At the Bottom of the River

by Jamaica Kincaid

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In the first of the six sections that constitute this story, the third-person narrator defines a “terrain” that is at once external and internal. From the mountains of its origin to the flat plain of its mouth, the river poses a philosophical riddle of its own cycle of creation and destruction, which awaits the human sensibility “that shall then give all this a meaning.” The unnamed narrator then shifts abruptly to describe “a man who lives in a world bereft of its very nature.” As an individual, the man is incapable of reconciling his own alienated existence with his participation in the larger cycles of natural and human history. He “cannot conceive” of a contentment that comes from “the completeness of the above and the below and his own spirit resting in between.” Further, he is unaware even of his own alienation or of a contradiction within him; consequently, he “sits in nothing, in nothing, in nothing.”

Although the second section continues the third-person narration, the mood and tone of the narrative voice become more familiar, even autobiographical, than they were in the first section. The scene shifts to a detailed but detached domesticity: a man, his wife, and his child. As the father, a skilled carpenter and a subsistence farmer, contemplates what he has accomplished, he meditates on the joy and futility that seem to possess him: “First lifted up, then weighed down—always he is so.” He delights in the beauty of ordinary events—the color of a sunset, the flight of birds, and the dance of insects—but he mourns the passing of the natural world. Despite a loving family and his domestic stability—he has built his own house, read books, planted fruit trees, educated his child, and provided food—the father seems to stand uncertainly “on the threshold” of spiritual identity, for he “imagines that in one hand he holds emptiness and yearning and in the other desire fulfilled.” Analogous to the first section, which offered a universalized figure, this section offers a particular man who succumbs to the futility of an amorphous but vast silence, to “Nothing.”

As the third section begins, the tone becomes even bleaker: The narrator recites a litany on the inevitability, the ultimacy of death. The mood deepens from futility to despair as the narration changes in mid-paragraph to the first-person interior monologue of the man, who decides that “life is the intrusion,” and, subsequently, so, too, is his sense of beauty and truth in his own accomplishments and in his love for his family, an intrusion into the absolute context of death. Sorrow, grief, and regret as well as joy, innocence, and knowledge are “bound to death.” The speaker here, however, claims to regret, not this awareness of the pervasive presence of death, but the powerlessness of “my will, to which everything I have ever known bends.” The fragility of human will and achievement constitutes despair, not the fact of death itself.

Midway through this third section, a folk parable intervenes in the manner of a riddle. An exotic caterpillar is stung by a honeybee; its pain becomes pleasure as it balances “remembering and forgetting” in its life “inside and outside” the mound in which it lives, until it vanishes, leaving only a faint glow in the darkness around it. The speaker, still in the first-person voice, says that she has “divined this” and wishes to share her knowledge with “a monument to it, something of dust”; yet this interior monologue is not that of the man, her father, but that of the daughter, who feels that she has been mocked by her father’s...

(This entire section contains 1328 words.)

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explanation: “Death is natural.” She rejects death as a natural occurrence: “Inevitable to life is death and not inevitable to death is life.” In her own echoic parable, she describes—amid a tentative, majestic imagery—a worm (symbolic of death) overcome by a bird (symbolic of the soul’s flight), but a boy enters the scene and shoots the bird with his bow and arrow. Bluntly, she concludes that the boy’s own “ends are numberless.” For the child’s sensibility of the speaker, all life yields to death, but she rejects the inevitability as a natural process.

The brief fourth section clarifies the point of view of the first-person speaker, who now reveals the reflection in process: “I see myself as I was as a child.” Here, focusing on the innocence of love in the memory of her mother rather than on the alienation of her father, the recollection is one of unquestioned contentment; yet the mature narrator notes that even as she sang harmoniously with other girls at a celebration, she and the others did so with “minds blank of interpretation.” They were oblivious to an image of the grave within the song.

In the complex epiphany of the fifth section, the narrator stands on the river’s bank looking below into the mouth of her own experience. At the bottom of the river, she sees a detailed vision of her childhood house, her personal memory, situated “near the lime-tree grove,” her cultural memory. (Limes were a principal crop of the colonial economy.) In the motionless world that she views below, she realizes that she experiences “something new: it was the way everything lit up.” This illuminated, expansive sense of the past brings her a sense of unity with her mother, the natural world, and her own destiny. As she watches the woman below looking to the horizon, she, too, sees what the woman sees: the simultaneous shining of the sun and the moon beneath the water. In the transparent light of the epiphany, “the sun was The Sun, a creation of Benevolence and Purpose,” and “the moon, too, was The Moon, and it was the creation of Beauty and Purpose.” Having symbolically reconciled her father’s alienation (the sun) and her mother’s innocence (the moon), her vision of harmony expands to embrace the whole of the natural world, and she is “blessed with unquestionable truth” in a “world not yet divided, not yet examined, not yet numbered, and not yet dead.” Simply viewing this world, however, is not enough; she yearns to enter it in order to discover her purpose. Although still in the first person, the narrative perspective once again shifts—to a vantage point from the bottom of the river: “I stood above the land and the sea and looked back up at myself as I stood on the bank of the mouth of the river.” Disassociated now from the egocentric self, the narrator sees herself merging with her cultural history and the natural world. Although she burns in transforming flames, she experiences herself as an enlightened, pure will over which she has “complete dominion,” and she enters the sea, merging fearlessly with it to touch “the deepest bottom.” In the freedom of “a mind conscious of nothing,” she embodies the paradox of the creation of being out of nothingness. She becomes an unnamed medium of light, beyond contradiction and time, much like the glow of the caterpillar.

In the brief closing section, the narrator questions the new light of which she is made, a light that might lead her “to believe in a being whose impartiality I cannot now or ever fully understand and accept.” From the “pit” of her paradoxically liberating repressed memories, primordial as well as personal and cultural, she steps into a room and, in the light of a lamp, sees a few simple things: books, clothes, a table and a chair, and a flute and a pen. At this moment, she knows that she is bound to the history of “all that is human endeavor” and to all that will perish without a trace. Uncertain but assured, she asserts the will to purpose that she has experienced as her spiritual identity: “I claim these things then—mine—and now feel myself grow solid and complete, my name filling up my mouth.”