Biography of a Dress

by Jamaica Kincaid
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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637

The Narrator

The protagonist of the story is the narrator, who, now an adult, reflects on an episode in her childhood. The narrator is not stated to be Jamaica Kincaid herself, but she shares biographical similarities with the author. The narrator is a forty-three year old woman who inspects a photograph of herself at the age of two. The photograph is black and white, but the narrator remembers that the dress she was wearing was yellow and made by her mother. Yellow is thematically important to the story: the narrator remembers being fed cornmeal as a child because of the idea that its color indicated healthfulness.

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The narrator is conscious, becoming more conscious over time, of her blackness, and the fact that she does not look like the white girls in picture-books or on dressmaking patterns. There are other colonial elements to her memories, such as the fact that the coins bore the face of King George V, whose nose appeared unfamiliar to the narrator. The narrator fondly remembers the extent to which her mother took care of her and how proudly her mother took her to be photographed on her second birthday in the yellow dress. But she also remembers slights committed against her by her mother and wonders whether they were intentional or incidental. Her mother has her ears pierced and later, during the photoshoot, pinches her painfully for the pose’s sake. She still does not know whether her mother wanted to inflict these pains.

The Narrator’s Mother

The narrator does not provide her mother’s name in this story, but she states that she was Dominican. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator’s mother cared deeply—and sacrificed much—for her. But it is also clear that her mother felt the burden of her responsibility as a mother.

In her illustrating this dedication, the narrator describes some of the tasks her mother would complete on her behalf. She describes how her mother would chew food for her daughter in order to make its ingestion easier. She sets herself to the task of learning how to sew smocking so that she can make her daughter a yellow dress she has seen in a printed pattern. However, there is also some sense that she feels she does not fit in, or is looked down upon; the narrator wonders whether the dress was made partly because her mother wanted her daughter to be more like the white girl shown wearing the dress in the photograph on the pattern.

The narrator’s mother takes her to be photographed on her second birthday, when the dress is finally finished. She places earrings in her daughter's ears and speaks to her in a “kind and loving” voice in the photographer's studio, but the narrator remembers observing that her mother was “exhausted.” She wonders whether her mother may not have desired her birth in the first place, a fact which would make her love for her daughter all the more remarkable.

Mr. Walker

Mr. Walker is the photographer the narrator’s mother hires. He takes the birthday photograph of the narrator in her yellow dress. The narrator remembers a pus-filled bump on his cheek. Mr. Walker lived on Church Street in a house with many more rooms than the narrator’s house did. It also seems that Mr. Walker is one of the only men the narrator came into contact with at this point in her life—she was aware that he was a man, but did not know why she knew this, or how. Mr. Walker admired the little girl’s dress and hair ribbons, something she did not expect from a man.

The Harneys

The Harneys are a family of shopkeepers and own the store where the poplin for the dress was purchased.

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