At the Bottom of the River

by Jamaica Kincaid

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A. Salkey (review date spring 1984)

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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.


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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).

Helen Pyne Timothy (essay date 1990)

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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 response to her mother after that break. In the early stages of the narrative, Kincaid, chronicling the intense emotional bond in which they are wrapped, is at pains to detail the warmly affectionate upbringing Annie received from her mother. To the child the relationship was so satisfying that the father was almost shut out; in fact he operated on the periphery:

As she told me the stories, I sometimes sat at her side, leaning against her, or I would crouch on my knees behind her back and lean over her shoulder. … At times I would no longer hear what it was she was saying: I just liked to look at her mouth as it opened and closed over words or as she laughed. How terrible it must be for all the people who had no one to love them so and no one whom they loved so, I thought. My father for instance.

(Annie John, pp. 22-23)

Indeed, Kincaid creates such a perfect world of strongly nurturing mother figure and dependent child suffused with primary love that there can only be agreement when Annie says, “It was in such a paradise that I lived.”

Nancy Chodorow, in her revealing study of psychoanalytic theory as it may be applied to the relationship of mother and daughter, has documented the pattern of absolute dependence in a primary love relationship that links the child to the nurturing mother figure. In the early years the mother is central to the focus of the child, idolized and idealized. Chodorow shows that the apprehension of the mother figure can be so strong that the child has to go through a period of rejection to separate subject/self from object/mother before development of the individual consciousness is possible. For the female child, this split comes at puberty and must, therefore, have important ramifications for the expression of her sexuality.

Annette Insanally has also illustrated the relevance of Jacques Lacan's theory of psychic development in her reading of “At the Bottom of the River” in commenting on “the mother/daughter figure in a strange inseparable love/hate syndrome where the father figure is tangential and indistinct but important.” There can be no doubt that the findings of psychoanalytic theory form an important framing and structural device that shapes the particularities of the works and therefore strongly illuminates the workings of the inner life of the protagonist. All the elements of the classic stages of development of the girl from what Kincaid describes as a possible “life as predictable as an insect's and I am in my pupa stage … primitive and wingless” to the woman who must be confident in her own person, her selfhood, and her sexuality: “I shall grow to be a tall, graceful and altogether beautiful woman, and I shall impose on large numbers of people my will and also for my own amusement, great pain.”

Both “At the Bottom of the River” and Annie John are primarily concerned with intense mother/daughter relationships, the psychic development of the girl child, the teaching and learning of appropriate gender roles, and the breaking of the strongly imposed image of the mother for the development of individuation in adulthood.

Obviously, these stages of psychic development take place within any culture, and presumably they provide evidence for a metatheory that has universal application. The concern of this essay is therefore to inquire whether, and in what ways, Kincaid has anchored the imaginative reworkings of these experiences within the particular culture of the Caribbean in such a way as indelibly to infuse the development of Annie and the nameless “girl” of “At the Bottom of the River” with a “local habitation and a name.”

The stages of Annie's psychosocial development are all amplified within the context of Caribbean cultural practices and beliefs. In the early stage of intense primary love and involvement with the mother, the first hint of separation comes with the child's awareness of death and her understanding that the perceived integrated personality of the two might be split by the loss of one individual. Annie's perception of her mother begins to change when she realizes that her mother has links with a community outside of her own perception:

One day, a girl smaller than I, a girl whose mother was a friend of my mother's, died in my mother's arms. I did not know this girl at all … I heard my mother describe to my father just how Nalda had died … My mother asked my father to make the coffin for Nalda, and he did, carving bunches of tiny flowers on the sides. Nalda's mother wept so much that my mother had to take care of everything and since children were never prepared by undertakers, my mother had to prepare the little girl to be buried. I then began to look at my mother's hands differently. They had stroked the dead girl's forehead, they had bathed and dressed her and laid her in the coffin my father had made. My mother would come back from the dead girl's house smelling of bay rum—a scent that for a long time afterward would make me feel ill. For a while, though not for very long, I could not bear to have my mother caress me or touch my food or help me with my bath. I especially couldn't bear the sight of her hands lying in her lap.

(Annie John, pp. 5-6)

Here Annie's mother is closely involved in a momentous happening in which she was not the center. She could clearly envisage the possibility of her dying and leaving her mother as well as the possibility of her mother betraying the primary love tie and dying herself and leaving Annie, like her classmate, “such a shameful thing, a girl whose mother had died and left her alone in the world.”

Furthermore, the details of the death rituals as delineated are strongly indicative of Caribbean cultural habits. Annie's mother must of necessity be available to her neighbor in times of sickness and death; she must assist in transporting the child to the doctor, must help with the laying out of the body, must support and nurture the mother through the time of grieving. The father assists by carving the handmade coffin. This act is his personal involvement, but the male figure is not central to the emotional ritual. Thus the death is reported to him by the mother; but it is she who is central to all its demands, and her involvement is personal. Of course, Annie's feelings toward death are ambivalent: she is deeply aware of the understanding that death could rob her of the most intensely loved person, her mother. Yet in her attempts at role-modeling she wishes to become schooled and to penetrate the secrets of the ritual so she can be like her mother, an important person in a gender-binding ritual.

The burgeoning perception of subject/self, object/mother reaches the moment of separation, as expected, at puberty. Annie begins to see everything about her mother in a negative light and, typically, transfers the intensity of her emotion to a friend, Gwen. Her sexual urges are beginning to develop, as is the awareness of her physical presence and that of others. What is interesting about the presentation here is the way the mother is portrayed as relating to her daughter's developments:

The summer of the year I turned twelve, I could see that I had grown taller; most of my clothes no longer fit. … My legs had become spindle-like, the hair on my head even more unruly than usual, small tufts of hair had appeared under my arms and when I perspired the smell was strange, as if I had turned into a strange animal. I didn't say anything about it, and my mother and father didn't seem to notice, for they didn't say anything either.

(Annie John, p. 25)

But in fact the parents had noticed, and the change in behavior manifested itself most violently in the mother, not the father. Kincaid seems to be making the statement here that in the Caribbean context, the mother is unable to continue successful role-modeling after the child reaches puberty. Up to this point, Annie's mother has been a strongly loving, caring, nurturing mother figure. Annie receives no beatings, only minor punishment. “I ate my supper outside, alone, under the breadfruit tree, and my mother said that she would not be kissing me goodnight later; but when I climbed into bed she came and kissed me anyway.”

Moreover, Annie had been encouraged to model herself in every detail on her mother's conduct and behavior so as to become a perfect woman. Kincaid is at pains to show the mother's involvement with every detail of the child's development. The mementos of important stages in her prepubescent development are locked in a trunk to be taken out and lovingly recalled from time to time. But this Caribbean mother is unable to speak about the later stage of the child's development; she “didn't seem to notice.” Kincaid's message seems to indict the Caribbean mother: she does not know how to communicate openly about the girl's development into a sexual being.

The contrast between the mother's attitudes in the girl's pre- and post-pubescent periods is almost shocking. In her relationship with Annie there had previously been a highly pleasurable integration of the child's body and the mother's as part of the relationship of loving and caring; and the child displayed an acutely sensitive response to her mother's body shape, touch, and smell. In this Caribbean family there is a lot of touching, hugging, and caressing between mother and daughter: the mother swims with the daughter on her back, they bathe together in an extended ritual which is firmly rooted in the bush-bath African-derived cultural habit where the body becomes almost a temple of good, but where the function and pleasure of sensation are not ruled out.

Up to puberty, then, the mother's role-modeling signals affirmatives about the body, sensation, and sensuality. These affirmatives are further reinforced in Annie's school life. Her friends in a girls' school, cut off from boys, are almost hysterical in their desire to “prove” their womanhood by growing breasts and menstruating. Annie's description of her first period is full of drama and emphasizes the emotions of awe and reverence, beauty even, in this event, and in the response of the other girls to whom it is revealed:

At recess, among the tombstones, I of course had to exhibit and demonstrate. None of the others were menstruating yet. I showed everything without the least bit of flourish since my heart wasn't in it. I wished instead that one of the other girls were in my place and that I were just sitting there in amazement. How nice they all were, though, rallying to my side, offering shoulders on which to lean, laps in which to rest my weary, aching head, and kisses that really did soothe.

(Annie John, p. 52)

Annie's personal response betrays the uncertainty of the moment engendered by the fear of the future which this watershed must of necessity entail. But the fear is devoid of any suggestion of shame or secrecy; rather, it is a fear of adulthood, of uncontrollable changes in her life.

The wild abandonment and pleasure in their physical personhood which the girls display is contrasted with the mother's attempts to suppress her own and Annie's after Annie entered puberty. What can be her motive, why does she deliberately cut herself off from the closeness of touch and caress, from wearing the same dresses, from accompanying her daughter on walks with her father? Is her desire to push Annie away into the perception of herself as other (“You just cannot go around the rest of your life looking like a little me”) motivated by psychological primes, sexual jealousies, and uncertainties or social mores? Perhaps her actions arise out of a mixture of all these; but the discussion here will primarily consider the latter as part of a network of complex structures perceived by the child.

This child is an extraordinarily sensitive participant/observer of her mother's life; and at this stage her acuity is trained toward the asymmetrical aspects of her behavior which can now be negatively assessed. The most obvious and, for the child, the most confusing and searing are concerned with questions of sexuality between mother and father.

In Annie John the figure of the father is peripheral to the intense absorption that links the daughter to the mother. Nevertheless, to the pre-adolescent, he is an important love object. Interestingly enough, however, when Annie begins to assess her mother negatively, she also transfers her negative viewpoint to her father, who is then seen as being more a part of her mother's universe than of her own: “They were eating away as they talked, my father's false teeth making that clop-clop sound like a horse on a walk as he talked, my mother's mouth going up and down like a donkey's as she chewed each mouthful thirty-two times … I was looking at them with a smile on my face but disgust in my heart” (Annie John, p. 136). Even if there are adjustments for Annie's tendency to an overwrought sensibility in her emotional assessment of her parents, there is a suggestion of sexual jealousy in her perception of the mother's physical closeness to the father. Alexander's relations with other women, although they occurred before his marriage, also appear to have had some impact on Annie. Although this description that the father has had affairs and “outside children” which he does not acknowledge represents a social truth of Caribbean society, the fact that he has been intimate with women whom he now passes by without speaking in the street invests sensitive young Annie with a subliminal sense that there is something shameful in a sexual relationship. Kincaid seems to be indicating here that male sexuality has no consequences, whereas for females the consequences are severe.

But more important is the mother's ambivalence about her own sexuality; she has suppressed this aspect of herself in her role-modeling although she does at one point recommend marriage and motherhood to Annie. But these concepts seem divorced from any sexual involvement. Heterosexual involvement is seen by the child as sin and shame, not joy or pleasure.

It is therefore totally understandable that when Annie unexpectedly sees her mother joyfully engaged in a sexual act with her father she is thrown into an emotional turmoil that causes the split and antagonism of daughter and mother with its consequent consuming negative assessments of the mother's role and behavior. These negative assessments begin strongly with the inability of the mother to negotiate the meaning of the girl's burgeoning sexuality.

Indeed, the ambivalence of the Caribbean mother is reinforced by Annie's mother's extreme reaction to a most innocent meeting and greeting of three boys which Annie engages in on her way home from school. Kincaid describes:

On looking up, she observed me making a spectacle of myself in front of three boys. She went on to say that after all the years she had spent drumming into me the proper way to conduct myself when speaking to young men it had pained her to see me behave in the manner of a slut … in the street and that just to see me had caused her to feel shame. The word “slut” (in patois) was repeated over and over, until suddenly I felt as if I were drowning in a well but instead of the well being filled with water it was filled with the word “slut,” and it was pouring in through my eyes, my ears, my nostrils, my mouth. As if to save myself I turned to her and said, “Well, like father like son, like mother like daughter.”

(Annie John, p. 102)

Of course, behind Annie's impudence lies the understanding that she has discovered a serious weakness in her erstwhile strong, dominant, and correct mother. Moreover, this weakness points to a deep-rooted ambivalence, an insecurity that brings into question the very basis of the mother's existence and can be read further as the mother's inability to transmit to her daughter a coherent value system that embraces the various aspects of her role as woman in a Caribbean society.

Indeed, “Girl,” in which the mother is the classic transmitter of culture and her function in the learning and teaching of the female role, overt within the context of the particular Caribbean society, demonstrates the uneasy mix between the two streams of Africa and Europe through which the mother has to thread her way and that of the child in her interpretations of the Creole world of the Caribbean.

Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk bare-head in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil, soak your little clothes right after you take them off, when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse … it is true that you sing benna in Sunday school? always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don't sing benna in Sunday school; you must'nt speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions … this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming … this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don't like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don't like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner … this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don't know you very well, and this way they won't recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don't squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; don't pick people's flowers—you might catch something; don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all. … This is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don't like, and that way something bad won't fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn't work there are other ways, and if they don't work don't feel too bad about giving up.

(At the Bottom of the River, pp. 3-5)

This quasi-monologue of the mother with the occasional indignant interjections of the daughter is strongly revelatory of the ambivalences that invest the role-modeling of the Caribbean mother, particularly since she herself has serious conflicts. As we have already seen, sexuality is almost instantly related to sluttishness, possibly because of the mother's fear that her daughter will become the exploited female of “wharf-rat boys” or even of the father's former lovers, who view her with hate, in other words, will lose her chance to rise in class, in the world. There is also the possibility that, with the male who is acceptable in class, sexuality is possible, even desirable: “this is how to love a man, and if this doesn't work there are other ways.” The girl is being urged to use her womanly wiles to accomplish results from an act she is simultaneously being taught is shameful. Included here is also a recognition that a woman's sexuality must be used to accomplish a rise in social status—possibly an unconscious explanation for the beautiful, strong, young mother's marriage to a much older, weaker, far less beautiful husband, who offered her marriage and a comfortable home.

Moreover, the Caribbean mother who is bent on seeing her daughter rise from the lower classes to the middle ranks must not only teach her useful housekeeping tasks, cleanliness, good manners, and practical knowledge of her environment but also European norms and the need to desist in the practice of African ones. The girl perceives these paradoxes inherent in the mother's relationship to her own Caribbean culture, and they become part of the negative features that help reinforce the split between the egos of mother and daughter and the daughter's subsequent rebellion. Thus in the mother's perception, Christianity, Sunday school, good manners (the ability to curtsy), and piano lessons are all essential to her daughter's acceptability and respectability. Consequently she must not sing benna songs (folk/African songs) in Sunday school; but Christian training becomes far less important when dealing with the real problems of life. Here the mother falls back on the belief in folk wisdom, myth, African systems of healing and bush medicine, the mysteries of good and evil spirits inhabiting the perceived world of nature. “Don't pick people's flowers—you might catch something; don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all. … This is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.”

It is therefore significant that Kincaid juxtaposes the event that causes Annie's awakening to this dimension of her mother's life with her return from Sunday school. For the child there is a complicated clash of eschatological systems which she cannot articulate. She can only feel that some important principle has been violated which she attributes to her mother's hypocrisy.

Annie's rebellions are directed primarily against her mother's notions of respectability—being “a lady” in her sense of what would be required for the socially ambitious in a European context: the battle of wills takes place over Annie's lessons in good manners (“how to meet and greet important people in the world”), piano lessons, Christianity, and a good European-style secondary education. The emotional split leads to a clash and finally an isolation of Annie that becomes so burdensome it leads to a mental breakdown.

The signals given during this period of mental and emotional collapse confirm the insecurity of the search for a coherent cosmology in which the child's social ambition, her intellectual and romantic yearnings, gleaned from European books (Blyton, the Brontës) and a European education, her moral, spiritual, and cultural landscape, and her sexual urges can all be accommodated.

Such complexities can never be completely resolved, but Kincaid is careful to guide the reader. There is the obvious sexual symbolization of the washing of the photographs (all of the people in white) of herself at her First Communion, her Aunt Mary at her wedding, and her father in cricket gear (white) “to remove the dirt from the front of my father's trousers.” Next, the episode with Mr. Nigel is instructive. Mr. Nigel, his fishing partner, and Miss Catherine, the woman they share harmoniously, are firmly anchored in a world free of pretensions or intrusion from any imported system of value. Their untrammeled security provides a wholeness, a kind of truth for which Annie longs.

But the most important influence on Annie at this time is the formidable figure of Ma Chess, the grandmother. Kincaid has cast her in a fully African world. She inhabits the world of the African spirits and, as long as she remains true to that vision, is able to control life and death. Her beloved son dies when she defers to the unbelief of Pa Chess and gets a doctor about an illness which “the doctor knew nothing about, and the obeah woman knew everything about.” After that irretrievable and distressing error her commitment to the African-Caribbean spiritual universe is total and unwavering. In her Kincaid has provided a portmanteau figure of African myth and reality: Ma Chess is African healer, bush medicine specialist, and Caribbean obeah woman, extremely conscious of the presence of good and evil in life and able to ward off evil. She is also the mythological “flying African” able to cross the seas without a boat, and the flying “soucouyant” (female witch) who lives in a hole in the ground. Her world, however, is not threatening to the child but comforting and healing because of its coherency, its validity, and its verity. As Annie describes the healing relationship,

Ma Chess is on the floor at the foot of my bed, eating and sleeping there, and soon I grew to count on her smells and the sound her breath made as it went in and out of her body. Sometimes at night, when I would feel that I was all locked up in the warm falling soot and could not find my way out Ma Chess would come into my bed with me and stay until I was myself—… I would lie on my side curled up like a little comma, and Ma Chess would be next to me, curled up like a bigger comma, into which I fit.

(Annie John, p. 126)

This tension-free relationship is typical of a grandmother/granddaughter link, but it also records the sense of security the conforming world of Ma Chess exudes. A valid sociological point emerges here: for some of the older generation of Caribbean women, the penetration of European cultural values into the African cosmology was not so intense or so desirable. Most of these systems of belief, syncretism, are beginning to appear in Annie's mother's universe. Annie herself is going to “somewhere; Belgium,” the heart of Europe, far away and in rejection of “obeah women” (African systems of belief). But there is a recognition that like her grandmother and mother before her, she must carry a trunk, that is, the cultural baggage of a race, a country, and a class, although for each generation, the trunks are packed with different contents.

What a complex moral cosmology Caribbean girls must inhabit and how ambivalent are the signals passed on to them. But even in the act of rebellion Kincaid strongly shows that the break between mothers and daughters can never be final or complete, that the women are linked irrevocably to each other by ties that are finally inextricable.

Principal Works

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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

Moira Ferguson (essay date 1994)

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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

By her own admission, Jamaica Kincaid views her first publication, At the Bottom of the River (1983), as the text of a repressed, indoctrinated subaltern subject: “I can see that At the Bottom of the River was, for instance, a very unangry, decent, civilized book and it represents sort of this successful attempt by English people to make their version of a human being or their version of a person out of me. It amazes me now that I did that then. I would never write like that again, I don't think. I might go back to it, but I'm not very interested in that sort of expression any more.”1

I want to argue that Jamaica Kincaid through diverse discussions of mothers sets up a subtle paradigm of colonialism that enables these repressions to be heard; the text, that is, masks and marks the role that colonialism plays in educating colonized people against their interests. For Kincaid herself, the project was a failure for the colonizers.

At the Bottom of the River takes place on the island of Antigua, where Jamaica Kincaid was born, a geographical and psychic reality that constantly serves as backdrop. Kincaid represents the experiences of a child growing up in Antigua during the 1950s. Sometimes she mentions the fact of colonial life through intertextual references but rarely head-on, while the child's biological mother seems to double occasionally as an anticolonial target. The section entitled “Wingless” is saturated with colonial tropes, typically nineteenth-century British. Winglessness denies legitimate ontological status, deprives the narrator emotionally, and enforces limits.

The section opens on a classroom where small children “are reading from a book filled with simple words and sentences. ‘Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, whose name was Tom’” (p. 20). Thus does the narrator explicitly draw from The Water-Babies, Charles Kingsley's political allegory about nineteenth-century British industrial poverty and child abuse that foreshadows everyday situations in twentieth-century Antigua.2 This narrator longs for the same drastic transformation experienced by the protagonist, Tom, a psychologically and physically abused chimney sweep who becomes a water baby. But she also fears that she might become an oppressor: “Perhaps I stand on the brink of a great discovery, and perhaps after I have made my great discovery I will be sent home in chains” (p. 21). The narrator and Tom could become the exiled Christopher Columbus, victim of sorts of Francisco de Bobadilla, second leader of the conquistadors, for no one is immune to corruption. Resembling the narrator in his feelings of alienation and idyllic longings, Tom miraculously has his (unconscious) wishes granted and, as a water baby, he is “adopted” by a loving mother figure named Mrs. Do As You Would Be Done By.

Consumed like Tom with a transcendent desire for change, the narrator craves her elementary teacher's attention, “that large-bottomed woman … I gave up my sixpences [for] instead of spending for sweets” (p. 21). Underscoring a daily life steeped in vestiges of colonialism, Kincaid refers to old British coinage (sixpences), British idiomatic usage (“sweets” for “candies”), and the ambivalence of the colonized (desiring the teacher's attention). Mimicry and insurrection uneasily interact. Descendants of freed slaves, the children are instructed in scarcely disguised postcolonial values as Antigua nominally moves toward independence.

Flashes of self-scrutiny—“Am I horrid?”—conjoin with an intimation of other subjectivities. She feels like the abused and lonely Tom though she recognizes that Tom's circumstances caused his self-deprecating and socially demeaning identity: “a defenceless and pitiful child.” Announcing that she also (like Tom) swims “in a shaft of light, upside down and I can see myself clearly through and through, from every angle,” she hovers on the threshold of discovery. More importantly, she is someone who does not see the authentic relationship of herself as a historical subject:

I am not yet a dog with a cruel and unloving master. I am not yet a tree growing on barren and bitter land. I am not yet the shape of darkness in a dungeon.

Where? What? Why? How then? Oh, that!

I am primitive and wingless.

(p. 24)

This water is clear and it moves: “Clear waters … produce fleeting and facile images.” It takes on almost anthropomorphic qualities, echoing one critic's assertion that “the stream, the river, the cascade then have a speech that men understand rationally.”3 The narrator's longing to be free explodes through her sadness, but winglessness prevents her from taking off. Rather pointedly, this section about the need to soar heralds a singularly nuanced anticolonial interrogation between a teacher-mother (country) and a (colonized) student:

“Don't eat the strings on bananas—they will wrap around your heart and kill you.”

“Oh. Is that true?”


“Is that something to tell children?”

“No. But it's so funny. You should see how you look trying to remove all the strings from the bananas with your monkey fingernails. Frightened?”

“Frightened. Very frightened.”

(p. 24)

Thus the narrator links her own colonial situation to Tom's imaginative transformation that enables him to escape a brutal apprenticeship with the vile Mr. Grimes. Wrestling for sexual power interlaces with the complex monkey trope that populates all Kincaid's texts. The monkey functions both as a trickster who can retaliate against exploitation and as a traditional symbol of the Eurocentric gaze. Mr. Grimes's name signifies the same filth that characterizes the dead ashes she rubs her toes in.4 Everyone, the narrator states, is so on edge that black and white teachers are collectively startled (or feign being startled) when a black child succeeds. Discussing one of her former teachers, Jamaica Kincaid talked of this situation in a recent interview. If she wrote a good essay, the teacher would proclaim: “At last one of you did it right.” In A Small Place, she also mentions the fact that the headmistress of the girls' school where she was a pupil told “these girls over and over again to stop behaving as if they were monkeys just out of trees. No one ever dreamed that the word for any of this was racism.5

This section in “Wingless” connects to another critical moment when the narrator remarks that no one compliments her father and goes on to describe him as a vain man who orders a brown felt hat from England every year. She represents this purchase as an act of colonial mimicry that in turn is metonymically and inversely linked to the headmistress's dread of the other. A fantasy of personal-colonial patricide follows in which “the woman I love” (the mother) reacts to a frightening man who is dressed in sticks and tree bark. Not coincidentally, the imperialists who arrived in the Caribbean were associated with bark, the fabric of their ships and a sign of their mobility: “Instead of removing her cutlass from the folds of her big and beautiful skirt and cutting the man in two at the waist, she only smiled—a red, red smile—and like a fly he dropped dead” (p. 25).

This self-critical and doubled use of language—who is mimicking whom?—this hybrid form and the self-knowledge implied in growing up fragmented yield a decolonizing of the narrator's outlook. She claims the right to what Edward Said calls “the audacious metaphoric charting of spiritual territory usurped by colonial masters.” She internalizes the postcolonial impulse.6 Issues of class, sexual difference, and race intersect with attentiveness to the mother-daughter relationship. More generally, these issues are connected to the condition of growing up in Antigua before black Antiguans with independence from the British and precipitate an uneasy alliance between a black Antiguan government, the people, and a disenfranchised ex-colonial Anglo-Saxon class.

Two other critical, imperial signs appear in subsequent references to an Anglican hymn and to night-soil men. First, the speaker in the section “The Letter from Home” alludes to “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” This hymn is an emblem of a nominally Anglican colonizing culture that is rhetorically featured in the book she is reading, its title An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Butterflies and Moths: “I leaf through the book,” she says, “looking only at the pictures, which are bright and beautiful” (“Holidays,” p. 29). The hymn renders corruption and human degradation invisible, or at least hints at it very gently:

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun.
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.
He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

Since her experiences growing up militate against that view, the speaker mocks the idea that the beauty of the world is evidence of God.7 From the point of view of politically dominated people, the world cannot be beautiful as long as an unequal dynamic of power obtains. This allusion not only glosses her recognition of and resistance to cultural indoctrination but it further records her fascination with the word thorax because of its symbolic significance: “From my looking through the book, the word ‘thorax’ sticks in my mind. ‘Thorax,’ I say, ‘thorax, thorax,’ I don't know how many times” (pp. 29-30). An insect's body or middle section between the neck and abdomen, enclosed by the ribs is the place where the narrator “exists” for the expropriating colonizer-parasite. The narrator is an alienated being, an unwilling host. More ironically, however, recent entomological research prefers to talk of the insect as divided into fourteen segments and not to talk in terms of the head-thorax subdivision.8 So to talk of thorax is to talk of artificial separation such as the daughter experiences from the mother. Kincaid later elaborates on another form of artificial separation in “Ovando.” This deadness at the nerve ends is partly explained by references elsewhere, notably in “Wingless,” where the narrator highlights the suppressed conditions of a takeover culture. Through the chaos of images around insects, what the narrator-representative does and does not have is subtly suggested.

Second, her discussion of the night-soil men describes their imaginative and physical impact on her life. Hard workers, they represent colonial neglect of an adequate sewage system. Underscoring their mythical as well as concrete physical presence, she discursively links them to a woman who removes her skin in a reenactment of a voodoo priestess's spiritual ritual.9 The people's culture is still vital, despite a colonial presence. She follows this with dreams about her father, then a separate mother-love fantasy. This admixture implies that the biological and colonial layers of the narrator's life are inextricably interrelated. The narrator closes with a claim that she will marry a “red-skin” woman and live in a mud hut by the sea, invoking prehistoric allusions to caves and reptilian life.10 The narrator is neither afraid of unconventional behavior nor too callow to perceive it as such. During this episode while the men remove feces, the narrator wet-dreams of a baby and a lamb being born and bleating, emblems of degradation and exclusion. Mud, moreover, in Gaston Bachelard's formulation, is the dust of water. It lacks clarity and forges mystery. The mud around water is an imagination, as it were, struggling to free itself. Michelet argues along comparable lines that maternal feelings emanate from mud and slime because that form of water is elemental.11 Viscosity of water links to maternality. This introduction of water marks a critical intervention in Kincaid's texts: water suggests a preoedipal state.

One of the things the happy but fantastically married female child-pair will do in “In the Night” is “put on John Bull masks and frighten defenseless little children on their way home from school.” John Bull masks signify carnival gaiety. Conventionally, the person wearing this masks has horns and a rope tied round him or her and is pulled by another disguised person. Uncle Sam's blood cousin, John Bull also stands for Britain and patriotism, as well as British values, ethnocentrically conceived. Unsure who they are—for in that age how could two women marry?—they appear to mock the insensitive British colonists who rule Antigua.12 The speaker's complacent and rebellious side imaginatively fuse here; with the mask she creatively expropriates the colonists' power.13 By invoking a feminocentric paradigm, she contests male colonial power. Echoing the mother's fervor, the narrator proudly proclaims: “This woman I would like to marry knows many things, but to me she will only tell about things that would never dream of making me cry; and every night, over and over, she will tell me something that begins, ‘Before you were born.’ I will marry a woman like this, and every night, every night, I will be completely happy” (p. 12).

The narrator veils but dialogizes her beliefs: her mask reveals her concealment.14 In the next section the narrator recognizes the connection of her own angst to a pervasive colonial malaise. This section, “Holidays,” takes the form of a letter in which another letter is embedded.

She sits facing the mountains on a visit to her grandmother's house in Dominica. These mountains together with Kincaid's autobiographical writings about Dominica suggest that this is the island in question. The narrator checks herself physically, seeking a basic security that still eludes her: “I sit on the porch facing the mountains. The porch is airy and spacious. I am the only person sitting on the porch. I look at myself. I can see myself. That is, I can see my chest, my abdomen, my legs, and my arms. I cannot see my hair, my ears, my face, or my collarbone. I can feel them, though” (p. 31).15

She tries but she cannot write her name in dead ashes with her big toe; perhaps she does not accept the renaming that accompanied colonialism. When her body is being metaphorically mutilated and she has to write with a toe in the embers of her environment, she cannot identify herself. Ash, in addition, links metonymically to fire and to the sun that denies water. Perhaps even more to the point, in Bachelard's view mud and dust are connected.16 She cannot find who she is or how she functions in this history or any other history. She tries to rectify the situation by attaching her sense of being soiled to a colonial symbol. In this way she can displace the “dirt” it engenders: “I try to clean by rubbing it vigorously on a clean royal-blue rug. The royal-blue rug now has a dark spot, and my big toe has a strong burning sensation” (p. 30). No matter where she turns, colonialism remains; the dark spot—the despoiling of the land and its people—stains the royal-blue colonial map. An antiphoenix, she wants to script her name in the embers of a dead colonial ruling class. She will help define imperial disintegration. Not by coincidence, she then tries to suppress an involuntary matricidal desire that presses in on her, born of a different kind of history and knowledge. Her reaction also suggests her resistance to fighting back: “I remove my hands from resting on my head, because my arms are tired. But also I have just remembered a superstition: if you sit with your hands on your head, you will kill your mother. I have many superstitions. I believe all of them” (p. 31).

But her senses and her memory of indigenous culture retaliate. She remembers (and reinvokes?) obeah practices against the enemy—the so-called mother country that can eventually be destroyed. Affirming her belief in cultural practices coded by westerners as superstitions, she signals decisive opposition to the invaders through her commitment to the land and the people. Nonetheless, the mother's identity remains ambiguous. On the one hand, the narrator could be talking about a physical mother. On the other, Kincaid clearly opens the door to plural readings. This explicit letter—“Holidays”—differs considerably from the inserted letter in “Holidays” that she imagines writing. It comprises an attempt to boost her self-image even as it comments on the division between life and art she has already explored. Is the condition of her life worth memorializing? The answer seems to be yes, because it is not only a personal life but a representative history. Thus it is important to record that life and transform it into art and history. The colonizer's version of events and history must be challenged. This interior letter embryonically foreshadows her revelation at the end.

In reaction to alienation, the speaker cherishes feeling, yet is shaky enough to doubt her right to language: “Oh, sensation. I am filled with sensation. I feel—oh, how I feel, I feel, I feel, I feel. I have no words right now for how I feel. … It is midday. Did I say that? Must I say that? Oh me, oh my” (p. 30). Her doubled letters, exterior and interior, her jumpiness and unsureness are efforts to identify herself—however tentatively—through language. Her claim to speech intersects with a traditional femininity, replete with disclaimers and apologies, that remains an unresolved conflict.

As well as assaulting colonialism obliquely as a corrupt motherland, Jamaica Kincaid also focuses on a central mother-daughter unit that functions at the very least as a politically ambiguous relationship. She does so specifically in a section entitled “Girl,” which opens the volume. In a continuous, one-sentence near-monologue of six hundred and fifty words or so, a mother intones instructions to a daughter about how to act as she grows up in Antigua. Sometimes the directives are domestically oriented, at other times they address sexual behavior: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk barehead in the hot sun … on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming” (p. 3).

By opening At the Bottom of the River, her first text, with a section on a seemingly unproblematized biological mother, Kincaid temporarily suppresses the doubled meaning of mother. Besides, according to her own testimony, she was scarcely aware of the layered political implications.

During this litany, the mother insistently assumes that the daughter will act loosely in the future—certainly not to the mother's satisfaction—suggesting some apprehension about her present behavior. Sexual difference, as the mother perceives it, features critically in how to conduct oneself: “This is how to behave in the presence of men who don't know you very well, and this way they won't recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don't squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; don't pick people's flowers—you might catch something” (pp. 4-5).

Through the word slut the mother presents her daughter's sociosexual and metaphysical reality as she wishes it to be. She spells out what to note, what not to become, and therefore, as later events bear out, what to desire. In psychological terms, the phallus is introduced as a primary signifier of desire, to be rejected at all costs.

This self-reiterating discourse evokes fear or self-disgust or both. The “Girl” of the title is being warned to conform in such a way as to refract what the mother-speaker did or did not do growing up in Dominica. Thus the mother is trying to prevent the daughter from doing things that might well have disrupted her own life. Hence the mother through her daughter both tries to and wants to rewrite her own script. If only through discursive repetition, the daughter is obliquely reminded that “slut” as a cultural taboo marks colonialism. Its overuse—in a quiet reference to the historical sexual abuse of black women—underscores the status of the narrator as a young black woman. The mother's admonitions illumine the critical role that history has played and is playing in everyone's lives.

The narrator responds mildly and rather unprovocatively—perhaps deliberately so. Retrospectively, Kincaid seems to have decoded these responses by the daughter as repressed. The speaker disrupts her mother's commands only twice with the briefest of comments. After her mother tells her, “Don't sing benna [calypsos] in Sunday School; you mustn't speak to wharf-rat [reform school] boys, not even to give directions; don't eat fruits or the street-flies will follow you,” the daughter stoutly replies: “But I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday School.” The mother does not want, it seems, to fracture colonial decorum in Sunday School with manifestations of Antiguan culture. First, the daughter announces her obedience and correct conduct in a clear effort to please her mother. At a conscious level, she agrees to conform—or so it seems. This answer also intimates a sideways refutation of any potential charge of anticolonial opposition or of immorality intimated in “slut” and reaccentuated in the reference to “wharf-rat boys.” A further suggestion is that the daughter knows full well what the mother is talking about. Her intentionally soft answer could be stressing how preposterous she finds these charges or how meticulously she will deny them. The reply is ambiguous.

The daughter's second reply comes after the mother tells her how “to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it's fresh.” She says: “What if the baker won't let me feel the bread?” to which the mother responds: “You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?” (p. 5). The daughter dreads that she cannot live up to the mother's expectations but, as her defensiveness indicates, she still admires her mother's refusal not to be pushed around. The mother derides the very idea that the daughter will be a pushover, obviously expecting the daughter to be strong yet obedient at the same time. She appears oblivious to the complex bind in which she may be positioning the daughter. At another level, too, the mother challenges the daughter to make people expose their wares; otherwise, she commands the daughter, “call them on it.”

Through her bossy directives in “Girl,” the mother attempts to preempt certain prejudices against black Antiguan females as sexually loose. She wants to protect her daughter from obvious pitfalls. (We assume rules are bent or circumstances refashioned in the case of ruling-class white students who kick over sexual traces.) On the other hand, the mother's anxiety may project a desire to prevent her daughter from repeating behavior that the mother had to live down or deny in her past.

