At the Bottom of the River, Jamaica Kincaid - Essay

Jamaica Kincaid


(Short Story Criticism)

At the Bottom of the River Jamaica Kincaid

(Born Elaine Potter Richardson) Antiguan-born American novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, editor, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Kincaid's short fiction collection At the Bottom of the River (1983) from 1984 through 1999.

Kincaid's only short fiction collection, At the Bottom of the River (1983), is comprised of ten short stories, most of which had been published individually in various magazines from 1978 to 1982. Critics commend the semi-autobiographical pieces in the volume for their poignant exploration of familial relationships and the effects of colonialism on Kincaid's native Antigua. A critical success, the collection was awarded the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Plot and Major Characters

At the Bottom of the River contains a series of sketches, considered prose poems by some readers; most of these were originally published in the New Yorker. The stories explore everyday events, but with dreamlike, lyrical language and a combination of narrative forms. The first story of the collection, “Girl,” consists solely of a list of admonitions from mother to daughter, increasingly dichotomous and ultimately manipulative. “In the Night,” the second story, explores the mystery and danger of an Antiguan night from the perspective of an adolescent girl. During an evening walk, the young girl reflects on her relationships with her mother and stepfather as well as the world around her. “At Last” offers another dialogue between mother and daughter, focusing on their one-time intimacy and increasing alienation from one another. The next story in the collection, “Wingless,” chronicles the young woman's search for identity in relationship to her mother and her rising self-awareness. “Holidays” traces the young woman's growing sense of independence when she works as an au pair for an American couple. “The Letter from Home” is a brief, one-sentence story in the form of a letter that lists mundane daily chores. The next story, “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” follows the adventures of a young female narrator walking though an ever-changing and dreamlike landscape. In “Blackness,” the female narrator desires isolation, oblivion, and safety. “My Mother” once again explores the mother-daughter relationship, as the young female narrator strives to gain emotional independence from her mother. In the title story, Kincaid revisits the central themes of the collection, particularly the problematic mother-daughter relationship, as the young narrator comes to terms with her identity and resolves to embrace life and the world around her.

Major Themes

At the Bottom of the River is characterized by an exploration of mother-daughter relationships that serve as a metaphor for the relationship between colonial powers and the countries they rule—between the powerful and the powerless and the mature and the struggling to mature—all informed by betrayal. Some critics regard the collection as a meditation on the stages of mourning: denial, anger, depression, and acceptance. In the individual pieces of the collection, critics note that Kincaid strives to create a dreamlike state, which blurs the line between the reality and dreams, of adulthood and childhood. Several of the stories in At the Bottom of the River are concerned with power: the powerlessness of children in the adult world and the importance of adult power—sexual, physical, mental. As the young female narrator matures and gains independence from her mother, Kincaid highlights her search for identity and self-knowledge. Commentators maintain that the stories underscore the significance of Kincaid's heritage, particularly her West Indian culture, traditions, and folklore. Mortality is also a main thematic concern in At the Bottom of the River, as critics contend that the narrator's reluctance to physically and emotionally mature is a result of her fear of death.

Critical Reception

Kincaid's work is regarded as unique among the various schools of Caribbean writing—neither fully feminist nor Afrocentric—and she is one of the most respected of all women authors from the area. Some critics praise her lyrical, sometimes incantatory prose in the stories of At the Bottom of the River. Commentators note that her emphasis on dreams, an important part of Antiguan life, lends weight to the magical realism sometimes employed in the collection. Yet others perceive the stories as fragmented, too personal in nature, and difficult to read. Reviewers have debated the genre of the pieces in At the Bottom of the River—several consider the stories to be closer to prose poems. Critics view the mother-daughter relationship as a central theme in her stories; this recurring motif has provoked extensive psychoanalytic and feminist discussion of her work. They also note her frequent use of folk tales, Obeah, and West Indian rhythms, as well as elements from John Milton and the Bible. Critics have found numerous parallels between the unnamed narrator of At the Bottom of the River and the character of Annie in Kincaid's novel, Annie John (1985).

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

At the Bottom of the River (short stories) 1983

Annie John (novel) 1985

Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip [illustrated by Eric Fischl] (prose sketches) 1986

A Small Place (essay) 1988

Lucy (novel) 1990

The Autobiography of My Mother (novel) 1995

The Best American Essays, 1995 [editor, with Robert Atwan] (essays) 1995

My Brother (memoir) 1997

My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love [editor] (essays) 1998

My Garden Book (nonfiction) 1999

Talk Stories (essays) 2000

Mr. Potter (memoir) 2002

A. Salkey (review date spring 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Salkey, A. Review of At the Bottom of the River, by Jamaica Kincaid. World Literature Today 58, no. 2 (spring 1984): 316.

