing to which she is at once heir and stylistic pioneer.

Because of Kincaid’s preoccupation with the theme of separation, the language of the prose is necessarily allegorical. Each of the eight traditional narratives of Annie John is framed by images of separation, the logical movement from the innocence of childhood into the experience of adolescence. In narrative after narrative, Annie recalls and processes separations—from the more abstract separation by death she experiences afar by seeing figures in the cemetery and watching funerals, to the personal and traumatic separation from her own mother, to the gradual but natural “falling-in-and-out-of-love” separation from adolescent friends and schoolmates, and eventually to her separation from her geographic locus of Antigua.

This pervading theme of separation, which begins with a simple but significant argument about dresses and ends with walking to the jetty en route to England, is embodied in Annie’s first school essay, which is a metaphor for the entire novel. Strategically located in the third chapter, appropriately entitled “Gwen,” this essay recounts the primal bonding of mother and child reflected by their curative, nude swimming in the sea. It not only chronicles the despair Annie experiences with the knowledge of her identity as differentiated from her mother but also foreshadows the impending, inevitable formal separation between them and Annie’s conscious and immediate need to replace her mother’s love with Gwen’s. It is symbolic and ironic that the very seawater in...

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which their unity is ritualistically played out, as Annie swims clinging steadfastly to her mother’s neck, is the same seawater that will eventually separate them many years later, when Annie waves goodbye to her mother’s dotlike figure in the distance. The inevitability of Annie’s dislocation from the harmonious mother-daughter swims of the early years is subtly symbolized in the recurrence of Annie’s dreams and nightmares about being separated.

The climactic story, “A Walk on the Jetty,” foreshadowed by Annie’s mysterious ten-week-long illness, confirms the inevitable. The loving, story-filled “when you were born” days are irretrievably lost; Annie comes to realize this loss in some of the seemingly irrational acts in which she engages during hallucinatory periods of her nervous breakdown at the age of fifteen. The long and painful process that has led to “A Walk on the Jetty” culminates in the first words of the chapter: “My name is Annie John.” The abstract argument about dressing alike in chapter 2 finally is now psychologically, symbolically, and physically made concrete in this single act of voiced differentiation.


Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series Annie John Analysis


Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)