Besides, from the mother's standpoint, bringing a daughter up well necessitates such vigilance; her attentiveness indicates lavish maternal caring. She wants to teach her daughter “highly adaptive mechanisms designed to promote physical and mental survival. Without such teaching the mental and physical survival of Black women would be impossible.”17 The daughter herself would feel cherished—rather than dominated—and consequently shies from separation, unconsciously craving a closer, almost symbiotic, preoedipal maternal union. Anna Freud explains the painful fluctuations of adolescent conflict this way:

I take it that it is normal for an adolescent to behave for a considerable length of time in an inconsistent and unpredictable manner; to fight his impulses and to accept them; to ward them off successfully and to be overrun by them; to love his parents and to hate them; to revolt against them and to be dependent on them; … to be more idealistic, artistic, generous and unselfish than he will ever be again, but also the opposite: self-centered, egotistic, calculating. Such fluctuations between extreme opposites would be deemed highly abnormal at any other time of life. At this time they may signify no more than that an adult structure of personality takes a long time to emerge, that the ego of the individual in question does not cease to experiment and is in no hurry to close down on possibilities.18

The ambiguous end of “Girl” stresses the mother's love of decision making and her persistence in trying to determine the daughter's future behavior. The end also applauds self-assertion even though the relentless litany of repetitions delivered from on high tends to crush response: “All geared to enforce the sanctioned behavior of the Caribbean woman-child, domestic and limiting; little here supports the expansion of the self.”19 In affirmation of this point, Jamaica Kincaid in a recent interview explains how she tried to replicate their relationship: “‘Girl’ is my mother's voice exactly over many years. There are two times that I talked in my life as a child, as a powerless person. Now I talk all the time.”20 At the very least, the social and moral commandments render answering back, let alone rebellion, a risk-taking business to the listening, provoked, effectively silenced daughter. At an even deeper level, in a perverse displacement, the mother is encouraging the daughter to live a version of her now hidden past sexual life. She goads her daughter into being on permanent guard, ready for any eventuality:

Don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make donkona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don't like, and that way something bad won't fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn't work there are other ways, and if they don't work don't feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it; and this is how to move quick so that it doesn't fall on you.

(p. 5)

Only by keeping her barriers high can the mother control external behavior. A bottled-up insecurity, even a sense of terror, lurks around the edges of such injunctions. At the same time, the mother reminds the daughter of familiar cultural practices—the injunction about the blackbird, for example, warns against accepting what lies on the surface.21 The blackbird's complexity also inscribes the importance of obeah in everyday life.

On the other hand, the entire section could be the daughter's own internal monologue. What if the daughter is simply imagining this oracular, maternal discourse, extrapolating certain worries expressed by the mother in day-to-day asides? What if the daughter is already aware of temptation but worries about crossing her mother's path? Is she enunciating her own worst fears and using her mother to project anxieties about a perceived “lack”? Perhaps she plots disobedience and has rehearsed this revenge against the mother—a form of compensation or expiation by the daughter. She is allowing her mother to speak her mind, to read the daughter's thoughts and respond. As compensation for “bad thoughts,” she is constructing negative mother-daughter dialogues in which she has to suppress any response.

At any rate, the implied narrator in “Girl” dialogizes many silences on the daughter's part. The mother-daughter relationship appears to be framed principally in terms of maternal-colonial power, mixed with probable rage and frustration in the daughter. A polyphony of messages fuses with conflicting reactions.

Three shorter references supplement the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship and its embedding of colonialism. In them, different evocations of motherhood and resistance erupt. In its mystery and private symbols, for example, the section named “At Last” invokes a mother getting a chance to explain some troubling issues. She does this through a displaced conversation in which territorial and emotional spaces represented by a home and its yard signify speakers. A narrator expresses anger at a pregnant mother for neglecting the eldest child, presumably herself, pouring forth her jealousy in a tale of red ants. (Red ants recur in several later texts.)

The debate between the home and the yard dramatically reenacts the narrator's material and psychic lives. The confining house obliges the narrator to listen and obey a list of her mother's dos and don'ts, reminiscent of the maternal commandments in “Girl.” In this case, home emblematizes a restrictive maternality, life lived as a dominated person. Through the mother, this moody older child who feels jealousy toward new siblings begins to speak that jealousy and her sense of neglect: “We held hands once and were beautiful. But what followed? Sleepless night, oh, sleepless night. A baby was born on Thursday and was almost eaten, eyes first, by red ants, on Friday” (“At Last,” p. 14). In the borderland of the yard, the narrator can cherish secrets and distance herself from circumstances that invalidate her. The yard signals spaciousness and seeming freedom. Her agony at (maternal) separation symbolically reverberates in her anguish about doors “tied so tight shut.” The mother vehemently denies that the doors were even (ever) closed. In two subsequent and related exchanges, the speaker asks morbidly, even ominously, if “what passed between us” was “like a carcass? Did you feed on it … Or was it like a skeleton? Did you live on it?” (p. 15). Emotionally torn apart, she feels eaten alive and dead at the same time. She adds that “eggs boiled violently in that pot” and a coconut fiber mattress “made our skin raw,” pointed allusions not only to poverty but to conceptions and births that plagued her life. Perhaps she hints at efforts to terminate pregnancies.22 Additionally, with respect to political environment, British colonists tried to pick the carcass of Antiguan people clean and reduce a living culture to a skeleton. Eggs boil violently because sex for women can be perilous and birth in such a society is a dangerous engagement.

Second, In “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” the narrator muses scenarios aloud to voice herself into an indeterminate environment, both visionary and material. This meditation on infinite space links to her sense of loneliness, perhaps as compensation for the absent mother, perhaps a sign of the merger of two “mothers.” The nature that surrounds her reminds her of that which never deserts her: “To love the infinite universe is to give a material meaning, an objective meaning, to the infinity of the love for a mother. To love a solitary place, when we are abandoned by everyone, is to compensate for a painful absence; it is a reminder for us of the one who never abandons.”23 Dreams of the past and future merge with the present. Another evocative monkey tale erupts where the monkey (the narrator) avenges itself against its enemy. In its first manifestation, the monkey does nothing, as if lying in wait, living up to its trickster image. In both cases, the narrator is an agent, but the point where the narrator stops and the monkey starts slips out of reach.24 That monkey remains elusive as it does throughout Kincaid's texts, signifying simultaneously the ubiquity of resistance, noncomplicity, and mimicry. “At Last” also parodically reenacts itself as a self-conscious fiction: “In the covert form [of self-awareness], this process [of narcissistic texts] is internalized, actualized; such a text is self-reflective but not necessarily self-conscious.”25 What complicates the metafictional self-reflection is the powerful (and avowed) injection of intentionally refigured autobiographical moments.

A third section entitled “The Letter from Home” features an epistolary monologue, a subtle stylistic variant on “Girl” and “Holidays.” “The Letter from Home” exemplifies Kincaid's preference to articulate concerns through a polyphonic speaker, often in dialogue. Starting softly with milking cows and churning butter, the prose moves rapidly to a greater order of intensity, antinomies, and surreal elements: crashing tree branches, hissing gas, incantatory images of lizards: “My heart beat loudly thud! thud!, tiny beads of water gathered on my nose, my hair went limp, my waist grew folds, I shed my skin; lips have trembled, tears have flowed, cheeks have puffed, stomachs have twisted with pain” (p. 37). Fantasy and realism, nurturance and death lie side by side in an uneasy union. Water appears in an elemental state. Sexual imagery abounds subtly and overtly: “My waist grew folds, I shed my skin.” Once again she claims a sexual and important subjectivity, evoking distinctly anticolonial obeah practices in which priestesses shed skin, a developmental paradigm of sorts. Lizards echo penises, quickly fusing and separating.26 A complex world emotes where identities shift and exchange themselves. Signs of the evolutionary process spell gradual but qualitative changes.

The challenge of the maternal-filial unit that peppers the text culminates in the section “My Mother.” Both eulogy and matricidal desire, “My Mother” movingly recasts preoedipal bliss. The narrator opens with a near death-wish fantasy as she confesses the depth of her love: “Immediately on wishing my mother dead and seeing the pain it caused her, I was sorry and cried so many tears that all the earth around me was drenched. Standing before my mother, I begged her forgiveness, and I begged so earnestly that she took pity on me, kissing my face and placing my head on her bosom to rest. Placing her arms around me, she drew my head closer and closer to her bosom, until finally I suffocated. I lay on her bosom, breathless, for a time uncountable, until one day, for a reason she has kept to herself, she shook me out and stood me under a tree and I started to breathe again” (p. 53). She wants to control her mother and annihilate herself. In common teenage fashion, she wishes her mother dead and simultaneously longs for her love. She projects the perceived threat of maternal withdrawal as a threat to the mother herself at her own guilty hands.27 She also represents the trickster monkey again in a different form. Images of suffocation and death signify certain damning realizations: Her excess denies room for growth, and even love is corrupted as a consequence. But after she interjects duplicity to signify distance, resentment wins out. Water symbolizes negation: “Between my mother and me now were the tears I had cried, and I gathered up some stones and banked them in so that they formed a small pond. The water in the pond was thick and black and poisonous, so that only unnameable invertebrates could live in it. My mother and I now watched each other carefully, always making sure to shower the other with words and deeds of love and affection” (p. 54). Slimy worms characterize the texture of their relationship that has literally sunk very low, into the wind. Water is now stagnant. Only mud (not a vibrant connection with and to the imagination) resides in the depths. This meditation continues with several lush fantasies that oscillate between the registers of love and hate. In one surreal cross-cultural episode that invokes an ancient Hindu myth, mother and daughter mesmerize each other and turn themselves into lizards: “Silently, she had instructed me to follow her example, and now I too traveled along on my white underbelly, my tongue darting and flickering in the hot air” (p. 55).28 In a second vision, a grazing lamb—the innocent lamb symbolizing British imperialism?—inspires insight or self-revelation in the speaker: “The lamb is cross and miserable. So would I be, too, if I had to live [like colonizers?] in a climate not suited to my nature” (p. 57). After this, she digs an immense hole over which she constructs a beautiful house, a fatal trap for her mother to fall through. Instead the mother walks on water and easily evades death. The mother confounds boundaries just as colonizers survive in the face of hatred. The episode epitomizes childhood and colonizer, a continuum that encompasses peoples and their bipolar reactions. It also amounts to a death wish. But water acts atypically; its fluidity becomes a site of safety.29

These matricidal, anticolonial desires are indivisible from the protagonist's burning hatred—“I glowed and glowed again, red with anger” (p. 59). They also intimate emotional antipathy too—some kind of unfathomable, unfaceable sadness. At the biological level, the gap between hatred and sadness, however, underscores the intensity of the narrator's devotion, hinting at a dimension of insecurity. After powerful rejection, the narrator inevitably starts a self-barricading process to preserve personal intactness. In that sense, At the Bottom of the River explains conflicts faced by Kincaid's later, often similarly profiled narrators. Perhaps Kincaid's own personal agony erupts here. She has talked more than once about the differential treatment her biological parents gave her brothers almost from birth. As an only child for so long, Jamaica Kincaid expected that same undiluted level of affection and attention to continue. Her sense of emptiness as a child who emotionally feels neglected growing up fills in many fictive textual silences. At the same time the paradigm might be attached to the uphill struggle indigenous people wage against insensitive foreign forces.

At the end of “My Mother,” as the protagonist approaches the jetty where she will leave her natal home for Britain, she rapidly becomes saturated in preoedipallike longing, her ego no longer concerned with its own intactness: “What peace came over me then, for I could not see where she left off and I began, or where I left off and she began. … As we walk through the rooms, we merge and separate, merge and separate; soon we shall enter the final stage of our evolution” (p. 60).30 But no sooner has this fantasy begun than it explodes and flashes warning signals; it becomes a fairy tale that part of her craves to preserve, but its idyllic features are also corrupted by ominous signs: agitated motion and a lamb that emblematize a contaminating British colonialism and an imposed Christianity. It is as if the narrator tries to imagine a state of permanent harmony in which hostility insistently intervenes: “My mother and I live in a bower made from flowers whose petals are imperishable. There is the silvery blue of the sea, crisscrossed with sharp darts of light, there is the warm rain falling on the clumps of castor bush, there is the small lamb bounding across the pasture, there is the soft ground welcoming the soles of my pink feet. It is in this way my mother and I have lived for a long time now” (p. 61). This joyful vision of the sea echoes the world of Mrs. Do As You Would Be Done By in The Water-Babies. Blue invokes transparency, the meshing of boundaries, a diaphanous veil. Next to white, blue is the color of the immateriality that the narrator seems to long for. But it represents only a vision, nothing more, and the proleptic presence of the usually beatific lamb, as well as sharp “darts,” unexpected interventions, mark a rank uncertainty lurking beneath.

The accumulation of injuries that the narrator experiences in “Girl” and “My Mother” culminate in a meditation entitled “Blackness,” about a foreboding yet comforting set of sensations that rehearse her inner and outer confusion. Symbolic blackness recalls the soot of Grimes's corruption that drenches vulnerable Tom. The two mothers coalesce in a brilliant fusion: “The blackness fills up a small room, a large field, an island, my own being. The blackness cannot bring me joy but often I am glad in it. The blackness cannot be separated from me but often I can stand outside it” (p. 46).

Coping with overwhelming emotion induces disintegration. First of all, the narrator lives with a mother—at one level biological—whom she hates and adores; the mother engenders the narrator's defiant, single-handed struggles at school against indoctrination. This mother is also the motherland. She represents (is) British postcolonial authority, an unmothering mother, one who does not nurture. The narrator is experiencing dislocation as if she were saying, “I can no longer say my own name. I can no longer point to myself and say ‘I.’” “Blackness” involves linguistic alienation, feelings of loss and censorship that threaten to annihilate her: “First, then, I have been my individual self, carefully banishing randomness from my existence, then I am swallowed up in the blackness so that I am one with it” (p. 47). Trapped in signification that does not offer validation, she feels beaten down, dissolved almost. This feeling of impending erasure recapitulates an incident from “Holidays” that identifies a similar sense of disappearance: “How frightened I became once on looking down to see an oddly shaped, ash-colored object that I did not recognize at once to be a small part of my own foot” (“Blackness,” p. 47). Now she has lost her voice in public, barely holding on to that hovering space in language where the prediscursive registers, where there are no borders constructed by the West to contain people. The narrator resorts—but only just—to semiotic babble.31 Rhythmic harmonies and onomatopoetic reverberations pulsate in harmony. The narrator ponders her existence, rejoices in her power when she finds “I was not at one with myself and I felt myself separate.” Immediately after she cuts into that private exultation by describing herself as a “brittle substance dashed and shattered, each separate part without knowledge of the other separate parts” (p. 48). Seesawing between numbness and vital awareness, between familiarity and strangeness affirms isolation but induces a sense of diverse vantage points that she can occupy simultaneously. The ensuing vision signals colonial devastation, the visionary narrator representing colonized people: “I dreamed of bands of men who walked aimlessly, their guns and cannons slackened at their sides, the chambers emptied of bullets and shells. They had fought in a field from time to time and from time to time they grew tired of it. They walked up the path that led to my house and as they walked they passed between the sun and the earth; as they passed between the sun and the earth they blotted out the daylight and night fell immediately and permanently. No longer could I see the blooming trefoils, their overpowering perfume a constant giddy delight to me” (pp. 48-49). The inner silence that immerses the narrator also protects her against hideous, frequent nightmares. Such an interiority offers something resembling a precolonial harmony—in Africa, say—where “the pastures are unfenced, the lions roam the continents, the continents are not separated” (p. 52).32 The speaker's subjectivity is continually in flux. Although she calls it peace, this felt integrity is also a fragile edifice she has constructed in order to hold mental wolves at bay. Her vision of a wholesome erasure is also a self-obliteration: “Living in the silent voice, I am at last at peace. Living in the silent voice, I am at last erased” (p. 52).

In the end, where a mother describes a daughter, we review the familiar situation of “Girl” from an alternate site. By now this daughter acts catatonic, out of reach. The mother's discourse recalls Tom from The Water-Babies who is made transparent “when passing through a small beam of light” (p. 49). “She sees the child's cruelties—[she is, the mother says] pitiless to the hunchback boy.” On a more endorsing note, the mother also understands that the child is enamored of “ancestral history” (p. 51).

This maternal narrator, then, pictures herself plurally to one who cannot decode it. It is as if the original daughterly narrator of “Girl” voices her mother into a more high-profiled existence to keep things fair, to give her mother a chance to tell “her side of the story.” But unlike the mother in “Girl,” she cannot pronounce judgment. Instead, she is sad for the daughter's seeming loss—or what would seem a loss—of the mother. She can only try to surmise what happened and fit the daughter's actions within a framework she can comprehend: “Having observed the many differing physical existences feed on each other, she is beyond despair or the spiritual vacuum. … My child rushes from death to death, so familiar a state is it to her” (p. 51).

On the other hand, at the end of the mother's musings, the narrator validates the mother's influence, almost as if the narrator were willing the mother to think positively: “Though I have summoned her into a fleeting existence, one that is perilous and subject to the violence of chance, she embraces time as it passes in numbing sameness, bearing in its wake a multitude of great sadness” (p. 51).

The last section, which bears the title of the volume, “At the Bottom of the River,” conjures up a dream world. The narrator shares a vision of perilous terrain where power and antinomy are the order of the day. This metaphysical beauty has little or no meaning outside of human contact: “The stream … awaits the eye, the hand, the foot that shall then give all this a meaning” (p. 63). Once again, water will heal, will provide clarity, will function as a catalyst. The fluidity and motion of water underscore the elusiveness of identity that has beleaguered the narrator. She is at one with the ocean, where boundaries dissolve. Anton Ehrenzweig comments as follows, discussing the separation of self and other: “The London psycho-analysts, D. E. Winnicott and Marion Milner, have stressed the importance for a creative ego to be able to suspend the boundaries between self and not-self in order to become more at home in the world of reality where the objects and self are clearly held apart. The ego rhythm of differentiation and dedifferentiation constantly swings between these two poles and between the inside and outside worlds. So also does the spectator, now focusing on single gestalt patterns, now blotting out all conscious awareness.”33

Fluidity also suggests that those committed to unitary thinking—a hallmark of colonizers—those for whom linearity and Western logic are guideposts to life, are incomplete by definition; they cannot fill in or articulate the primal scene. The narrator describes such an individual: “He cannot conceive of the union of opposites, or, for that matter, their very existence. He cannot conceive of flocks of birds in migratory flight, or that night will follow day and season follow season in a seemingly endless cycle, and the beauty and the pleasure and the purpose that might come from all this” (p. 63). A sense of fusion, even harmony that the narrator slid or escaped into and out of in “Blackness,” “At Last,” “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” and now “At the Bottom of the River” is unavailable to such a being. “At the Bottom of the River” asserts that a focus on identity implies “neither the ontologically given and eternally determined stability of that identity, nor its uniqueness, its utterly irreducible character, its privileged status as something total and complete in and of itself.”34 This individual is an incomplete man who lives with undeveloped senses in a denatured world; he is spiritually dead in his interiority and contradictions; he “sits in nothing, this man” (p. 64).

To illuminate the amplitude of this fantasy, the narrator emphasizes those who cannot participate in the vision, those who cannot “see.” The couple in question closely resembles the parents whom Kincaid discusses in interviews and characters who are like those parents fleshed out in later texts. Much is made of the carpenter (Kincaid's stepfather was a carpenter) who measures and sizes up the world. This man sees beauty and is sometimes joyful before he fells the oak and kills the cow. His narrow perspective fences him in.35 Uncomprehending of a wider, all-embracing, nonbinary world, he “feels the futility … [and] a silence stretching out … its length and breadth and depth immeasurable. Nothing” (p. 68).

Functioning as a Cartesian cogito, this man surveys “a … last nail driven in just so.” Anything he cannot pin down is outside his universe. His senses may be technically alive but that hardly matters for he is too absorbed in disintegration: “Tomorrow the oak will be felled, the trestle will break, the cow's hooves will be made into glue.” He appreciates beauty but finds engagement ultimately impossible: “crossing and recrossing the threshold” between uncertainty and precision (p. 68).

The narrator has learned to reject rigid taxonomies and exacting litanies. But coming to this determination—rejecting “measurement,” the totality of a certain weltanschauung—has not been easy: “How vainly I struggle against all this” (p. 68). At times, life not death intrudes on these meditations on mortality. Her mother's catechism of dos and don'ts in “Girl” cuts off the chance of response. Like the carpenter, the mother sizes things up and tries to be a God of sorts, leaving the narrator without power over these outside acts and utterances.

Having withdrawn from this world of measurement and betrayal, the speaker negotiates herself toward a new position where she can function more freely as a subject. The in-dwelling becomes trancelike and opens up into space. She begins to see through to the bottom of the river, to a primal condition in the world. The narrator longs to perpetuate that moment of clarity, that condition of original harmony. Water imagery suggests transition, too, in its evocation of simple youthful pleasures.

Thus Kincaid implies longing and unsureness in diverse ways. Her structure also affirms the indeterminacy implied in the poetics. It underlines her refusal to affix an “essential” meaning and offer comforting certainties. Repetitions, dreamlike and surreal sequences, trances, free association, fragments even, dominate the brief sections. Seeming nonsequiturs, ambiguities, doubled meanings, allusions, occasional typographic blanks and spaces add to the ethos of indeterminacy. Magic-realist yokings coupled with water imagery propel the protagonist toward writing. Delving the depths dredges up the narrator's unconscious, how she should and can create.

Here the narrator rejects all forms of truth and beauty, conventionally and Eurocentrically understood. She discerns multiplicity in all things. Hence how things are said to be is nothing more than that: one person's excluding discourse. In this plural world, “false are all appearances” (p. 69). She has learned that she must keep engaging in wholeness: for ontological preservation, she must eschew the disloyal, orthodox world that betrays those who seek peace and union. She tells of a creature like herself who was stung by a honeybee that she chased. The ecstatic pain and power of that sting symbolize her quest. That language of quest could also be a hearkening to and a search not only for her own voice and body but those of her mother too. The quest could be “an attempt to locate that ‘internal,’ the space of women's being, before it is filled with dread.”36 This creature has begun to know pain and pleasure and its affect in equal measure; it lives inside and outside itself and when it vanishes it leaves a glow. The narrator hints at self-reversibility. She can be inside and outside at once. The honeybee is also the site of creative association and play. Somewhat like an Indian runner, the narrator wants (and wants to be) this mystical experience.37

In this translike state, the speaker comes to know that union is the sine qua non of joy.38 The bird who tries to kill the lowly worm is killed by the boy who can be protean if he chooses. If the worm resembles a form of human consciousness, then all that attack its integrity are in danger. Only those who let well alone, who live and let live and embrace diversity, dwell as whole beings in any space.

The narrator's disquisition ends with a radiant spectacle at the bottom of the river where the grass is a green “from which all other greens might come” (p. 76), where neither day nor night exists. There is a mystical sense that this “nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”39 This nigh-on perfect world is “not yet divided, not yet examined, not yet numbered, and not yet dead. I looked at this world as it revealed itself to me—how new, how new—and I longed to go there” (p. 78).

But this paradisiacal place also intersects ineluctably with a physical plane where the narrator discerns her own physicality while mystically glancing at herself. The vision becomes even more expansive and inclusive. Standing above land and sea, the narrator stoops down and touches the deepest bottom, an elemental place where life begins. This scene suggests a synthesis of the scientific transcendental arenas of the text. The battery of images around evolution, insects, vertebrates, and even the fusion and interchangeability of tenses culminate in this epiphanic moment. And sure enough, material thoughts continue to intervene, paralleling, partly dissolving these lucidly transcendent experiences. She thinks of the “smell of vanilla from the kitchen.” Nonetheless, though appetite, smell, sight, and sound merge in a kinaesthetic union, her thoughts are temporarily still suspended, as it were, “conscious of nothing—not happiness, not contentment, and not the memory of night, which soon would come” (p. 80). She is “stripped away.” This pared-down state might be something that can be articulated and conceived,—but it is still a condition not materially attainable; neither a recognizable human presence outside the imagination nor an inner sense of the world. At the moment of that insight, when that apparition realizes itself, the “awakening” assumes a physical form. Her withdrawal from the world of a measuring father-colonizer and a family-tending mother is complete—because through her exploration she has gradually staked a new position where she can comfortably stand. She ends by claiming a public voice, having constituted the conditions for doing so.

The “I” recognizes writing implements that connect her to “human endeavor” and empower her reentry into the world.40 She locates herself on the continuum of all living and lighted things that have existed and continue to exist: “The lamp is lit. In the light of the lamp, I see some books, I see a chair, I see a table, I see a pen; I see a bowl of ripe fruit, a bottle of milk, a flute made of wood, the clothes that I will wear. And as I see these things in the light of the lamp, all perishable and transient, how bound up I know I am to all that is human endeavor, to all that is past and to all that shall be, to all that shall be lost and leave no trace. I claim these things then—mine—and now feel myself grow solid and complete” (p. 82). At that climactic moment when she apprehends the possibility of infinity, the “I” sounds herself (itself) into beauty, into the void, and into the world. The child-becoming narrator returns to one original source—mother's milk. She wants to write in white ink, with the pen and the milk, to recover that sense of union.41 Put another way, the narrator simultaneously connects with art and life, embracing this newfound being, however partially. At this point she speaks and speaks tellingly: “My name [fills] up my mouth.”

The variant meditations, each an entity in its own right, end with an identity claim, not as a resolution but as one way of vocalizing a vision, of culling fragments from a collective past. Jamaica Kincaid does not favor or intend any firm closure. To impose a synthesis is to be a carpenter, one who measures things and identifies a fixed, unmediated meaning. Nonetheless, the speaker does experience a revelation that propels her on a journey toward writing, toward articulation. She experiences a vocation of sorts through mystical means.

On the other hand, the epiphanic final section marks the entry of the narrator into art, into a world in which she senses she can function. She realizes that she cannot live without division. Dredging herself into externality and out of her interior, she emerges from the chrysalis that alone will complete the thorax. Out of this decision to individuate, art and a butterfly emerge. The possibility of drowning transforms into rebirth. Contradictions merge. Undertaking a quest—metonymic for coping with loss—she shapes a beginning where she can enter the symbolic order through cultural production. She has excavated the tools that will enable her to take a stand. Symbolizing the depths of the unconscious, the bottom of the ocean creatively baptises her into life and anticolonial opposition. Thus “At the Bottom of the River” investigates the making of an artist-activist and a myth. It traces the gradual discovery of conditions out of which writing can evolve and be put to political use. Conditions of colonialism create artists who battle that institution. A portrait of the artist emerges as an adolescent female whose repressed desires assume a healthier, counterhegemonic form of expression. With the lamp, the light, and a room of her own, the narrator marks her entry into discourse. The narrator refuses but also has to use the father's text to claim identity. Entry into language and art constitutes an original and striking victory over diverse mothers, “the (in)security of a childhood always begun anew.”42 Art and transcendent political vision supersede postcolonial contamination.

Each section of At the Bottom of the River is a discrete narrative about a child growing up in a world where psychological, physical, and political dominations seem the order of the day. Little escape exists outside the imagination. Collectively assembled yet chronologically unconnected, each section loosely features recurring thematic elements, many of them overlapping: a state of mind at a given time (“Holidays”); an apprehension of something that is massively compressed (“Girl”); plural versions of the same experience (“What I Have Been Doing Lately”); a sense of ontological abyss (“Blackness”); desire and imagining (“My Mother”); vignettes of school and peers that disclose jealousy, fear, and despair (“Wingless”); an attempt to normalize experience while maintaining great distance through a deliberate surface account (“The Letter from Home”); a playing-out of oppositions between an inner and outer world, a mother-self dyad (“At Last”); self-reconciliation, self-knowledge, and an entry into light (“At the Bottom of the River”).

Operating within an economy of loss (of the mother, of primal love), the narrator embarks on a reconstitution of her world; she constructs more fluid boundaries. On the one hand, she articulates a world of beauty and preoedipal bonding where image and sweet sensation rule; throughout the ten sections, she probes how “the onset of puberty creates the essential dialectic of adolescence—new possibilities and new dangers” (p. 6). The individuation process that involves alternating cycles of rejecting the mother and longing for harmony unfolds in a painful way, chronologically disjointed, its form fragmented. The discontinuous parts of this process match the narrator's psychic fragmentation. Such discrete articulations oppose the linearity of traditional Western modes of narrative. Through metonym and memory, she calls up her prememory life. Craving both distance and intimacy, she lives in intense self-absorption, experiencing turmoil and a plummeting self-worth as she senses public and private rejection. Periodically she attempts to empower herself. In the river apparition, she claims herself, according to her own satisfaction. She envisions an adult life where she can be a recorder of community life.

Sexual difference plays a vital part in the formation of the narrator's identity. In this multiplicity and fluidity that is sometimes associated with the female body, textuality suggests or is, in part, corporeality.43 A female unconscious voices itself through mobile representations of the body, through the thorax that briefly fascinates the narrator in “Holidays.” What is a headless body? What produces it and how does objectification effect it? Does it symbolize a sense of objectification, of erasure? A father obsessed with exact measurement (the symbolic order, the law of the father) contrasts with a woman-child focused on absence and incompletion in a prediscursive order. The child lives in a world of feeling without shadow, a womb-enclosed state. She is forced to abandon “an attempt to locate that ‘interval’; the space of women's language before it is filled with dread.”44

Beyond that, “At the Bottom of the River” subtly challenges the mechanical separation often imbricated in gender (not biological) difference and female roles; such differentiation lies within the realm of the carpenter. In contrast to his fixed perspective, this protagonist swims into light and creativity, toward the lamp and the pen. In a sense, she transforms and transcends the girl in the opening section who is no longer the repressed term of an equation involving the domestic or the colonial family. Now she flouts the expected role of women in Antiguan society, an ideology that reduces females to ciphers. “At the Bottom of the River,” then, is a series of negotiations through which the speaker navigates through and out of preoedipal, prelinguistic, unmediated love into a functioning life within the symbolic order that will facilitate a counterhegemonic position.

Jamaica Kincaid stated recently that having small children did not allow for the absolute immersion in meditations on unindividuated unity out of which At the Bottom emerges. Perhaps one thing she was referring to was a certain indecipherability that marks this book. An already acclaimed journalist, Kincaid recapitulates the traumas of childhood and adolescence as a female growing up in a poverty-stricken, now post-colonial island where her mother—read multiply—dominated her life. Within the insistent probing of this mother-daughter unit, the factors of poverty and imperial expropriation constantly affect the speaker's maturation. Others also loom large as she uneasily reckons with a number of questions: Who she was then, in the light of the person she has become and the persona she has created who facilitates this reconstruction. Can this “I” ever be fixed since it (she) seems to be dispersed everywhere without a “care.”

How this apparently discontinuous narrative tells itself, offering different versions of the same event, hopping around, fusing fantasy and dreams with harsh material realities, is symptomatic of what the text tells. The occult, the esoteric, the regressive signify a center that is not holding.45 The format of loosely connected segments introduces the idea of the arbitrariness of narrative and the complexity of colonial life. The reader is always aware of other options necessarily suppressed, choices temporarily vetoed. The symbolic order denies the “girl” a free place, so she ruptures it with the semiotic. Figuring deep-dyed poverty, night-soil men witness the phantasmagoric sight of a skinless woman who will drink her enemies' blood in secret and of Mr. Gishard, dead and reappearing. The night-soil men quietly come to pick up people's excrement because no sewage system exists—that is one thing—and the dead Mr. Gishard appears—that is another. Both are substantive, both important. Respectively they signal colonialism and its opposition in people's culture. Thus the narrator lives coincident existences in different spaces, mentally, physically, politically. The formation and claiming of identity that constitute At the Bottom of the River are born of now-irrecoverable conditions and origins. However inchoately, the imagination of the girl empowers her to see through and beyond to what might happen and to recuperate what has been submerged.46

To add an additional layering to the narrator's textural life, Jamaica Kincaid stated in an early interview that Bruno Schulz's surrealism and Nadine Gordimer's suggestive tale of South African racism, “A Lion on the Freeway,” influenced her writing at this time.47 Their texts enhanced her apprehension of a universe she wanted to convey. But Kincaid puts her own personal stamp on these apprehensions. She blends obeah with dreams, introduces trancelike states, intertextualizes, and reinterprets fantasy.48 She endows her narrator with a rich interiority. Wearing one face in public, another at home, the speaker is so terrified of being dissolved that she lets fear engorge her. But in her imagination, the narrator can be anywhere and do anything. By suggesting who and how she is becoming, she traces herself as a subject-in-process negotiating that central mother-daughter twosome. The narrator understands the world through obeah, through dreams, trance, and an acceptance of the fantastic that coexist side by side in Kincaid's unique version of magic realism. She combines this with an understanding of socially constructed mores and cause-effect relationships encapsulated in the linear thinking of the carpenter. This fusion of physical and metaphysical worlds, of personal and (post) colonial identities, characterizes Jamaica Kincaid's special vision.

In future writing, Jamaica Kincaid will introduce textual self-resonance, but at this point the reader cannot know that these experiences, this sensibility, and the crucial strategy of naming will continue in later texts. At a metafictional level, Kincaid invites the reader to ponder the separation between life and art and their interaction, how the narrator's everyday musings, her unsureness, constitute artistic expression.

Even within the texts themselves, some kind of narratival mirroring process operates. The speaker in one section seems to echo others: Some incidents and motifs reoccur. In “Blackness,” the ill child hearkens back to the one whose mother instructs her. The reader is invited to consider possible ambiguities. Are these narrators the same or different? If they are the same, what does that signify? What multiple positions, both imagined and material, are possible? How do imagined ones get played out? Obeah then becomes critical because the text insists that all enactments be treated on the same plane of seriousness. Part child, part adolescent, the narrator comes to terms with a world that fuses fantasy, Eurocentric conceptions of the world, and day-to-day events.49 She accepts these factors and considerations as separate and equally privileged modes of knowing.

Inextricably linked to the mother-daughter separation, colonialism insistently inflects the text. Coupled with the complicating of female experience, that imperial presence suggests its pervasive, quotidian intersection with gender relations. Only language and memory can conjure up the mother-daughter split. That is to say, although the lost biological mother is a major trope, at a different symbolic level outside womb and home, the lost mother also represents precolonial roots before the advent of a vicious surrogate colonial mother. Seemingly a solitary individual, the narrator emblematizes the colonized and joins herself globally to a school of oppositional thinking. Implicitly, Kincaid suggests that alternate explanations always exist. Thus the mystery and indeterminacy of the text further affirm the absurdity of linearity and fixed meaning. At the same time, Kincaid always insists that magic events do not altogether function with different laws but rather “weave a miraculous occurrence into a rigorously everyday reality.”50 In that sense, At the Bottom of the River is counterintuitive, a reverse articulation that deals with disputed epistemologies. Jamaica Kincaid denies complexity of meaning and unfixedness now; whether to believe that scenario of rescripted simplicity is another question. Neither its magical nor its factual elements deny the historicity of the text. Time constitutes a network of convergencies of time past, present, and imminent. From the start, the family to which Jamaica Kincaid constantly refers to is also the macrocolonized Antiguan family, the island population before 1967 and any form of independence. In that sense, all references to a mother allusively resonate with colonial as well as maternal signs.

Put another way, the variant narrators of At the Bottom speak internally and externally, exemplifying a personal marginality and an abiding sense of alienation that in the last section slides into epiphany. Nothing conforms to an everyday conception of time or space; the surreal world mingles interchangeably and equally with the world of material reality. Water suggests quotidian and historical fluidity, the constant transformation of events and experiences always in process. And precisely that easy fusion of fantasy, memory, and everyday life creates coherence. Thus a fluid investigative perspective alternates with intimations of postcolonial life and affirms a national cultural heritage. The plural narrator does not accept any demarcation between given fact and an intuited sense of her world. Claiming the rights of an omniscient storyteller, the speaker transforms (transcends) herself and her inner imaginings. Neither author, Elaine Potter Richardson, born in Antigua, nor the narrator who chronicles the events, nor the protagonist living and reliving certain experiences can live distinctly. The narrator reinstates local and personal history as global.

These overlapping speakers create a chorus of voices that sound throughout. Because memory is a primary textual cohesion and because the refraction of that memory is splintered, nothing is fixed, everything is in flux, even the motion toward the lamp and the pen at the end.

In her next text, Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid changes pace but retains some constants nonetheless. From a mystical probing of growing up, constructed as a set of fragmented though allied experiences, she moves to a less densely textured chronicle although the representation of living as a (divisive) diverse set of experiences remains.


  1. Perry, “Interview” with Jamaica Kincaid,” pp. 698-99. The setting of At the Bottom of the River is the island of Antigua, where Jamaica Kincaid was born, a geographical and physical reality that constantly serves as contextual backdrop.

  2. Kingsley, The Water-Babies, especially pp. 3-31.

  3. Bachelard, Water and Dreams, pp. 11, 194.

  4. Kingsley, The Water-Babies, p. 10.

  5. Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place, p. 29. See the Garis interview, “Through West Indian Eyes.” For West Indian commentary, see, for example, Morris and Dunn, “‘The Bloodstream of Our Inheritance.’”

  6. Said, “Figures, Configurations, Transfigurations,” p. 6. See also Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, The Empire Strikes Back, pp. 152-54.