[In the following review, Salkey discusses the defining characteristics of the stories comprising At the Bottom of the River.]

Jamaica Kincaid's ten stories in At the Bottom of the River are not so much fictions as they are meditations, snippets of autobiographical essays and, in one instance, a Polonius-type exhortation. Their tone is narratively askew, echoic and, at the same time, distanced and abstract. Their compositional fabric is made out of a piling of minutiae of descriptive information, often in faux-naïf diction, concerning human quirks, superstitions, family intimacies and Caribbean cultural history.

The stories are based on the format of the folk riddle, on the truncated scenario of the reverie and dream, on the swirl of events of sentimental memory and, most of all, on metaphorical equivalence. Indeed, I personally felt compelled to recall the fulminating gold of Dylan Thomas, Amos Tutuola and Gabriel García Márquez, as Jamaica Kincaid's own kept flashing through her narratives, which seem to be told with arms akimbo rather than with a beckoning, glittering eye. I enjoyed every moment.

Helen Pyne Timothy (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Timothy, Helen Pyne. “Adolescent Rebellion and Gender Relations in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.” In Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, edited by Selwyn R. Cudjoe, pp. 233-42. Wellesley, MA: Calaloux Publications, 1990.

[In the following essay, Timothy finds parallels in the mother-daughter relationship found in “At the Bottom of the River” and Kincaid's novel Annie John.]

Perhaps the most puzzling moments in Jamaica Kincaid's “At the Bottom of the River” and Annie John are those involving the emotional break between the mother and daughter and the violence of the daughter's...

(The entire section is 4555 words.)

Moira Ferguson (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. “At the Bottom of the River: Mystical (De)coding.” In Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, pp. 7-35. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Ferguson views colonialism as a central theme of the stories in At the Bottom of the River.]

I can see the great danger in what I am—a defenseless and pitiful child. Here is a list of what I must do.

I looked at this world as it revealed itself to me—how new, how new—and I longed to go there.

At the Bottom of the River...

(The entire section is 13255 words.)

Diane Simmons (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Simmons, Diane. “At the Bottom of the River: Journey of Mourning.” In Jamaica Kincaid, pp. 73-100. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Simmons asserts that if read together and within the context of Kincaid's other work, the stories in At the Bottom of the River “trace an emotional journey, a journey of mourning.”]

The ten dreamlike stories that make up At the Bottom of the River are the most difficult of all Kincaid's works to date. Speakers go unidentified, identities merge, fantasy and reality are inseparable. Critics have wondered whether the stories are finally “too personal and too peculiar to...

(The entire section is 12921 words.)

Edward J. Ahearn (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Ahearn, Edward J. “Visionary Women: Wittig's Guérillères and Kincaid's At the Bottom of the River.” In Visionary Fictions: Apocalyptic Writing from Blake to the Modern Age, pp. 136-59. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ahearn provides feminist interpretations of At the Bottom of the River and Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères.]

The [chapters of Visionary Fictions] have traced a remarkably persistent tradition of writing, though one with a variety of permutations. In one way or another, all of our authors are visionary in that they reject the apparently solid world of reality in which most of us...

(The entire section is 12242 words.)

Brenda F. Berrian (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Berrian, Brenda F. “Snapshots of Childhood Life in Jamaica Kincaid's Fiction.” In Arms Akimbo: Africana Women in Contemporary Literature, edited by Janice Lee Liddell and Yakini Belinda Kemp, pp. 103-16. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

[In the following essay, Berrian identifies and discusses recurring motifs in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.]

Increasingly, books by English-speaking Caribbean women writers concerned with the female protagonist's recollection of childhood memories and her fight for self-independence within the context of close family relationships have been showing up in bookstores in North America,...

(The entire section is 5610 words.)

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. “At the Bottom of the River (1983).” In Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion, pp. 49-83. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Paravisini-Gebert offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of the stories in At the Bottom of the River.]

At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid's first book, gathers most of the fiction she had published in various magazines from 1978 to 1982. Of the ten stories in the collection, seven had appeared in the New Yorker; one (“What I Have Been Doing Lately”) had been published in the Paris Review; another (“My Mother”) echoes material included in a...

(The entire section is 14896 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Dutton, Wendy. “Merge and Separate: Jamaica Kincaid's Fiction.” World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (summer 1989): 406-10.

Explores the connection between At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.

Ismond, Patricia. “Jamaica Kincaid: “First They Must Be Children”.” WLWE 28, no. 2 (autumn 1988): 336-41.

Considers the theme of childhood in Kincaid's work.

James, Louis. “Reflections, and The Bottom of the River: The Transformation of Caribbean Experience in the Fiction of Jamaica Kincaid.” Wasafiri, no. 9 (winter 1988-89): 15-17.


(The entire section is 254 words.)