Jamaica Kincaid Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

Jamaica Kincaid Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Jamaica Kincaid is noted for her lyrical use of language. Her short stories and novels have a hypnotic, poetic quality that results from her utilization of rhythm and repetition. Her images, drawn from her West Indian childhood, recall Antigua, with its tropical climate, Caribbean food, local customs, and folklore laced with superstitions. Many of her stories move easily from realism to surrealistic fantasy, as would a Caribbean folktale. She is also praised for her exploration of the strong but ambiguous bond between mother and daughter and her portrayal of the transformation of a girl into a woman. Thus her work touches upon the loss of innocence that comes when one moves out of the Eden that is childhood. These are the features that are found not only in her short fiction but also in her novels, the chapters of which The New Yorker originally published as short stories, and in Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip, a children’s book that was part of a project designed by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the original publisher, who sought to bring together contemporary authors and artists for a series of limited editions aimed primarily at collectors.

Kincaid’s concern with racism, colonialism, classicism, and sexism is rooted in her history: “I never give up thinking about the way I came into the world, how my ancestors came from Africa to the West Indies as slaves. I just could never forget it. Or forgive it.” She does not hesitate to tackle these issues in her writing. In her nonfictional A Small Place, she directs the force of her language toward an examination of her native island of Antigua, presenting the beauty as well as the racism and corruption rooted in its colonial past. In her fiction, these same issues are not slighted; for example, Annie John and Lucy address various forms of oppression and exploitation.

Jamaica Kincaid’s short stories, strongly autobiographical, are often set in the West Indies or incorporate images from the islands and include many events from her youth and young adulthood. In general, her stories chronicle the coming-of-age of a young girl. Because the mother-daughter relationship is central to the process, Kincaid often examines the powerful bond between them, a bond that the child must eventually weaken, if not break, in order to create her own identity. Kincaid has been accurately called “the poet of girlhood and place.”


The first of the ten stories in At the Bottom of the River is the often praised and quoted “Girl.” Barely two pages in length, the story outlines the future life of a young girl growing up on a small Caribbean island. The voice heard belongs to the girl’s mother as she instructs her daughter in the duties that a woman is expected to fulfill in a culture with limited opportunities for girls. Twice the girl interrupts to offer a feeble protest, but her mother persists.

The girl is told how to wash, iron, and mend clothes; how to cook fritters and pepper pot; how to grow okra; and how to set the table—in short, everything that will enable her to care for a future husband. She is told how to smile, how to love a man, and how to get rid of an unborn baby should it be necessary. Most important, however, her mother warns her about losing her reputation because then the girl (and this is unsaid) loses her value as a potential wife. Almost as a refrain, the mother cautions, “On Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming” or “This is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.” On the island, the girl’s most important asset is her virginity.

The language is a prime example of Kincaid’s ability to work a hypnotic spell. The story consists of a series of variations on particular instruction: “This is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.” The rhythm and repetition create a lyric poetic quality that is present to some degree in all Kincaid’s fiction. Her prose demands to be read out loud.

“Girl” suggests the child’s future life on the island, but several stories in the collection re-create the atmosphere of her present existence. The story “In the Night” recounts her daily experiences. Thus, details such as crickets or flowers that would be important to her are recorded, often in the form of lists or catalogs: “The hibiscus flowers, the flamboyant flowers, the bachelor’s buttons, the irises, the marigolds, the whiteheadbush flowers, lilies, the flowers on the daggerbush,” continuing for a full paragraph. Here cataloging, a familiar feature of Kincaid’s prose, represents a child’s attempt to impose an order on her surroundings. The young narrator does not question her world but only reports what she observes. Thus witchcraft exists side by side with more mundane activities: “Someone is making a basket, someone is making a girl a dress or a boy a shirt someone is sprinkling a colorless powder outside a closed door so that someone else’s child will be stillborn.” This melding of the commonplace with the supernatural occurs frequently in Kincaid’s fiction. The narrator’s troubles, such as wetting the bed, are those of a child and are easily resolved by her mother. Her plans for the future, marrying a woman who will tell her stories, also are typical of a child. This is an idyllic world before the fall from innocence, a world in which everything is ordered, listed, and cataloged. Nothing is threatening, since the all-powerful mother protects and shields.



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