Girl Summary

Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl" is a dramatic monologue in which a mother gives advice to her daughter, the "girl."

  • The story consists of a series of instructions meant to help the titular girl become a respectable woman, including both practical and social advice.

  • The mother repeatedly tells the girl, "This is how…" while explaining how proper adults should behave.

  • The mother places particular emphasis on sex, because she fears her daughter will shame her by becoming a promiscuous woman.
  • The daughter seemingly objects to some of her mother's advice, but the mother dismisses these objections.

Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated March 7, 2024.

Introduction

“Girl” is a short story by prolific Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid. The piece was originally published in The New Yorker in 1978 and, later, included in one of Kincaid’s short story collections. 

Literary critics posit that the content of “Girl” was inspired by Kincaid’s troubled relationship with her own mother. Her depiction of gender roles and their double standards reflect Kincaid’s experience growing up in the Caribbean, surrounded by a patriarchal society. 

Even within the genre of short stories, Kincaid’s text stands out as particularly brief: The story is one paragraph and consists of what is essentially a list of instructions spoken by a figure (presumably the girl's mother) with only brief interjections by the titular girl.

Summary

The story opens with an unnamed narrator telling an unnamed listener how to do the laundry: White clothes should be washed on Monday and “color clothes on Tuesday.” As the story develops, the reader can assume the speaker is an older woman, probably a mother, teaching a young woman, probably her daughter, how to keep house. The speaker also advises the “girl” to wear something on her head while out in the sun, tells her how to cook fritters, and teaches her to sew her own clothes.

After this listed series of instructions, the speaker asks whether the girl sings “benna in Sunday school.” Benna is a genre of popular, secular music in the Caribbean. Thus, it would be inappropriate for a day of religious worship. At this point, the speaker’s advice becomes more focused on proper behavior for “a lady.” She warns the girl to not eat in a way that will disgust others and to walk in a ladylike manner—“and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming.” The suddenly aggressive tone implies that the girl is being taught to behave in a way that will not make her seem sexually promiscuous. The speaker then immediately returns to benna. This time she does not ask whether the girl sings benna but simply tells her not to. The speaker’s advice to avoid “wharf-rat boys” is also likely related to her concerns for the girl’s reputation.

At this point, the girl interjects, insisting she never sings benna on Sundays; her speech is italicized to distinguish it from that of the predominant speaker. The mother figure does not respond directly to the girl’s comment but simply moves on to her next set of notes: how to sew buttons and hem dresses. Now the speaker’s advice is interspersed more frequently with warnings about the girl’s reputation; she claims that when a girl’s hem hangs down, she looks like a slut. She once again assumes that the girl is “bent on” pursuing illicit sexual activity with boys and men.

The speaker then explains to the girl how to iron pants for men before moving on and advising her on how and where to grow certain plants. She tells the girl about various techniques for sweeping. Her advice becomes more abstract when she describes how to interact with other people, when and how much to smile depending on who she is speaking to. Then the speaker runs through multiple table settings so the girls can distinguish between dining with family and dining with “an important guest.”

The speaker repeats that the girl should not behave “like the slut I’ve warned you against becoming.” The speaker assumes the girl’s behavior would immediately give her away, as men would “recognize” her true, fallen self. She resumes by ordering the girl to bathe herself frequently and to not play marbles because she is “not a boy.”

The speaker continues to give cooking directions for various dishes before advising the girl on how to make medicines. Amongst these mundane activities, the speaker alludes to a kind of medicine that can rid a woman of “a child before it even becomes a child.” Quickly returning to more casual advice, the speaker tells the girl how to catch and dispose of fish.

Next, the speaker tries to educate the girl on different ways to “bully” and “love” men. She hints at “other ways” to win a man’s affections and claims to tell the girl how to do what sounds like a love spell. The speaker encourages the girl to not worry if her methods do not work, and that it is sometimes acceptable to abandon a once-desired relationship.

The speaker juxtaposes the general advice on “how to make ends meet” with how to ensure your bread is fresh before purchasing it. The girl interjects again to ask what would happen if the baker does not allow her to squeeze it to test its freshness. The speaker is appalled at the question, retorting that she cannot believe the girl would become a woman whose integrity would be doubted by the baker. The speaker has given the girl a great deal of what she considers helpful advice, so she is astonished that “after all” of her instructions, the girl could even imagine not following these rules to become a proper woman.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Next

Themes