What is the irony in "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid?

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The irony in Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl" lies in the contradiction between the mother's perception of her daughter and the daughter's actual behavior. The mother issues a series of stern instructions, assuming her daughter is rebellious and prone to immoral behavior, exemplified by her accusation of the girl wanting to become a "slut." However, the daughter's few interjections reveal her innocence and confusion about her mother's harsh judgments, highlighting the disparity between the mother's assumptions and the daughter's true character.

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What strikes me as ironic is that the authoritarian woman who offers instruction about how to live life as a young woman speaks as though the girl she addresses is a "bad" girl, that she does not follow the rules and willfully disobeys and tries to rebel at every turn, despite evidence to the contrary. For example, this older woman tells her, "Try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don't sing benna in Sunday school [...]." However, the girl, when she gets a tiny moment to speak up for herself, says, "But I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school." Later, when she asks an innocent question about some of the instruction she is given ("but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread [to see if it's fresh]?") the older woman says, "You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?" This older woman seems totally convinced that the girl is "a slut" and will have a terrible reputation, and yet the girl seems relatively receptive to the instruction she receives and seems rather innocent (in the not-even-handful of times we hear her speak).

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The story is ironic because Jamaica Kincaid writes from a mother's perspective giving her daughter information on how she is to live her life.  The daughter rejects the information as being too confining and is determined to act rebellious.

Kincaid, from the Caribbean Island of Antigua, had a very conflictual relationship with her mother.  She left the island at age 17 partly to escape her mother and the lifestyle.

The author writes a story about a mother who imposes on her daughter ideas that seem old fashioned and restricting. 

"The mother is a woman in Antigua who understands a woman's "place." She lives in a culture that looks to both Christianity and obeah, an African-based religion, and that holds women in a position of subservience to men. She recites a catalog of advice and warnings to help her daughter learn all a woman should know. "

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Denote the irony in "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid.

Jamaica Kincaid acknowledges that it was her mother’s instructions embedded in her own mind that she recreates in “Girl.” An Antiguan native, Kincaid places her story in her native land during the 1980s. There are references and vocabulary which are distinctive to the life style of the Caribbean.

There is no action in the short story. It is told from the point of view of the mother who is giving her daughter advice that she knows will help her throughout her life.  The tone of the story is emphatic, harsh, and demanding.  The ideas of the mother are told in a stream of consciousness flow which denotes that whatever the mother thinks of she says. 

The information is divided into house chores, cooking, manners, and relationships which are relevant topics for a girl to know in certain situations. The mother‘s list appears fueled by some action or suspicion toward the daughter; consequently, running throughout the list are references to nonspecific behavior which the mother abhors.

The story is unique.  It is told in one long sentence with the bits of advice separated by semi-colons. This structure is effective in demonstrating the anxiety and energy of the mother.  She barely pauses for a breath and ignores, if she even hears, her daughter’s remark about singing in Sunday school. 

The daughter’s voice is heard only twice: she defends herself and at the end when she asks a question.  The irony in the story is found in the harsh sexual references to the girl’s behavior:

‘On Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming…’

 Then,  the mother gives the girl advice about how to handle a man:

‘This is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways; this is how to bully a man…’

For some reason, the mother seems overtly worried about the daughter being perceived as a “slut.” It is ironic that she would then give her advice about how to manipulate a man to do what she wants. Other references to behavior concerning men also seem strange when her main concern is that her daughter will not prostitute herself.

The mother barks instructions and advice at the girl, who listens patiently. The daughter is very respectful of her mother and possibly frightened of her because the mother appears mother anxious and overbearing. She advises the girl in the behavior which keeps her in the place of a female in his society where women are in the home and expected to serve the man.

She instructs the girl how to behave in front of men that she does not know very well.

The mother gives her advice as to how behave so that men will not recognize that she is a slut.

  • Do no squat down to play like a boy.
  • She tells the girl how to bully a man and how man bullies a girl.
  • The mother tells the girl how to make a medicine that will cause the girl to abort her baby if she becomes pregnant. 

At the end of the list, the mother tells the girl how to make ends meet with money.  One of the things that she explains is how to make sure the bread is fresh by squeezing it.  The girl asks a question which infuriates her mother: ‘but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?’

To the mother,  the girl is implying that she has already behaved in a way that would preclude the baker from letting her near the bread. This ends the mother’s discussion with her daughter.

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