Themes

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 970

Anger Anger is a recurring theme in both Kincaid’s feelings toward her family and toward Antigua, the country of her birth. Kincaid reflects on her own anger, admitting that anger often manifests itself in small transactions. When Devon asks Kincaid to go for a walk alone with him, she suspects...

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Anger
Anger is a recurring theme in both Kincaid’s feelings toward her family and toward Antigua, the country of her birth. Kincaid reflects on her own anger, admitting that anger often manifests itself in small transactions. When Devon asks Kincaid to go for a walk alone with him, she suspects that he’ll ask her for something of hers and that she’ll resent the request. She remembers how Devon had once asked her for the khaki shorts she was wearing and can articulate why the request annoyed her: ‘‘I did not like giving them to him at all. I did not want them back, I wanted not to have had to give them in the first place.’’

In Kincaid’s family, quarreling is a way of life. One family member often stops talking to another, and these angry silences take on a life of their own. At one point, Kincaid identifies her own mother as ‘‘his mother,’’ meaning Devon’s mother, noting that ‘‘she is my mother, too, but I wasn’t talking to her then, and when I am not talking to her, she is someone else’s mother, not mine.’’ After Devon temporarily recovers, she remembers, ‘‘He and my mother had huge quarrels and unforgivable things were said, but after the quarrels were over, they would both feel that everything said had not really been meant.’’ Anger has its own rules in Kincaid’s family, and people who have done and said terrible things can also be unexpectedly loving.

Mothers and Motherhood
Closely linked to the theme of anger are issues of mothering and its aftereffects. Kincaid says that the extraordinary thing about her mother’s love for her children is its ability ‘‘to turn into a weapon for their destruction.’’ Critics have observed that Kincaid’s fascination with mother-daughter relationships stems from her preoccupation with colonialism, which is essentially the coercive and quasiparental relationship of one nation toward another. In A Small Place, Kincaid spoke of the English people who colonized Antigua in terms that would also have described her mother’s parenting style: ‘‘no natural disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did.’’

Although Kincaid is unequivocal in her harsh portrayal of her mother, she understands that the role of mother must almost, by definition, inspire negative feelings from time to time. Kincaid talks about how her son loves her and hates her, and how this is necessary and right: ‘‘This state of profound contradiction, loving me and hating me, is what will be for the rest of his life, if I am a good mother to him. This is the best that it can be. If I should fail him—and I very well might, the prime example I have is not a good one—he will experience something everlastingly bitter and awful: I know this, the taste of this awfulness, this bitterness, is in my mouth every day.’’

Gardening
Gardening is one link connecting Kincaid with her mother. Kincaid recognizes that her own love of gardening, as does Devon’s, springs from her mother. ‘‘What would my brother say were he to be asked how he became interested in growing things? He saw our mother doing it. What else?’’

Throughout, gardening is Kincaid’s metaphor for nurturing. When she talks of Freeston, the Antiguan who openly acknowledges that he has AIDS, the harmony of his family is apparent in the flourishing houseplants: ‘‘he lived with [his mother] in a house with a beautiful garden full of zinnias and cosmos and some impatiens and all sorts of shrubs with glossy and variegated leaves.’’ Yet the gardening metaphor is most effective and poignant when Kincaid uses it to describe Devon: ‘‘in his life there had been no flowering, his life was the opposite of that, a flowering, his life was like the bud that sets but, instead of opening into a flower, turns brown and falls off at your feet.’’

Sex and sexuality
Gardening can be equated with nurturing, but it also is a link to Kincaid’s themes of birth, death, and sexuality. Sexuality is central to this memoir because Devon has contracted a fatal disease through his own undisclosed sexual activities. One of the discoveries Kincaid finds most disturbing about her brother Devon is that even though he has a fatal disease that’s transmitted through sexual contact, he continues to have sex with women, without first informing them he has AIDS. Devon is not particularly concerned about the danger to which he exposes his sexual partners; his rationale for his irresponsible behavior is ‘‘that he could not live without sex, that if he went without sex for too long he began to feel funny.’’ His attitude seems consistent with prevailing views in Antigua. There, men who attend Dr. Ramsey’s lectures on AIDS leave and go immediately to the section of town where the prostitutes are found. It’s well known that a majority of these women (‘‘butter women’’ they’re called because they’re from Santo Domingo and have light skin) are HIV positive. The men cavalierly tell Dr. Ramsey that ‘‘they would rather die than leave the butter women alone.’’

Like other subjects, sexuality is not simple to Kincaid. She is frank about her own interest in sex: ‘‘on the whole I like to know whom people have sex with, and a description of it I find especially interesting. My own life, from a sexual standpoint, can be described as a monument to boring conventionality. And so perhaps because of this I have a great interest in other people’s personal lives.’’ Yet for all her desire to glean facts about her brother’s sexual past, she doesn’t learn the truth until after Devon’s death, when she’s told that he sometimes had sex with other men.

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