  7. I thank Robert Haller for a valuable discussion of this and other hymns and scriptural points. Jamaica Kincaid notes also that each morning, as a schoolgirl, she began classes with “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (New Yorker, October 14, 1977, p. 27). She has also recently stated that it was the first hymn in her Methodist children's hymnal (ibid., March 29, 1993, p. 51). For information about the author of “All Things,” Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander, see Moffatt and Patrick, Handbook to the Church Hymnary with Supplement, especially pp. 9, 249-50. For allied information, see Routley, An English-Speaking Hymnal Guide. See also North, The Psalms and Hymns of Protestantism, pp. 3-12, and Reuel K. Wilson, “The Letters of Bruno Schulz, Jerzy Stempowski, and Especially Julian Tuwim,” p. 246.

  8. Robert Evans Snodgrass, The Thorax of Insects and the Articulation of the Wings, pp. 511-83; see also Snodgrass, A Contribution toward an Encyclopedia of Insect Anatomy, in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 146, no. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, July 12, 1963): 29-31; and Insect Ultrastructure, ed. Robert C. King and Hiromu Akai (New York and London: Plenum Press, 1984), pp. 35, 117, 492.

  9. Dutton, “Merge and Separate,” p. 409. See also “An Interview with Bruno Schulz,” pp. 145-47.

  10. Dutton, “Merge and Separate,” p. 409.

  11. Bachelard, Water and Dreams, pp. 109, 110.

  12. The history of British rule in Antigua is a history of corruption. The neglect of the island can be seen to this day in the irregular and dangerous pavements and lack of lighting in the streets at night. There is still no adequate sewage system, another legacy from British colonial times, when there was none at all. See The Revitalization of Downtown Saint John's, Antigua and Barbuda. For John Bull and its association with English values, see Arbuthnot, The History of John Bull.

  13. Castle, Masquerade and Civilization.

  14. Cudjoe, “Interview with Jamaica Kincaid,” pp. 396-411.

  15. Hints of obeah emerge here. The author speaks of it in her “Antigua Crossings,” p. 48. See also Ismond, “Jamaica Kincaid,” pp. 336-41. See also Dutton, “Merge and Separate.” Ramchand's view of the orality of this passage is riveting in his The West Indian Novel and Its Background, p. 110.

  16. Bachelard, Water and Dreams, p. 109.

  17. Joseph, “Black Mothers and Daughters: Traditional and New Perspectives,” p. 99. There are several important analyses and commentaries on mother-daughter relationships that have a bearing here. Among them are Murdoch, “Severing the (M)other Connection,” pp. 328-29; Daughters of the Nightmare, a report “compiled from a number of recent sources,” pp. 7-9; Davies, “Mothering and Healing in Recent Black Women's Fiction,” p. 43; and Giddings, When and Where I Enter, pp. 47-55. For the view that females are more bonded to their mothers and hence would resent separation more than males, see Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering.

  18. Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, pp. 43-53, 101-5. See also Joseph, “Black Mothers and Daughters: Their Roles and Functions in American Society,” pp. 75-126.

  19. See Davies and Fido, Out of the Kumbla, p. 4. Additionally, for a rich probing of At the Bottom of the River in general, see Davies, “Writing Home,” especially pp. 64-68.

  20. Ferguson, “Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.”

  21. Note, too, how Bachelard associates blackbirds with water (Water and Dreams, p. 193).

  22. In Lucy, the veiled suggestion of attempted abortion(s) is explicitly made: “She was pregnant with the last of her children. She did not want to be pregnant and three times had tried to throw away the child, but all her methods had failed and she remained pregnant” (p. 151).

  23. Bachelard, Water and Dreams, p. 116.

  24. The role that the monkey plays in Caribbean culture as a trickster is important here. I thank Robert Antoni for a conversation on this point. For the monkey as trickster and related issues, see Abrahams, The Man-of-Words in the West Indies, pp. 153 ff. and 178 ff. See also Dance, Folklore from Contemporary Jamaicans, pp. xix-xxv, 11-12, 16-17, and 23-26. As racist tropes for Africans, monkeys always have an identity in flux. In eighteenth-century England, monkeys appear in texts emblematic of foreigners. In 1713, moreover, among countless examples, Sir Richard Blackmore spoke of the great chain of being as follows: “So the Ape or Monkey, that bears the greatest Similitude to Man, is the next Order of Animals below him. Nor is the Disagreement between the basest Individuals of our Species and the Ape or Monkey so great, but that were the latter endowed with the Faculty of Speech, they might perhaps as justly claim the Rank and Dignity of the human Race, as the Savage Hottentot, or stupid Native of Nova Zembla.

    Jordan goes on to argue: “It is apparent, however unpalatable the apparency may be, that certain superficial physical characteristics in the West African Negro helped sustain (and perhaps helped initiate) the popular connection with the ape. By the latter part of the century, Bryan Edwards, a thoroughly good-hearted man, thought it necessary to discuss the apparent resemblance in the Ibo tribe” (White over Black, p. 237).

  25. Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative, p. 7.

  26. For a discussion of lizards and imagery, see Pope, The Reptile World, pp. 235-321. This fantasy finds resonances in Caribbean mythology. It intersects with the dream of couvade, the subject of a story by Wilson Harris in which the purpose of the dream and its invocation of lizards is to pass on history and legacy to newborn children. See Harris, The Sleepers of Roraima. For further information about reptilian qualities in mothers, see Cartey Whispers from the Caribbean, p. 16.

  27. LaPlanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, pp. 349-57.

  28. See Ismond, “Jamaica Kincaid,” p. 341.

  29. In this episode, different pieces of Hindu mythology and other unique imaginings play themselves out. How the mother acts is very different from traditional practices of maternal suicide. See Sahi, The Child and the Serpent, pp. 153-56. See also Bailey, The Mythology of Brahma, p. 115. For the shedding of the epidermis, see “An Interview with Bruno Schulz,” p. 146; see also Holland, Popular Hinduism and Hindu Mythology and Kinsley, Hinduism, especially pp. 82-91.

  30. For this issue of merge and separate in Caribbean texts, see Ramchand, The West Indian Novel and Its Background, p. 109.

  31. See Minh-Ha, When the Moon Waxes Red, p. 14; Jacobus, “The Difference of View,” p. 51. See also Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, pp. 102-3.

  32. A haunting echo exists here of Nadine Gordimer, “A Lion on the Freeway,” a story that Kincaid found influential. See Cudjoe, “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid,” p. 403. By implication, Jamaica Kincaid intertextualizes an attack on racism here through oblique reference to the antiapartheid stand in that story. See her A Soldier's Embrace, pp. 24-27. For a riveting postmodern interpretation of “Blackness” and “Wingless,” see Covi, “Jamaica Kincaid and the Resistance to the Canons,” p. 348.

  33. Ehrenzweig, The Order of Art, p. 121.

  34. Said, “Figures, Configurations, Transformations,” p. 13. For a view of the last chapter as a “vision of androgynous existence,” see Gilkes, “The Madonna Pool,” p. 13.

  35. An allusion reverberates here to Jesus' stepfather, Joseph, who was apparently a just but passive man. At the same time, Kincaid may be subtly indicting the fixity of Christianity. For measuring, see the New Yorker, January 3, 1983, pp. 23-24. For an expansion of the stepfather's opinions, see the New Yorker, July 19, 1976, p. 23. Given Jamaica Kincaid's statements about autobiography, we know that during the experiences of the speaker in At the Bottom of the River, Jamaica Kincaid's mother, Annie Richardson Potter, parted from her father, Roderick Potter, and she and David Drew began their relationship. In At the Bottom, however, she speaks of the father as if he were her own father. Even so, she probably knew how her own father, Roderick Potter, was incurring her mother's anger by refusing to help with child support.

  36. Kloepfer, The Unspeakable Mother, p. 21. See also Covi's view, “Jamaica Kincaid and the Resistance to Canons,” p. 349.

  37. I take this metaphor from a recent movie of that title. So far I have been unable to trace its origin, although running is a traditionally important act in many tribes, such as the Navajo and the Pawnee. I thank Dan Ladely for a conversation on this point. Cudjoe remarks that “Aimé Césaire utilized the technique of surrealism to plumb the soul of his being to arrive at his original self” (Resistance and Caribbean Literature, p. 184).

  38. Jamaica Kincaid's short narrative entitled “Annie, Gwen, Lily, Pam and Tulip,” published in 1986, makes a slant response—as a complement as well as a contestation—to the narrator's idyllic vision.

  39. Note also that Davies brilliantly discusses the house at the bottom of the river as “a trope for her own writer-self [its A-shape] synonymous with the rudiments of writing: the alphabet” (“Writing Home,” p. 68).

  40. Gardner and Mackenzie, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), p. 66.

  41. Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” pp. 260, 251; Minh-Ha, When the Moon Waxes Red, p. 124.

  42. See, for example, Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” pp. 245-64, and Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One,” pp. 99-106. See also Kristeva, “My Memory's Hyperbole,” p. 221, and Kloepfer, The Unspeakable Mother, p. 148.

  43. See note 41 and Minh-Ha, When the Moon Waxes Red, p. 144.

  44. Kloepfer, The Unspeakable Mother, p. 21.

  45. For the importance of obeah, see Johnson, The Devil, the Gargoyle, and the Buffoon and Kincaid, “Antigua Crossings,” especially p. 50.

  46. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back, p. 150.

  47. For Bruno Schulz, see, for example, Russel E. Brown, “Bruno Schulz's Sanatorium Story,” pp. 35-46. See also Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles, and note 29.

  48. Jamaica Kincaid repeats the same tropes (the lamb, water in many guises, measuring versus intuiting) as well as wholesale repetitions of sections to throw off the idea that events belong in one specific context. She uses transformations the same way—her mother and herself as lizards, her enactment of a dream in Michigan, her projection of herself as Tom, the nineteenth-century chimney-sweep cum water-baby in a modern incarnation. Note, too, that Bachelard characterizes water as the most maternal and feminine of the alchemical elements (Water and Dreams, p. 110). Given a slightly pessimistic view early on in her interviews, Kincaid may be projecting the potential of abyss in the midst of ecstasy.

  49. Biographical details from Jamaica Kincaid's life suggest that the experiences in At the Bottom of the River take place when the speaker is around nine years old.

  50. Hart, Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende, p. 21. Note, too, that in the sense that Jamaica Kincaid's texts are open, not closed, they are “parabolic” in Barbara Herrnstein Smith's coinage (On the Margins of Discourse, p. 44).

Diane Simmons (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12921

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 translate into any sort of sensible communication” (E. Milton, 22). But, if taken together and read in the context of Kincaid's other work, the pieces cannot be dismissed as brilliant but indecipherable dreamscapes. Rather, the ten pieces trace an emotional journey, a journey of mourning. What is mourned is the loss of a prelapsarian world, a childhood paradise of perfect love and harmony in which time stands still and in which betrayal—including the great betrayal of death—is unknown.

As the ten pieces move through the stages of mourning—from denial, through anger and depression, to a vision of peaceful acceptance—they seem to fall into three groups. The first four stories, “Girl,” “In the Night,” “At Last,” and “Wingless,” deny the permanence of the loss but seek a way of going back, of being once again the child, the infant or even the fetus in the womb, “swim[ming] in a shaft of light, upside down” (21).

The next group, “Holidays,” “The Letter from Home,” and “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” are told from the perspective of one who has left the childhood world but is still in limbo, recording a collection of sensations that do not quite add up. In “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” for example, a dream journey seems to entrap the narrator in an endless cycle of departure, yearning, and awareness of the impossibility of return.

In the final group of stories, “Blackness,” “My Mother,” and “At the Bottom of the River,” the narrator squarely faces the crisis of loss, feeling herself to have been erased, silenced, numbed. This feeling, similar to the crisis in Annie John, is experienced as a “blackness” that silently falls all around, soft and dense as soot. In “My Mother” the narrator begins her actual journey of departure, leaving a mother, then finding what appears to be another mother, one with whom there is a sense of openness, of fertility, of a future, of “rooms [that] are large and empty, opening on to each other, waiting for people and things to fill them up” (60). In “At the Bottom of the River,” the narrator manages to replace the lost perfection of childhood love and innocence with another, more mature joy in her understanding of the impartiality and implacability of creation, a force “unmindful of any of the individual needs of existence, and without knowledge of future or past” (81). Creation is still innocent, timeless, perfectly itself; whatever one's personal loss, one may still see oneself as a part of this creation. Though one vision of light and beauty has been lost, another has been found. With this, Kincaid's narrator may move on into maturity and her own life; she may “emerge” from the “pit,” “step into a room and … see that the lamp is lit,” and she may feel her own name “filling up [her] mouth” (81-82).

In her first published New Yorker fiction, “Girl,” the story with which she felt she found her voice as a writer, Jamaica Kincaid presented a microcosm of her future themes and concerns. This intense, one-sentence, three-page story both celebrates and abhors the beauty and power of her childhood world, demonstrating why its pull is so strong, why that pull must be resisted, and why the sense of its loss is so powerful. Here, too, the world of obeah magic is introduced, coexisting easily with the domestic domains of kitchen and market.

The most striking aspect of the piece is its voice, the voice of a mother instructing her daughter and, in doing so, describing a world. The story is not a transcript of actual remarks, though the opening, with its specific advice, gives the impression of literally recorded speech: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry …” (3). As soon as we take this impression, Kincaid alters the terms ever so slightly, repeatedly beginning her phrases with “This is how you …” (4). The mother still seems to be speaking of how to do things, and the reader barely notices that she is no longer actually giving specific advice. This change allows Kincaid to widen imperceptibly the scope of the mother's remarks, until they are finally seen to be not simple household advice at all but a litany of protection and control, a chant that sounds the need for constant alertness to, and study of, one's surroundings. Implied here is the conviction that such alertness is the only defense against a magically dangerous world in which “something bad” might always “fall on you” (5).

This is a voice that needs no help, no introductory “As my mother always said,” no explanatory quotation marks. It is a voice so sure of itself and its power to control that it does not deign to explain itself in any way. Rather, with the first lines we feel that we are picking up remarks in progress, that there is no beginning. It is a voice that does not pause or explain, but moves by its own logic, holding the reader with its repetitive and rhythmic patterns. It is not a voice to which one effectively speaks back—as the two italicized attempts at response make clear—and we realize that this is not merely the mother's voice, but the mother's mesmerizing rhythm of life and knowledge, power and protection, as internalized by the daughter.

This voice represents the energy and life of the childhood world and reveals why it is not a world in which the daughter may remain if she wishes to grow into her own power, for the all-powerful voice of maternal nurture and knowledge is also the voice of condemnation and threat. The positive and negative currents are so intermixed that it is nearly impossible to detect the moment at which one merges into the other. From the apparently benevolent advice on how to buy material for a blouse and how to cook fish, the voice turns to “Is it true that you sing benna [a folk song] in Sunday school?” (3). This is a change, but it is still easily within the context of loving maternal interest, as is the next remark, though we may register a negative shading: “Always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach.” We feel ourselves on solid ground with the next remark, “on Sundays try to walk like a lady,” only to be slammed into the ugly accusation “and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming” (3).

Where did benevolence turn to attack? Where, exactly, should we have put up our guard? With the suggestion that the girl eats in a disgusting way? With the question about the inappropriate singing of benna? Or even earlier, with the advice to immediately soak “little cloths,” which hints of menstrual blood, the onset of physical maturation, and thus the possibility of sluttishness? Reeling, as the girl is reeling, from the whipsaw effect of the mother's advice, we now read, “Don't sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn't speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions” (3). Does she sing benna? Does she speak to wharf-rat boys? Whether she does or not, she stands condemned. But any such protest is answered by the mother's next remark, which shows that, in her view, innocence and degradation fit effortlessly together: “Don't eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you” (3-4).

At this point the daughter manages to answer back, in the italicized, “But I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school” (4). It is a feeble protest, which the mother does not even acknowledge. Perhaps she only thinks these words, for the mother's voice chants on about sewing, buttons and buttonholes, only to use this apparently innocuous theme as a route back to the accusation of sluttishness: “This is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming” (4).

Nurture and attack are here inseparable; one always masquerades as the other, turns into the other. And now, around line 25, nurture itself becomes dangerous. The advice still has to do with household matters, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the efficient housekeeper must manage far more than the laundry and the shopping. She must know how to control and manipulate (“This is how you smile to someone you don't like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don't like at all” [4]), and she must be aware that nothing is ever what it seems, that dangerous magic is to be guarded against everywhere: “Don't pick people's flowers—you might catch something; don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all …” (5). Ultimately, the mother's own homely tasks are themselves seen as veering into the dangerously magical. Her recipes range from bread pudding to medicine for a cold to “medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child” (5).

What is finally being taught in this maternal litany is that the world is full of masked dangers and that one of these dangers is the maternal voice itself. The story demonstrates the power of that voice, its mesmerizing, manipulative intensity, and shows the daughter's near helplessness before the voice. After the first feeble reply, she is silent until the end of the story when she makes a remark that the mother does respond to, but only, it seems, because the girl's words can be used to incriminate her. When the mother, moving effortlessly from deadly magic to grocery shopping, advises squeezing the bread to make sure that it is fresh, the girl asks, “But what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?” This time the mother does respond to her remark, as if perversely reminded of the earlier theme of sluttishness by the daughter's very innocence: “You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?” (5).

In this story, Kincaid's “girl” is still a child, paralyzed by the mesmerizing maternal voice, fascinated by its power, capable of only the weakest protest when unfair assumptions are made about her. Her world has not yet been lost; rather, it must be lost if the girl is to mature, to find a voice beyond the faint squeak of self-defense heard here.

In the collection's second story, “In the Night,” Kincaid moves from the relatively realistic, daylight world of “Girl” to the dark middle of the night, a dimension that does not follow the rules of daytime life but rather the irrational movements of the unconscious. This place, governed by the unknowable laws of obeah magic, is timeless and without recognizable shape, “round in some places, flat in some places, and in some places like a deep hole” (6). In “Girl,” magical powers and forces must be detected behind the prosaic fabric of the mother's remarks; in this second story, the reader is plunged into a dark world of mysterious forces. Confronted directly with mystery, the girl's power seems to shrink even more. First, she is an infant, helpless as a lamb, but by the story's end, she has returned in fantasy to the womb, listening every night to a story told by her mother “that begins, ‘Before you were born’” (12). In this story, more than in any other, we see Kincaid's protagonist struggle to hold onto her childhood world, even if it means her own infantilization.

In the first section of “In the Night” Kincaid shows what we see when we look behind the daylight facade of rationality. Though there are men and women in this world, the men only look on, like the nightsoil men, who see but remain silent. Males are innocuous, even a walking dead man like Mr. Gishard, who returns to haunt the place where he lived but who is mild, harmless, even a little foolish, wearing a nice white suit and missing his accordion. The women, in contrast, take advantage of the magical possibilities. One, a woman who is “reasonable” by day, appreciating pleasant and tranquil things, has in the night removed her skin and turned herself into a bird. She is glimpsed “on her way to drink the blood of her secret enemies” (6). Another woman comes back from the dead, but unlike the mild, bemused Mr. Gishard, she returns to torment the living.

In the story's second section, we see that the narrator's mother is one of the women who use the night to work changes. As the mother can change wet sheets for dry ones, she “can change everything,” including, she hints to the girl, herself, for the mother is young and beautiful, and the “jablesse” in the mountains, with its eyes like lamps, always “tries to look like a beautiful woman” (9). The girl, too, changes in the night, but rather than taking on added powers and forbidden knowledge, she becomes even more innocent and helpless, unable to control even bodily functions. She dreams of a baby being born and then becomes the baby, innocent as a lamb, “eating green grass with its soft and pink lips” (8), awakening from the dream to find that she has wet the bed.

Nothing can be relied on in the magical world behind daylight reality. It cannot be described by stories of simple happiness and stable character. This is demonstrated by the story's third section, which begins, “No one has ever said to me” (9), and proceeds with a long paragraph detailing the mild, reasonable, and kind manner of “my father, a nightsoil man” (9), who “makes us happy” and who “has promised that one day he will take us to see something he has read about called the circus” (10). The night, Kincaid seems to say, is the real world behind appearances. It is the opposite of the world represented by mild fathers who want to treat their families to a circus.

The night, as the story's fourth section shows, is a place where even nature is anxious, as the “flowers close up and thicken” (10) and are “vexed” (11). It is a place where simple, quiet activities may veer into silent murder as “someone is sprinkling a colorless powder outside a closed door so that someone else's child will be stillborn” (11).

Then, as if in frightened retreat from this world of dark powers, the protagonist constructs an elaborate child's picture of love and safety, a fantasy in which she “marries” a woman like her mother, “who wears skirts that are so big I can easily bury my head in them” (11). They will live together in a hut by the sea with a simple, satisfying collection of household utensils. They will be mother and daughter, but they will also be children together, climbing trees, stealing fruit. Though the mother “knows many things,” she will never allow her knowledge and power to hurt the child. Instead, she will treat the child as if she were still part of the mother's self, telling “every night, over and over” a story “that begins, ‘Before you were born.’” Then—and Kincaid seems to say only then, only in a return to the womb—can the girl be “completely happy” (12). Such a return is of course impossible, as is recognized even within this fantasy, for one of the household items in the mud hut by the sea is a picture of two women standing on a jetty embracing and waving good-bye, and as readers of Annie John will know, this picture, which foreshadows a girl's permanent departure from her mother and her home, suggests not eternal union but irreversible separation.

In the first section of the story “At Last,” entitled “The House,” we encounter another version of the mother-daughter dialogue of “Girl.” Here, the daughter asks the mother about their life together in a time before the girl can remember. Kincaid's protagonist is still obsessed with the world of her childhood and the relation between her mother and herself. Her interrogation of the mother seems to be another ploy, like the fantasy of marrying her mother in the previous story, to fix and hold the childhood world. Here, too, as the voices cannot always be distinguished one from another and at times seem to meld, we see Kincaid merging the protagonist with the mother as a way of avoiding the inevitable rupture. But, as in the previous story, the fantasy of perfect union, even as it might exist in memory, cannot be achieved. The recollection of domestic life—”I lived in this house with you; the wood shingles, unpainted, weather-beaten, fraying; the piano, a piece of furniture now, collecting dust; the bed in which all the children were born” (13)—veers immediately into death, loss, and unknowability. There are flowers, “alive, then dead,” and there was a bowl of fruit, “but then all eaten.” The hair brush is “full of dead hair,” and letters bring bad news (13).

Things seem to crumble the moment they are addressed. In the same way, the speaker cannot trust the one to whom she is speaking to remember things correctly or even to be who she claims to be: “What are you now? A young woman. But what are you really?” (13). Over and over, these questions are asked as the speaker, who seems to be the daughter, tries to fix the memory of the past. Again and again, the mother answers elusively, or the questions trigger her own train of thought, which finally works to undercut the memory world the daughter is trying to create: “What passed between us then? You asked me if it was always the way it is now. But I don't know. I wasn't always here. I wasn't here in the beginning. We held hands once and were beautiful. But what followed? Sleepless nights, oh, sleepless nights” (14). In another passage the daughter's question “So I was loved?” triggers this ambiguous response: “Yes. You wore your clothes wrapped tight around your body, keeping your warmth to yourself. What greed!” (16).

Toward the end of this section, we sense, as we do in the second half of “Girl,” a change in the mother's voice as it moves from controlled, manipulative responses, to responses that indicate a self veering out of rational control and escaping into another dimension where it is free and strong. While both “Girl” and “At Last” are, on one level, about the daughter and her seeming helplessness in her interaction with this powerful mother, on another level these pieces are about the mother and her ability to transform herself into something wild and fearless: “I wore blue, bird blue, and at night I would shine in the dark,” and, “Sometimes I appeared as a hoofed animal, stroking my own brown, shiny back. Then I left no corner unturned. Nothing frightened me” (17).

The daughter's questions are punctuated throughout this section by a question about “the light.” Set off in parentheses, this question is asked four times with no response: “(What was that light?),” “(Was that the light again?)” (13), “(But the light, where does it come from, the light?)” (14), “(It's the light again, now in flashes)” (15). We do not know what this light is; possibly it is the love the daughter seeks to recover, the light that can illuminate the darkness of loss. Possibly it is the mother's brilliance, which in the previous story is related to the eyes of the jablesse, shining like lamps.

In the last paragraphs of this section, however, the question finds a response, one that suggests that the effort to regain the past by remembering its details will always fail, that these details are nothing without the illumination of life and love. Here the voices of mother and daughter seem to blend; either could be speaking. We know that both mother and daughter in Kincaid's work take a solitary sea journey, the mother to Antigua from her childhood home in Dominica and the daughter, Annie, from Antigua to Britain. And we know that the protagonist in At the Bottom of the River is in search of a name that finally fills up her mouth in the book's last line. Perhaps we may see that both mother and daughter seek to regain what has been lost through an obsession with listing and measuring, but that, finally, this is a useless exercise if the light of love and life is gone:

I crossed the open sea alone at night on a steamer. What was my name—I mean the name my mother gave to me—and where did I come from? My skin is now coarse. What pity. What sorrow. I have made a list. I have measured everything. I have not lied.

But the light. What of the light?

Splintered. Died.


In the second section of “At Last,” entitled “The Yard,” the attempt to fix a picture of life by studying its domestic and emotional furniture is abandoned. Rather, the narrative moves to the out-of-doors, where it considers the impartial details and passionless struggles of nature. Here is “a mountain. A valley. The shade. The sun. A streak of yellow rapidly conquering a streak of green. Blending and separating” (17). Here “nothing is measured,” and correspondingly, there is no sense of loss. An ant, walking on a sheet of tin in the sun, “crumbles” but it does not matter; “what is an ant?” (18). Humans may intrude upon this world with their plans and desires; someone has made a stone enclosure and planted bluebells for a child's garden. But here one expects human works to be undone. The bluebells will fall to the ground, but that is only part of a natural cycle, “dying and living in perpetuity.”

For a time, this seems to be a solution. Change and death can be accepted as natural: “But what is a beetle? What is one fly? What is one day? What is anything after it is dead and gone? Another beetle will pause, sensing the danger. Another day, identical to this day … then the rain, beating the underbrush hard, causing the turtle to bury its head even more carefully. The stillness comes and the stillness goes. The sun. The moon” (19). But human voices are still heard, reminiscing about a child's game, a game that is itself about remembering and about lost worlds: “What was the song they used to sing and made fists and pretended to be Romans?” (19). Finally, Kincaid does not manage to ameliorate human loss by linking it to the inevitable cycle of nature.

In Kincaid's fourth story, “Wingless,” the child moves out into the world, to school, to the sea, putting some small distance between herself and the domestic universe of the mother. This is the beginning of her effort to find a place for herself outside her mother's stronghold. And while this movement shows the girl awakening from the trance of the first three pieces to envision herself as a separate person, it also shows that this will not be an easy transition. At the same time that she begins to feel the possibility of change, of “discovery” (24), she is overwhelmed by a sense of her own fears and imperfections, still caught in a suffocating embrace with “the woman I love, who is so much bigger than me” (27). While the girl must “discover” herself, this task is complicated by the understanding that she is many contradictory things. In the story's final section, Kincaid returns, as she did in “At Last,” to an examination of the natural world, as if, despairing of ever mastering the variables of human life, she tries to learn by studying the simpler progress of the mosquito, the ant, the land crab, and the butterfly. But what she notices about all of these lively creatures is that they are soon stilled, and once again, though she begins with a sense of becoming, Kincaid's protagonist reverts to her obsession with loss. Every effort, it seems, even the struggle to discover oneself, leads to the awareness of this loss, for, as the lively insect is silenced, so, in the final lines, is the girl, in a sleep that prefigures death. Kincaid's protagonist is no longer content to exist in a timeless child's world, as in “Girl,” or to fantasize the impossible return to this world, as in “In the Night.” But she is not yet able to envision separation as anything but death.

The girl knows that she, although still “wingless,” is “on the brink” of something, and she sees herself as an unborn child, still in the womb but illuminated with possibility: “I swim in a shaft of light, upside down, and I can see myself clearly, through and through, from every angle” (24). But what, the first section asks, is she becoming? What is she discovering? Will her discoveries resemble those of Columbus, a figure ever in the mind of Caribbean and colonial children, as we will see in Annie John? Will she aspire to greatness and suffer for her ambition, being “sent home in chains” from the site of her discovery? Will her life be “as predictable as an insect's?” (21). Will she “grow up to be a tall, graceful, and altogether beautiful woman” and “impose” her will and “great pain” on “large numbers of people” for her own “amusement” (22)? Again, will her life be “like an apprenticeship in dressmaking, a thorny path to carefully follow or avoid?” (23).

The girl is determined to make sense of all the change and possibility: “I shall try to see clearly. I shall try to tell differences” (22). And she begins to evaluate everything, from the “subtle gradations of color in fine cloth” (22) to the question of whether her mother loves her and the question of who is worthy of being a best friend. She will try to control all the variables by listing them, treating them like physical items that can be counted and arranged: “I shall try to separate and divide things as if they were sums, as if they were drygoods on the grocer's shelves” (22).

But as she begins to list the elements of her life, the accounting of her own fears, faults, and griefs overwhelms her, drowning out the hope of possibilities: “My charm is limited, and I haven't learned to smile yet. I have picked many flowers and then deliberately torn them to shreds, petal by petal. I am so unhappy, my face is so wet, and still I can stand up and walk and tell lies in the face of terrible punishments” (23). She must, then, if disappointment is what she most possesses, learn to “cherish [her] disappointments” (24), to “pin tags on them” as if they were “newly domesticated animals” (23-24).

At the end of this section, in a passage that looks forward to “The Long Rain” section of Annie John, the girl seems overwhelmed by her attempt to separate herself from her mother and her mother's world. As Annie is immobilized during a torrential storm, “bolted … down” by the ceaseless thud of rain on the roof (AJ [Annie John], 109), the protagonist in “Wingless” collects water in her body, immobilized by visions of the fearsome future that will arrive once the break she struggles to make is accomplished: “For days my body has been collecting water, but still I won't cry. What is that to me? I am not yet a woman with a terrible and unwanted burden. I am not yet a dog with a cruel and unloving master. I am not yet a tree growing in barren and bitter land. I am not yet the shape of darkness in a dungeon” (24).

In section two, the protagonist seems to retreat from her “brink of great discovery” (24) to a renewed obsession with the dark, mesmerizing power of the mother. Here the mother is shown delivering a piece of advice in a way reminiscent of the litany of admonitions delivered in “Girl.” She advises, “Don't eat the strings on bananas—they will wrap around your heart and kill you.” The girl believes this and is afraid she will die. She tries to remove the strings and is then mocked by the mother for her belief and fright, both of which the mother has carelessly inflicted (24).

In the third section, the mother is presented in a fantastic tableau, seen as holding a dark, magical sway over men. And in the fourth section this theme of omnipotence is continued as female power comes to be symbolized by the sea. Kincaid made this connection clear in her early short story “Antigua Crossing,” in which she wrote, “The Caribbean Sea is so big, and so blue, and so deep, and so warm, and so unpredictable, and so inviting and so dangerous, and so beautiful. This is exactly the way I feel about all the women in my own family” (48). In “Wingless” the sea is “the blue, the green, the black, so deep, so smooth, a great and swift undercurrent, glassy, the white wavelets, a storm so blinding that the salt got in our eyes, the sea turning inside out, shaking everything up like a bottle with sediment” (25-26). At the end of the passage, “the sea [follows the speaker] home, snapping at my heels, all the way to the door, the sea, the woman” (26).

And then, as if demoralized by the vision of herself always smaller and weaker than her beloved antagonist, the speaker, as she often does at moments of stress, turns for help to the natural world. Yet, here again, life, however lively, comes to an end as the creatures—the nimble lizard, the sluggish ant, the contented butterfly—grow inevitably “so still” (27). Like nature, the girl is both cruel and innocent, and she, too, is “stilled” at the end of the story as sleep mocks death. Though she seeks a great liberating “discovery,” she is left here with the frightful suspicion that liberation and separation can mean only death.

“Holidays,” “The Letter from Home,” and “What I Have Been Doing Lately” represent a departure from the previous four stories. With “Holidays,” Kincaid's protagonist has left the dense and magical mother's world of the Caribbean and now floats somewhat aimlessly in a new environment. Wandering in pleasant but empty surroundings, the speaker seems to be on holiday not only from affairs in a North American city (probably New York) but from the passionate concerns of her own inner life as portrayed in the prior stories. The holiday resembles the peach the speaker considers going to buy at the village store: it will have a nice appearance and be warm “from sitting in a box in the sun” (30) and it will offer superficial comfort. But the peach—produced for looks and shelflife rather than flavor—is tasteless, and the speaker “will know that [she is] eating a peach only by looking at it” (30).

Kincaid's protagonist has made her escape from the mother's world, but cut off from everything she knows, she seems unable to exist fully, to focus, to know what she is feeling, even to know whether she wants a hot drink or a cold one. The protagonist seems to have lost touch with her own “taste,” a sense of her own essence, and she tries to examine and record her sensations and appearance to gain some recognition of herself. So the story begins with a list of the minutiae of an aimless half-hour alone in what appears to be a holiday house in the mountains. The protagonist looks around the house, sees some flies, scratches herself, sighs, looks at a picture of butterflies in a book, puts her toe into dead fireplace ashes, then rubs it on the carpet. Finally, she examines herself as she might examine the oddly lifeless peach: “I am the only person sitting on the porch. I look at myself. I can see myself. That is, I can see my chest, my abdomen, my legs, and my arms. I cannot see my hair, my ears, my face, or my collarbone. I can feel them, though. My nose is moist with sweat. Locking my fingers, I put my hands on my head” (31).

This strategy for self-recovery seems to work, perhaps too well, for in rediscovering herself she inevitably calls up thoughts of her mother and the mother's magical world. Now the protagonist notices a large bee, “flying around aimlessly” (31), and we remember the blackbird in “Girl,” who “might not be a blackbird at all” (5). We know from Lucy that in the mother's world, “when someone wanted to harm someone else they sent the harm in the shape of an animal” (151). The bee, then, the first moving thing in the story so far, might not be a bee at all. Whatever it is, even if it is only a bee, its appearance reminds the protagonist of her mother and the world at home. She takes her hands from her head because they are tired but “also because I have just remembered a superstition: if you sit with your hands on your head, you will kill your mother” (31). Returned to the mother's world, she feels both the near-murderous passion she and her mother share, as well as her own abiding sense of guilt.

The protagonist now considers writing a letter to someone, addressed as “Dear So-and-So.” As is clear in Lucy and other writings, such as “Jamaica Kincaid's New York,” the topic of letters almost always has to do with a communication between mother and daughter, a communication fraught with loss, guilt, deception, and anger. In Lucy the girl saves, but does not open, her mother's letters and never writes back (91). Here the imagined letter strings together boastful clichés of conquest: “… and then I got the brilliant idea … I was very amusing” (31). But cliché cannot entirely protect one from revealing actual feelings, and a new set of clichés reveals weakness and confusion: “I am laughing all the way to the poor house. I grinned … I just don't know anymore” (31). We know enough about this protagonist and her relationship to her mother to understand why she cannot keep up the original tone of bravado; while she resists her mother with one part of herself, she continues to yearn for her with another part. And we know why she decides to “keep the letter to [herself]” (31): it is a mistake, when dealing with this powerful figure, ever to reveal weakness.

Now having slipped back for a moment into the dangerous world of her mother's power, she tries to return to her safe, dull “holiday.” She sees some ants, and then her toes, and their tapping makes her think of a song. Having narcotized herself with these details, she yawns, will perhaps nap, dream, but knows that in a dream the subconscious may once again reassert itself: “I will have a dream, a dream in which I am not sitting on the porch facing the mountains” (32).

In the story's second section Kincaid allows voices from the holiday world to reveal their own emptiness as they speak of their arrangements, their sensibilities, their interesting acquaintances who “know lumberjacks in Canada” (33). In this world, nature, rather than constituting the visible representation of life's mysteries, is one more product to be critiqued and consumed, previewing the scathing assessment of tourists to come in A Small Place: “‘Look at that sunset. Too orange.’ ‘These pebbles. Not pebbly enough’” (32). Though they are so intent on their own entertainment, these people will later sense how dissatisfying such an existence is; they will look back and be “so pained, so unsettled” (33).

