Themes and Meanings

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As was the case with At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid’s first book, Annie John is a novel about the pain and necessity of adolescent rebellion for a young girl growing up in the Caribbean. Annie is presented as a strong-willed, independent child who charts a course for growing up that is largely of her own making. A point that the author seems to want to make, however, is that this individuality comes at the cost of considerable emotional distress.

Annie’s independence of spirit is exhibited early in the novel. Annie’s attraction to funerals as a young girl, besides marking her as a young girl possessed of a fiercely unique spirit, is already a movement away from her parents, in that it denotes a nascent awareness of her own mortality and the need to be, ultimately, separate.

Annie is distressed when she realizes that her mother means for her to begin to assert her own identity. This realization leads Annie to “act up” more, and in ways that her mother frequently cannot abide. To an extent, Annie at first wants to be able to misbehave, but she also wants to receive the maternal approval that she needs. As her mother increasingly withdraws her approval, however, Annie asserts her own personality, though the lack she feels at her mother’s missing support remains painful, and she and her mother become more careful and guarded toward one another. The chapters “The Red Girl,” “Columbus in Chains,” and “Somewhere in Belgium” trace the growing strife and distrust between mother and daughter—as well as Annie’s sagging spirits—but it is in “The Long Rain” that the situation comes to a crisis.

“The Long Rain” is powerful in part because it lends itself to two culturally separate but complementary interpretations. In Western psychological terms, Annie is suffering through an acute depression brought on by the worsening strife between her and her mother; looked at from an Afrocentric spiritual perspective, Annie’s sickness can be seen as a dormant period that she has to endure before the final emergence of her adult identity. Further, it is hinted that the identity that emerges is the identity of a conjure woman, like her grandmother; unlike her grandmother, however, Annie’s medium will be words, not roots and herbs. It is the ability to see words that marks the onset of Annie’s sickness, and when she recovers, she finds herself able to speak in words that carry a new authority that demands that people listen.

When Annie takes her leave of her mother in the final chapter, it is clear that Annie is no longer a woman her mother understands. She needs to free herself from this too close relationship, but the pain still lingers. Further, because the strong love between mother and daughter can be expressed at their parting, it is clear that the pain of their separation will be felt by Annie for a long time.

Themes and Meanings

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The stages of Annie’s maturation and her quest for a sense of self are rooted not only in Kincaid’s admitted autobiographical fashioning of her fiction but also in the context of Caribbean beliefs and customs. Annie’s fear of losing her mother, which in turn spurs her independent development, begins when Annie realizes that her mother’s social life and responsibilities are anchored in a community outside her own perceptions and understanding. Her mother must be available to her neighbors when sickness or death occurs, and her bathing of the dead girl’s body as a gesture of social obligation raises the fear in Annie that her...

(This entire section contains 447 words.)

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mother could die, leaving her alone in the world. Her father’s handmade coffin for the girl further raises the possibility that she could be left with no parents at all, but Annie does not yet grasp the community’s compassion for all of its children.

Up to the point where Annie reaches puberty, her mother has modeled every detail in order for her daughter to become an ideal woman. When Annie becomes a sexually potent female, however, she does not think her mother has noticed. Of course she has, but she says nothing; Kincaid suggests that modeling for this Caribbean mother stops at puberty. Annie’s mother retreats into silence, paralleling her daughter’s eventual illness. This failure to confront and to address sexuality directly and openly becomes a source of further fear for Annie.

Although Annie attempts to seek her father’s attention when she rejects her mother, she also knows that, sexually, he belongs to her mother’s world. Alexander’s previous “outside children,” in the Caribbean phrase, whom he does not acknowledge as his own, reflects a historical reality of Caribbean society. Hence Annie not only fears their wrath through obeah but also learns that there is silent shame inherent in sexuality. Kincaid implies that male sexuality has few consequences but that, for females, the consequence can be abandonment and a subsequent life of poverty.

Ma Chess dwells in an African world; she is an obeah woman who embraces an African sense of herself. Her beliefs are not for sale. Ma Chess helps Annie to recognize that she must choose her own values, which need not suppress or diminish any part of her complex cultural history. The security in the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter becomes the tension-free security of Annie’s past. When she leaves to set her own course, she will take her own trunk, just as her mother did when she left her mother, and in it she will carry different contents in the baggage of race, class, gender, and nationality.


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Death enters the frame of Annie John at the outset and never leaves. As a distant event observed by Annie, death serves as a counter reality to Annie's position as the beloved of her mother. Consequently, Annie's obsession with this other reality keeps the possibility of separation as the end of her blissful girlhood absolutely hidden. Death also serves to exaggerate the distance of the story and, thus, hide the narrator. In the first sentence, therefore, the adult narrator transforms into a girl fascinated by the apparently abstract concept of death.

