(Masterpieces of American Literature)

As in Jamaica Kincaid’s other fiction, the themes of The Autobiography of My Mother explore what happens to a young woman who grows up in a loveless household, in this case the child of a mother who died at her birth. Intermingled with Xuela’s immediate story is the story of the Caribbean island of Dominica, a land that once lived under the cold stepparent of colonial rule.

Since Xuela never knew her mother, and since her father is a distant figure in her life, her efforts to tell her mother’s story require her to tell her own story, beginning with her father depositing her to be cared for by his laundress, as if she were another bundle of dirty clothes. The laundress has no more warmth for Xuela than she has for her own children. Like others who live in poverty in Dominica, she faces a constant battle for survival, with no time for loving relationships.

As Xuela begins school, some themes emerge that color her life. One is an image of her mother descending a ladder to her; in the vision, Xuela can see only her mother’s heels, although gradually she creates a picture of the whole woman in her imagination and at last imagines an entire history for her. At the same time, Xuela begins to think about her father, a remote man who visits her only occasionally, a policeman whose life seems to suggest the possibilities of power. Already the child is beginning to understand the value in being able to make others do what she wants....

(The entire section is 533 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Autobiography of My Mother offers a first-person, retrospective account of Xuela Richardson’s struggle, over the course of her life, to reconcile with the early loss of her mother. As a Dominican girl in the early twentieth century, Xuela must also learn to cultivate her own positive sense of self in an environment that is hostile to her because of her race and gender. The novel begins with Xuela’s birth and her mother’s consequent death and describes her early life in the home of a paid caretaker, Ma Eunice, her experiences at school, her sexual maturation, the establishment of her independent adult life, and, finally, her marriage to a man she does not love.

Ma Eunice is the first person with whom Xuela comes into conflict. This conflict is the result of Xuela’s intuitive rejection of Ma Eunice as someone who is not equipped to provide the nurturing that she requires. As a laundress struggling to raise her children alone, Ma Eunice occupies a social position that the young Xuela instinctively resists.

When Xuela reaches school age, her father, Alfred, removes her from Ma Eunice’s home and sends her to school, an unusual opportunity for a girl in that day and age. Xuela, however, also has a difficult time in school, suffering verbal attacks from her teacher. The episode in the school constitutes an important part of the novel’s critique of colonialism’s legacy: The teacher is hostile toward Xuela because the teacher has internalized a belief that colonized peoples are culturally and intellectually inferior to their colonizers. Xuela demonstrates intellectual aptitude, making her teacher suspicious. Indeed, the teacher believes that Xuela’s ability must be the result of some kind of possession.

Xuela refuses to learn inferiority from either Ma Eunice or her teacher. She rejects the colonial assessment of non-Europeans and seeks solace in...

(The entire section is 777 words.)