A Mother’s Expectations and Sacrifices
Much of Jamaica Kincaid’s story “Biography of a Dress” centers around the narrator’s relationship with her mother, exploring her mother’s expectations for her as well as the sacrifices she makes. Much of the story depicts the preparations that the narrator’s mother makes to celebrate her second birthday. The narrator’s mother purchases cloth and thread, which she uses to sew a dress for the narrator. She has the narrator’s ears pierced. She acquires gold hoop earrings, silver bracelets, and new shoes, all of which she uses to dress the narrator. She bathes and powders the narrator. She physically carries the narrator to a photographer, both conveying a maternal warmth and likely trying to preserve her blemish-free clothing for the photo. All of these efforts require great sacrifices on the part of the mother. Early in the story, the now-adult narrator reflects that she and her mother were poor at this time. She has come to appreciate the great expense of her second birthday—both the attire and the photographic portrait. Yet she understands that it was important to her mother to preserve this moment in time.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator notes that she was not an especially easy child; she had no idea of their economic status and was quite choosy about what she would eat. She notes that she would only eat meat after her mother had chewed it and gently placed it in her mouth. The foods she insists on eating are more expensive and difficult to come by than the cornmeal her mother tries to persuade her to eat. Yet, somehow, her mother provides the food her daughter desires.
The narrator notes a picture on an almanac cover of a girl wearing a dress that resembles the one her mother is making. The girl, however, looks quite different than the narrator. Her skin is the color of cream. Her hair is like flax. Her eyes shine like two blue jewels in a crown. The narrator begins to wonder how her mother views her and whether she silently wishes for a daughter who looks more like the girl in the photo.
At the photography appointment, the narrator's mother looks at her with something akin to exhaustion—exhaustion from the hectic day and from motherhood itself. The narrator wonders if her mother is exhausted because she never really wanted to be a mother at all and is now trying to make the best of a situation somewhat forced upon her.
The narrator's mother nurtures her well, but there is also an underlying current of the sacrifices she makes to give her daughter the best life possible. These sacrifices are wrapped up in expectations for her daughter. The narrator’s mother expresses these expectations through “kind and loving words… in a kind and loving voice.” But the narrator now sees in her mother’s photographed expression evidence of a contrary truth.
The Power of Perspective
The narrator’s parenthetical asides weave a powerful thread through the story. These asides reveal the now-adult narrator’s more mature and expansive perspective on the events of her childhood. However, sometimes we see that, even with experience and wisdom, her knowledge of an event or moment has not changed. For example, she writes,
I do not now know (and could not have known then) if the pain I experienced resembled in any way the pain my mother experienced while giving birth to me or even if my mother, in having my ears bored in that way, at that time, meant to express hostility or aggression toward me...
The narrator’s ears are pierced with hot thorns, and the pain is significant. As she reflects on this pain, she wonders if this pain is equal to the pain of her mother’s labor and whether this act was some subconscious desire to release pent-up aggression toward her daughter. As a child, she cannot comprehend such a truth, and even as a wiser adult, she does not know if these thoughts are valid. Although her understanding of life has changed, the truth will remain unknown.
(The entire section is 1,158 words.)