There is a literal graveyard in the distance that Annie sees figures, not people per se, enter and leave. Death comes closer when Nalda, Sonia's mother, and then Miss Charlotte die. Annie is attentive to this facet of life and watches it. She observes funerals. She notes where death is. Yet she does not grieve. Annie wants to touch death by touching the hunched back of a dead girl whose funeral she attends for the purpose of observation. Disturbing Annie's peace, however, death nears her twice through the person of her mother who was holding Nalda and talking to Miss Charlotte when they died. These two events foreshadow the discovery of imperfection in Annie's universe.

Death does not come to Annie but she dies to three things: her girlhood, her mother, and her home. The first two take place through inevitable growth events. There is much that marks Annie as becoming a woman and, therefore, rivaling her mother for ownership of their shared name. The two primary events are her first menstruation and her illness. Her first menstruation is full of death images beyond the obvious significance of biological change—she faints because, she says, "I brought to my mind a clear picture of myself sitting at my desk in my own blood." Her illness is a mock death. When she comes forth from her sick bed she is taller and no longer seems to be of the Antiguan world.

The central struggle, or agon, in Annie's story is her struggle to bring forth her own identity. That identity is fulfilled through the scripted story of the trunk—she will have her identity when she leaves bearing her trunk. This struggle involves mood swings, rebellious adventures, the awakening of sexuality, and a coming to terms with historical reality. However, the person on whom this struggle is focused, and who has some responsibility in its instigation, is her mother. The mother-daughter tension dominates the work. The tension is not eased though Annie's struggle meets with success. She gains an identity despite her adult telling of her story—in which she clearly becomes a woman in her mother's image—actual reconciliation is absent. Annie's trunk carrying identity, then, is a death to her self and loss of her mother.

Life as a child is set up as Edenic. Annie is indistinguishable from her mother and happiness reigns. That is, until the day her mother says they are now separate. The demand for Annie to suddenly be independent, to have her own subjectivity, is the high of the book. It arrives in Chapter 2, the central image is that of her parents having sex and particularly "The Circling Hand" of her mother on her father's back. At that point, Annie says, "To say that I felt the earth swept away from under me would not be going too far." Her model of the universe— a dual universe with two beings in one dress fabric—had suddenly become a universe of independent bodies all doing their own things to their own ends. The rest of the work details the way in which Annie puts herself back together and finds her own reflection. She had been seeing herself as a smaller version of her mother, but gradually she sees her own reflection in a shop window. She reminds herself of "Satan just recently cast out of heaven." Eventually, identity formation leads her to a figurative death. Her recovery from her illness is also her arrival at her identity as a woman. Recovered, she is taller, conscious of her power as a woman who knows herself, and with her new wisdom she sees she has outgrown the very island of Antigua.

Annie uses several tools to form her identity. The first is her body. Her prowess and strength affords her respect from her classmates and captainship of the volleyball team. The other tool is her intellect. Being above average, she is not delinquent in opportunities to boost her confidence. But this does not prove as important as knowledge gained by observing people at home and hearing stories. One such story is of her mother's departure from Dominica. Annie knows the story well and, therefore, always has an example of strong womanhood before her. She also knows the story of her father, but she rejects his narrative although she empathizes with his tragedy. There are other narratives she rejects. Uncle John was a promising young man who died young. Annie notes that his belongings are kept in a trunk. Annie's things are in a trunk, too, but she decides to follow her mother's narrative and leave Antigua with a trunk—a new one—rather than follow the other narratives which both involve death. Reenforcing her choice is Charlotte Bronte's story of Jane Eyre, whose heroine also strikes out on her own.

Post-colonialism is a literary theory developed in response to the literature being written by people in countries previously governed by the British crown. In the years since the granting of independence, the people of these nations have had to reconcile their identity as educated British subjects with their awareness of their own subjugation by that government brought about by sudden self-determination. This resonates directly with Annie's identification with Jane Eyre as well as references to Milton and Shakespeare. Annie has been taught English literature—stories from the land of the former colonial administration. However, the post-colonial writer does not reject this literature; instead, she embraces it as her own. She also embraces the English tongue as her language, but now she will use them to tell her own story.

There are many references to the history of colonialism in Annie John, but two key moments involve a classmate named Ruth and Christopher Columbus. Both occur in Chapter 5, "Columbus in Chains," but resonate throughout the entire work. Being a good student with aspirations, Annie has trouble remembering the reality of her heritage or discerning whether she fits in "with the masters or the slaves—for it was all history, it was all in the past, and everybody behaved differently now." Still, there is some remembering and hard feelings over the past. Annie says of Ruth, "Perhaps she wanted to be in England, where no one would remind her [what] her ancestors had done."

Crucial to Annie's understanding of herself as a postcolonial subject is her crime against history. She is caught not paying attention to a history lesson, but she is punished for defacing her schoolbook in a way that was blasphemous. "I had gone too far this time," she says, "defaming one of the great men in history, Christopher Columbus, discoverer of the island that was my home." Annie is aware of how tenuous is the idea that this island is her home. She is here only as the curious result of Empire. Still, it is her home just as English culture is hers but with a little obeah thrown in.