In the next section, as if in retreat from the emptiness of the holiday, the protagonist begins to list all the minor and even laughable things that can go wrong on a holiday, from stinging insects to skunk-perfumed dogs, to fingers sprained playing ball. As is usually the case in Kincaid, however, list making is inspired by a sense of impending loss. Thus, buried in this collection of trivial holiday woes is a vision of death, the “not-too-fast-moving woodchuck” who gets run over, the “prism in the camera broken, because the camera has been exposed in the hot sun” (33). Looking ahead to Lucy, we know that the young woman becomes herself a sort of camera, controlling what she sees by turning it into literal and figurative snapshots. And in the final story of At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid's protagonist compares herself with a prism, “many-sided and transparent, refracting and reflecting light as it reached me” (80). Here the speaker is a prism reflecting light “that never could be destroyed” (80), and the prism is, as a result, a thing of great beauty. But in “Holidays” the speaker has not managed to come to terms with the powerful light; rather than reflecting its beauty, she is in danger of being destroyed by it. The “sunstroke” (33) that fells the speaker here is only a mild demonstration of the danger the light can cause.

If this powerful light is love, the next section shows again how that light can, by its own intensity, destroy the lens, which would reflect its beauty, for the speaker looks out now and sees a blind man walking by, a man whose love for an unfaithful woman caused him to kill her and, in a suicide attempt, blind himself. Without the light, without vision, the man is a walking death. He speaks to no one and no one speaks to him; even the dogs ignore him. Like the protagonist in the first section, he is alone, walking along the hot road at midday.

In the last two sections of the story, as if frightened by the vision of the man blinded by love, the speaker pulls back. The attempt to rediscover herself has plunged her back into the world she has tried to escape, that of blinding, homicidal love, and so she retreats into a list of holiday highlights, the picturesque sites, the scenery, the laughs. First to be listed are the holiday occupations and pleasures of two boys who “have done many things and taken photographs” (35). Then several dozen impressions from the speaker's own holiday are listed, including such items as “no high heels, buying many funny postcards; sending many funny postcards; taking the rapids; and still, great laughter” (36). If you would escape from yourself, this conclusion seems to say, you must limit yourself to a landscape of disjointed impressions. But, as the opening of the story shows, such disconnectedness produces an agonizing aimlessness, which the mind will always work to escape.

“The Letter from Home,” like “Girl,” is a three-page-long, one-sentence story. As in “Girl,” the story is dominated by a powerful voice, but here we can be less certain about who is speaking. As in the story “At Last,” it seems that we are to read the voices of mother and daughter melding into one another. Like “Girl,” the story begins with a recounting of the simple and even pleasant details of domestic life: “I milked the cows, I churned the butter, I stored the cheese, I baked the bread, I brewed the tea” (37). Inevitably, this simple, pleasing domestic world begins to shift ominously: “The pot boiled, the gas hissed through the stove, the tree branches heavy with snow crashed against the roof; my heart beat loudly thud! thud!, tiny beads of water gathered on my nose, my hair went limp, my waist grew folds, I shed my skin; lips have trembled, tears have flowed, cheeks have puffed, stomachs have twisted with pain” (37).

We know from the story's title that we are dealing with letters from home. These appear frequently in Kincaid's work. In Lucy, letters from home are full of grief and warning, telling both of the evils that are likely to befall one who leaves and of the sadness and loss of those who stay behind. The mother's letter responding to Lucy's “very nice” account of a trip on the subway paints such a fearsome picture of what may happen to young girls on a big-city subway that Lucy is “afraid to even put my face outside the door” (20). After this, Lucy saves her mother's letters unopened, including the one telling of her father's death and her mother's destitution.

Letters from home, then, are packets of fear and pain, in which objective accounts quickly veer into visions of destruction. In “The Letter from Home,” as in “Girl” and “At Last,” one thing always melts into the next; the innocent is always transformed into the frightful. In spite of a kaleidoscopic succession of images, we are in a familiar world, seeing many references that are familiar to Kincaid's readers, such as the woman who sheds her skin as she transforms herself into something else and the ship departing the jetty.

But here a new element appears. Kincaid connects the story of her own world with the great stories of myth and history. If everything changes, do heaven and hell still exist in the way they once did? “Is the Heaven to be above? Is the Hell below? Does the Lamb still lie meek? Does the Lion roar?” And there are the “ancient ships … still anchored” (38), ships that may have first brought Europeans or their cargo of slaves to the Caribbean, thus transforming forever the region and the lives of those involved. Even the physical facts of the world are part of a constantly changing story. We know, Kincaid observes, that the earth “spins on its axis” and that “the axis is imaginary” (39).

Kincaid's protagonist has left home, but as we will see again in Lucy, home now reaches out to her in the powerfully distilled form of the mother's letters. And what these letters have come to say is that by leaving home one perverts the natural order of things, inviting every kind of tragedy. In “Holidays” the protagonist hides from the consequences of having ripped herself out of the known world, taking refuge in collections of unrelated impressions of her new world. In “The Letter from Home” the act of departure is spun, again and again, into a fabric of chaos and death. At the story's end, the speaker has a direct encounter with death: “I saw a man, He was in a shroud, I sat in a rowboat, He whistled sweetly to me, I narrowed my eyes, He beckoned to me, Come now; I turned and rowed away, as if I didn't know what I was doing” (39).

Here Kincaid's protagonist, as in “Holidays,” has found no real defense against the pull of home. In Lucy the only defense is to save the letters unopened, to deny knowledge of their well-known content. Here, the protagonist's only defense is to pretend not to understand something she understands all too well.

“What I Have Been Doing Lately” is the last of a trio of stories that seem to reflect the shock and loss of leaving home and the limbo of an as yet unclaimed new world. This story's protagonist goes on a dream journey, circling always back to the point of departure; the journey suggests an endless, vexed cycle in which every leaving is ultimately a return. At the same time, she recognizes that you cannot really go home again, however powerfully you may be drawn back.

In the first lines, the protagonist hears the doorbell ring as she is lying in bed. Perhaps still dreaming, she goes to the door. No one is there, but outside the air is filled with either drizzle or perhaps dust that “tasted like government school ink” (40). Dust-filled air, like the soot that fills the air in Annie John's dream (AJ, 112), is used as a signal of change. The soot-filled air signals Annie's collapse. Here the dust, like the suffocating residue of a colonial education, drives the girl away from home and out into the unknown. On this journey, she encounters a great body of water, a barrier familiar in Kincaid's writing. The sea, of course, is prevalent, but a body of water can also be “the tears I had cried,” as it is in the story “My Mother,” “thick and black and poisonous” with grief (54).

She does not know how to build a bridge across this body of water. She waits. Years pass. Finally, one day “feeling like it, I got into my boat and rowed across” (41). In an unfamiliar land she falls down a deep hole but extricates herself and seems to have gained strength from having passed a significant ordeal. Now she walks on and on, apparently tireless, through a variety of conditions: “I was never thirsty and I felt no pain.” Although she is in a world where things and people may look different, she is not threatened: “Looking at the horizon, I made a joke for myself: I said, ‘The earth has thin lips,’ and I laughed” (42).

Then, as if in response to this moment of ease and confidence, a “lone figure” appears on the horizon, coming toward her. When the figure speaks, it is very much in the style and cadence of the mother we have come to know from “Girl,” Annie John, and Lucy: “‘It's you. Just look at that. It's you. And just what have you been doing lately?’” (43). The young woman thinks of several possible replies, one of which subtly defies the mother: “I could have said, ‘I have been listening carefully to my mother's words, so as to make a good imitation of a dutiful daughter.’” Instead, however, she is drawn back into the same story again: “I was lying in bed on my back” (43).

At first, the new account appears to be an exact repetition of the one that begins this story. But soon we detect slight changes in language, and then significant changes in the action. In the first account, the speaker looks up, sees the planet Venus, and says, “It must be almost morning” (40). In the second account, she looks up, sees Venus, and says, “If the sun went out, it would be eight minutes before I would know it” (43). Similarly, in the first account, the speaker sees a monkey in a tree and says, “Ah, a monkey. Just look at that monkey” (41). In the second account, she picks up a stone and throws it at the monkey. Three times it moves out of the way; the fourth time the monkey catches the stone and throws it back, striking her and cutting her forehead: “The gash healed immediately but now the skin on my forehead felt false to me” (44). Thus, while the speaker in the first account seems willing simply to notice and accept what she sees around her, in the second story she has become more challenging. Even the sun is no longer what it seems to be. The monkey is now an antagonist, and while the wound it inflicts quickly heals, the evidence of their encounter changes the speaker. She may seem to be caught in an apparently endless cycle of departure and return; nonetheless, her experiences are changing her and the story of self she is able to tell.

When she comes to a body of water, she does not wait for years thinking about a bridge, finally rowing across. Now she simply pays to be ferried across. At this point in the first account, the speaker sees the deep, black hole and willingly falls in. In the second account, she sees some people on a picnic. At first, they seem to be “the most beautiful people” she has ever seen. “Everything about them was black and shiny. Their skin was black and shiny. Their shoes were black and shiny. The clothes they wore were black and shiny.” The people are “laughing and chatting” and she goes toward them, but when she gets close she sees them differently: “When I got up close to them I saw that they weren't at a picnic and they weren't beautiful and they weren't chatting and laughing. All around me was black mud and the people all looked as if they had been made up out of black mud” (44). Somehow this new world and the people in it, initially so black and beautiful, has now turned to mud. The sky, which seemed so close in the first account that one could touch it, is now very far away, and feet that never tired from walking earlier now feel “as if they would drop off” (45).

The two accounts differ in a number of ways. In the first, the blackhole experience seems to result in new fortitude; in the second, experiences in the new land bring on exhaustion. In the first account, the figure representing the mother simply appears on the horizon. In the second, the speaker tries to find her or someone like her, tries to get back home. She thinks, “If only just around the bend I would see my house and inside my house I would find my bed, freshly made at that, and in the kitchen I would find my mother or anyone else that I loved making me a custard” (45). But she does not find her house or her mother. She is discouraged in the new world and feels that she cannot go forward. She sees that her experiences are changing her and that she will never be the same as she was before she left. For the moment, the endless story of departure and loss is all she has. Wearily and in great sadness, resting her head on her own knees, she begins the story again, going “back to lying in bed, just before the doorbell rang” (45).

With “Blackness,” one of the collection's most powerful pieces, Kincaid begins a new movement, progressing from the denial of loss and the limbo of separation seen in the earlier pieces to a crisis of acceptance. In this, the movement of At the Bottom of the River corresponds to that of Annie John; the advent of “blackness,” like the endless rain in “The Long Rain” chapter, signals not only erasure and silence but also renewal, the possibility of rebirth, and, at the end of both books, the dawning of a new sense of identity, the feel of one's name “filling up” one's mouth (BR [At the Bottom of the River], 82).

“Blackness” is especially difficult, particularly its first section, one of the most difficult sections in the book. In this story, Kincaid finally escaped the tortured duality that creates the endless cycle of departure and yearning in the previous stories. Here opposites are joined in the concept of “blackness.” In Kincaid's “Blackness,” Giovanna Covi wrote, “everything is ambiguous, multiple, and fragmented. Blackness is the night that ‘falls in silence’ as well as the racial color that ‘flows through [the] veins,’” but above all it is what cannot be defined. … It is identity together with annihilation of the self” (347).

Annie succumbs to a trancelike state brought on by the rain, is stilled by it, but is also protected by it. So the speaker in this story is “annihilated,” “silenced,” and “erased” by the blackness (47). At the same time, it is herself: “The blackness cannot be separated from me but often I can stand outside it. … The blackness is not my blood, though it flows through my veins” (46). In blackness the self is both completely lost and completely enfolded: “In the blackness my voice is silent … then I am swallowed up in the blackness so that I am one with it” (47). Finally, however we read “blackness,” whether as general depression or specific grief, what Kincaid seems to convey here is a deeply contradictory vision of identity, a loss of self that is the self. Her aim seems to be, as Covi suggested, to disrupt “binary oppositions” (347) by which life in Western civilization is ordered.

In the second section of the story, a more specific interpretation of “blackness” is possible, one that joins the psychological to the political. Here invading bands of armed men create blackness; they blot out the light, so that “night fell immediately and permanently” (49). In this night the speaker can no longer see flowers, animals, or any of the simple occupations of human life. While the armed men are not identified, this passage is similar to one found in Kincaid's story “Ovando.” Here Ovando, a European conqueror in the Caribbean, has a similar effect on the landscape. For no particular reason, other than celebration of his “Sheer Might,” Ovando lays waste the world of the story's speaker, doing so in such a way that even the light of the sun is blotted out (79).

In “Ovando,” Kincaid elaborated on the multifarious nature of “night” in a way which is not only reminiscent of a story discussed earlier, “In the Night,” but which may also help us to understand the ambiguity of “Blackness.” Ovando the conqueror, who has caused darkness to fall on the land,

lived constantly in night; but it was not a quiet night, a night that bore a soft sleep in which dreams of a long-ago-lived enchanted childhood occurred; it was not the sort of night that the day angrily interrupts, jealous of the union between the sleeper and the borderless, soft tapestry of blackness; and it was not a night of nature, which is to say the progression from the day to the opposite of day; it was not the night of just after sunset or the night of just before the sun rises. Ovando lived in the thickest part of the night, the deepest part of the night, the part of the night where all suffering dwells, including death; the part of the night in which the weight of the world is made visible and eternal terror is confirmed.


In both “Ovando” and the second section of “Blackness,” we see how varied blackness or darkness may be. It may be as welcome as the embrace of a lover, or it may be the seat of suffering and the confirmation of terror. It may be part of the natural cycle of renewal, or it may be a blight caused by those who appear to be empty of all but a will to power.

In the third section of “Blackness,” a mother describes a daughter. The voice, however, is not the voice of the mother we have come to know. This speaker focuses intently on the daughter in a way that the mother of “Girl,” for example, with her constant attacks and reversals, is never capable of doing. This speaker, while seeing a daughter from a mother's point of view, closely resembles the daughter-protagonist. In response to “blackness”—the loss of self that paradoxically is the self—Kincaid invented a mother who will allow identity to develop. While the mother in “Girl” seeks to trap her daughter between a litany of requirements and the certainty that the girl can never live up to these requirements, the mother fashioned here, another of Kincaid's othermothers, neither molds nor chastises, but grasps and celebrates, both the immense energy and the unfettered, contradictory nature of the daughter, this spirit that she has “summoned … into a fleeting existence” (51).

Through the eyes of this othermother, the girl not only embraces contradictions but is herself a physical contradiction, both child and monster. In this, oddly, the girl has been granted a kind of personhood previously denied. Formerly, it has been the adult women, particularly the mother, who had possessed the power of such transformation—the woman who “removed her skin” and became a bird, for example, and the jablesse who masquerades as a beautiful woman, both in “The Night.” Here, for the first time, Kincaid's young protagonist is granted this power, and what is more important, she is granted it by the all-powerful mother, who sees and reports the transformation.

In the story's last section, blackness is replaced by “the silent voice,” which the speaker “moves toward” in love and which so completely “enfolds” her “that even in memory the blackness is erased” (52). Still, the silence and blackness are similar. The speaker is “at peace” in the silent voice but also, as in blackness, “erased.”

One way to consider this enigmatic section may be to compare it to the “Long Rain” section of Annie John. The sickness engulfing Annie is also a kind of blackness that has seemed to fill the air with soot (112). This condition ceases at the same moment that the long rain suddenly ceases. The sound of the rain pounding on the roof “pressed [Annie] down in [her] bed, bolted [her] down.” But at the end of the sickness, the rain and the sound of its incessant pounding stop.

In Annie John, then, silence replaces blackness after Annie's figurative rebirthing by her grandmother replaces the bitter relationship that has grown up between Annie and her mother. Awakening from her illness, Annie is not content with the world she finds herself in, but no longer paralyzed, she is beginning down the road toward self-fashioning. In “Blackness” the “silent voice” replaces “blackness” after the protagonist has been, in a sense, remothered; the maternal voice of “Girl,” with her impossible-to-meet standards, has been replaced by a mother who applauds the vast, contradictory nature of the child's spirit. Perhaps, then, the final section of “Blackness” presents the moment in which the oppressiveness of control is replaced by the void of sudden freedom. The protagonist is no longer herself as she has known herself (“I am no longer ‘I’” [52]), for she has been, in blackness, erased. And while the act of erasure can be interpreted as a murder of the self, it can also be read as the opposite, a necessary emptying out that signals the birth of identity.

As she battles toward a separate identity, Kincaid's daughter figure is no longer the inarticulate, nearly paralyzed receptor of her mother's will and power, as in “Girl.” The daughter in “My Mother” has become the mother's open, if ambivalent, antagonist, and the two are caught, as the story's first section shows, in a mutually murderous embrace. The daughter wishes the mother dead, immediately repents and is forgiven, and is taken into the mother's arms, where she is held “closer and closer to her bosom, until finally I suffocated” (53). Even in apparent reconciliation there is bitterness; the tears the daughter has cried now form a pond that is “thick and black and poisonous” (54), across which mother and daughter eye each other. Not only are they separated, apparently permanently, by a grief that cannot be dissipated, but as if to signal the depth of their separation, they have each begun falsely to “shower the other with words and deeds of love and affection” (54).

In the story's second section, the mother appears to engage the daughter in an obeah ceremony. While the daughter sits on her mother's bed, the mother darkens the room, blocking the entrance of any outside light, and then lights candles, causing the shadows of the two figures to take on a life of their own. The shadows make “a place between themselves, as if they were making room for someone else” (54), but nothing comes to fill the space. We remember here that in Annie John and “Antigua Crossing,” the mother believes the daughter is the object of an obeah spell worked by women who once loved the girl's father. In Annie John a spell is suspected as the cause of Annie's illness, while in the earlier piece, “Antigua Crossing,” spells are suspected of having caused the girl's “overly troublesomeness,” resulting in the girl being sent from Antigua to her maternal grandmother on the nearby island of Dominica. In this context, the obeah ceremony comes to represent the mother's attempt to address the difficulty existing between her daughter and herself, to discover what it is that has come between them, as she watches to see what will fill up the space between their two shadows.

If the mother seeks to understand their estrangement as an evil spell, however, and to discover the author of that spell, she fails. Nothing comes to fill the space between the two shadows, and even the magical light of the obeah candles seems to fail as the shadows in the room take on the complexity of shadows “controlled by the light of day” (54). The mother finally blows out the candles; the shadows vanish. The daughter, still sitting on the bed, tries “to get a good look at [herself]” (55). The mother obscures both the girl's and her own ability to study what is really happening, insisting on there being a magical cause for the estrangement.

In the third section of the story, we see the mother again involved in magic, finally caught in the act of transformation that has been hinted at throughout these stories. Here, with the calm and practiced gestures of a woman at her toilette, she removes her clothes and her hair, grows scales, flattens her eyes on top of her head, where they spin and blaze. Throughout the ceremony of this story's previous section, the daughter remains herself. But now the mother's power is overwhelming. In the face of this transformative ability, the girl obeys the instruction to “follow [her mother's] example,” and she, too, becomes a serpent. Now she, too, “travel[s] along on [her] white underbelly, [her] tongue darting and flickering in the hot air.” The daughter is still dominated by the mother; at the same time, she demonstrates that she is coming into the dangerous power of a full-grown woman.

In the fourth section, the daughter, though still overpowered by the mother, has grown to titanic proportions. Her mother is still bigger and stronger than she; nevertheless, the daughter feels herself expanding, understanding that she has so perfectly learned the art of manipulation from her mother that she is able to use it against her mother. As the daughter senses her own growing powers, she guards herself by pretending weakness. In the battle of manipulation, love and pity are prime weapons: “To make sure she believed in my frailness, I sighed occasionally—long soft sighs, the kind of sigh she had long ago taught me could evoke sympathy” (55-56). In spite of the changes occurring in the daughter, mother and daughter are still linked together, and in this configuration, the mother will always be more powerful, able to reduce the daughter into childishness: “I let out a horrible roar, then a self-pitying whine. I had grown big, but my mother was bigger, and that would always be so” (56).

In the story's fifth section, mother and daughter enter a dark, cold cave. The daughter remains there for years, adapting to the dark and cold conditions, growing a “special lens” that allows her to see and a “special coat” with which to keep warm (57). Whether we read the cave as simply the loss of the mother's love, or more literally as a new, cold world—such as the New York of Lucy, to which the protagonist must flee—it is clear that the mother mocks the daughter's effort to adapt, remarking on the “strange expression you have on your face. So cross, so miserable, as if you were living in a climate not suited to your nature” (57). Again, we are reminded of Lucy, where the mother, in response to a “nice letter” from her daughter telling of her first subway ride, writes back to detail the hideous crimes she has read about that have been committed against immigrant girls in the subway (20).

Increasingly willing to fight back, the daughter tries to trap the mother, building a beautiful house over a deep hole and then inviting the mother inside, “hoping to hear her land with a thud at the bottom” (57). But the daughter is not yet the match of a mother who has vast experience in expecting things not to be what they seem. The mother does not fall to the bottom of the hole, but walks on the air as if it were the most solid of floors.

In the story's fifth and sixth sections, the daughter realizes that despite her own growing power, her mother will always be more powerful and that this power will always be used to dominate her. In the story's seventh section, the girl sets off on a sea voyage reminiscent of the end of Annie John, leaving the mother for the first time. But while Annie John ends at this point, “My Mother” carries the girl through the voyage, depositing her on an island where she is greeted by a woman whose “face was completely different from what I was used to” but whom the girl still recognizes as her mother: “We greeted each other at first with great caution and politeness, but as we walked along, our steps became one, and as we talked, our voices became one voice, and we were in complete union in every other way. What peace came over me then, for I could not see where she left off and I began, or where I left off and she began” (59-60).

Initially, we seem to have entered another of the endless cycles of departure from and return to the mother, similar to that in “The Letter from Home.” But when “My Mother” is considered against both “Antigua Crossings” and Annie John, it appears that something significantly different is happening. We notice first that the “mother” who greets the narrator after her voyage and takes her home is no longer mocking and that her embrace is no longer murderous. Rather, mother and daughter come together with blissful ease: “I fit perfectly in the crook of my mother's arm, on the curve of her back, in the hollow of her stomach” (60). Their union is similar to the rebirthing of Annie John by her grandmother, Ma Chess. Annie says, “I would lie on my side, curled up like a little comma, and Ma Chess would lie next to me, curled up like a bigger comma, into which I fit” (AJ, 126).

In “Antigua Crossing” there is another depiction of a young woman who leaves her troubled relationship with her mother and voyages to her grandmother. When the girl arrives, she immediately recognizes her grandmother and feels she would have done so even if she had never seen a photograph. The grandmother immediately begins to work her protective magic, walking the girl to the water and making her “spit in the sea three times” (50).

The voyage in “My Mother,” then, seems to be away from the mother we have known up to now and toward the othermother who steps in to nurture the girl when her own mother fails to meet her needs. Kincaid herself made such a journey to escape an obeah spell (Simmons), and there may be a literal, autobiographical basis for the fictional journey from mother to grandmother. This story, like Annie John and “Antigua Crossing,” nonetheless requires us to see the journey as an act of spiritual faith. The voyage does not merely replace one mother with another but also works to break an evil spell. The rupture between mother and daughter is seen not as a problem of personalities but as evidence of something amiss in the world as the result of malignant intervention. In all three works, the spell is finally broken by the voyage to the magical othermother.

In the world of the new “mother” all is harmonious, and we sense a quiet anticipation, as if the narrator is waiting to be reborn into a happier life. Whereas a house is the scene of murderous combat between mother and daughter in the last section, here a house is a continuous procession of spacious rooms to be filled with new life. Mother and daughter walk though rooms that are “large and empty, opening on to each other, waiting for people and things to fill them up” (60). Again, as if awaiting a birth or rebirth, the two are described in terms that imply the simultaneous union and separateness of mother and unborn child: “We merge and separate, merge and separate; soon we shall enter the final stage of our evolution” (60).

In this story, the girl has fully recognized her mother as her antagonist and, having exhausted herself trying to combat the mother, has fled, crossing the water, breaking the spell, finding on the other side another mother figure who nurses her back to life. Whether this other-mother represents an actual autobiographical grandmother or an imaginary figure growing out of the narrator's intense desire for nurturance and a world that is friendly and reliable rather than ever-devious and changing, her presence begins a new movement in the story. The narrator is still unformed, an infant “sitting on my mother's enormous lap” (61). But the two dwell in a world that is welcoming, arranging itself for them in obedience to the mother's benevolent magic: “The fishermen are coming in from the sea; their catch is bountiful, my mother has seen to that” (60). While nature has been seen as treacherously impermanent in earlier stories, here it can be trusted; here the two “live in a bower made from flowers whose petals are imperishable” (61). And while earlier fantasies of union with the mother, such as that at the end of “In the Night,” represent an impossible return to a lost past, this vision is concerned not with the past but the future. The narrator in the earlier stories is always the child in relation to the mother, impending maturity seen as a crime. Here, however, though the narrator is seen as an infant, she also contains the seeds of her own healthy maturity: “A hummingbird has nested on my stomach, a sign of my fertileness” (61).

With the collection's final story, Kincaid completes the emotional journey begun with “Girl.” Her narrator has accepted the loss of a childhood sense of love and perfection and, with great difficulty, has managed to replace the lost beauty with a more mature vision of her place in creation. If Kincaid's protagonist has still lost a paradise, she has also gained a self. The tongue-tied girl of “Girl,” mesmerized by her mother's voice, is transformed into the world-striding woman in the final story; she now owns and belongs to a beautiful, impartial, albeit transient creation, her own name finally “filling up” (82) her mouth.

While “At the Bottom of the River” completes this journey, the story shows the link between the loss of childhood paradise and the perception of death, which was only peripherally apparent earlier. Here, at last, the protagonist has stopped clinging to her childhood and has survived the shock of the immediate loss. But maturity implies the inevitability of death, and we come to see that the protagonist, in resisting maturity, has also been resisting death. Further, the mother's denial of the child's innocence and love amounts to a kind of death sentence. That connection is made in this story as a “you,” speaking in a voice that we recognize as the mother's, laughingly announces the girl's death: “‘Death is natural,’ you said to me, in such a flat, matter-of-fact way, and then you laughed—a laugh so piercing that I felt my eardrums shred, I felt myself mocked”(71).

How can this new terrain, in which death is a sudden and overpowering presence, be understood? What is the meaning of an existence that, like a deep stream, rushes forward with great force and energy and then “collects itself in a pool” at the end of day (63)?

Having asked this question, Kincaid seems to examine, and then to dismiss, two ways of finding “meaning.” One way is that of a man who, like the European conqueror and title character of the story “Ovando,” is dead to the beautiful, contradictory energy of life and who “sits in nothing, this man: not in a full space not in emptiness, not in darkness, not in light or glimmer of. He sits in nothing, in nothing, in nothing” (BR, 64). The second way is embodied in another man whom Kincaid dismisses, if more gently, this one resembling the carpenter father described in Annie John and, more particularly, the father in one of her New Yorker pieces, a calm, precise man in a brown felt hat.1 This man is not dead to the world around him; rather, he is very much alive to its beauty and mystery. But for him, too, it all comes to nothing, and death still looms so prominently as to negate experience: “Stretching out before him is a silence so dreadful, a vastness, its length and breadth and depth immeasurable. Nothing” (BR, 68). For both the conqueror, who tries to control life, and the conquered, who simply gazes at it in blank wonder, the result is the same, a dreadful emptiness.

Then, in the story's long third section, the narrator seems to give herself up to grief, as she laments the bitter inevitability and ubiquity of death: “Dead is the past. Dead shall the future be. And what stands before my eyes, as soon as I turn my back, dead is that, too” (69). It is here that the mother, with a laugh, declares that “death is natural,” but the narrator protests that death “bears no relation to the tree, the sea, the twittering bird. How much more like the earth spinning on its invisible axis death is” (72). Death, then, seems unrelated to the natural drive of nature, but appears instead as some awful abstraction.

In the story's fourth section, the narrator takes one last look at the lost paradise of childhood, in which death was unknown: “Time and again, I am filled up with all that I thought life might be—glorious moment upon glorious moment of contentment and joy and love running into each other and forming an extraordinary chain: a hymn sung in rounds” (74). But after lingering for a moment the narrator tears herself away, turning back to the pool of deep water that now represents life and the mysteries of maturity.

The book's final movement now begins. Kincaid's protagonist looks into the water and sees a house. Previously, houses have appeared as the sites of mutual manipulation by mother and daughter or of the narrator's return to the womb (both in “My Mother”). Here, at last, she sees a grown woman in the house, a woman of vision, and a woman who is, finally, herself. What the woman sees and leads the narrator to see is a world in which things are themselves, in which they cannot be changed when a new light is cast upon them. When light falls on a thing, it seems “transparent, as if the light went through each thing, so that nothing could be hidden. The light shone and shone and fell and fell, but there were no shadows. … And in this world were many things blessed with unquestionable truth and purpose and beauty” (77-78).

In a world in which things are themselves, it suddenly becomes possible that one may be oneself, may see oneself in a way that cannot be changed by the view of another, and here the narrator for the first time sees herself clearly, as if “looking through a plane of glass,” describing herself in loving detail (79).

Fully herself at last, she enters the sea, “warm as freshly spilled blood” (79), and is then “dipped again and again, over and over, in a large vat filled with precious elements” (80). After these two baths—resembling both the amniotic fluid of the womb and the obeah bath with which Ma Chess ritually reconnects herself to nature—the protagonist stands “as if I were a prism, many-sided and transparent, refracting and reflecting light as it reached me, light that never could be destroyed. And how beautiful I became” (80).

“Yet,” Kincaid's narrator finally asks, “what was this light?” What illumination may be embraced “until heart and glowing thing are indistinguishable and in this way the darkness is made less?” (81). For Kincaid, the secret of the light seems to be that it comes not from any controlling force but from a creation that is “impartial” and “whose nature is implacable, unmindful of any of the individual needs of existence, and without knowledge of future or past” (81).

In the beginning of At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid's protagonist struggles with the sense that the perfection of childhood can be replaced only by forces of manipulation and control, and so she clings to a lost perfection. Ultimately worn out by this hopeless effort, she allows herself to be born into maturity. Now she is able to see that while childhood and one's own innocence and sense of timelessness may be lost, these qualities still exist in creation. In this clear light, different from the shadowy light of manipulation, she is able to see herself and able to accept her place in creation, understanding “how bound up I know I am to all that is human endeavor, to all that is past and to all that shall be, to all that shall be lost and leave no trace” (82).


  1. “Notes and Comment,” from “The Talk of the Town,” New Yorker, 3 January 1983, 23.

Further Reading

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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.

Discusses issues of self-awareness, alienation, and female identity in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.

Additional coverage of Kincaid's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Ed. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 2; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 63; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 125; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 47, 59, 95; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 43, 68, 137; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 157, 227; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 1; Novels for Students, Vol. 3; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 5, 7; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.

Edward J. Ahearn (essay date 1996)

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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 seem to exist. Both Blake and Aragon use the word visionary itself to describe their effort to transcend or dissolve the perceptual experiences that we take to be true. Blake's fourfold vision and Swedenborgian “Memorable Fancies”; dreams, imagination as “magic idealism,” the fantastic form of the Märchen in Novalis; dream, trance, and insanity in Nerval; even the antivisionary writing in Maldoror; the various versions of the surreal in Breton and Aragon; and finally the drug and sex transmutations to other levels of experience in Naked Lunch—these are the diverse means of access to the visionary. And we have seen the range of writing, of visionary “textualities” that are thereby generated and deployed. More or less violently or obsessively, too, the resistance to what is thought to be real extends to a questioning of or vehement challenge to traditional values and societal institutions—of religion, family, gender, and sexuality, not to speak of government. Sexual themes are indeed increasingly anguished throughout these works, whose potential for unmitigated rebellion against the sociopolitical order is also apparent from Blake to Burroughs.

Although my scope is wide, I am vividly aware of the partial nature of my treatment, which is largely due to the limits of my reading and linguistic competence. Another book might treat comparable writing in other European writers and languages, the literatures of the Americas, and the languages of the Middle East as well as North African francophone writing.1 And, although it might be tempting to view recrudescences of apocalyptic writing as an anticipation of our oncoming millennium, it seems to me more likely that the persistence of such works throughout the two hundred years since the French Revolution and the Terror has a more directly pertinent historical suggestiveness. Some very talented writers have wanted to show us that what we take to be real is illusory, have given eloquent, if often horrendous, testimony to the oppression imposed by religious, societal, and sexual beliefs and forms.

However oppositional in the terms summarized above, this tradition nonetheless cries out for a feminist critique, in that on the issue of sexuality these works differ from the mainstream of modern Western literature only in being more obsessively male-oriented. “Masculinist” at the least in Blake and Novalis, deriving from an anguished experience of sexuality in Nerval, blatantly sexist in the surrealists, and homosexual in a horrible way in Lautréamont and Burroughs, the “visionary” is troubling in its subjection, utilization, brutalization of the female, and notably of the female body. Think of Blake's sexual symbolism, the sacrifice of the mother in Heinrich, Nerval's dismembered female bodies, the rape of women, as well as the murder of boys, in Maldoror, the exploitation of the female form in surrealist iconography, and Burroughs's not at all funny scorn for all that is female. Early on I suggested that feminist interpretations of Blake's later sexual symbolism, in Milton, show it perhaps to be emblematic in simultaneously making sex the key to the visionary and also presenting the body, with its multiple potential for “perversions,” as the source of evil. The “visionary” thus almost literally embodies a recurrent, two-century-long anguish of sexuality, from the passage concerning the monkeys in Blake's Marriage to the repugnant images of Maldoror and Naked Lunch.

The consideration of two women writers, Monique Wittig and Jamaica Kincaid, the one an avowed lesbian living in virtual exile from her native France, the other a native of Antigua who published the account of her personal pains and anger only after having achieved notoriety as a successful New Yorker writer, will not dissipate these contradictions of the sexual. But it will introduce a female corrective and perspective.2

Among the many women writers who might have been treated, Wittig is appropriate in that she follows upon the French surrealists and yet presents an impressive refutation of the sexism of Western thought.3Les Guérillères, my primary text here, is a celebration of the female body as opposed to the obsession with the male in Lautréamont and Burroughs; her Corps lesbien can be read as a lesbian counterpart of Naked Lunch and Burroughs's later writing.4 But Les Guérillères goes beyond the fixation on the female body. Relatively pale as visionary writing, it nonetheless contains passages of ecstatic intensity and mythic beauty and is reminiscent of the millennial in Novalis in its suggestion of an ultimate reconciliation of men and women. This is not to imply that Les Guérillères is better, or more acceptable, than Wittig's later books, from which men are entirely absent. Indeed, the most incisive feminist interpretations of Le corps lesbien and other later Wittig texts emphasize both their wholly positive view of female homosexuality and their potential to be “truly the subversive discourse of The Body Politic.”5

Jamaica Kincaid can be linked to Wittig through the resemblances between Wittig's first book, L'Oppoponax, and passages in At the Bottom of the River and elsewhere that dramatize the formation of the submissive female self through the influence of mother and school. On the other hand, Kincaid's obsession with the theme of motherhood, so different from the lesbian and amazonian motifs in Wittig, has lent itself to explanation in Freudian and Lacanian terms,6 so much so that the contrast between Wittig and Hélène Cixous, expressed as that between amazons and mothers, might be reformulated in terms of Wittig and Kincaid. Lesbian notes are not lacking in Kincaid's work, however, and they should lead us to temper the absoluteness of this opposition. Most of all, though, I am interested in Kincaid's frightening and beautiful writing because its visionary qualities largely derive from sources other than those seen in the earlier writers. In her work visionary writing is nonbiblical, not essentially derived from the traditions of the Middle East, but rather Caribbean and perhaps sub-Sahara African, as well as strikingly female. Indeed, in an interview with Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Kincaid stressed the influence of her mother, voodoo magic, an awareness of a higher reality beyond the normal sense world, and the inseparability of waking and dream states.7

Published in 1969, in the immediate aftermath of the most recent failed upheaval (with delusive revolutionary potential) in the history of late Western capitalism, Les Guérillères, which appeared in translation in England and the United States within a few years, became one of “the most widely read and frequently cited non-American feminist” works of our times. It also contributed, along with other Wittig criticisms of Cixous's “essentialism,” to the “splintering” of the French feminist movement in subsequent years.8 From our perspective, then, Les Guérillères, like the Marriage and Heinrich, Aurélia and the surrealist texts, appears as a visionary work produced in what was believed to be a revolutionary setting, expressive of utopian hopes for the transformation of society and the renovation of human sexuality.9

Hence Les Guérillères's antinovelistic form begins and (nearly) ends with a poem or litany of phrases evoking female violence and all action as overthrow: “TOUT GESTE EST RENVERSEMENT” (5, 143).10 Amid its discontinuous segments, statements of what “the women say” (“Elles disent”), lists of women's names providing a basis for a new female mythology,11 sensuous descriptions of items presumably expressive of female experience (spices, fruits, vegetables, birds—see 9, 11, 18, 122-23, and similar writing in Kincaid),12 and intrusions of the letter O (emblematic of female anatomy as well as of women's ability to elude male discourse and systems and even to imprison and overthrow men, 14, 114)—amid all of this Wittig's text repeatedly depicts female warfare against these same systems.

