Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

The overriding thematic concern of the stories in At the Bottom of the River is the pain of separation from a mother for a young girl growing up. “Holidays” and “The Letter from Home” both seem to speak of a temporary separation or vacation of the girl from her mother, a separation that proves to be a first attempt at adulthood from which a return to childhood becomes impossible. In “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” the daughter no longer feels herself to be a perfect extension of her mother; rather, the mother now is a demanding presence who makes life hard for the daughter. In “Blackness,” the peace of darkness and nighttime that is evoked so beautifully in “In the Dark” has become predatory and threatens to drag the daughter into an emotional chasm. The mother, looking on, is separate enough from her daughter to not see her as suffering serious problems, but she is also separate enough to see a strength in the daughter of which the daughter may not be aware.

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The story “My Mother” in some ways encapsulates the main themes of the book, in that the mother and daughter are presented as in constant competition. At the end of the first section of this story, the narrator describes herself and her mother watching each other warily and being careful to flatter one another, because a poisonous lake now exists between them; if they are not careful, they may hurt one another. At one point, the daughter tries to distinguish her own shadow from the darkness of her mother’s room—indicating a feeling of suffocation—and at another point longs for the lost intimacy with her mother. The conflict between these two contrasting feelings, however, is now unreconcilable.

Finally, in “At the Bottom of the River,” the daughter achieves a sense of independent self. Ironically, her father, who has been mostly absent during the previous stories, provides a model for this separation. The brief passage focusing on him reveals a man living in separation from the world and the people around him, and even from his own feelings. The daughter does not want to follow his example; rather, she wants to answer the questions he ignores. He feels the approach of death to be a heaviness, so she thinks about death. Her thoughts bring her to the river’s edge, where she encounters, at the bottom of the river, a world of Platonic ideal forms and whole truths. Seeing that there is a transcendental world, she is able to enter it as a spirit and to become a single, individual, unique self. The daughter’s ultimate discovery is that becoming separate does not mean becoming lonely and isolated; one can be an individual and be a part of something larger at the same time. When she speaks her name at the end, it is an act of self-naming by which she tries to begin to position herself in the larger world.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

What remains unanswered at the end of Jamaica Kincaid’s imagistic yet abstract story is the question of the name that creates her identity anew. When the narrator’s final persona emerges from her transforming vision at the bottom of the river, she accepts her own inevitability of death in the knowledge that she can create herself beyond it: She accepts the mature artist’s role of creating works in the midst of a modern world marked by alienating futility. To achieve the confidence of the creative will, the narrator had to endure passage through a number of identities, which led from her own childhood innocence through the pain of both her father’s and her own experience of pain...

(The entire section contains 925 words.)

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