Style and Technique

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Without the typical formal structure of setting, characterization, or color that are hallmarks of Kincaid’s writing, “Girl” is only slightly more than two pages in length. It is, however, the economy of structure that is compelling. In order to capture speech patterns, Kincaid makes unique use of the narrative voice of a nameless girl recalling her mother’s distant and at times sharp remonstrances about things to do and not do lest she become the slut her mother fears she is bent on becoming. The Old Testament, litany-style series of imperatives from mother to daughter are strung together with semicolons, punctuated by occasional commas. The incantatory language is stern and distant (“and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming”), reflecting tension between mother and daughter. The style is haunting, particularly the disjointedness that vividly and characteristically captures the experience of adolescence and growing up. For example, the pattern of the mother’s remonstrances is markedly disorderly and fragmentary, most certainly because it reflects the way the daughter recalls and restructures the way she heard them. Or perhaps, fragmentization could be read as daughter parodying mother’s well-ordered sense of decorum and sanctimonious respectability.

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The tone is one of cold isolation and detachment from emotion and intimacy, ominous at times, yet Kincaid manages to infuse some humor into the remonstrances (“this is how to spit in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you”). This “how to” contradicts the very core of the middle-class values of respectability and decorum that the mother so persistently attempts to inculcate in the daughter. One could perhaps read this contradictory, ill-placed instruction as a reflection of the fluidity of an otherwise stern mother’s value system or as an ambivalence, a weakness, an inconsistency of the mother’s erstwhile correct, strong, dominant, “cultured” posture. The very nature of Kincaid’s stance on the idea of structures, strictures, and her resistance to canons points to the latter. The structure of “Girl” is but one small example of Kincaid breaking through the linearity of the canon, the strictures of traditional culture and forms.

Historical Context

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Antigua: British Colony
"Girl'' was first published in The New Yorker magazine twelve years after Kincaid left Antigua for New York City. Even at that distance of time and space, Kincaid drew on her experiences growing up in Antigua for the setting and themes of "Girl," as she has done for the rest of her fiction. From the time Kincaid was born in 1949 until she left in 1966, Antigua was a colony of Great Britain. England had gained control of the island in 1667, after thirty years of fighting with the Carib Indians, who inhabited the island, and the Dutch and French, who wished to own it. In 1674 the first great sugarcane plantations were established, and slaves were brought in from Africa to do the work on them; the slaves were freed in 1834, and their descendants make up most of the population of the island. Antigua also became an important naval base for the British, and remained so until the beginning of the twentieth century, when battles between the British and the French for control of the New World waned.

Antigua under the British had a small, wealthy population of whites from Europe, and a large, poor black population descended from imported African slaves. The Carib Indian population had been eliminated. Like her peers, Kincaid attended schools based on the British educational system. The children were taught to speak "proper'' English, studied British history, and read and memorized the works of British writers including William Wordsworth and John Milton. They did...

(The entire section contains 3626 words.)

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Critical Essays


Teaching Guide