We recognize familiar feminist-socialist-Marxist-Leninist-Maoist phrasing: attacks on proprietors and possessors, allusions to Flora Tristan, a hundred flowers blooming, and power at the end of a rifle (76, 85, 102, 114, 131, 141). In a systematic disorder, various phases of the war (beginning, progress, defeat, ultimate victory) are evoked.

Certain of these deliberately nonsequential passages include a questioning by the women: “What was the beginning?” (30). Elsewhere, from some distant moment in the future they examine photographs of women's strikes and demonstrations (39), but later in the text they seem to be involved in an intermediate phase of flight and the establishment of a colony (49-50). Evocations of defeat and victory in battle (76-78, 104, 108, 115) frame their vision, in a surreal setting, of a new world order (86). Interestingly, they imagine themselves as “already in possession of the industrial complexes” (95). But earlier in our reading (73), after the nonspecific notation “Things being in this state,” we had read a passage in which domestic, textile, secretarial, and industrial machinery are burned by the women, leading to a bacchantic dance. From the debris they reassemble and paint “grotesque grandiose abracadabrant compositions to which they give names.” This reminds us of efforts by poets from Rimbaud to Breton and trade unionists from Marx to French factory workers to subvert the industrial system and its products.13

Toward the end of the work there is an increasing interplay between passages describing battle and reconciliation. Young men and women gather to bury the dead and solemnly celebrate peace (124), but on the following page the battle rages on; the two sexes vow that they have ended the last war in history (127-28), but the next segment shows the women on a grueling long march early in the conflict. Late in the text (130) the women proclaim hellish anger and, in a passage recalling Burroughs, minus the humor, they promise violence to “theatres national assemblies to museums libraries prisons psychiatric hospitals factories old and new from which they free the slaves.”

After the last sequence of alternating moments of sexual strife and peace the concluding paragraph of the work, unique in its use of the formal past tense (passé simple) and of the plural we, evokes what appears to be the final end of the war and an opening to the future, but perhaps in terms too familiar for us to accept:

Moved by a common impulse, we all stood to seek gropingly the even flow, the exultant unity of the Internationale. An aged grizzled woman soldier sobbed like a child. Alexandra Ollontaï could hardly restrain her tears. The great song filled the hall, burst through doors and windows and rose to the calm sky. The war is over, the war is over, said a young working woman next to me. Her face shone. And when it was finished and we remained there in a kind of embarrassed silence, a woman at the end of the hall cried, Comrades, let us remember the women who died for liberty. And then we intoned the Funeral March, a slow, melancholy and yet triumphant air.

The closing sense of triumph, the feeling of collective sacrifice by women of the working class, the references to the Internationale and to pre-Stalinist Russian socialist feminism and the comradeship of discredited parties: all of this produces in historical hindsight a terrible sadness, and not because one accepts United States State Department propaganda about “the end of history.” As with all utopias, historical events overtake the desiring imagination. But here as in her later work, Wittig again brings to mind Blake as a lonely figure continuing to pursue the visionary path, and not without agonizing relevance to contemporary historical events. Let us think of persistent antigay sentiment in the United States and of the systematic use of rape of women in what for a time was Yugoslavia.

Or perhaps the best way to gauge the continuing importance of Wittig's message is to quote the passage in which she ascribes to her women the role of utter resistance expressed differently in Breton and Burroughs:

They say that they foster disorder in all its forms. Confusion troubles violent debates disarray upsets disturbances incoherences irregularities divergences complications disagreements discords clashes polemics discussions contentions brawls disputes conflicts routs débâcles cataclysms disturbances quarrels agitation turbulence conflagrations chaos anarchy.


Or again, in fiery female-Blakean terms:

They say, compare yourself to a slow fire. They say, let your breast be a furnace, let your blood become heated like metal that is about to melt. They say, let your eye be fiery, your breath burning. They say, you will realize your strength, arms in hand. They say, put your legendary resistance to the test in battle. They say, you who are invincible, be invincible. They say, go, spread over the entire surface of the earth. They say, does the weapon exist that can prevail against you?


Having noted the recurrence of the link between visionary writing and the fearful grasp of history, as well as the appetite suggested above for continuing resistance to that grasp, we come to an even more important issue, the reclaiming of the female. Les Guérillères is a signal expression, amid the exuberant debates of feminists in France and the United States, of the reappropriation of the female from the oppressive male order so clearly enshrined (even!) in the “oppositional” texts that we have been studying.

Inevitably there is much violence directed against men. The women do battle with bared breasts (100), and in the first female state men are emasculated (114-15). Those who, like the Lemnian women, slaughtered men are celebrated (112). Recognizable and not-so-recognizable myths represent powerful women and exhort them to be bloodthirsty (85, 119, 120, 127). Scenes of submission of men (98) give way to mockery of the penis and feminization of the male body (106). Paroxysms of rage (116-18) accompany descriptions of torture and slaughter (110, 118); in one of these, which features exhibition of the dried skins of the victims, the historical resonances are unbearable. But the following, reminiscent of passages in Milton, reminds us of the sadistic component that seems inevitably to accompany the drive toward visionary sexual liberation:

Then the women reach their prey at a bound and, giving the signal, joined at once by the others, they begin to dance while uttering cries, swaying to and fro, while their victim writhes on the ground, shaken by spasms and groaning.


But, as mentioned above, elsewhere the women renounce violence against men (99). There is even a passage in which heterosexual lovers seem to escape lesbian persecution (123). Then, almost in a permanently realized version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, toward the end the men admire the women warriors' horticultural expertise and the mildness of their climate (137-38). This is followed by mighty embraces in which the defeated men transfer to the women their most treasured attributes, celebrating them as “thrice-great, woman trismegista” (142), a female appropriation of the epithet of the divinity of occult sciences.

But this reconciliation in no way implies submission to accepted sexual arrangements, namely marriage (108) and the prescribed role of procreation: “They say, take an example from the wild birds who, even if they mate with the males to relieve their boredom, refuse to reproduce so long as they are not at liberty” (135). This last explains the rejection of the defeated male's claim to be necessary as the source of sperm (as well as all work, government, and writing, 97), together with the presence of numerous girl children and the pride in the vulva as “emblem of fecundity and the reproductive force in nature” (31). Birth thus becomes the capture of a child by a warrior—not enjoyable but heroic: “The women look over Emily Norton's shoulders at the effigies of women with mouths wide open, screaming, squatting, the child's head between their thighs” (72). As we shall see, this is anything but an acceptance of the Freudian argument that the child is a replacement for the absent penis.

On the contrary, there is an emphatic celebration of the female body amid recurrent scenes of collective lesbian sex (9, 15), often bacchantic in intensity (19-20, 60-61, 70-71). Although in the background there are reminders of male prejudice, for example, the stench emanating from various bodies of water (10, 16, 20), numerous passages evoke and detail the labia (9, 31) and every aspect of the vulva (22-23, 48-49). These very beautiful passages serve as a corrective to the obsession with the male body in texts from Moby-Dick to Naked Lunch. The vulva becomes an instrument of navigation (10) and—exposed—a mirror reflecting the sun, with a Medusa-like effect (19); elsewhere it serves to hide the fire that the women have stolen (45).

We should also note the function of analogy in the passages on the female organs. They are compared to many things, from the spider's web and quicksilver to flowers, moons, butterflies, birds, fruits, coral, shells, eyes, mouths, geometric figures, rings, jewels, treasures, and gems. But they are also compared to “traps vices pincers” (19, 23, 31, 32, 44, 48). These last, familiar threats or fears, explain why at a certain point (49) the women decide that the “feminaries have fulfilled their function,” that indeed they are “indoctrinated” with ancient (male) texts. The feminaries are texts from which the young girls learn, and, together with female storytelling and female myth, as well as the recurrent “Elles disent,” they indicate the link between the body and writing, even if, pace Cixous, Wittig never identifies the two.14 For, having sufficiently exalted their sexual organs, the women realize that it is no longer useful, in symbols and conventional figures, to see the vulva as the center of the universe (61, 66).

Refusing any longer to be prisoners of their own ideology in exalting one part of the body “on the grounds that it was formerly a forbidden object,” the women “perceive their bodies in their entirety” (57). Rephrased, this argument, that “any symbol that exalts the fragmented body is transient, must disappear,” allows the women, confident in “the integrity of the body,” to march “together into another world” (72). Recalling Blake and Rimbaud,15 this culminates the process by which female sexual anatomy is rediscovered as a prelude to a utopian opening to the future as “another world.”

Similarly, Wittig's celebrated subversion of traditional myths and creation of new feminist ones are also seen, early on in the unfolding of the text, as “no longer in order” (30). In keeping with that I will for the moment have little to say of this feature of Les Guérillères. Instead I will give attention here to passages that, in vigorous intellectual terms, confront the patriarchal ideology underlying the view of the female body and its accompanying mythology.

These passages correspond to philosophical or doctrinal pronouncements seen in the earlier writers, with the exception of the passages' feminist stance, which, despite differences noted above, Wittig shares with Cixous as well as with Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and many American feminists. Hence, first of all, the (negative) elements with which women are associated are denounced as the products of “mechanistic reasoning,” the systematic relation of “opposite terms.” Like Blake refusing such simplistic separation of contraries, jokingly playing with the myth of Scylla and Charybdis, the women proclaim such thinking “no longer valid” (78-80). Male-female opposition, seen as “essential difference” through “biological variation,” is also denounced and linked to similarly untenable biological arguments for the inferiority of nonwhites. Behind it all lurk “domination and appropriation,” “the same domineering oppressors who sleep crouched over their money-bags” (100-101).

The feminist-Marxist thrust expands to include as targets Freud, Lacan, and Lévi-Strauss, among others. The women first seem to doubt that they can spit on the phallus, stop speaking men's language, burn their currency, effigies, art, and symbols. But immediately they add, “I refuse to mumble after them the words lack of penis lack of money lack of insignia lack of name.” They refuse the category of possession, for if they are to take over the world it is in order to dispossess themselves of it immediately, “to forge new links between myself and the world” (106-7). Similarly, echoing phrases of Freud and Lévi-Strauss (“Has he not indeed written, power and the possession of women, leisure and the enjoyment of women? He writes that you are currency, an item of exchange”), the women prefer death to submission (115-16). Elsewhere, as already mentioned, men's monopoly of the symbolic order is subverted (112-14). And, in a rewriting of the ultimate patriarchal myth, that of the earthly paradise, the women, realizing that “he has invented your history,” threaten to crush men as serpents under their heels, crying “Paradise exists in the shadow of the sword” (110-11). Here the inversion of values seen as early as Blake takes on a new and differently threatening but liberating aspect.

As suggested earlier, in the pursuit of freeing the female, Les Guérillères is not so much a visionary work, transforming the physical world before our eyes, as it is a utopian allegory, revealing what needs to be destroyed and suggesting what needs to be discovered. Nonetheless, it is already clear that the work hardly reads like a realistic novel. In addition to nonrealistic elements already noted there are a variety of surreal and futuristic features, all finally in the service of an experience that provides a female version of myth and collective ecstasy.

Early on, one of the women asserts that that which is is, adding that that which is not also is (14). This refusal of the principle of noncontradiction fits well with the evocation of strange animals, some Burroughs-like (22, 57), incomprehensible machines and unvisualizable geometric figures (26, 69), impossible but supremely deadly weapons (103-4, 118-19, 120), combatants with insect eyes, and women from whose orifices spinning glands produce wings, causing them to resemble giant bats (108, 132).

As in a number of the earlier writers, a strange architecture is sometimes involved. In one of these scenes (88) we “see” hundreds of thousands of gem-studded spherical habitations, some transparent, some floating in air, some attached to tall pylons, all of great height among the heavenly spheres. A Rimbaud-like pseudoperspective (“It is not possible at this distance to determine what allows the inhabitants to gain access to their houses”) does not produce the sense of unreality characteristic of some of his prose poems. Instead the fantastic setting becomes the locus of the women's armed rebellion, as from all points they march on the city, singing warlike songs. Another structure, only initially and superficially recalling Blake, evokes hundreds of thousands of cell-like receptacles hollowed out of a rock face in which the naked women sleep. Comparisons of each cell to an egg, a sarcophagus, an O, and the indication that in one's cell one is out of contact with all the others, mix suggestions of female sexuality and gestation but also of isolation—and death. But not this: “It is a place of privileged sanctuary (“refuge”) though not sealed off.” Finally at nightfall voices are heard, at first confused, then distinct: “This order must be changed, forcefully repeated by a thousand voices” (86). In still another passage (90-91) the women's critical discussion of accepted logic about progressions, cycles, and myths leads them to a laughter so powerful as to destroy the edifice in which they find themselves. Bricks, gilded paneling, mosaics fall, and the women destroy the remaining statues, continuing to laugh even as they evacuate those not wounded, until the building is totally destroyed. “Then they lie down and fall asleep.”

So the quite individual visionary architecture in Les Guérillères leads where everything else leads: toward the millennial battle. As for transformed consciousness, that is also represented, by a series of passages concerning drunkenness and trance. In one of these (60-61) narcotics and aphrodisiacs produce delirium and nightlong dance but also incoherence on the part of some, which is criticized by others of the women. Succeeding passages (62, 64) represent the trance state in brutal, frightening terms, with starting eyes, spitting mouths, bleeding gums, but also with song. Elsewhere (93) there is a more stately version of the bacchantic state:

They say that they leap like the young horses beside the Eurotas. Stamping the ground they speed their movements. They shake their hair like the bacchantes who love to agitate their thyrsi. They say, quickly now, fasten your floating hair with a bandeau and stamp the ground. Stamp it like a doe, beat out the rhythm needed for the dance, homage to warlike Minerva, the warrior, bravest of the goddesses. Begin the dance, step forward lightly, move in a circle, hold each other by the hand, let everyone observe the rhythm of the dance. Spring forward [Paraissez en avant] lightly. The ring of dancers must revolve so that their glance lights everywhere.

Particularly in a work that has warned us about the danger of traditional myth and that is filled with non-European female versions ranging from Mexican warrior and sun goddesses to Asian women who have fought off invaders and others who have pursued the sun and saved the universe (26, 27, 65, 74, 80-81),16 it is a delicate question which passages should be chosen for analysis. Here indeed a familiar Greek setting and divinities are evoked. But, despite the presence of the thyrsi, Dionysus makes no appearance, and the goddess of wisdom is also goddess of war. Moreover, Witting's text differs in crucial ways from the quintessential modern poetic expression of the theme, Coleridge's “Kubla Khan.” In that poem, as noted in the previous chapter, the element of war is only mentioned, as opposed to the consistent allegory of Les Guérillères. In Coleridge too, an isolated male speaker can only imagine the ecstatic state, provoked by the loss of a music-playing “damsel.” Here, on the contrary, female expression is foregrounded—“Elles disent,” as always. Moreover, the experience is collective. And the rhythms, not yet frenzied but stately, as I have said, produce not an obscuring of consciousness but an enlarged horizon of vision: “Il faut que le cercle des danseuses fasse sa révolution et qu'elles portent leurs yeux de toutes parts.” The translation obscures much that is subtly meaningful here: the circle and the female dancers that are so resonant throughout the work, the activity by which they lucidly cast their eyes in every direction, the turning that is also revolution.

I will close my discussion of Les Guérillères with another beautiful passage (52-53) that conflates and transforms traditional myth in the interest of superior female knowledge, once again leading to the collective bacchantic dance: “Dans la légende de Sophie Ménade, il est question d'un verger planté d'arbres de toutes les couleurs. Une femme nue y marche. Son beau corps est noir et brillant.”17 Too long to quote in its entirety, the passage may be summarized as follows. A woman named Sophie Ménade recounts a legend about a magically colored orchard where walks a beautiful naked black woman, whose hair is made of snakes, the favorite called Orpheus. Orpheus advises her about what fruit to eat and predicts that she will grow until her forehead touches the stars and she acquires knowledge.

Treated critically in a passage mentioned earlier, the Garden of Eden motif returns, as does the figure of the snake, which exercises much fascination elsewhere (74). Medusa is there too, and explicitly Orpheus, with the danger that his counseling and advising role (the snakes make up the woman's “chevelure conseillère”) may perpetuate the dominant role of the male poet. But he is merely the woman's favorite snake, and Sophie Ménade's name, fusing wisdom and bacchantic ecstasy, implies a superior unity of faculties and experiences. Moreover, the snakes produce music with every movement the woman makes. Most of all, it is not Orpheus but Sophie who recounts the legend, producing pressing questions from the other women.

To the first questions Sophie responds that the woman in the orchard “will have a clear understanding of the solar myth that all texts have deliberately obscured.” What our male writers sought, Wittig's alter ego says, women shall possess. To their further questions Sophie responds with an incantation: “soleil qui épouvantes et ravis / insecte multicolore, châtoyant / tu te consumes dans la mémoire nocturne / sexe qui flamboie / le cercle est ton symbole / de toute éternité tu es / de toute éternité tu seras.” Here we have a glimpse of eternity, which unites opposites (fearful and ravishing, nocturnal but flaming) and repeats the fundamental female symbols: sun, insect, sex, circle. In response the women begin a circular dance, stamping the ground and clapping their hands, giving voice to a song, “un chant dont il ne sort pas une phrase logique.” “Phrase” may mean “musical phrase,” as the translation suggests, but also “sentence”; other than “coherent,” “logique” of course literally means “logical.” Once again, woman's discourse, transforming traditional myth, leads to a collective female knowledge bordering on ecstasy, together with a glimpse of a form of expression that transcends the known limits of language.

The beautiful black shining woman in the multicolored garden of Sophie Ménade's legend fits well with the vivid writing of Jamaica Kincaid, writing that has occasional links with earlier authors as well as Witting but that is nonetheless highly original. Caribbean and perhaps African magic and myth in the colonial and postcolonial setting, an exacerbated mother-daughter love-hate relationship, the quest for the female self amid visionary voids and expansions: these are the themes we shall pursue, first selectively in the opening “stories,” with brief excursions to other works by Kincaid, then more fully in the concluding three pieces of At the Bottom of the River, “Blackness,” “My Mother,” and the long title story.18

Less than three pages long, “Girl” (3-5) sets the tone for Kincaid's marvelously concise writing. One can think of it as a condensed version of Wittig's demonstration of the formation of the young female self, except that the field of action is not that of the school, as in L'Oppoponax, but the home. In a rapid-fire series of imperatives, directions, and questions, the mother tells the girl everything she should know about domestic skills (“Wash the white clothes on Monday”), bodily cleanliness and future sexual behavior (“on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming”), feminine comportment and class awareness (“you mustn't speak to the wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions”; “don't squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know”). References to religion (Sunday school), the supernatural (“don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all”), and the secrets of folk medicine (“this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child”) are not lacking. The girl barely gets to protest, but the overall tone, while domineering, is also affectionate and empowering, particularly regarding men, who are entirely marginal to the intense mother-daughter relationship. There are father's clothes to be ironed, a lover to be bullied, a child to be avoided, a baker to be cajoled: “you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?”

But Kincaid does not neglect the oppressiveness of the school experience, deftly evoked (as in Wittig) and the source, one imagines, of the French writer's later oppositional stance and of the anger expressed in Kincaid's Annie John and particularly A Small Place.19 In the former we see the heroine reading Roman Britain and A History of the West Indies and being punished by having to copy out the first two books of Paradise Lost. But if her teacher is reading The Tempest, we may recall Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête, just as the girl's favorite book, Jane Eyre, recalls Jean Rhys and Wide Sargasso Sea. Most of all, her reaction to a picture of Columbus in chains leads her to think that he got what he deserved (39, 73, 77, 82, 92).

A Small Place is infinitely more angry, detailing the horrors of conquest and the slave trade. These include the number of black slaves swallowed by the ocean, the “English maritime criminal, Horatio Nelson,” the beginnings of Barclays Bank in the slave trade, the Northern Irish teacher who tells the children to stop acting like monkeys, the Condrington family, specialists in breeding blacks for slavery, the irony that to commemorate their independence Antiguans “go to church and thank God, a British God,” the fury at having been deprived of a tongue, at having to write in “the language of the criminal.” In the corruption of independence local politicians are not spared, but neither are the Syrian and Lebanese drug dealers and landowners who exploit the population of former slaves. The Middle East, source of so much inspiration and violence, even here seems inescapable! But the tourists who are attacked from the outset are mainly us, and if as readers we resist that accusation20 we cannot ignore the threat of American power in the reference to the invasion of Grenada and the fear that it could occur again in Antigua (9, 11, 14, 24, 26, 29, 31, 41-46, 51, 58, 61-62, 72-74, 80).

In At the Bottom of the River these themes are fleeting but not less significant. Aside from various articles imported from England and glasses commemorating a coronation, as well as suggestions of later travel to various regions of the United States (7, 10, 13, 32-35), in “Wingless” we see small children reading simple words and sentences, producing beautiful penmanship, learning the English calendar and system of money and weights. The book they read from is Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, with its finally un-Blakean chimney sweeps and apparent prettification of child labor: “‘You, of course, would have been very cold sitting there on a September night, without the least bit of clothes on your wet back; but Tom was a water-baby, and therefore felt cold no more than a fish’” (20-21).21 Later the visionary sequences of “What I Have Been Doing Lately” are initiated when the speaker steps outdoors into a drizzle or damp dust tasting “like government school ink.” This small notation speaks volumes and is related to the following vision of beautiful black and shiny people, which, however, is quickly negated: “All around me was black mud and the people all looked as if they had been made up out of the black mud” (40, 44). Only later will the racial shame engendered by an oppressive education be eradicated.

But the mother-daughter obsession is more traumatic, and is the source as well of many fantastic passages. The second piece in the collection, “In the Night” (6-12), is a Caribbean version of dream experience. The narrator, a child who wets her bed and dreams of a baby being born, nonetheless projects a temporal distance: “my mother, who is still young, and still beautiful.” Supernatural presences loom—the spirit of a murdered woman, the dead Mr. Gishard standing under a tree, the eery night-soil men, a woman who removes her skin, drinks the blood of her enemies, and is said to be reasonable in admiring honeybees and the hibiscus but who also brays like a donkey. “Magic realism,”22 perhaps, but particularly inflected by the figure of the mother, who describes the “jablesse” (presumably a deformation of diablesse—the mother in Annie John speaks a French patois): a person who can turn into anything, whose eyes shine like lamps, and who looks like a beautiful woman. But the mother is a beautiful woman! Moreover, the positive father figure in this story is a night-soil man, whose lack of substance is stressed by the fact that he is introduced as a negation: “No one has ever said to me, ‘My father, a night-soil man, is very nice and very kind.’”

At the end of “In the Night,” beginning “Now I am a girl,” the narrator dreams of marrying a red-skinned woman with black bramblebush hair in whose lap she can bury her head. Together they would lead a childlike existence, throwing hardened cow dung at people they don't like, stealing green figs, and being forever “completely happy.” In another pointed historical note, they also frighten little children with John Bull masks. This is the phase of utter identification with the mother, but the inevitability of future separation is threatened by pictures of good-byes on a jetty, like the end of Annie John.

The separation is painfully dramatized in the two parts of the following piece, “At Last” (13-19), whose title stresses the temporal dimension of anticipation and fulfillment. The fulfillment is the anguished meeting between aged mother and grown daughter, now immeasurably apart: “So I was loved?” “Yes.” A man appears briefly, only to die, whereupon a worm crawls out of his leg. The mother recalls acting like a jablesse, shining in the dark, appearing as a man or a hoofed animal.

The second part apparently represents the reflections of the daughter on children and on the passage of time: “Children are so quick”; “A pirate's trunk. A fisherman's catch. A tree, bearing fruits. A bullying boy's marbles. All that used to be is alive here.” But the reflection on time opens up to the nonhuman, a little as in Blake, to reflections on the life of ants, oranges, frogs, chickens:

Unusually large berries, red, gold, and indigo, sliced open and embedded in soft mud. The duck's bill, hard and sharp and shiny; the duck itself, driven and ruthless. The heat, in waves, coiling and uncoiling until everything seeks shelter in the shade.

Sensing the danger, the spotted beetle pauses, then retraces its primitive crawl. Red fluid rock was deposited here, and now the soil is rich in minerals. On the vines, the ripening vegetables.

But what is a beetle? What is one fly? What is one day? What is anything after it is dead and gone?


Here the recurrent mother-daughter thematic engenders a Blake-like23 reflection, recalling “The Argument” and passages in Milton, on the relationship between concretely existing creatures and a vast geological time frame, on the now-existing and the now-about-to-die.

The following four pieces, some aspects of which have been mentioned, ring various changes on the mother-daughter, temporal-visionary motifs. Among the school children in “Wingless” (20-28), the narrator can distance herself in the reiterated “But I swim in a shaft of light, upside down, and I can see myself clearly, through and through, from every angle.” Older than the girl in the opening story, this “I” has emotions of desire, competition, vulnerability in relation to the mother: “That woman over there. Is she cruel? Does she love me? And if not, can I make her?” Substitute female objects of attraction begin to emerge in the repeated claim to have “humped” other girls.24 Nonetheless she feels defenseless and small, and there are a couple of sharp dialogues, mean versions of “Girl.” At one point she follows the woman she loves, who walks on water and magically slays a man who emerges: “Then, instead of removing her cutlass from the folds of her big and beautiful skirt and cutting the man in two at the waist, she only smiled—a red, red smile—and like a fly he dropped dead.” The girl's desire for this castrating mother produces another reflection on the nonhuman, the animal and the insect world, before mysteriously regressing to the childhood state, “now, even now, so still in bed, in sleep.”

“Holidays” is on the whole a happy piece, but even so the narrator thinks of the superstitious belief that “if you sit with your hands on your head, you will kill your mother” (31). Its last segment is rare in that it presents the vacation laughter of a family complete with handsome man, beautiful woman, and happy children (35-36). But in “The Letter from Home” (37-39), a woman, well prepared (one may feel) by “Girl,” recounts in singsong fashion the numerous domestic tasks that she performs. A marital situation emerges, with husband and children, but he is whiny and sick, about to be taken off to the hospital. At the same time, the magical returns as the narrative “I” sheds her skin, and the closing encounter with a man is deathly and refusing: “I saw a man, He was in a shroud, I sat in a rowboat, He whistled sweetly to me, I narrowed my eyes, He beckoned to me, Come now; I turned and rowed away, as if I didn't know what I was doing.” Previous to that, the domestic frame had abruptly veered to the geological and the religious: “the angiosperms prospered, the mammal-like reptiles vanished (Is the Heaven to be above? Is the Hell below? Does the Lamb still lie meek? Does the Lion roar? Will the streams all run clear? Will we kiss each other deeply?).” Blake, Novalis, and Nerval come to mind, with the exception that the human equivalent to cosmic and supernatural issues, the kiss between lovers, has the baleful end that I have already cited.

The title “What I Have Been Doing Lately” (40-45), and that piece's initial situation, “I was lying in bed and the doorbell rang,” resemble the preceding in their quotidian tone. The quest for the mother persists, too, as the speaker goes on a strange journey at the end of which she finally encounters a lone figure. At first she is sure it is her mother, then realizes it is not, although she is not frightened since she can “see that it was a woman.” She imagines sarcastic responses to the woman's question about what she has been doing lately, but instead begins the story again: “I was lying in bed.” The action recurs with differences, including the encounter with the beautiful black people who turn into mud, and concludes with another memory of childhood and motherly care, concluding, “And I went back to lying in bed, just before the doorbell rang.” Differing somewhat from earlier stories dramatizing one or another phase of the mother-daughter relationship, this piece implies the perpetual possibility of reenacting the loss, the search, the regression. And another kind of visionary movement and landscape is engendered by the mother-daughter relationship—an endless journey, a large body of water to be crossed, years of waiting, a hole into which the narrator falls, glimpsing unreadable foreign writing. Recalling Alice as well as the visionary writers, the “I” here exerts unusual power in reversing her fall and in ordering the hole to close up: “You can close up now, and it did.”25

So we repeatedly encounter in these pieces visionary openings that recall some of our earlier writers but that are strikingly original due to the Caribbean, and thus racial, component as well as the female orientation—domination of the mother and elimination, sometimes gruesome, of the male. The three last stories, progressively longer (seven, nine, and twenty pages), explore these concerns more fully, through anguish providing resolution of the racial, mother-daughter, and visionary motifs. The titles, “Blackness,” “My Mother,” “At the Bottom of the River” (Kincaid's final visionary setting), correspond.

These “stories” are so magical as to merit close attention. The opening sentence of the first (46-52) illustrates Kincaid's verbal felicity in the language of the criminal: “How soft is the blackness as it falls.”26 This first part (there are two others, the second shockingly political, the third concerning the speaker's child, for the “girl” here is again a mother in her own right) describes a dissolution of self occasioned by the falling of darkness. “The blackness is visible and yet it is invisible, for I see that I cannot see it. The blackness fills up a small room, a large field, an island, my own being.” This is different from, say, Nerval's treatment of vision and the impossibility of vision. The familiar Antiguan scenery dissolves, but the blackness is interior also, and not only in a racial sense. It flows through her veins, entering her “many-tiered spaces,” so that significant words and events vanish. What we might describe as a materialist-mystical experience follows, as she is annihilated, becomes formless, “absorbed into a vastness of free-flowing matter.” She is erased, can no longer say her name or point to her “I,” “swallowed up in the darkness so that I am one with it.”

The speaker tries to retain small flashes of experience in her daily life, clinging to common and familiar objects, but surprisingly discovers her own foot as separate from herself. Her question “What is my nature, then?” she answers with reflections on evolution, evoking familiar images of “a miner seeking veins of treasure,” of stark mountains turned to meadow, with “a spring of clear water, its origins a mystery.” But the concluding sentence of this part seems uniquely female, uniquely characteristic of the woman who changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid:27 “And again and again, the heart—buried deeply as ever in the human breast, its four chambers exposed to love and joy and pain and the small shafts that fall with desperation in between.”

In shocking contrast, illustrating the continuing presence of destructive history that the visionary text can never ignore, in the second part the woman dreams of a band of guerrillas who pass between the sun and the earth, so that “they blotted out the daylight and night fell immediately and permanently.” No one can persuade me that Kincaid is ignorant of the apocalyptic-political significance of such symbolism in the tradition treated in this book. In the last decade of the twentieth century the reader might think of guerrillas and death squads and dictators in Caribbean states and of long-term United States responsibility therein.28 The narrator's immediate reaction is more specific to her life: “No longer could I see the blooming trefoils, their overpowering perfume a constant giddy delight to me,” nor the domesticated animals, wild beasts, hunter and prey, “the smith moving cautiously in a swirl of hot sparks or bent over anvil and bellows.” The men scorch flowers with their breath and with bare hands destroy the marble columns of the woman's house. Then she watches “their backs until they were just a small spot on the horizon.”

Frightful as this evocation is, then, it is passing, giving way in the last part to evocation of the woman's child. First there is an extraordinarily positive and satisfying sense of maternity as she observes the girl and remembers having chewed food for her when she was weak: “This is my child!” Harmful notes are not avoided as she describes the girl's hyperbolic cruelty to a hunchback boy. Her arms grow to incredible lengths, her whisper shatters his eardrum, and with his sense of direction destroyed she builds him a hut on the edge of a cliff, daily observing his nearness to “a fate which he knows and yet cannot truly know until the moment it consumes him.”

The girl now experiences the metaphysical awareness first expressed by her mother, tracing all things back to their beginnings, moving from dark to light, from death to death. In the fleeting existence that her mother gave her, “she embraces time as it passes in numbing sameness, bearing in its wake a multitude of great sadnesses.” This nonetheless allows the mother to accept the annihilation of self that blackness first threatened. She shrugs off conflict, hatred, and despair, and in love stands “inside the silent voice,” enfolded by it so that “even in memory the blackness is erased.” Prehistoric motifs return, as “lions roam the continents, the continents are not separated.” The woman is no longer “I”; she is “at peace,” “erased.”

Having achieved maternity and reconciliation with the loss of self in the context of destructive history and at the cost of a compensatory brutalization of the male, in “My Mother” the woman narrator finally, and very movingly, achieves reunion with her mother. This may be thought to redeem the sadness of the break with the mother in Annie John, corresponding to the dedication, in part, of At the Bottom of the River to Kincaid's mother.

“My Mother” (53-61) unfolds in nine sequences containing familiar themes and transformations. The first concerns guilt over the desire to kill the mother, the latter's suffocating forgiveness, and the girl's growing of breasts on which to rest her head and hence comfort herself, culminating in a concretization of hypocritical poses that recalls Blake. With the tears she has cried the girl makes a pond between them, a poisonous pond filled with unnameable invertebrates: “My mother and I now watched each other carefully, always making sure to shower the other with words and deeds of love and affection.” Back in a more familiar setting, in the second part the girl sits in the dark on her mother's bed, “trying to get a good look at myself.” The effort of achieving self-identity under the influence of the mother is clear, particularly since the mother first lights then extinguishes candles, so that at the end the daughter is still on the bed, “trying to get a good look at myself.”

The next four parts involve monstrous transformations as the two turn into reptiles, then journey across a valley into a cave, where they stay for years, the girl growing a special lens to see in the darkness and a special coat to keep warm. Along the way they visit the Garden of Fruits, leaving in their wake as they depart “small colonies of worms.” The daughter tries to accomplish her desire to kill the mother by building a floorless house over a hole, but her mother again walks miraculously, this time on air, before vanishing. The daughter then grows to monstrous height, but the mother is three times as tall so that sometimes she “cannot see from her breasts on up.” Once again, although there is nothing like the elaborate attention to the female body found in Wittig, the breasts reappear as symbol of physical maturity and separation from the mother. Furious anger then gives way to sleep, “the only dreamless sleep I have ever had.”

At this point the mother decides on a journey of departure, the jetty of Annie John reappearing. But this time the separation is positive, as the daughter encounters on a new island a woman with a different face but feet completely like her own, in whom she recognizes her mother. Peace descends on her, and in a different house she and her mother grow together, eating from the same bowl, sleeping on the same pillow. In passing we note another dead youth as well as a domineering father. In the concluding part, men appear only as servants of the reunited mother and daughter, in a magically regressive mode of writing:

The fishermen are coming in from sea; their catch is bountiful, my mother has seen to that. As the waves plop, plop against each other, the fishermen are happy that the sea is calm. My mother points out the fishermen to me, their contentment is a source of my contentment. I am sitting in my mother's enormous lap. Sometimes I sit on a mat she has made for me from her hair. The lime trees are weighed down with limes—I have already perfumed myself with their blossoms. A hummingbird has nested on my stomach, a sign of my fertileness. My mother and I live in a bower made from flowers whose petals are imperishable. There is the silvery blue of the sea, crisscrossed with sharp darts of light, there is the warm rain falling on the clumps of castor bush, there is the small lamb bounding across the pasture, there is the soft ground welcoming the soles of my pink feet. It is in this way my mother and I have lived for a long time now.


The mother's power and the subservient role of men, the imperishable lushness and bounty of nature, the pastoral symbol of innocence, the child's body rediscovered together with a mature fertileness requiring no immediate male presence—one would think that all of this would conclude the work. But there is more: “This, then, is the terrain.” Another deft sentence, a simplified alliterative and rhythmic pattern, deictically calls our attention to the scene, the terrain of vision in “At the Bottom of the River” (62-82), with the word then having temporal and logical dimensions (the ultimate time, the conclusion which all that has preceded has prepared).

The first section of “At the Bottom of the River” describes this terrain, then, unusually, the lives of two men. The scene—steepest mountains, sharp rocks posing greatest danger, perilously flowing stream that from babbling brook swells to a thundering waterfall, ruthlessly conquering the plain, then after a gorge creating a basin and a pool—reminds us of both the opening of Heinrich and of “Kubla Khan.” But there is no sexualized element, just a comparison to a small boy playfully dragging a toy and the suggestion that only the “most deeply arched of human feet,” surely a female reference, can venture here. At the end of the description, indeed, the scene “awaits the eye, the hand, the foot that shall then give all this a meaning.”

