Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

At the Bottom of the River created an immediate sensation when it was published. Kincaid’s work is a unique achievement, and as such it would be a mistake to view the book narrowly within one critical context, yet the traditions upon which the work draws can be detected. In light of Kincaid’s impressionistic style, which stresses feelings and images over meaning and story, a valid comparison can be drawn between the stories in At the Bottom of the River and the soliloquy that ends James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). When the narrator of “At the Bottom of the River” recalls how she would say “yes, yes, yes” to her mother’s beauty, for example, the narrator seems to echo Molly Bloom’s repeated “yes” at the end of Ulysses. A major difference, of course, is that At the Bottom of the River focuses on the development of a young woman’s relationship to her mother, rather than to men, as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy does.

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The most important context that At the Bottom of the River deserves to be considered within, however, is an African Caribbean one. To be sure, Jamaica Kincaid (a longtime resident of the United States) has been reluctant to label herself a Caribbean writer, claiming that labels are not important. In this case, however, the recognition of the context that helped to produce her work can be informative.

The critic Wendy Dutton has called attention to the “conjure woman” elements of Jamaica Kincaid’s writing. Growing from an African tradition, the conjure woman is a figure in African literature and society with knowledge of the spirit world and a spiritually derived knowledge and power over the material world. The references to herbal medicine in “Girl” seem to put the narrator’s mother in this tradition, and the scenes of confrontation in “My Mother” can be read as an account of two conjure women who are respectful of each other’s powers but who find themselves in competition.

There are also references to Plato’s allegory of the cave, but...

(The entire section contains 536 words.)

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At the Bottom of the River, Jamaica Kincaid