The innocent boy (how rare) allows the introduction of two male figures, neither of whom will be able to tread the visionary terrain. The first exists in autistic solitude, incapable of appreciating nature, the world of work and commerce, family life, emotions, the turbulence of human history. “He sits in nothing, in nothing, in nothing.” The second man, like the father in Annie John, instead appreciates all of the above: “Look! A man steps out of bed, a good half hour after his wife, and washes himself.” This passage is the only “happy” evocation of conventional domestic life. Like the father in Annie John, the man here is a gifted carpenter and builder, achieving satisfaction from his creations as well as from his appreciation of ordinary events and the beauty of nature. There is love but submission on the part of mother and daughter. But when leaving the house for work he in turn is paralyzed by geological-metaphysical reflections, images of subterranean veins of gold, “bubbling sulfurous fountains, the mountains covered with hot lava; at the bottom of some caves lies the black dust, and below that rich clay sediment, and trapped between the layers are filaments of winged beasts and remnants of invertebrates.” “‘And where shall I be?’ asks this man” (67). Like the first, he too at the end of the first section confronts nothing: “For stretching out before him is a silence so dreadful, a vastness, its length and breadth and depth immeasurable. Nothing” (68).

Amid images of death (“The branches were dead; a fly hung dead on the branches, its fragile body fluttering in the wind as if it were remnants of a beautiful gown; a beetle had fed on the body of the fly but now lay dead, too. Death on death on death,” 68), an older woman, reflecting in the first person, recalls now-grown children and the bitterness of her awareness of mortality. Repeatedly a “you” (could we imagine a husband here?) reminds her that death is natural, life an intrusion. Discovering a spot that marks the disappearance of a small creature, she “divines” its life, once again in terms recalling Blake's range from the minute to the cosmic—its male and female existence, its broadly striped and colorful body, the delicious pain it felt in the sting of a honeybee, its “deep, dark memory unspeakable.” In terms of its experience, the creature “lived so in a length of time that may be measured to be no less than the blink of an eye, or no more than one hundred millenniums.” Yet it too vanished, provoking the mocking, and, we feel more and more sure, male reaction: “Death is natural.” The passage ends with a sequence of deaths—the miserable form of a worm, eaten by a majestic bird, who however will be killed by the again more destructive boy. “And what of the boy? His ends are numberless. I glean again the death in life.”

Then the “I” recalls again her childhood and her loving mother, wishing to return to the time of the glorious aspects of nature “from which I had no trouble tearing myself away, since their end was unknown to me.” Most positively, though, she remembers seeing her mother's face, whose negroid beauty is now celebrated:

the lips like a moon in its first and last quarter, a nose with a bony bridge and wide nostrils that flared out and trembled visibly in excitement, ears the lobes of which were large and soft and silk-like; and what pleasure it gave me to press them between my thumb and forefinger. How I worshipped this beauty, and in my childish heart I would always say to it, “Yes, yes, yes.”


Now comes the time for the female narrator to immerse herself in the visionary river, the one evoked at the outset, presumably, but now having reached the sea: “I walked to the mouth of the river, and it was then still in the old place near the lime tree grove. The water was clear and still. I looked in, and at the bottom of the river I could see a house, and it was a house of only one room, with an A-shaped roof.” Coleridge may once more be in the background,29 but the domestic Caribbean setting is suggested by the house, the setting for so many interactions between mother and daughter. The return in time is patent, too, since the river is said to be still in the same place. But the house, like certain visions in Novalis and Nerval, though apparently fully real, is uncanny. There is no life or movement or sound, only a strange light in which “nothing cast a shadow.”

A woman now appears at the door, a naked black woman whose hair stands out in a straight line, her insteps high from climbing mountains, her brown clay skin like that of a statue, liquid and gleaming. She presents a second positive and powerful image of black female beauty. The woman looks at something that finally the narrator is able to see, a world not of passing appearances but of benevolence and purpose, “unquestionable truth and purpose and beauty.” Although this world is inhabited by creatures, it is not yet divided, examined, numbered, not yet dead: “I longed to go there.”

This vision of a world that all the “facts” of normal experience deny produces for the narrating female “I” a wonderful discovery of self:

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. I saw that my face was round in shape, that my irises took up almost all the space in my eyes, and that my eyes were brown, with yellow-colored and black-colored flecks; that my mouth was large and closed; that my nose, too, was large and my nostrils broken circles; my arms were long, my hands large, the veins pushing up against my skin; my legs were long, and, judging from the shape of them, I was used to running long distances. I saw that my hair grew out long from my head and in a disorderly way, as if I were a strange tree, with many branches. I saw my skin, and it was red. It was the red of flames when a fire is properly fed, the red of flames when a fire burns alone in a darkened place, and not the red of flames when a fire is burning in a cozy room. I saw myself clearly, as if I were looking through a pane of glass.


Pace Lacan, this is no mirror stage but rather a stage of adult superior self-awareness. Standing above the land and the sea, the speaker nonetheless looks back up at herself, thus reversing the normal perspective, and her self-vision at the end has the clarity of one looking through a window. She details her facial, particularly racial, features. Strong, unsubmissive, undomestic, she has the fiery redness of a female Orc. This self-vision is set “on the bank of the mouth of the river.” In the next paragraph she discovers a self superior to the body and made of will and dominion: whereupon “I entered the sea then” (another portentous “then”). Evoking again familiar motifs, her immersion seems to be in “freshly spilled blood.” Then she moves through deep caverns, crosses great ridges, reaches bottom, perceives a vast crystal plane, and finally sits like a child on the edge of a basin. But the self she now experiences has been stripped of every terrestrial attribute; she has no name for it, exists beyond pain and pleasure, has no sense of “real or not real.”

Yet, as she discovers, “how beautiful I became.” Still this beauty “was not in the way” of known realities—ancient cities, women and men in stereotypical pursuits, or a child or an apple or tiny beads of water after rain, “or the sound the hummingbird makes with its wings as it propels itself through the earthly air.” In a manner wholly different from Lautréamont's or Aragon's analogy games, this negative evocation of the unearthly beauty that she has found paradoxically materializes and visualizes the concrete beauties of our here-and-now world.

This prepares the brief final section of the work, where the here-and-now world is rejoined. This reentry proceeds first by questions (“Yet what was that light in which I stood?”), then by possibilities: “For now a door might suddenly be pushed open and the morning light might rush in, revealing to me creation and a force whose nature is implacable, unmindful of any of the individual needs of existence, and without knowledge of future or past.” This leads to the possibility of a belief in a superior being “whose impartiality I cannot know or ever fully understand and accept,” as well as to a coveting of the mute state of rocks and mountains. Nonetheless, emerging from her pit in a movement recalling the end of Milton and Aurélia, she now steps into a room and sees lamp, chair, table, pen—she is a writer, after all—fruit, milk, flute, “the clothes that I will wear.” Seeing these perishable things, she faces mutability and yet the knowledge that she is bound “to all that is human endeavor.” Then, in an enactment that no amount of theorizing, French or Anglo-Saxon, can match, she comes to full self-awareness: “I claim these things then—mine—and now feel myself grow solid and complete, my name filling up my mouth.” The physical self, the sense of identity with an authentic name, the gift of utterance—such are the accomplishments of the female at the term of the visionary expansions and voids of At the Bottom of the River.


  1. See for example the brilliant article by my colleague Réda Bensmaïa, “Poétique et androgynie: Le livre du sang d'Abdelkebir Khatibi,” in Poétiques croisées du Maghreb, special number of Itinéraires et Contacts de Cultures 14 (1991): 99-109; David M. Bethea, The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989); and the papers presented at the session entitled “Visions of the Apocalypse: End of the Century, End of the World,” Modern Language Association Convention, New York, N.Y., Dec. 28, 1992, in particular Evans Lansing Smith, “(Re)Figuring Revelation: Mann, Broch, Cortazar,” and Patricia Merivale, “Sonatas of Rubble and Rust: Four Artist Parables of the Apocalypse.” Although Merivale focuses on contemporary writers such as Claude Ollier and Peter Hanka, her range of reference extends from Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) to the tradition of science fiction.

  2. For a wide-ranging study including Wittig, see Frances Bartowski, Feminist Utopias (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

  3. See Cathy Linstrum, “L'Asile des femmes: Subjectivity and Femininity in Breton's Nadja and Wittig's Le Corps lesbien,Nottingham French Studies 27 (1988): 35-45; and especially the superb treatment of Wittig's production as a response to surrealism and other male-dominated French movements in Elaine Marks, “Lesbian Intertextuality,” in Homosexualities in French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts, ed. George Stambolian and Elaine Marks (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 353-77.

  4. For Burroughs's opinion that women should create a separate utopia, and for views of The Wild Boys and The Cities of Red Night as futuristic and retroactive utopias, see Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg, eds., William Burroughs at the Front (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 190-91, 225.

  5. Hélène Vivienne Wenzel, “The Text as Body/Politics: An Appreciation of Monique Wittig's Writings in Context,” Feminist Studies 7 (1981): 264-87, esp. 282. See also E. Marks, “Lesbian Intertextuality”; Diane Griffin Crowder, “Amazons and Mothers? Monique Wittig, Hélène Cixous and Theories of Women's Writing,” Contemporary Literature 24 (1983): 117-44; Namascar Shaktini, “Displacing the Phallic Subject: Wittig's Lesbian Writing,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 8 (1982): 29-44. Wenzel, 284-85, shows how Wittig's writing appropriates for the female traditional male forms—Bildungsroman, epic (Les Guérillères), “Song of Songs,” dictionary-lexicon.

  6. Among others by H. Adlai Murdoch, “Severing the (M)other Connection: The Representation of Cultural Identity in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John,Callaloo 13 (1990): 325-40.

  7. Selwyn R. Cudjoe, “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview,” in Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, ed. Cudjoe (Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux Publications, 1990), 215-32, esp. 218, 226, 229, 230.

  8. See Wenzel, “Text as Body/Politics,” 265; Crowder, “Amazons and Mothers?,” 143. In addition to those articles, for the history of the conflict between Cixous and Wittig see Ann Rosalind Jones, “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of L'Ecriture féminine,Feminist Studies 7 (1981): 247-63; Cecile Lindsay, “Body/Language: French Feminist Utopias,” The French Review 60 (1986): 46-55. Most of the articles I cite are favorable to Wittig as opposed to Cixous. In subsequent years American feminist writers have continued their attack on the “essentialism” of French feminist thought. See notably Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). Butler mentions Cixous only once in passing, and instead focuses her critique on Wittig as well as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. For Butler, not only gender but sex and the body itself are not natural but cultural-political constructs—a pertinent but extreme position that I do not believe undermines the writing by Wittig and Kincaid treated here.

  9. The sexual trauma and allegory of class murder in Maldoror and similar themes in Naked Lunch are not unrelated.

  10. I quote from the translation by David Le Vay (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985); the French text was published by the Editions de Minuit (Paris, 1969). For a book-length treatment of Wittig's writing, see Erika Ostrovsky, A Constant Journey: The Fiction of Monique Wittig (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991). For aspects of form in Les Guérillères, see my colleague Laura G. Durand's “Heroic Feminism as Art,” Novel 8 (1974): 71-77; Jean Duffy, “Women and Language in Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig,” Stanford French Review 7 (1983): 399-412; Lawrence M. Porter, “Writing Feminism: Myth, Epic and Utopia in Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères,L'Esprit Créateur 29 (1989): 92-100; Jennifer Waelti-Walters, “Circle Games in Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères,Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 6 (1980): 59-64; and especially Marthe Rosenfeld, “Language and the Vision of a Lesbian-Feminist Utopia in Wittig's Les Guérillères,Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 6 (1981): 6-9.

  11. See Crowder, “Amazons and Mothers?,” 126; Mary Spraggins, “Myth and Ms.: Entrapment and Liberation in Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères,The International Fiction Review 3 (1976): 47-51; and especially Winnie Woodhull, “By Myriad Constellations: Monique Wittig and the Writing of Women's Experience,” in Power, Gender, Values, ed. Judith Genova (Alberta: Academic Printing and Publishing, 1987), 13-26.

  12. Not only in At the Bottom of the River but in (historically and racially pointed) “floral” writing in The New Yorker, e.g., Oct. 5, 1992; Feb. 22 and Mar. 29, 1993—and also in her novel Lucy (New York: Penguin Plume, 1991), 17-18, 28-30.

  13. Abracadabrant recalls Rimbaud's “Le Coeur volé” and more generally his effort to see things in a visionary way; there are similar themes in Breton, including his preference, in Nadja and elsewhere, for “found” objects. See also Michel de Certeau's description of la perruque as practiced by French factory workers, “On the Oppositional Practices of Everyday Life,” Social Text 3 (1980): 3-43, esp. 3-4, cited in Ross Chambers, Room For Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 6-7.

  14. Crowder, “Amazons and Mothers?,” 119.

  15. See the reunification of the fallen human being at the end of many works by Blake, and similar themes in Rimbaud, including the closing lines of Une Saison en enfer.

  16. See Marthe Rosenfeld, “Language and the Vision,” 9.

  17. On this passage see Diane Griffin Crowder, “The Semiotic Functions of Ideology in Literary Discourse,” in Literature and Ideology, special number of The Bucknell Review, ed. James M. Heath (East Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1982): 157-68. In her 1994 doctoral dissertation in comparative literature at Brown University, “Myth as Muteness, Myth as Voice: Feminism, Quest and Imperialism,” Ellen H. Douglass draws on an extraordinary range of feminist theorists, theologians, and writers to develop a theory of feminist myth. Although Douglass does not treat Kincaid in the thesis, it will be seen that all of the features of her title are apt for that writer's work.

  18. I quote River, most of which was first published in The New Yorker, from the Vintage Aventura edition (New York, 1985). The back cover of this book refers to the work as “stories,” not (as we shall see) an adequate term. Two collections of criticism on Caribbean women writers provide background for and commentary on Kincaid: Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, ed. Carole Boyce Davis and Elaine Savory Fido (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990); and Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe (Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux Publications, 1990). See also Murdoch, “Severing the (M)other Connection”; Patricia Ismond, “Jamaica Kincaid: ‘First They Must Be Children,’” World Literature Written in English 28 (1988): 336-41; Wendy Dutton, “Merge and Separate: Jamaica Kincaid's Fiction,” World Literature Today 63 (1989): 406-10. The obsession with the mother and the significance of race and of voodoo or obeah magic are stressed, though there is an unfortunate tendency to use the semiautobiographical novel Annie John to “explain” the visionary moments in River (Kumbla, 5; Dutton, 406).

  19. Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John (New York: Penguin Plume, 1985); A Small Place (New York: Penguin Plume, 1988).

  20. Accusation systematically becomes cooperation, however, as more and more our sympathy is enlisted to understand the plight of the former slaves.

  21. Among many of Kingsley's targets are the evils of class, work, and exploitation. Yet the wonderful visions in the book come about only because Tom is dead, and one could argue that the work is not at all ideologically liberating. In particular it must have infuriated Kincaid to see the extent to which it perpetuates English (and male) power: “Meanwhile, do you learn your lessons, and thank God that you have plenty of cold water to wash in; and wash in it too, like a true Englishman”—Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby, 1st ed. (London and Cambridge: Macmillan and Company, 1863), 349.

  22. I refer particularly to a classic expression of Caribbean magic realism, Alejo Carpentier's preface to El reino de este mundo (1949), which “rediscovers” the marvelous in Caribbean life through the influence of French surrealism (not without, may it be said, an accompanying element of sexism). Along with surrealist writers and artists, Carpentier cites Rimbaud and Lautréamont as highly representative of “literatura maravillosa.” I am indebted to Ellen Douglass for this reference. See the edition prefaced by Federico Acevedo (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1994), 5-11. In contrast, I remind the reader that in an interview with Selwyn R. Cudjoe reprinted in Caribbean Women Writers, Kincaid stresses the influence of her mother (who named her), obeah magic, including a detail reproduced in River (the crawling of a worm from a dead man's leg), an awareness of a higher reality beyond the normal sense world, and the inseparability of waking and dream states (“Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview,” 215-32, esp. 218, 226, 229, 230).

  23. Typical of some early uncomprehending journalistic reviews, Edith Milton's (!) connection between River and Blake is peevish: “Sometimes eccentricity works, sometimes not” (New York Times Book Review, Jan. 15, 1984, p. 22).

  24. Like Gwen and the red girl in Annie John.

  25. Dutton, “Merge and Separate” (408-9), evokes the Sibyl's cave in Mary Shelley's The Last Man. She also quotes Zora Neale Hurston on the role of women in voodoo religion in ways that indicate a closer link between Kincaid and Witting than might otherwise be assumed:

    She [the voodoo priestess] replies by throwing back her veil and revealing her sex organs. The ceremony means that this is the infinite, the ultimate truth. … It is considered the greatest honor for all males participating to kiss her organ of creation for Damballa, the god of gods has permitted them to come face to face with truth.

    (Tell My Horse [Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1983], 137-38).

  26. This verbal felicity includes the primarily iambic opening pattern; the hushed exclamation produced by how without exclamation point and the very soft sound of soft; the a and l sounds and the falling end rhythm of “blackness as it falls.”

  27. In her interview with Cudjoe (“Modernist Project,” 218-20), Kincaid discusses the reason for changing her name, noting—and this is again indicative of the female, matriarchal origins of her writing—that her original name was given her by her mother.

  28. See, among many news reports, Anthony Lewis' column “Fear of the Truth,” New York Times, April 2, 1993, p. 33.

  29. See the poem beginning “This lime tree bower my prison.”

Brenda F. Berrian (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5610

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, England, and the Caribbean. One writer—and one who has captured the admiration of well-established writers like Andrew Salkey, Derek Walcott, and Anne Tyler—is Jamaica Kincaid of Antigua. In 1983, Kincaid, then a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, published a collection of ten unusual short stories under the title of At the Bottom of the River, seven of which had previously appeared in The New Yorker. Two years later, Kincaid's first novel, Annie John (1985), one of the three finalists for the 1985 international Ritz Paris Hemingway Award, appeared and became the first novel published by an Antiguan woman.

Upon reading At the Bottom of the River, one realizes that the terminology “short stories” needs to be replaced with words like prose poems or poetic vignettes. Kincaid serves up slices of life that are surrealistic images or abstract snapshots of introspective dreamlike cogitations. Demonstrating an uncommon descriptive style of writing, each of the ten stories is like an individual snapshot frozen in place and left to be inspected as a detailed record of a pleasant or an unpleasant moment. Kincaid's ability to pull one into her world of haunting beauty as well as painful legacies of colonialism into photographs from one book to another provides the structure of this paper. Also, Kincaid's preoccupation with the female rite of passage cast against the imposed sociopolitical barriers that inhibit a Caribbean female from being a first-class citizen is explored. Although the female narrator in At the Bottom of the River is never identified by name, some concerns and themes are repeated in the character of Annie in Annie John. As a result, the two will be referred to as Annie or the narrator/Annie throughout this essay.


Within the life story of a Caribbean female, the convergence of gender and class in the passage from childhood has its own configuration. Therefore, the portrait of the mother needs to be examined first, for she is essential to her daughter's journey toward self-definition. The mother's major roles are those of a nurturer and a safe refuge and, as Gloria Joseph contends, “To a baby a mother is ‘tree of life’; to a mother the infant is a prime responsibility” (76). This strong bond is well illustrated in Kincaid's two books. For example, in “My Mother” from At the Bottom of the River there is an outpouring of mutual love, and in “At the Bottom of the River,” the eponymous final short story, the narrator/Annie admits: “I see myself as I was as a child. How much I was loved and how much I loved … How much I loved myself and how much I was loved by my mother.”1

This mutual love in Annie John is packed symbolically into the mother's trunk, which was transported from Dominica to Antigua. Since Annie's birth, her belongings have been placed in the trunk from which the mother periodically removes an item and proceeds to relate a story connected to it to the daughter. These storytelling sessions are important for they reaffirm Annie's individual and collective family identities. Also, the process of retelling Annie's life becomes an unfolding of the mother's past, which reinforces the close bonding between the two. As Annie remarks, “No small part of my life was so unimportant that she hadn't made a note of it, and now she would tell it to me over and over again.”2

One of the luxuries of being an only child is that Annie spends most of her time in the exclusive company of her mother, rather than with both parents. However, a disadvantage is that neither parent has close friends or extended family members with whom the daughter can interact, and the father is placed along the periphery. In addition, the mother's relatives reside in Dominica; the paternal grandparents are deceased; and the father is thirty-five years older than the mother. This major age difference, along with carryovers from the father's former liaisons with other women before the parents' marriage, prompts the mother to hide the daughter to avoid an obeah spell. This act of protection—keeping the daughter in the home as much as possible—both isolates and situates them into a temporary kumbla.3 This action also explains why it is to the mother's bosom that the child presses her face to breathe in strength, wisdom, femininity, and a value system.

Oddly enough, although the mother does not hesitate to talk about Annie's coming of age, she provides an edited version of her own story about why she fled Dominica to come to Antigua. Her story is mainly told by the daughter. Few passages exist in which the mother actually articulates her thoughts. When she does speak, it is to initiate a separation when Annie reaches age twelve. Having become accustomed to wearing clothes made out of the same fabric as her mother's, Annie unexpectedly hears the declaration: “It's time you had your own clothes. You cannot go around the rest of your life looking like little me” (AJ 26).

This sudden announcement produces an end to the numerous affectionate embraces and the verbal expressions of love and adoration between mother and daughter. It further propels Annie into a confused state of mixed emotions about love and death dominated by betrayal. Previously, her life had been written by her mother when they shared baths, kisses, cooking lessons, and walks along the ocean. Now, this intense intimacy is being removed and the child is being asked to write her own life without a gradual transition. As a consequence, Annie regards her mother's announcement with trepidation. She fears her mother might die and leave her alone: “My mother and I each grew two faces: one for my father and the rest of the world, and one for us when we found ourselves alone with each other” (AJ 87).

Hence, the mother's decision precipitates a series of tantrums and an emotional warfare between her and Annie, which only increases the mother's disfavor. Finally, a resentful Annie rebels against this unwanted change by lying and stealing money from the mother's purse. The message is if you (Mother) do not give me any love, then I will take something of value from you (your money), because I (Annie) deserve it. This defiant behavior is an indirect way of demanding the mother's attention, because Annie wants back her anchor. The unprepared child, on the verge of puberty, is not ready to differentiate herself from her mother.


What is traumatic for Annie is that she thinks that she has no identity without her mother. Her harmonious world of doubleness revolved solely around her mother and now it has to be replaced. Lacking strong self-esteem, the twelve-year-old Annie wonders how she can survive on her own. Her fragile self-confidence is shaken to its foundation, because her former beloved mother no longer provides a constant flow of advice, gives no positive reinforcement, and switches from compliments to complaints. On the other hand, Annie's thefts and lies inflict pain on her mother, escalating the tensions and hostilities between them. Incorrectly seeing herself as removed from the pedestal of a well-loved child, Annie feels saddled with the unbearable burden of defining herself so soon.

Although the mother defied her own father's authority and departed his house, she contradicts this decision by trying to mold her child into a proper lady by requiring her to exhibit good manners, attend a Christian church, and obtain a British colonial education. In her desire to raise a daughter to move from a working-class status to a bourgeois one, the mother embraces Victorian double standards that control a woman's body and social conduct. First, she registers a reluctant child for piano lessons, to which the child responds with eating the teacher's plums without permission. Second, the child is required to take courses in etiquette, which result in farting exercises. Not pleased with Annie's inappropriate behavior, the mother delivers a litany of “do's” and “don'ts” in “The Girl,” which all begin to stifle Annie's movements, style of dressing, comportment, and eating habits. In retaliation, the daughter tries to break free, as Kincaid had to do in her own life: “I was brought up to be full of good manners and good speech. Where the hell I was going to go with it I don't know” (Edwards 88).

Eventually, in Annie John, the mother explodes when she happens to observe a fifteen-year-old Annie engaged in a public conversation with some boys. In a heated exchange, Annie's mother overreacts and calls her a slut; Annie, in turn, goes on the defensive because the mother's tone of voice was “as if I [Annie] were not only a stranger but a stranger that she did not wish to know” (AJ 102). Without thinking, and overcome with an uncontrollable anger about the mother's agitated state and unfair reaction, Annie replies, “Well, like father like son, like mother like daughter” (AJ 102). After a lengthy silence, her mother responds, “Until this moment, in my whole life I knew without a doubt that, without any exception, I loved you best” (AJ 103).

This statement brings Annie to a halt, for, like a typical child, until this confrontation she was only concerned with her own desires. Due to the mother's silence toward and emotional movement away from her, Annie never realized that the separation was just as painful for the mother. The error resides in the mother's failure to articulate these concerns to a bewildered Annie, who finds it impossible to make a quick adjustment. The mother's silence doubly contributes to Annie's negative outburst upon seeing her family structure (in which she was the pivotal figure) disintegrate. As the older narrator/Annie remarks later in “At Last”: “Children are so quick: quick to laugh, quick to brand, quick to scorn, quick to lay claim to the open space” (ABR [At the Bottom of the River] 17).

According to Tracey Robinson and Jane Victoria Ward in their study of resistance among African-American female adolescents, there is a tendency for the adolescents to resort to short “quick fix” survival strategies as a chosen mode for social and psychological traps (96). Annie definitely follows this pattern with stealing, lies, and a determination to play marbles underneath the parents' home. Her everyday behavior even becomes erratic when she displays evidence of her menstrual cycle to her classmates in a cemetery, indicating a new chapter in her life and the demise of another. Socially, Annie's sexual awakening and memories of verbal assaults upon her personhood become forces that encourage her to flee the small island.

Needless to say, the mother's reactions to her daughter's entrance into puberty are mixed. On the one hand, she encourages Annie to contemplate marriage and motherhood when she reaches adulthood. Yet, on the other hand, the mother finds it extremely difficult to engage in a woman-to-woman talk about sex. The main message that Annie receives is that double standards exist regarding sexual desires outside of marriage for a woman and a man. If a woman should flirt or enter willingly into a premarital affair, she will be called a slut; whereas men, like the father with his former mistresses, do not acquire a corresponding label. Annie's response to all of this is to decide not to marry.

Regarding her education, Annie dislikes the foreign teachers who insist that she should study and accept the theory that Christopher Columbus discovered Antigua. Her response is to deface the textbook underneath Columbus's picture. The dislike can be mistakenly interpreted by her teachers as a dysfunctional cultural adaptation to induced sociopolitical pressures from outside; and her behavior results in abetting her own subjugation with the mother's constant surveillance and gaze upon her. There is no escape from the colonial classroom within the private home. Annie's disruptive behavior is classified as aggressive and anti-social because she is fighting two battles—a dual separation from both the mother and from Antigua.

In Annie John more so than in At the Bottom of the River, the child's world can be seen as the Garden of Eden, a place where innocence reigns and the world is in harmony. Like the original inhabitants of the Garden, Annie John is forced out of her enclosed paradise. Unlike Adam and Eve, however, the child has committed no sin. She is just growing older. Her exile is unexpected and, she feels, undeserved. The departure from paradise causes Annie to turn on her evictors, her mother and the school-teachers. In her mind, she has done no wrong, so she labels her mother a hypocrite who was kind and loving at the beginning but then, for some unknown reason, turns her back on her child just when she is teetering between the past innocence of childhood and the sexual awakening of adolescence.

For the psychologist E. H. Erickson, the dominant crisis of adolescence is finding an identity.4 In the child's world all people are seen as interrelated; existence is defined by the role one plays in relation to another person. For Annie, her parents are mother and father; they have no proper names. Annie, herself, is what her mother and father tell her she is—little Miss. Like the house at the bottom of the river in Kincaid's story of that name, the child's world is one without divisions. The family exists as a whole unit; therefore, during the transition from childhood to adolescence, Annie is obligated to answer for who she is, from where she comes, in what she believes, and what she wants to be. During this period of self-realization Annie's basic drives, combined with her intellectual and physical capabilities, are successfully integrated. This merger leads to a stage during which an ambivalent alternation between reluctance and a desire to be independent, tied in with the imagery of shadows, darkness, and finally lightness, develops in both Annie John and At the Bottom of the River. Consequently, in spite of the anger and the contradictory feelings for her mother and Antigua, Annie John's life parallels that of Kincaid's admission: “My mother wrote my life and told it to me” (O'Conner 6).


Kincaid describes the difference in the amount of intimacy found in mother/daughter relationships as opposed to child/friend relationships as a function of coming-of-age. A familiar concept is that adolescents shift from their parents and become subjugated to peer influence. This partially occurs in Annie John when Annie quickly seeks to replace her mother's love with that of a female peer. Yet, simultaneously, a high degree of parental influence impacts upon Annie's first and second choices of friends, for they are almost duplicates of the mother. In short, the establishment of her own social network is still connected to, and is an offshoot of, contradictory feelings about love and anger directed at the mother.

As a maturing female, Annie is involved in activity and intimate, intense relationships among a small group of friends. The movement from the closed inhabited world of childhood expands with the impending adolescence; it is characterized with a confusion about which direction should be taken. Since no clear-cut directions are provided by the mother—with the exception of those that dictate ladylike behavior—and the father is removed from the conflict, Annie gravitates toward and cultivates friendships with Sonia, Gweneth, and the Red Girl. The three friends appeal to Annie's developing personality in that they either flatter her ego (Sonia), shower her with support (Gweneth), or challenge societal values placed upon Antiguan female children (the Red Girl).

Annie's first friendship is with Sonia, for she is smaller in size, two years younger, and the class dunce. Intrigued with Sonia's status as the dunce, Annie reaches out and steps into the double roles of mother and tormentor. In “My Mother,” the narrator/Annie relates, “I had grown big, but my mother was bigger, and that would always be so” (ABR 56). With Sonia, she is taller, intellectually superior, and the leader. The fascination with Sonia ends when Annie hears that Sonia's mother has died in childbirth: “She [Sonia] seemed such a shameful thing, a girl whose mother had died and left her alone in the world” (AJ 8). This comment confirms that Annie's relationship with her mother is still so intense that she cannot conceive of a permanent loss or be in the company of someone who has to cope with a mother's death.

The second friendship is established with Gweneth “Gwen” Joseph, because she is someone with whom girlish secrets, kisses, treasures, and the exposure of budding breasts to the moonlight can be shared. Nevertheless, whenever the two friends overhear remarks by their classmates, they exclaim and make gestures that are the exact copy of what they have seen their own mothers do. However, Annie's love for Gwen is so overpowering that it almost brings to an end her fear of death. Instead, new dreams about sharing a house with Gwen surrounded with high hedges to keep out the world intrude when Annie says, “I thought how dull was the fresh pressedness of her uniform, the cleanness of her neck, the neatness of her just combed plaits” (AJ 66). The two lovebirds begin to drift apart once Annie meets the exciting Red Girl and starts her menstrual cycle. The same pattern with Sonia is repeated, for Annie excels in school and grows taller than Gwen.

The third friendship marks a departure from Sonia and Gwen, who have both embraced the mother's value system, to one of revolt with the choice of the Red Girl. One way of severing the umbilical cord is for Annie to select someone who is totally opposite to Gwen. What is so appealing about the Red Girl is that she avoids the stereotyped roles and leads a daily life that Annie's mother would find to be offensive. For instance, Annie is drawn to the “wild Red Girl with the bare, flat feet, fingernails that hold at least ten anthills of dirt” (AJ 57), and an unbelievable smell “as if she has never taken a bath in her whole life” (AJ 57). The Red Girl appeals to Annie's mischievous and rebellious nature, and she dares to do the very things (such as climb a tree better than a boy) that the mother labels as taboos. Together, the two girls explore off-limit areas of the island, play marbles, and hold clandestine meetings at the forbidden lighthouse. This hidden friendship from the mother heightens Annie's search for an alternative to dependency upon parental approval.

Through the friendship with the Red Girl, Annie finds someone with whom she can experience a feminine merging, while at the same time deny feelings of merging with her mother. The Red Girl permits Annie to acknowledge openly that she is neither pleased with the mixed messages that she has been receiving from the mother nor the claustrophobic limitations of living in Antigua. For example, one day the two girls observe a cruise ship passing by Antigua occupied with wealthy passengers; they fantasize about sending confusing signals that will cause the ship to crash. This fantasy is a double rejection of the colonial influence of the British upon Antigua and the internalization of imported Victorian rules of etiquette by the mother. Since the ship will sink into the sea, the narrator/Annie in “At the Bottom of the River” can go live with the red-skinned woman in a mud hut near the sea and watch her own skin turn red.

What must be noted is that during her ambivalent struggle for psychological and physical separation, Annie fails to see that the Red Girl represents her mother's double extension. Nobody ever gives voice to all of their thoughts, dreams, or beliefs. Annie dares not bring the Red Girl home to be introduced to her parents and never learns her true name. Within the confines of her own privileged social network, Annie does not introduce the Red Girl to Gwen. Instead, she aligns herself with the Red Girl, who represents and actually lives the life of a rebel. She also uses the friendship to construct intrapsychic and social conditions to battle against the negative forces of colonial oppression reinforced by the mother.


The constant struggle between asserting her opinions and rejecting those of her mother, along with the strain of conducting a secret friendship, begins to impact upon Annie's physical and mental stamina. The inner conflicts combined with societal restraints evolve into a three-and-a-half-month self-imposed illness. Nature intervenes by providing a nonstop rainfall and a deep, dark hole/void in which she withdraws from her journey of initiation from childhood to adolescence. In “What I Have Been Doing Lately” from At the Bottom of the River, the narrator/Annie observes: “[S]o on purpose I fell in. I fell and I fell, over and over, as if I were an old suitcase. On the sides of the deep hole I could see things written, but perhaps it was a foreign language because I couldn't read them. Still I fell, for I don't know how long” (ABR 42). While in the dark hole/void, the narrator/Annie of At the Bottom of the River is able to control her subconscious inner world and to decide when to emerge into the conscious outer world: “As I fell I began to see that I didn't like the way falling made me feel. Falling made me feel sick and I missed all the people I had loved. I said, I don't want to fall anymore, and I reversed myself. I was standing again on the edge of the deep hole. I looked at the deep hole and I said you can close up now, and it did” (ABR 42). No terror is associated with the dark hole, for it is a solace and brings comfort. Also, in the world of darkness and fantasy there is harmony. In “Blackness” the female narrator/Annie asks, “What is my nature, then? For in isolation I am all purpose and industry and determination and prudence” (ABR 4). To answer this question, a special lens to see into “the darkest of darkness” is needed. The fall experienced by the narrator/Annie into a dark hole at the bottom of the river symbolizes the downward descent of the adolescent girl from innocence, followed by an upward movement to knowledge of the adult woman. In “At the Bottom of the River” the adolescent girl describes her movement into maturity: “And so emerging from my pit … I see things in the light of the lamp, all perishable and transient” (ABR 82). This retreat into a dark hole enables Annie to return to the protective infant stage of paradise to illuminate her feminine power through the intervention of the obeah. She is involved in an exploratory stage, struggling to make commitments but has not yet found the right ones.

This disappearance into a void of blackness, which leaves Annie voiceless and bedridden, provides Annie with the necessary time to face reality and to develop her own self-identity separate from her mother. Like a badly focused camera that emits a photo without a clear image, Annie has to erase her angry resentful feelings directed at her mother and accept the mother's otherness as well as her own. Initially, Annie only notices, “My happiness was somewhere deep inside of me, and when I closed my eyes I could even see it. It sat somewhere—maybe in my belly, maybe in my heart; I could not exactly tell” (AJ 85).

This short-lived happiness turns into an unhappiness that takes the “shape of a small black ball, all wrapped up in cobwebs.” Everything that Annie used to care about turns sour and is cloaked in a misty depression, to the point at which she is unable to see her own hand stretched out in front of her. At first, a British-trained doctor is called in to check Annie and finds nothing wrong with her. Then Ma Chess, the maternal grandmother who arrives unannounced from Dominica on a steamer that was not scheduled for Antigua, comes with her knowledge of the obeah. This unexpected visit, combined with the utilization of Ma Jolie's herbs, helps to bring Annie back to the world of reality.

Kincaid admits that “the role obeah plays in my work is the role it played in my life. I suppose it was just there” (Cudjoe 229). This is exactly what occurs in Annie John, because one day Ma Chess was there to heal and comfort Annie by sleeping at the foot of her granddaughter's bed. Helen Pyne Timothy insists that Ma Chess lives in the world of African spirits and is an “African healer, bush medicine specialist, and Caribbean obeah woman, extremely conscious of the presence of good and evil in life and able to ward off evil” (241). As the grandmother figure who is more rooted in the African continuum than in the European one, Ma Chess is the direct lineage to the mother and becomes her substitute when she sleeps with her body curved like a comma around Annie. By duplicating the womblike enclosure in which Annie had grown within her mother before birth, Annie spiritually experiences the double maternal strength of Ma Chess and her mother. This psychic and physical journey into the past and another reality with the foremothers is a return to the present. With the grandmother's and mother's help, the Afrocentric importance and centrality of obeah among Caribbean women is validated.

Annie cannot deny her grandmother's mysterious power and connection with the spirits during her journey toward womanhood. The trip back to her conception and into the traditional past with the “mothers” is both crucial and necessary for her recovery to transcend imposed systemic barriers. The descent into the dark hole ends with the arrival of sunshine when, interestingly enough, the first thing that the cured Annie does is to focus upon four family photographs. A visual recording of familial incidents that have been touched by colonialism, these photographs begin to contract, expand, and perspire until they emit an unbearable odor. Suffering from vertigo and the desire to erase the colonialism that has touched her family (white communion dress, wedding dress and cricket outfit), Annie washes the pictures. During the washing process Annie erases what has distressed the rebellious self to transform herself into an older and wiser person. To explain this ritual, Wendy Dutton comments, “She treats the photographs as human and thereby expresses a desire to experience life to its fullest, to go below the surface, as she does in At the Bottom of the River” (407). After all, demonstrating her newly found convictions, Annie does not erase the section of a photo that shows her wearing shoes that had been termed unsuitable by the mother.

By delving beneath the surface in “The Mother,” the narrator/Annie recognizes the strength her mother has offered. In connection with a new sense of anticipation she finally accepts that the subject of her mother is a difficult and contradictory one, but they will always be linked together: “What peace came over me then, for I could not see where she left off and I began, or where I left off and she began … As we walk through the rooms, we merge and separate, merge and separate; soon we shall enter the final stage of our evolution” (ABR 60). In her efforts to revise her life after a three-and-a-half-month illness toward reaching a healthy feminine and sexual perspective, the narrator/Annie pronounces her name: “I claim these things then-mine-and now feel myself grow solid and complete, my name filling up my mouth” (ABR 82).

Obviously, Annie's psychic illness causes her to accept her body with its normal functions. Previously, she had not liked her prepubescent awkwardness, but the lengthy and healthy illness has transformed the ugly duckling into a “tall, graceful, and altogether beautiful young woman.” In “At the Bottom of the River,” the narrator/Annie glorifies in her body's beauty as well: “I stood as if I were a prism, many-sided and transparent, refracting and reflecting light as it reached me, light that never could be destroyed. And how beautiful I became” (ABR 80). The old, hated body has become a plus. Fully recovered and a little defiant, Annie walks deliberately with her back curved in an exaggerated stoop to intimidate her schoolmates: “I had made my presence so felt that when I recovered myself my absence was felt too” (AJ 129).


The demarcating line between adolescence and adulthood is revealed in the final chapter of Annie John. Here, the eighteen-year-old Annie is cast in the role of the nurturer, for she caters to and tightens her arms around her mother as she walks to the jetty to depart for England. Her friendships with Sonia and Gwen had prepared her for this role when each time she remarked on her height and the fact that she had been the initiator of each relationship. The mother's betrayal is placed into the background, because the role reversal has the mother leaning upon her daughter for comfort and support. This is an unsettling observation for Annie, and the actual walk away from her parents and Antigua is overwhelming. Compared to the shedding of old skin by replacing it with a new one, Annie, at last, is ready to embrace her future alongside the past and the present. By emerging from the pit and uttering her name aloud, which is the same as her mother's, Annie is ready to assert her own power.

In her mental photo album, Kincaid turns to the past in an effort to gain an understanding of the troubled present and the promising future. In and through the narrator/Annie of At the Bottom of the River and Annie John, photographs of negating, transcending, and accepting the present are taken. The collision between Annie's evolving self and the Antiguan society's imposed values upon female identity occurs consistently throughout the two books. By resisting the mother's inherited Caribbean and colonial value system of what constitutes a proper lady, Annie has taken a political stance against that which destroys female affirmation and self-determination. The journey through the void is a psychic stratagem to force Annie to appraise her real position in society in connection with her acceptance that her mother no longer cultivates her aspirations. Just as her mother left Antigua, she has to be uprooted and estranged from her family and Antigua in order to follow her destiny.

The two books under discussion are stories of triumphant identity. Both books re-create childhood and the sociopolitical setting of Antigua to understand why the narrator/Annie decides to leave.5 A restless seeker, Annie learns what it is to be a woman in the context of personal identification with her mother, grandmother, foremothers, and female friends. The narrator/Annie has explored her identity formation by adopting behaviors and making lifestyle choices. Her resistance for liberation has transformed her into a woman who recognizes clearly the pitfalls of the “mother school” society to create her own sickness as a therapy for female empowerment. Finally, the narrator/Annie's awareness of self is a transparently joyful one, a refraction of sunlight, and a reflection of many colors onto the lens of a camera that clicks to take snapshots from childhood to adolescence and womanhood.


  1. Jamaica Kincaid, “At the Bottom of the River,” from At the Bottom of the River, 73. All further citations use the abbreviation ABR where needed for clarity.

  2. Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John, 22. All further references use the abbreviation AJ where needed for clarity.

  3. The kumbla is a term coined by the Jamaican writer Erna Brodber in her novel Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home to designate a protective enclosure for women.

  4. E. H. Erickson, Identity Youth and Crisis. Various adolescent stages are described in the book.

  5. On pages 127 and 128 of Annie John, Annie declares her longing to be in a place where nobody knows a thing about her and likes her for that reason. She finds the whole world of Antigua to be an unbearable burden.

Works Cited

Brodber, Erna. Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home. London: New Beacon, 1981.

Cudjoe, Selwyn. “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview.” Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux, 1990. 215-32.

Dutton, Wendy. “Merge and Separate: Jamaica Kincaid's Fiction.” World Literature Today. 63 (Summer 1989): 406-10.

Edwards, Audrey. “Jamaica Kincaid Writes of Passage.” Essence (May 1991): 88.

Erickson, E. H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968.

Joseph, Gloria. “Black Mothers and Daughters: Their Role and Function in American Society.” Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives. Ed. Gloria Joseph and Jill Lewis. New York: Anchor, 1981. 75-126.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.

———. At the Bottom of the River. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.

O'Conner, Patricia. “My Mother Wrote My Life.” New York Times Book Review (7 April 1985): 6.

Robinson, Tracey, and Jane Victoria Ward. “A Belief in Self Far Greater than Anyone's Disbelief: Cultivating Resistance among African American Female Adolescents.” Women and Therapy 11, 3/4 (1991).

Timothy, Helen Pyne. “Adolescent Rebellion and Gender Relations in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.Caribbean Women Writers. Ed. Selwyn Cudjoe. Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux, 1990. 233-42.

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14896

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 segment of “Antigua Crossings” in Rolling Stone. Of these stories only one, “Blackness,” was previously unpublished.

Kincaid's “prodigal use of wildly imaginative metaphors” makes the stories of At the Bottom of the River dense, sometimes difficult texts for the reader to decipher (CBY 1991, 332). Barney Bardsley, writing for the New Statesman, argued that it was not a book “to read straight through,” but rather to delve into slowly in order to “unlock a piece of yourself you did not even know existed” (33). Other critics have not been so generous; Anne Tyler, writing for the New Republic, called the stories “insultingly obscure” (33), perhaps because of the cryptic dreamlike quality of many of the texts.

The ten pieces that compose At the Bottom of the River are generally described by reviewers and critics as short stories—this despite the fact that they do not resemble traditional examples of this genre (or literary form). The tales differ from the traditional short story in essential ways; in fact, they seem to openly defy such categorization. Although they are short fictional texts written in prose, as in the traditional short story, the tales lack the unity of plot and consistency of characterization that readers expect from short fictional prose. Whereas the traditional short story is expected to offer a tightly structured narrative with one single plot line and sharply etched characters, Kincaid's “stories” are fragmented texts full of voices rarely fleshed out as plausible characters. Her aim does not appear to be to create believable, lifelike characters, but to evoke mood and atmosphere in the service of unfolding the trials and tribulations in the relationship between mother and daughter, the central theme of the book.

In style as well as in form the stories do not conform to the rules of the genre. They are said by critics and readers to be closer to poetry than prose. The language is brilliantly simple and lucid, but often it is in the service of a poetic lyricism that conjures the surrealistic attributes of everyday things and events. It fluctuates between the commonplace and the mysterious and fantastic. It is a style built on the use of recurrent motifs and reiterations, such as we find in musical refrains. Kincaid employs the Caribbean setting to great effect, evoking elements taken from folk tales, Obeah, and West Indian rhythms. She also borrows elements from some of her extensive readings of John Milton and the Bible, particularly those of the gospels.

In At the Bottom of the River Kincaid presents the most ordinary everyday events as if they were unfolding in a dream. In an interview with Selwym Cudjoe she has described her primary objective in the book as that of recreating the blurring of the lines between the dreaming and waking worlds of her childhood, when she believed that dreams could tell you things about your waking life, often things you did not want to know (230). In the stories collected in At the Bottom of the River she seeks to recreate that childhood perception of reality as not entirely to be trusted, not necessarily what it seemed. “I think that at some point I became obsessed with things being not that unclear, that things could not just vanish, that there could be some light that would show the reality of a thing, that this was false and this was right,” she told Cudjoe (231). The stories of At the Bottom of the River captured that “yearning for something” that characterized Kincaid's early work, a time when she was experimenting with the most suitable styles, language, and voices to recreate the Antigua she carried within her despite her voluntary exile. The collection shows the various styles, structures, and themes through which Kincaid searches for her own voice as a writer and marks the process of her literary apprenticeship.


“Girl,” the first story of the collection, was Kincaid's first work of fiction. The one-sentence story was written on a Sunday afternoon in February 1978, when Kincaid sat at the typewriter in her Hudson Street apartment and attempted to recreate her mother's voice in its first fictionalized incarnation. That afternoon she knew she had found her voice as a writer—a voice that turned out to be that of her mother (Simmons, 15). The story consists almost entirely of a mother's litany of instructions to her adolescent daughter, delivered in a preachy monologue interrupted twice by the daughter's own voice (clearly marked by italics in the text). The piece is written in the simplest of languages and describes the most mundane daily chores and circumstances; but it nonetheless succeeds in creating two vivid characters, with two distinct voices and two contending personalities.

In “Girl,” Kincaid uses the mother's exhortations to her daughter to outline the limitations the latter must accept if she is to become the imitation of a proper English lady her mother desires her to be. These involve correct gender roles (such as not squatting down to play marbles) that link the child to domesticity and an acceptance of the patriarchal parameters under which her life must unfold (domesticity is often in the service of assuring the comforts of the males of the family). The struggle between the two characters—the rebelliousness implied by the daughter's two interruptions to the mother's monologue—is both familial and political. The mother's injunctions stem from a need to guide the daughter's behavior toward conforming to social and sexual patterns she has imbued from Antigua's English colonizers; the daughter's resistance is both part of her maturation process and necessary for her own decolonization (her breaking away from patterns of behavior copied from a dominant but not native culture).

The story opens interestingly enough with the reminder that Monday is the day for washing the white clothes—a “whitewashing” of sorts—with everything the image holds of sexual and racial symbolism. The West Indian setting of the story is promptly evoked through the many seemingly insignificant details of food (pumpkin fritters, salt fish, and dasheen), weather (hot sun), and culture (singing benna, setting the table for tea, blackbirds that may be something else altogether). In this particular setting two races and two sets of cultural presuppositions are at work. For the girl in “Girl,” a black girl in a Caribbean colony, social success requires a mimicry of “white” ways as well as sexual “whiteness” or purity.

The mother's message, as internalized by the daughter in this incantatory repetition that is the text of “Girl,” focuses most particularly on matters of propriety (the “soaking her little cloths” that indicates that the girl has reached puberty and is now a sexual being, not singing benna in Sunday school, not walking “like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” [3]). This very concept of propriety interweaves cultural and sexual themes. Singing benna (a folk song) in Sunday school juxtaposes local folk culture as an element of resistance against Sunday (Church of England) school. Walking “like a lady” and not speaking to wharf-rat boys opposes notions of (British) ladylike behavior to local or native (i.e., natural) interest in sexuality. Her mother's injunctions against what comes seemingly naturally underscore the borrowed nature of her principles and her role as an agent in the imposition of foreign values on her daughter, thus linking the tensions between mother and daughter to the tensions between the colonizer and the colonized.

The mother's admonitions are also indicative of her society's notions of class. Her voice betrays her awareness of the connections between propriety of behavior and the possibilities of class mobility. The daughter for whom she craves the attributes of “a lady” must first learn to behave as such. She must not speak to those who are socially beneath her (wharf-rat boys) and must learn to recognize and respect social hierarchies (even such an insignificant act as setting the table has social repercussions, and she must learn to perform this task differently when it involves an important guest). In this context clothes emerge as a social text with deep significance. From the quality of its materials (cotton fabric should have no gum on it) to its cleanliness, neatness (the girl is taught how to iron a shirt so it does not have a crease), and state of disrepair (a hem coming down is indicative of potential sluttiness), clothing becomes a symbol of class status and moral superiority. Clothes, like manners, have the power to hide the girl's “natural” impulse to become a slut.

The importance of appearances—the hiding of the true nature of things—is a central theme of this story, where the mother feels charged with the task of teaching her daughter the need for hypocrisy as a tool of survival. Her detailed instructions about how to regulate her smiles to give the receiver the proper message of acceptance or disdain, or setting the table in a way that indicates the importance of the guest, are elements in an understanding of the social landscape that has little to do with true feeling or a recognition of human rather than social value. Late in the story the mother will instruct the daughter on matters of transgression. She teaches her how to make a medicine to abort a fetus (a theme that resonates throughout Kincaid's fiction and is linked to her mother's unsuccessful attempt to abort her brother Devon). She also teaches her how to spit up into the air if she feels like it without suffering any consequences. Transgressions, if we follow the text, are acceptable only if they are in the service of concealing violations of the sexual rules that could result in social or class ostracism.

The one element of the native culture the mother openly embraces is Obeah, the African-based system of beliefs that involves the supernatural, witchcraft, sorcery, and magic and acknowledges the power of spells to inflict harm or help in healing. The presence and power of Obeah surfaces in the text through warnings about catching “something” if the girl picks up someone else's flowers or against throwing stones at blackbirds that may not be blackbirds at all but spirits in disguise. The making of medicines (a healing function of the Obeah practitioner) can be used to cure disease (e.g., a cold) or “throw away a child” (5). Other harmful, or at the very least manipulative, aspects of Obeah are hinted at when the mother speaks of ways of loving a man. Although validated by the mother's acceptance, Obeah is nonetheless presented as a system that is of value to aid in teaching the child hypocrisy and manipulation, not as a positive cultural force that can work toward the overall good despite its potentially harmful aspects.

Underlying these detailed teachings and admonitions is the mother's sense of responsibility for what her child will become, an important factor contributing to the tensions between mother and daughter. It points to the need for separation between the two, for the daughter to establish her own set of rules and expectations. The only potential for resistance in the story is embodied in the girl's two interruptions. Early in the text she breaks the mother's text to deny that she ever sings benna, and never in Sunday school. To this the mother does not reply. The second rupture to the mother's harangue is a question—but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?—that draws an angry remonstration from the mother. Is she to understand that after all her admonitions and instructions the girl will grow into the sort of woman whom the baker will not allow to touch the bread? Has she after all become the slut her mother has warned her against becoming? The character of these interruptions implies the daughter's siding with the local or native culture. The suspicion of her singing benna and the mother's perceived need to repeat her warnings against sluttiness of behavior indicate the daughter's tendency (despite her denial that she ever sings benna) to behave in a way that is native to her surroundings, an implied rejection of the colonizers' mores.

“Girl” announces the themes and concerns that will dominate Kincaid's subsequent fiction. The mother's voice and presence represent the social and familial forces against which the daughter must battle in order to grow into her own power and maturity. The link between the mother's power and colonial authority and mores, a theme Kincaid will develop more fully and openly in later fiction, is articulated here in a symbolic yet eloquent way. The story evokes the beauty and vigor of the world of Kincaid's childhood as well as its menacing elements, symbolized here by the power of Obeah, but it also points to the girl's need to leave that world if she is to escape the domination of the mother's all-powerful voice. Above all, in “Girl,” Kincaid builds on autobiographical episodes to posit sexual awakening as the moment of rupture of the previously harmonious relationship between mother and daughter. The moment of approaching independence is the moment the mother's benevolence turns into aggression, when the battle for continued control of the daughter is fully engaged and the daughter must find her own voice to articulate her resistance if she is to survive.


“In the Night,” the second story of At the Bottom of the River, plunges the reader into the mystery of a West Indian night, recreating its haunting and menacing beauty. The story is divided into five short sections, each with its own individual focus, although all connected by the voice of the adolescent girl through whose perspective we glimpse the life of the Antiguan night.

The language of “In the Night” differs markedly from that of “Girl,” which precedes it in the collection. Whereas “Girl” was written in the simplest of languages, “In the Night” is filled with poetic resonances, rhythmic repetitions, and symbolic references as the narrative voice takes us “behind the daylight facade of rationality” (Simmons, 77) into a world where the mundane joins the world of ghosts and wandering souls. The first section of the text, for example, opens with a description of the night as divisible, fragmented, not as time but as a space, with deep holes, edges, roundnesses—“flat in some places, and in some places like a deep hole, blue at the edge, black inside” (6). This space opens to allow the night-soil men to come in.

Kincaid plays on the reader's lack of familiarity with West Indian types and expressions to turn what is commonplace in Antigua—the night-soil men who come to empty the pails in those places where there is no sewer system—into mysterious figures who provide a link to the world of Obeah, magic, and apparitions. She describes these men as shuffling figures moving rhythmically, as in a dance, making a scratchy sound with their straw shoes. They have the ability—the power—to see a jablesse, a figure of folklore who has the power to assume any animal or human form.

In this first section of “In the Night” the narrative voice itself seems to wander the neighborhood, disembodied like a ghost, listening to the sounds of the nights. These sounds, in turn, merge what can be heard by the human ear (a cricket, a church bell, a house creaking, a man groaning, music played on the radio) with what is soundless by nature (the sound of a woman's disgust at the man groaning, the murdered woman's spirit back from the dead, the sound of a woman's head aching). Here there is a marked division between the male world of sound and the woman's world of soundlessness, underscored by the violence of the man as he stabs the woman, the undertaker's complicity in taking her away, and the reality of the woman having to resort to haunting the man from beyond the grave (“he is running a fever forever,” [7]) as the only form of justice open to her.

This first section of “In the Night” underscores the power of Obeah, as both a major force in Caribbean culture and an important element in fostering Kincaid's creativity. The evocation of Obeah gives Kincaid access to a world where the boundaries between the mundane and the surreal are blurred, allowing her to use language and poetic imagery to convey the in-betweenness of Caribbean reality. In the narratives of At the Bottom of the River the commonplace and the fantastic merge and separate, giving Kincaid's style its characteristic poetic quality. This quality is particularly evident in the final paragraph of the first section of the story, where the narrator “sees” Mr. Gishard, a duppy or spirit, standing quite nonchalantly under the tree in front of the house where he lived when alive. The living accept his presence just as casually, acknowledging it as a natural element in the landscape, a continuation of the world of the living. In just the same casual way, Kincaid blends the real and otherwordly in her prose, giving the narratives in this collection their surreal quality, which comes from the use of commonplace language for what is for her American readers uncommon realities.

In the second section of the story the narrator abandons the third-person voice of the first part and speaks in the first person, assuming a more personal, more immediate perspective. This brief section focuses on the harmonious relationship between mother and daughter before other children were born. This is a recurring theme in Kincaid's fiction, linked to her own devastation when the first of her three brothers was born, a subject about which she has written repeatedly. The section describes a dream in which the narrator hears a baby being born, breathing and bleating. The image metamorphoses into that of the narrator and the baby as lambs eating grass in a pasture. The narrator awakens from her dream, having wet her bed, to find her “still” young and beautiful mother tending to her.

The use of the word “still” marks the significant shift between the time when the mother could “change everything” and the darkness that follows (8). In her dream, the narrator is “in the night,” the only light being that which she glimpses in the far-off mountains. Kincaid often plays with images of darkness and light in her fiction to signal transformations (see, e.g., the use of light imagery in “At Last”); the lights herald the presence of a jablesse, described here as “a person who can turn into anything,” with eyes that shine as brightly as lamps and usually appearing as beautiful women (9). It offers the first instance in Kincaid's fiction of equating the figure of the still young and beautiful mother, who transforms herself into a shrew once the daughter reaches adolescence and other children are born, with the transforming qualities of the frightening figure of the jablesse.

In the third section of “In the Night” Kincaid once again draws from autobiographical material, this time focusing on a sharply drawn character modeled on her own stepfather. The section opens with a somewhat enigmatic technical device, which appears to put into question the truth or validity of the descriptive segment that follows it. The segment consists of a long paragraph completely enclosed in quotation marks except for the opening phrase: “No one has ever said to me” (9). Whether this puzzling phrase is meant to indicate that the quite straightforward description of the narrator's relationship with her father that follows is something that, although true, no one has ever said to her before, or whether it means that it is a fabrication because no one could ever say such things of her father, is left completely to the reader's discretion. As a device it may strike the reader as overly obscure, even unnecessary.

The rest of the segment is one of the most straightforward of the book. In it Kincaid paints a somewhat idealized picture of a kind and thoughtful man whose happiness centers on his family and whose daily habits, commonplace and conventional as they are, are marked with a dignified solemnity. The segment focuses particularly on his selection of clothes, as if the small vanities and renunciations that go into obeying the social conventions as to dress—he would like to wear pink but knows “it isn't becoming to a man”—were indicative of the solid respectability whose very dullness is endearing to his daughter (9). This tender portrait of a modest man living in a small colony, who orders the clothes for special days from England, is made particularly poignant by his dependence on books to escape the humdrum predictability of his life. His reading about rubber plantations and the circus, things he has read about but never seen, frame the limitations of his desires.

The fourth section of “In the Night” opens with a catalog of the many flowers that “close up and thicken” in the darkness of the West Indian night. This list of tropical blooms underscores the Caribbean setting of the story. Familiar as they are to the West Indian reader, with commonplace names like daggerbush, turtleberry, and stinking-toe, they appear as exotic and mysterious to the reader not familiar with the tropical landscape. The otherwise unremarkable listing closes with a surprising personification of the flowers—“the flowers are vexed”—that marks the transition between the evocation of the flora and the series of activities, both harmless and harmful, that go on under the cover of night: basketmaking, sewing, a carpenter crafting a beautiful mahogany chest for his wife, someone “sprinkling a colorless powder outside a door” to cause the birth of a stillborn child (11). Once again, Kincaid juxtaposes the natural and supernatural elements of the West Indian landscape in the aid of developing a style that, in At the Bottom of the River, still rests somewhat heavily on highlighting the exotic elements of Caribbean natural and cultural reality for the unfamiliar reader.

The fifth and final section of “In the Night” returns to the relationship between the girl and the mother, here presented as a couple delighting in their domesticity—the mother/daughter bond having replaced the husband/wife connection. The segment outlines the daughter's fantasy of growing up and marrying “a red-skin woman with black bramblebush hair and brown eyes,” drawn as an idealized portrait of the mother figure (11). She imagines a life of great simplicity and self-sufficiency, in which the two would be complete unto themselves, living in a West Indian version of the enchanted cottage, harmonious and fulfilled. To accentuate the image of completion, Kincaid relies in part on what in other texts will become a symbol of rupture, the presence of two women standing on a jetty. Often in her fiction, most notably in Annie John, Kincaid will use the autobiographical episode of the daughter's departure from a jetty, as the mother waves goodbye, as the most absolute image of rupture and separation. In the fantasy of concord that closes “In the Night,” however, the two women stand embracing on a jetty, undivided and whole. The portrait of their happiness that closes the story, the daughter's assertion that once she marries a woman like this she will be “completely happy” every night, counterbalances the many images in this story of the night as dark and menacing.


In “At Last”—as in “Girl”—Kincaid offers another dialogue between a mother and daughter. In the story, which is divided into two sections—“The House” and “The Yard”—the two voices probe the past they shared before the harmony between them was broken by the birth of other children. The two voices in the story are often undifferentiated, blurring the identity of the precise speaker, so as to underscore how much still remains of the closeness and intimacy they once shared despite their estrangement. As they dissect their joint lives, their tone grows increasingly sorrowful, as if the past they were summoning held something extremely precious and now lost. The reader perceives these voices as corresponding and merging but remote, as if coming from behind a closed door, or as if they belonged to disembodied ghosts coming back to the house they used to share when alive.

The first section of the story, “The House,” follows the two characters/voices as they tour their former home, noting the impact of the time past on the objects once so familiar: the wood shingles are weather-beaten, the paint fraying, the unplayed piano now just collects dust. The emphasis in the opening paragraph is on loss and death: dead flowers, dead hair still left on the brush, letters that brought bad news. The mother's question (“What are you now?”) and the daughter's answer (“A young woman.”) hint at a period of separation between them or at two ghosts traveling back in time and observing their former selves as in a film (13). The longing to retrieve lost memories—expressed, for examples, in the characters' wish that “everything would talk”—points to their effort at recovering their past and examining it again in the light of the present, seeking a new understanding.

The series of questions and answers around which the first section of the story is structured involve episodes in their past that the daughter has misremembered or misinterpreted or things the mother now regrets having done. They provide a path through the significant moments of their relationship and offer clues as to the possibility of their recovering their former closeness. The first of these questions—“What was that light?”—becomes a leit-motif (a repeated element, like a refrain)—reiterated throughout the story, symbolizing the clarity the voices would like to shed over the past (13). Throughout the first section of the story the voices will follow the light, wondering where it comes from, watching it flash, making one of the voices wish she could shine in the dark. The emphasis on the light underscores the importance of “seeing” for the two voices, as seeing is linked to understanding the past. Their failure to see their joint history with clarity is announced by the appearance, in the final paragraphs of the first section, of a blind bird dashing its head against a closed window. Kincaid will use the bird image repeatedly to symbolize the frustration of a young woman struggling against her mother and her colonial environment, but here she has added blindness as an extra and meaningful element linked to the mother and daughter's tragic inability to see. (The image of the blind bird complements that of a caged hummingbird, appearing some paragraphs before, that dies after a few days, “homesick for the jungle,” [16].) The women's defeat is underscored by the answer to the final question of this section—“What of the light?”—to which the answer is a dejected “Splintered. Died” (19).

Kincaid's technique of building her story around a series of questions allows her to present the tensions in the mother/daughter relationship in a dynamic manner; they are displayed before the reader rather than described, albeit enigmatically, their meaning veiled by metaphor. The way the questions are presented on the page—most often isolated as separate, one-line paragraphs—underscores their role in marking significant moments in their relationship. The first of the questions thus isolated, for example, shows the mother/daughter figures at their most harmonious, when one can still act as the mirror for the other. One of the voices remarks of the other that her lips are “soft and parted.” The reply—“Are they?”—implies an acceptance of this self-reflectiveness, a validation of the other's gaze. The reply to the second of these standalone questions—an inquiry as to why the doors had been shut so tightly—draws a response that articulates the distance that has developed in the way they perceive the reality around them: the doors, according to the other voice, “weren't closed” at all. This is followed by the acknowledgment that once they had held hands and been beautiful together, but that was before the birth of other children brought pain and sleepless nights.

In “At Last,” Kincaid builds an atmosphere of dread around a series of images of menace and apprehension. They follow on the images of death and decay of the first paragraph, but become increasingly important in the text after the articulation of the growing estrangement between the mother and the daughter. The daughter then emerges as a young woman standing near the dead flowers, the light turning the image into that of a carcass, a skeleton on which the mother lives and feeds. Although the two pray to be blessed and “to see the morning light,” they live through a hurricane that shakes the house to its foundation, mirroring the shocks that jolt their relationship (17). Once these differences surface in the text, moreover, the two voices become less ambiguous, the two figures grow more easily identifiable by the reader. The mother's voice emerges with particular clarity, speaking to the daughter about the time when she was an infant and she had wished to feed her but her milk had soured, reiterating how much she had been loved, how she had been dry and warm. Then they had possessed the light, and the mother “would shine in the dark.” As the first section draws to a close, Kincaid addresses more directly the birth of “the children,” linking them to the transformation of the mother into the frightening figure of a jablesse who appears sometimes as a man, sometimes as a hoofed animal, having accomplished her metamorphosis from loving mother to figure of fear.

The second section of the story, “The Yard,” is narrated by a different voice, that of a third-person narrator, objective and detached, who evokes the timelessness of the yard. This mythical yard contains all there is of childhood mirth, beauty, and promise; but it also contains everything there could be of menace in such a symbolic setting, one that provides a transition between the world of nature and the world of home and domesticity. Everything that the yard could contain that would hold fascination for a child (a sparrow's nest, a pirate's treasure, trees bearing fruit, marbles, a small garden full of bluebells) is counterbalanced by what the yard could contain of threat (an old treasure broken, a sharp quick blow, a duck's bill, hard and sharp, the oppressive heat). Kincaid thus prepares the terrain for a meditation on the permanence and significance of life and the physical world. “At Last,” the title of the story, is the phrase that introduces the pivotal question—“To whom will this view belong?”—which is followed by an inquiry as to what becomes of things after they are dead and gone (16). The question appears to point to the repetitive nature and meaninglessness of life, to days following upon each other, identical and unchanging. But the final images of the narrative seek meaning in the hopeful sound of a child's voice (the daughter of the first section) again inquiring about the past. The question—“What was the song they used to sing and made fists and pretended to be Romans?”—seeks a link, a connection, albeit through a game, between an individual's life, however humble and obscure, and a historical consciousness (19).

In “At Last” Kincaid includes thematic and autobiographical elements that she will explore more fully in other writings, both fictional and nonfictional. One of the voices recalls having forgotten something under the bed, which, as it decayed, became covered with white moss; the episode will reappear in Annie John. The oft-narrated attack by red ants on her brother Devon appears here for the first time, although parts of that tale (the dangers of planting okra, which harbors red ants, too close to the house had already appeared in “Girl”). References to “the rain that time” anticipate the “Long Rain” chapter of Annie John. The allusion to an illness that caused a worm to crawl out of man's leg refers to the death of Kincaid's young half-uncle, which she narrates in several fictional and nonfictional texts, particularly in The Autobiography of My Mother. Kincaid, moreover, will experiment in this tale—as in many of the narratives that constitute At the Bottom of the River—with imagery that will recur in subsequent writings: a young woman crossing the open sea alone at night on a steamer, changes in the texture of skin as symbolic of profound emotional change, the image of the young bird dashing itself against a closed window described above, the hard prolonged rain of Annie John, the birth of other children as rupturing the harmony between mother and daughter. “At Last,” as many of the stories in the collection, reveals Kincaid's apprenticeship as a writer. The stories illustrate how Kincaid, at this very early stage of her career, experiments with forms, symbols, imagery, and the creation of character, looking for the most appropriate vehicles for her narrative material.


“Wingless” explores the world of the child as she grows into an awareness of herself. The story, divided into six sections of uneven length, opens with a recollection of the routine of the schoolhouse, where a group of children chant rhymes to learn how many pennies in a shilling, how many shillings in a pound. In “Wingless,” Kincaid returns to the use of light as symbol of self-knowledge and self-awareness that she had elaborated in “At Last,” although here it is more explicitly connected to the notion of self-discovery. The narrator distances herself from the children reciting their lessons, as if to indicate that she has surpassed that stage in her own development, before declaring that she swims “in a shaft of light” and can see herself clearly.

In this first section of “Wingless,” the narrator, a young woman on the threshold of womanhood, ponders her forthcoming adulthood, wondering what kind of woman she will become. She describes herself—in a brief sequence that foreshadows the “Columbus in Chains” chapter of Annie John—as perhaps standing on the brink of a great discovery after which, like Columbus himself, she may be sent home in chains. Looming above her is the figure of the mother, about whose love the narrator is not certain, whose love is fraught with strain, conflict, and ambiguity. She seeks to define herself against the mother, attempting to elucidate how much power she can wield against her once she becomes a tall, graceful, and beautiful woman capable of imposing her will on people.

The recurring motif in this segment of the story is that of the narrator seeking to see herself clearly. The process of attaining self-knowledge is inextricably linked to separation from the mother. The daughter must find another object for the “love like no other” that she bestowed on the mother before their relationship soured. She describes her mother's smile as the repository of her goodness, but later in the story that same smile will turn “red” and kill a man. The daughter, “a defenseless and pitiful child,” must find a path away from a life reduced to an apprenticeship in dressmaking, a life that follows the pattern of the mother's life. (Kincaid's mother once apprenticed her to a dressmaker, in an episode that became to her symbolic of her family's inability to recognize her talent and promise.)

In this opening section of the story, the narrator of “Wingless” stresses her adolescent unhappiness and frustration. Powerlessness emerges as a dominant theme. She lacks the commanding understanding of the world that adulthood requires, and her life (and this segment of the narrative) is filled with questions: she doesn't understand the gradations of manners and cloth color; is she horrid now and will she ever be so?; her charm is limited and she has not learned yet how to smile; she has cried big tears as a result of her disappointments. She dwells on these disappointments, as Kincaid herself will do in her fiction, holding them close to her breast, “because they are so important to me” (24). The answers to her questions are not forthcoming, since she is not yet a woman but a “primitive and wingless” creature on the threshold of maturity.

The second section of “Wingless,” a brief dialogue between mother and daughter, shows the mother as mocking and cruel, delighting in frightening the daughter and oblivious to any lasting harm she may cause her. The relationship between them is thus defined, as in so many of Kincaid's tales, as one of power, and the mother is depicted as utilizing any means at hand to maintain her supremacy. Kincaid builds on the common perception of the heart as the repository of love to develop the image of its being strangled as symbolic of the mother's willful destruction of her daughter's love for her.

Section three, which follows in a thematic progression, underscores Kincaid's notion of childhood as a state of complete powerlessness before the omnipotent mother. Here, the mother's power extends to being able to walk across a carpet of pond lilies, eating pond-lily black nuts. Having created this fairy-tale, miraculous setting (with its symbolic reminder of Christ walking on water), Kincaid then describes an encounter between the mother and a man dressed in clothes made of tree bark, a meeting full of physical and sexual threat (he speaks so forcefully that “drops of brown water sprang from his mouth”; he blew himself up “until in the bright sun he looked like a boil,” 25). The mother, after initially attempting to shield herself, instead of using her cutlass to cut the man in two, kills him with her “red, red smile” (25). Kincaid uses the episode to emphasize the nature of the mother's power—she is not only able to make a man drop dead, but she does it effortlessly. Her weapon, a red smile, is linked by its effectiveness and mystery to Obeah and magic and by its color and implied treachery to the female arts of coquetry and seduction that the mother has sought to teach the daughter elsewhere in the stories of At the Bottom of the River.

In part four of the story the narrator dwells on the power of the sea, with its blinding storms “shaking everything up like a bottle with sediment,” its sharp-toothed eels and its mystery, and on the seashore, full of noisy birds and noisier families. The sea follows her all the way home to “the woman” (26). In this new rendition of the mother, she appears as a power comparable to that of the sea, more frightening to the daughter than its mysteries. The section ends with a brief dialogue between the narrator (the daughter) and “the woman” (the mother) centering on the question of fear itself. The daughter's acknowledgment (in answer to a question) that she is very frightened of the mother figure is greeted by the mother's mockery and laughter.

Part five of “Wingless” offers a brief recitation of the narrator's fears, listed as if they were the frightening dreams of childhood. Cows, hurricanes, the lack of light, unfamiliar noises, boxes that must be handled with care, a big white building with curving corridors, a dead person. Ending the list, as the most frightening thing of all, is the woman she loves “who is so much bigger than me” (27). Here, as in other stories in the collection, most notably “My Mother,” Kincaid uses the mother's hyperbolized size as metaphor for the daughter's perception of her limitless power.

The sixth and final section of “Wingless” evokes the stillness of the night and the peacefulness of the child falling asleep. It is the most poetic and lyrical segment of the story, built on refrain-like repetitions of the phrase “now so still” as animals and insects subside into sleep. The natural world thus surrendering to sleep is viewed subjectively, from the narrator/child's perspective, as the various creatures relinquish the activities that impacted on the narrator during the day (as they revolted her, pleased her, stole from her, gratified her). Kincaid returns here to the metaphoric use of light of the beginning of the story to describe how sleep leads to self-oblivion. Initially, the narrator swims in a shaft of light and can see herself clearly; here, as she falls asleep, she stands against the light, casting a shadow of which in her sleeping state she will be unaware. Her hands, which are made to stand for her entire body, her entire self, recede from the memory of her daily activities (touching, caressing, dressing, holding a cone of ice cream, praying) into a still, dreamless sleep.


“Holidays” is one of only three stories in At the Bottom of the River not set in the West Indies. The various locales of the seven brief sections (the mountains, a lake in Michigan, the seashore) recall the places where Kincaid vacationed during the four years she spent as an au pair with the Arlen family in the late 1960s. They will also feature prominently in several chapters of Lucy. These settings, however, are the only openly autobiographical elements in the story, which does not explicitly address any of Kincaid's known experiences during those years.

The first section of “Holidays” is the only one in the story in which the narrator assumes the first-person “I,” identifying herself as a person on holiday, whiling her days away in a house from whose porch she can face the mountains. The cadences and rhythms of this segment of the narrative mark the voice as West Indian, an identification corroborated by details such as the calypso about a man from British Guiana that runs through her mind, the memory of a superstition about killing your mother, and her dream about not being on the porch facing the mountains. There is an underlying tone of wonder in this segment of “Holidays,” as if the narrator marvels at finding herself in such a place, occupying such a space, surrounded by objects, books, landscapes that are unfamiliar and somewhat alien to her life. As she idly contemplates her surroundings and surrenders to sleep, her West Indianness looms larger, she attempts to write a letter (a symbol in Kincaid's fiction of an attempt to establish a link with her home), she asserts her belief in superstitions as if in affirmation of her origins, and she drifts into sleep and dreams of home (or, more precisely, of a place like Kincaid's own home in Antigua, where you cannot sit on the porch facing the mountains because the topography is marked by nothing much higher than a big hill).

In this first section of “Holidays” Kincaid builds a metaphor of budding creativity through a series of images (symbols) of artistic energy ready to burst. The narrator's idleness—her apparent listlessness, her walking aimlessly around the house, her poking the fireplace ashes with her toes, her solitary presence, the undisturbed silence, her efforts to look at herself—is depicted as necessary to the process of introspection and self-awareness that will eventually lead to writing. From the opening sentence, when she walks into a room where an artist has left some empty canvases (blank spaces providing the materials for art), to her abandoning her subconscious to the song from home, the reader is presented with a series of images of emerging creativity. She looks through the encyclopedia of butterflies and moths with beautiful pictures of the beauty that emerges from the chrysalis, she tries to write her name on the dead ashes of the fireplace but it is too impermanent a medium, she leaves a dark spot when she cleans her toe on the royal-blue rug (a veiled reminder of Kincaid's colonial roots), she attempts to write a letter in another failed creative effort, she surrenders to the lure of the rhythms from home and falls into a dream. If At the Bottom of the River marks Kincaid's apprenticeship as a writer, this section of “Holidays” illustrates her consciousness of that apprenticeship as she depicts the budding artist as a young woman in search of a medium.

The second segment of the story consists exclusively of dialogue, not of conversation necessarily, but of various disconnected utterances presented out of context. The speakers are not identified, and the fragments appear as if overheard by a narrator vacationing at the seaside. The link between them is precisely their being scraps of chit-chat typical of vacationers: things they have back home; comments on the sunset, the pebbles, the houses, their plans for dinner; descriptions of new friends. Altogether they help define an atmosphere of holiday-making, where new superficial acquaintances are made, and people pursue amusement as their main goal. The phrase that closes the segment, however, deflates the levity and merry-making of the vacation, by recalling how later, on thinking back on the holiday, “we will be so pained, so unsettled” (33).

Section three of the story catalogs a series of vacation disasters, offering a perceptively amusing list of the many cheery catastrophes that can mar a middle-class vacation. The narrator offers no commentary; there is no speaking “I” to place the list in a subjective context. Yet its cumulative impact is that of mockery. Deerflies, skunks eating garbage, a camera forgotten in the sun, stepping on dry brambles, sunstroke, a skirt hem caught in barbed-wire—the list of trivial melodramas plays against the expected vacationer's reaction to them, highlighting their insignificance and mocking the vacationer in the process.

The fourth segment of “Holidays” strikes the reader as out of place in the story. Unlike the other parts of the narrative, this one seems at best only tangentially related to the holiday theme of the other segments. The focus is on a young blind man walking out in the midday sun, observed from inside a house (by vacationers perhaps—hence the possible tangential connection to the central theme of the story). The narrator—again an objective, depersonalized voice—describes the tragedy of the lovesick man who lost his sight in an attempted suicide after killing a man he saw kissing the woman he loved. He is surrounded by the indifference of all around him; even the dogs shun him, as if to underscore that a vacationing spot is not an appropriate place for such a reminder of pain, passion, and intense drama.

Part five, like part two, consists exclusively of dialogue. It follows a conversation between a vacationer and a native at a tropical holiday spot. Its recurring motif—“things are funny here” (34)—seems intent on establishing the locals' inability or unwillingness to follow European custom: they are holding a May fair, but it is July; they swim in the warm seawater just before their Christmas dinner. The juxtaposition of perspectives—the vacationer's and the local resident's—together with their agreement that “things are funny here”—temporarily bridges the cultural gap between them, creating the kind of temporary alliance possible only while the vacation lasts.

The sixth segment of “Holidays” follows two young middle-class American boys from vacation to vacation as they grow up into gentlemen looking for “large-breasted women” (35). The theme that threads its way through the various vacations briefly evoked in the story—fishing in Michigan, visiting the Mark Twain museum in Missouri, milking cows in Wyoming, changing a car tire somewhere—is that of the loss of innocence and wonder that is the lot of male American adolescence. They are shown as moving from guilelessness as they fish together, needing none of the comforts of domesticity and position, to limited horizons as they get trapped in the expectations of their gender and class. Their lives, as vacation follows vacation, become impoverished, reduced to a cliché of male success. What was promise and purity in their childhood disintegrates into a false notion of gentlemanliness and a caricature of lust.

The seventh and final segment of “Holidays” works as a counterpart to section three. There, the catalog of insignificant disasters made a mockery of middle-class holiday-making; here, Kincaid outlines the ideal holiday for the ideal American happy family, a holiday so perfect as to be almost a parody or hyperbolized version of a vacation. Its very perfection distorts its reality. In section three, all the little mini-disasters pointed to the vulnerability of a middle-class holiday, one that could be marred by the tiniest of mishaps; here every detail—the beautiful family, the fields covered with flowers, the constant laughter, the lack of anxiety, the funny postcards—points to the mindlessness of such pleasurable pursuits. The description of this idealized perfect vacation contains within it the seeds of the bitter irony that Kincaid will pour on the figure of the tourist in A Small Place.


“The Letter from Home” is, like “Girl,” a brief one-paragraph, one-sentence story. And, like “Girl,” it uses the incantatory recitation of a woman's daily chores—the mundane description of the restrictions of the female world—to accentuate the menace that lurks behind everydayness and domesticity. The story, although structured as one long, unbroken paragraph, can nonetheless be separated into two distinct voices and two clearly defined styles. Given the autobiographical subtext of Kincaid's writing in At the Bottom of the River, the reader is justified in assuming that the story focuses on a letter from the mother at home received by the daughter abroad.

Kincaid seeks to differentiate the voices stylistically in the text. The sections of the narrative that constitute the letter from home, for example, are characterized by simple declarative statements almost invariably beginning with “I”—“I milked the cow, I churned the butter …”—that seem to float above the surface of reality, not breaking through its superficial layer to communicate to its addressee (the daughter) anything of the emotions and thoughts of the writer (37). They can be readily distinguished from those sentences focusing on the receiver of the letter, which are longer and more complex in structure and describe her as engaging with her surroundings in a more vital way. These sentences rarely begin with “I,” and are not centered on the daughter's own self, seeking instead to describe her environment, the objects surrounding her, the weather, her emotions and responses. It is as if the daughter, confronted with the mother's “I,” could not bring herself to assert her own voice.

Kincaid offers subtle clues in the story as to the setting for these two voices, placing one in the Caribbean, the other somewhere in the snowy north. The sections focusing on the mother, for example, focus on domestic activity in a place where she must light candles at night (implying a lack of electricity) and where things moving in the shadows may be menacing spirits. The sections focusing on the daughter, on the other hand, speak of tree branches “heavy with snow,” humming refrigerators, a goldfish living in a bowl, hats on hat stands, and coats hanging from pegs. The complexity of the daughter's new environment—with its appliances, houses with many rooms, dripping faucets, hissing gas, books, and rugs—contrasts sharply with the simplicity of the mother's surroundings, evident in the uncomplicated nature of her daily chores and the simple syntax of the sentences of her letter to her daughter.

“The Letter from Home” contains two brief sections clearly differentiated by punctuation from the rest of the text. The first, in quotation marks, offers bits of ambiguous dialogue spoken by an unidentified man. Some of this dialogue—an inquiry as to the children being ready, for example—could belong to the daughter's world (an autobiographical element perhaps, given Kincaid's work as an au pair on her arrival in the United States, when letters from home were most painful to receive). Some could belong to the world of the mother, as in the inquiry as to whether the children will bear their mother's name (Kincaid, an illegitimate child herself, bore her mother's maiden name).

The second of these sections, enclosed in parentheses, introduces the first of several biblical references in the story. The parenthetical segment consists of six questions about heaven and hell, the meek lamb, the roaring lion, and the streams running clear. Their combined purpose is that of ascertaining whether the worlds that the mother and daughter live in conform to the rules spelled out by Euro-Christian logic. These questions emphasize Christian geographical hierarchies—heaven above, hell below—and the power hierarchies of colonial relationships—the lamb lies meek, the lion roars. The allusion to colonial relationships is stressed in the line that follows the parenthetical segment, which alludes to ancient (conquering) ships still anchored in the peninsula.

“The Letter from Home” ends with two biblical images that accentuate the gospel-like resonances of the brief narrative and underscore the narrator's rejection of the God-fearing “home” she has left behind, a home that occasionally intrudes in her new life when she receives a letter from her mother. The first follows the daughter's description of a universe created by divine wisdom, a universe in which the earth spins on an imaginary axis whose existence is accepted as a matter of religious and scientific faith, a universe where valleys correspond to mountains that in turn correspond to the sea, which corresponds to dry land. This image of perfect harmony and symmetry, however, masks the ultimate menacing correspondence, that of the earth to the snake after the Fall. The snake, having lost its limbs as punishment for drawing Eve into sin, must forever lurk in the shadows awaiting its prey. This image of the snake as a menace is linked in the story to the figure of the mother, who early in the narrative had described herself as having shed her skin. This final correspondence frees the daughter's voice, for in the second and final biblical image she assumes the “I” she had avoided until now, assuming her own declarative voice to describe the figure of the shrouded Christ (identified by the capitalized “He”) beckoning to her and whistling softly. She slyly rows her boat away, “as if I didn't know what I was doing,” showing through that pretense of ignorance (and the implied acknowledgment to the reader that she knows precisely what she is doing) her determination to leave behind the world of her mother and her willingness to challenge divinity itself (39).


Of the stories collected in At the Bottom of the River, “What I Have Been Doing Lately” is the most lighthearted and playful. Kincaid is not known for giving in to whimsy in her writing; on the contrary, she has often been taken to task for prose whose tone is too steeped in anger, particularly in her fictional and nonfictional portraits of her mother. In her early prose, her surreal fantasies lean heavily toward the menacing and frightening. In “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” however, we find Kincaid at her most whimsical. The story—a narrative whose structure loops on itself twice like an amusement-park roller coaster—blends the nonsensical elements characteristic of children's narratives with the formalistic and thematic experimentation we have come to associate with the work of writers such as French “New Novelist” Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose writings Kincaid admires, and Julio Cortázar, short-story master of the 1960s Latin American “Boom.”

Like a modern-day Alice in her darker and more foreboding Wonderland, the narrator of “What I Have Been Doing Lately” sets out on reluctant adventures when she gets up from bed to answer the door, only to find no one there. She starts walking north through an ever-changing landscape, encountering wondrous and sometimes menacing things, tumbling down a deep hole, returning to the surface, running into a woman who asks her what she's been doing lately, to which she replies with the tale of how she was lying in bed when the doorbell rang—thus starting the tale from the beginning again. The second telling of the story reworks significant elements of the narrative, adding details, redirecting incidents, refocusing themes, only to end with the narrators going back to lying in bed, “just before the doorbell rang” (45). This looping of the narrative, which has us return twice to the beginning to start anew, results in a self-reflective text, what is known in literary criticism as a metanarrative (a text that calls attention to the techniques and devices on which the author relies for effect).

In style, “What I Have Been Doing Lately” is built around simple declarative sentences that describe a landscape often absurd and nonsensical, where contradictory realities merge, as in dreams. As the narrator steps outside, it is either drizzling or there is a lot of damp dust in the air; she walks down a path, past a boy tossing a ball, but when she looks back the path has been replaced by hills and instead of a boy there are flowering trees. She sits for years by the banks of a big body of water before taking a boat across. From the opening lines, the style signals an entrance into a world of childlike bewilderment, where disbelief is suspended and little is anchored in reality. From the moment the narrator steps out of the door, the writing revolves around itself. Kincaid, in the double retelling of her story, explores various modes of narrating her tale, showing the process through which narrative material becomes art. It is a story of apprenticeship, conscious of its artificiality, of its presentation of writing as an evolving process.

Thematically, “What I Have Been Doing Lately” returns to the notion of the voyage as a separation from loved ones, the mother particularly, and explores the narrator's yearning for home. The cyclical structure of the story, which keeps bringing the narrator back to her present, away from the home she yearns for, underscores the permanence of that separation and accounts for the note of sadness with which the story ends. “I felt so sad,” the narrator tells us, “I couldn't imagine feeling any other way again” (45). Here, as in almost all her narratives, Kincaid draws on autobiographical materials familiar to her readers, albeit in an elliptical way, placing these elements in an incongruous Wonderland setting. When she sets out on her voyage she looks south (toward her Caribbean home), but decides to walk north. She comes to a big body of water, but it takes her years to get across. She looks behind her, but everything familiar has vanished; a deep hole opens before her and she plunges in. She resurfaces because she misses all the people she had loved, only to run into a woman whom she mistakes for her mother and whose question sends her back to that bed in which she is lying when the doorbell rings. To the reader familiar with Kincaid's personal story, it is easy to read in these details the correspondences with her own experiences, glimpsing, in the process, how she has turned them from autobiographical fact into the materials for fiction. They help her create a system of symbols that guide the reader through her writing, like a key that opens the path to understanding her literary universe.

Kincaid provides such keys in “What I Have Been Doing Lately” through the differences between the telling of the story and its retelling as the tale loops on itself. Whereas the first telling dwells more extensively on the Wonderland elements of the narrative landscape, the second part is more solidly grounded in reality, more focused on elucidating the themes of voyage, separation, and longing. Now, coming across the great body of water is as easy as paying her fare, but the reality found in her new environment is not the beautiful world she expected, but one in which she is surrounded by black mud, where people whom she thought would be laughing and chatting and beautiful are no such thing at all. Thus, with great narrative economy, Kincaid articulates the themes of disappointed expectations and sadness and regret for what the narrator has left behind, expressed in the dreamlike vision of the bend leading to her home, where she would find her freshly made bed, her mother, and those she loved—only to discover herself back in bed just as the bell is about to ring.


“Blackness” is one of the most lyrical stories in At the Bottom of the River. The narrative, divided in four separate sections, draws on the incantatory rhythms of prayers and the psalms for its poetic resonances. Yet, unlike its biblical rhetorical models, which aspire to lead toward God's light and salvation, “Blackness” moves the narrator toward darkness and oblivion. The narrator of “Blackness”—unlike the many narrative voices in At the Bottom of the River, who seek clarity and self-knowledge through swimming in shafts of light—seeks self-erasure in the darkness.

The first section of the story evokes the paradox (or contradictions) of the blackness in which the narrator would like to be engulfed. The blackness, which descends like a heavy fog onto her world, is all things: silence and deafening sound, visible and invisible, not her blood but something that flows through her veins. The enigma of blackness, its perplexing incongruities, is meant to mirror the narrator's despair, her inability to keep herself out in the light.

In those instances in the story when the narrative voice surfaces from the darkness, moving toward the light, it revels in the joy the light brings. Most of the images of joy in the story are directly or indirectly related to the light: faces turned toward the sky, a “silver of orange on the horizon,” the last vestiges of the setting sun, a rolling green meadow, a spring of clear water. The narrator, however, when questioning her own nature, acknowledges the fascination of the blackness. Her lamp remains unlit, and she recognizes the darkness as buried deeply and permanently in the human breast, while the glimmering light is shallow, impermanent. Through this first section, Kincaid will develop the image of the mine and of the narrator as a miner seeking “veins of treasure” (48). The image that closes the opening segment of the story is precisely that of the heart as a mine holding a treasure of love, joy, and pain, buried in darkness but penetrated here and there by shafts of light.

In the second section of the story the narrator falls into a dream that plays on images of light and darkness, thus picking up the thematic thread of the first part. She dreams of bands of men returning from battle, exhausted, the chambers of their weapons empty. As they pass her house they obliterate the light, “and night fell immediately and permanently,” blotting out everything that she found pleasurable, all the beauty and safety of her world.

In the third section, the narrator identifies herself as a mother watching her daughter, who is transparent in the light. As in many other renditions of motherhood in Kincaid's fiction, this one is tinged with a note of cruelty, although in this case it is the daughter, not the mother, on whom cruelty and pitilessness have taken hold. The mother is all sacrifice, going to great lengths for her daughter's joy and comfort (she chewed her food for her when she was small, she carries a cool liquid in her flattened breasts to quench her thirst, she creates moments of joy for her); the daughter is all greediness and self-absorption in her eagerness to take what is offered. For the portrait of the daughter, Kincaid borrows elements usually associated in her fiction with mother figures, chief among them the qualities of the jablesse who is able to mutate her body into frightening forms: revolving eyes burning like coals, teeth that suddenly grow pointed and spark, arms that grow to “incredible lengths” (50). She feels no pity for the hunchback boy whom she renders deaf and incapable of direction and whom she leaves in a hut built on the edge of a steep cliff. In her preternatural wisdom—her knowledge of things beyond the physical world that is akin to clairvoyance—the narrator of “Blackness” prefigures the characterization of Xuela, the protagonist of Kincaid's third novel, The Autobiography of My Mother.

The daughter in this section of “Blackness” stands “one foot in the dark, the other in the light” (51), bridging the gap between the two worlds, one threatening to engulf the narrator, the other offering fleeting glimpses of joy. She has the ability to move from one to the other, rushing “from death to death” (51). As someone who has mastered the powers of the jablesse, with her connections to the underworld and the darkness, and as someone enamored of “great beauty and ancestral history,” the daughter is, unlike the narrator, self-affirming and beyond despair. She can always return to the light.

In the last section of “Blackness,” the narrator hears “the silent voice” of self-erasure and oblivion calling to her, obliterating the blackness. The brief segment recalls an image familiar to moviegoers: that of the hero or heroine walking in acceptance toward death, embracing the mist that brings an end to disease and despair. Following the familiar choreography of such scenes, almost a cliché in the Hollywood filmmaking of the thirties and forties, we follow the figure of the narrator as it moves slowly toward the voice, shrugging despair and hatred like a mantle, embracing the mist that drowns her, erasing her image from the screen.


“My Mother” is considered by many critics to be the second most successful story in At the Bottom of the River, after “Girl.” It offers Kincaid's most sustained rendition of the theme of the love-hate relationship between mother and daughter in this collection. The story, which is divided into nine brief sections and narrated in the first person, chronicles a young girl's struggle to gain emotional independence from her mother. It focuses on the interconnected themes of power and powerlessness to which Kincaid will return so often in her stories and novels.

The first section of “My Mother” opens with a statement of the devastating burden that anger at her mother places on the daughter, expressed in a hyperbolic, exaggerated note that sets the tone for the rest of the story: immediately after wishing her mother dead, the daughter cries enough tears to drench the earth around her. This use of rhetorical overstatement as a stylistic device will aid Kincaid in the portrayal of the mother as a larger-than-life figure and of the emotional connection between them as deeper and more binding than such connections normally are. She will also establish the themes around which the tale will revolve, themes she has elaborated in earlier work: the immeasurable closeness that linked mother and daughter, a suffocating, overwhelming love; and the devastation of the separation between them when puberty sets in and the daughter must grow a bosom of her own on which to rest her head. The flood of tears that opened the story then becomes a small pond of “thick and black and poisonous” water, and the relationship between mother and daughter becomes one of pretense and hypocrisy.

In the second section of the story, Kincaid plays with images of light and shadow to depict a ritualized dance of broken harmony between mother and daughter. The sequence, unfolding like a dream, opens with a familiar image in Kincaid's writing—that of the young woman seeking her reflection in the mirror as symbolic of the search for an identity independent of the mother. The effort is fruitless because the room is submerged in darkness and the mother controls the light. The play of shadows in the glow of the candles lit by the mother is depicted as a dance that mirrors their conflictive relationship, reversing the established balance of power, where the all-powerful mother reigns supreme. The shadows make a space between them “as if they were making room for someone else,” displacing the daughter. But then the mother's shadow is shown dancing to the daughter's tune, giving her a fleeting sense of control before the mother blows out the candles. The daughter's brief and illusory taste of power underscores the mother's strength and authority and returns the daughter to her initial posture, still sitting on the bed, “trying to get a good look at myself” (55).

In the third section of the story, mother and daughter transform themselves into lizards by means of an oil rendered from reptile livers. The mother's transformation is described in great detail; the daughter's is presented as a secondary, imitative gesture that disallows any possibility of her own independent metamorphosis. The mother's mutation into a reptile, usually a snake, is familiar to Kincaid's readers. It is often linked to the representation of the mother as a jablesse, a creature of evil that can transform herself into anything she wishes. The details used to describe the mother's new form are frightening, even revolting: teeth arranged into rows reaching back to her throat, hairlessness, a flattened head with blazing, revolving eyeballs. The daughter's mimicry of the mother is poignantly described as having reduced her to traveling on her underbelly, with a darting and flickering tongue.

In the fourth section, mother and daughter are standing on the seabed in a perfect mimicry of harmony, both aware of the hypocrisy and pretense needed to sustain their hapless relationship. The daughter sighs—“the kind of sigh she had long ago taught me could evoke sympathy” (56)—and the mother receives her sighs as her due, in a wordless play of appearances. Once again, Kincaid elaborates a symbolic representation of the mother/daughter relationship as one fraught with tensions that arise as the daughter grows into adulthood and must establish a relationship of equality with her mother. The process of maturation, presented in this section as a physical transformation that gives the daughter an impregnable carapace and makes her feel invincible, shakes their wordless arrangement to its foundation. Their relationship requires the mother's dominance and the daughter's submission; hence the daughter's ire when her hopes to see the mother “permanently cemented to the seabed” are disappointed and the mother looms above her, still bigger and more powerful. The daughter's struggle and frustration against this imposed powerlessness leads her to a rejection of her mother's caresses, followed by “a horrible roar, then a self-pitying whine” (56). Kincaid recreates the daughter's bitterness through images of repulsion: as the daughter becomes a woman (like her mother) her skin blackens, cracks, and falls away; like the mother, she grows rows of teeth in retractable trays; as they walk out of the Garden of Fruits they leave in their trail small colonies of worms. These images are meant to evoke for the reader the festering anger that poisons the daughter's life.

In the fifth section, Kincaid continues to build on the daughter's festering bitterness as a developing theme. Here, after establishing the mother's contemptuous mimicry of the daughter, the daughter attempts to defy and destroy the mother by building a house for her over a deep hole. As in the preceding section, Kincaid portrays the daughter's growth into womanhood as a series of physical transformations undergone in symbolic spaces; here, the mother and daughter find themselves in a cold and dark cave where the daughter grows special adaptive features (lenses that allow her to see in the darkness, a special coat to protect her from the cold) only to find the mother mocking her achievements and laughing at her. The daughter then builds a beautiful house with all the features that would please her mother—her own mockery of perfection and happy domesticity as it conceals a menacing hole, symbol of the emptiness of their own domestic felicity. She hopes that the mother will fall into the hole and thereby into her power, but the mother once again proves her omnipotence by walking on air once she enters the house and praising its excellence. The daughter is left to her admission of defeat (she fills up the hole) and venting of her rage (she burns the house to the ground).

The sixth section returns to an earlier theme—that of the mother as a colossal physical presence that overwhelms the daughter, leaving her glowing red with anger. The daughter's attempt at separation is at best only partially successful: she lives on an island with eight moons, but covers their surface with expressions she has seen on her mother's face; she builds a house across a dead pond from her mother's, but cries constantly for the latter's company. Here, Kincaid expands on an image she had used in the first section of the story—namely, that of the poisoned pond (which earlier had been formed out of the daughter's tears of bitterness and regrets) as the symbol of strains that lead to a separation between mother and daughter, strains linked to the daughter's desire for an independent existence. The section ends with the daughter's crying herself into a deep dreamless sleep.

The seventh section returns to a pivotal moment in Kincaid's personal history, one she has used as symbol of separation before and after the writing of “My Mother”: the mother walking the daughter to the jetty from which she will board the boat that will take her away from her home island. But here she reverses the by-now-familiar elements of the anecdote so that what begins as a ritual of separation ends as a rite of reconciliation and oneness. She returns to the sleep motif of the previous section—where the daughter, worn out by her burning anger at the mother, falls into a dreamless sleep—although here the daughter's sleep in the cocoon of a boat encased in a large green bottle and the dream takes her back home. Like a film being rewound, mother and daughter move from separation to recognition, from caution and politeness to walking in step, from talking to a merging of voices, until the daughter could no longer see “where she left off and I began” (60).

The eighth section returns to the image of the house as the idealized space where mother and daughter can live in perfect harmony, merging and separating as creatures about to enter “the final stage of our evolution” (60). Here, in order to set the mood of continuity and permanence for the section, Kincaid relies on elements drawn from her own mother's autobiography (which she will develop more fully in The Autobiography of My Mother), in particular that of the young woman crippled in a bicycle accident, an episode linked to the experiences of Kincaid's maternal aunt. The idealized home in which mother and daughter can live in perfect unison—the mother's house—contains within it the past, encapsulated in the memories it holds of things and events that have passed in and through it. The rooms open into each other, in an image familiar to moviegoers (see, e.g., the dream sequences designed by Salvador Dalí for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound) to signal the opening of doors to the past or the deeper recesses of the unconscious. Mother and daughter are represented as walking through the rooms as if one, an image preceded by that of the daughter lying in the hollow of the mother's stomach, as if she had returned to the womb.

In the ninth and final section, the daughter is depicted as having fully embraced her submission to the mother and is rewarded by being allowed to merge with her. In the last of her mother's many transformations, she becomes Yemaya, Afro-Caribbean deity of the seas, who sees to it that the fishermen return to land with a bountiful catch. Drawing from one of the salient images of the previous section, the daughter appears ensconced in the mother's “enormous lap.” Images of paradise abound as the story comes to its close, underscoring the notion of the daughter's perfect happiness now that she and the mother are one: a bower made from flowers, a hummingbird that nests on the daughter's stomach (“a sign of my fertileness,” 61), warm rain, and lambs (which she uses in the story as a symbol of childlike innocence and vulnerability).


“At the Bottom of the River,” the story that gives the book its title, is the longest of the volume. The six sections that compose the narrative revisit the central themes of the collection, from the allure of the void and nothingness of “Blackness,” through the evocation of the dignity and integrity of the father in “In the Night,” to the lost idyllic relationship with the mother of “Girl,” “The Mother,” and “Wingless.”

“At the Bottom of the River” opens with a meditation on man's responsibility to interpret and give meaning to nature. The opening paragraph is but a description of a wondrous natural landscape of steep mountains, powerful streams, plains and ridges, gorges and glittering pools, all awaiting “the eye, the hand, the foot that shall then give all this a meaning” (63). There is a faint trace of mockery in this description of man as the measure of all things, a note of slight derision, as if to indicate that the narrator is not quite sure that man is up to the task of interpreting a nature more powerful and lasting than he is. The second paragraph of the segment underscores this notion, as it depicts a man living in a small room, existing in a world “bereft of its very nature,” unaware that there is a task of great magnitude open to him if he could stir and embrace it. Kincaid builds this section on repetitions of the phrase “he cannot conceive,” underscoring his poverty of spirit and imagination, his very incapacity to take stock of his world. Unlike the many young female narrators struggling between darkness and light and the search for knowledge and identity in At the Bottom of the River, this man “sits in nothing” (64) and cannot be the measure of anything.

The second segment of the story returns to the image of the father figure Kincaid had developed in “In the Night,” a figure that owes much to that of her own stepfather. This portrait of the father, like the previous one, underscores an ordinary man's delight in the habitual and commonplace. He is a man who, unlike the solitary man of the first segment of the story, has embraced his life of work and domesticity and glories in his routine. His work as a carpenter offers meaning and pleasure; the placidity of his domestic arrangements is a source of joy. He is contented and satisfied, and just a bit vain. This portrait, however, differs from the one Kincaid offers in “In the Night” in significant ways. In “At the Bottom of the River,” the father figure is shaken out of his complacency when one day, seemingly out of the blue, he glimpses the immensity of the Earth's magnitude—represented here by fossils, layers of geological strata, veins of gold in stone, mountains covered with hot lava—and realizes his own paltriness and insignificance. The realization destroys his self-satisfaction and contentment, as now he finds himself confronting death and nothingness, imagining that “in one hand he holds emptiness and yearning and in the other desire fulfilled” (67). The loss of innocence embodied in this man's confrontation with the potential meaninglessness of life is poignantly counterpoised against the theme of the young woman's loss of innocence that runs through the stories of At the Bottom of the River. Unlike the naive, unquestioning father figure she has created in her stories, only occasionally dreaming of things beyond his limited horizons, Kincaid's young women narrators are without illusions. Their struggle against their mothers, their refusal to yield to the many transformations that would have made them like their mothers, has left them without that capacity for wonder the father possesses; but it has also left them with a shield of protection against the naiveté that blights the father's life after his realization of his own inconsequence in the large scale of things. They are keenly aware of the futility of many human struggles and, unlike the father, know that before them there is “a silence so dreadful, a vastness, its length and breadth and depth immeasurable. Nothing” (68).

The third part of “At the Bottom of the River” further develops the theme of death and nothingness of the previous section. In this segment, however, there is the narrator's own voice, a narrative “I,” confronting the void. The meditation on death with which the section opens underscores the narrator's existentialist perspective: the inevitability of death can strip life of all meaning and she struggles to hold on to some significance through the contemplation of her own place in the cycle of life. She wishes she could reach out with her hand to make the earth stand still, but is forced to accept “the death in life” (73). If in the previous segment Kincaid juxtaposed the father's efforts to find meaning in life against the magnitude of the geological cycles the Earth has undergone, here the cycles of plant and animal life are presented as the unstoppable force making a mockery of the narrator's attempts to defy death and oblivion. “Death is natural,” someone says to her, and she feels mocked.

In part four of the narrative Kincaid returns to a theme that readers have come to associate with her fiction—that of the estrangement that develops between mother and daughter when the latter enters puberty and must begin to separate from the mother and establish her own independent identity. This theme, as revisited in “At the Bottom of the River,” opens with an invocation to the light, Kincaid's favorite metaphor for the quest for maturity and self-knowledge. In a direct reference to the figure of the daughter in “Blackness,” the narrator of “At the Bottom of the River” struggles to exist “between the day and the night” (73), between light and darkness. She sees herself as a child, when she lived in perfect harmony with her mother and regarded her face as one of “wondrous beauty.” In a rare reference to the colonial background of her childhood in At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid links the unqualified love and harmony she felt for her mother then to her period of blindness to the realities of Antigua's colonial situation. (The theme will become one of increasing importance in her writing after the publication of this collection.) Here, Kincaid offers an image of false concord in her description of the rows of dark-skinned colonial girls mindlessly singing an English hymn. The narrator's process of maturation involves shedding both her illusion of blissful unity with her mother and her delusion about glorious moments of contentment and joy being possible with “wanton hues of red and gold and blue” (an allusion to the Union Jack) swaying in the breeze.

The fifth section of “At the Bottom of the River” accounts for the title of the story; here, the narrator stands by the mouth of the river, staring through the clear and still water at the world that unfolds at the bottom. What she sees are pictures of idealized domesticity: a house of rough heavy planks surrounded by a wide stretch of perfectly mowed green grass, a flower garden, everything imbued with a supernatural light that fills everything and holds some profound but as yet unknown meaning. A naked woman appears (yet another rendition of the mother figure) who directs the narrator's gaze toward a world stripped down to the bare essentials, where all the familiar elements of the landscape—sun, moon, mountains, seas—are distilled to their very essence.

Kincaid returns in this segment of the story to her use of the light as a metaphor for clarity of vision. The light that fell on everything made all things transparent, “so that nothing could be hidden” (77). The narrator (the daughter), as most of Kincaid's narrators in the tales collected in At the Bottom of the River, takes advantage of the light to look at herself and within herself. The description of the physical characteristics she sees—as if for the first time—culminate in her description of her skin as red—“the red of flames when a fire is properly fed” (79)—a characteristic Kincaid often evokes to represent female beauty and fulfillment. Above all, the narrator uses the light to recognize her complete dominion over her will—her having attained maturity and independence. She is now ready to enter the water and allow her physical body to dissolve into it, to penetrate that supernatural space created by the light at the bottom of the river. As she fuses with the light she becomes like a prism, “refracting and reflecting light,” and finally attains beauty.

In the sixth and final segment of the story the narrator emerges from the light in which she had plunged in the preceding section to ponder the power of a small glowing thing surrounded by darkness to help her emerge from her pit and lure her toward life. Here, Kincaid responds to the despair she had described as belonging to the two men of the first and second parts by underscoring her narrator's desire to struggle against the blackness and nothingness that lead to such despair. She then moves her character toward the light, reentering the everyday domestic sphere, reencountering commonplace objects. She asserts the strength of her connections to “all that is human endeavor,” and feels herself growing “solid and complete,” her name “filling up [her] mount” (82). Kincaid closes the story—and the book—with an affirmation of the daughter's identity and her determination to embrace life, thus bringing the process of maturation and separation from the mother—the thematic focus of the book—to its logical and most satisfying conclusion.


The work of Nancy Chodorow, author of The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), is notable among American feminists for its emphasis on the importance of mothering in the formation of gendered identities and its pioneering consideration of class and race issues as crucial elements in children's acquisition of notions of appropriate gender behavior. Mothering. Chodorow has argued, is a process geared to producing female children who will fit comfortably in the private, domestic world, leaving male children to the public, social world (Chodorow, 174). It is Chodorow's contention that growing into womanhood means coming to terms with “the ideology, meanings, and expectations that go into being a gendered member of our society” (98). Girls, Chodorow points out, are expected to be “more like and continuous with” the mother than boys, making the process of separation from the mother a more distressing process for girls, who are not expected to “individuate themselves, to see themselves as distinct from their mothers” (166). In her analysis of Chodorow's work, Elizabeth V. Spellman takes her theories one step further, arguing that “what one learns when one learns one's gender identity is the gender identity appropriate to one's ethnic, class, national, and racial identity” (88).

Chodorow's theories can be extremely useful in helping us understand Kincaid's depiction of the tensions between mother and daughter as stemming from the clash between the mother's desire to mold the daughter into a copy of herself and the daughter's determination to develop her own independent personality and ideas. In At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid uses the figure of the mother as the main conduit for the myriad limitations that a patriarchal society imposes on young women. The mother's efforts to channel the daughter's activities, interests, and behavior into patterns that the mother perceives as socially acceptable lead to the daughter's perceiving her as a jablesse calling on the daughter to transform herself into disgusting things—lizards, snakes, monsters.

The tensions between mother and daughter are aggravated in At the Bottom of the River by Kincaid's insistence on establishing links between the mother and colonial culture and mores. As complicated as the stresses between mother and daughter are in her fiction, they are further problematized by the mother having formed her notions of the proper ideas and behavior for her daughter from British colonial models. The mother's admonitions stem from her perceived need to form the daughter into a proper colonial subject, one who does not give in to local or native ways but must imitate colonial patterns of behavior. In “Girl,” for example, we see the mother functioning as such an agent of colonial assimilation, teaching her daughter what she perceives as behavior necessary to “whiten” herself. In that story, as in many others in the collection, the daughter's resistance stresses her preference for native ways as an affirmation of the native culture. The strains between mother and daughter thus acquire symbolic meaning, as they are made to stand in representation of the struggles for supremacy between colonial empire and the colonized. The mother's efforts to adapt and embrace colonial culture must be seen as representative of her acceptance of the status quo, of her own colonized mentality; the daughter's efforts to establish her own separate identity, in turn, stand as representative of Antigua's attempts to nurture its own political and cultural independence.

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Critical Context