Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2028
After one quick read through of ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately,’’ the average intelligent reader may be perplexed at best. What on earth could Kincaid mean by all of this? Such a response would not be rare, indeed some of those who have praised Kincaid’s work have also noted that at times her stories tend to ‘‘move forward to a logic which is essentially private’’ (David Leavitt in the Village Voice). In her article ‘‘At the Bottom of the River: Journey of Mourning,’’ Diane Simmons notes Edith Milton’s perception that Kincaid’s stories are at times ‘‘too personal and too peculiar to translate into any sort of sensible communication.’’ What then can unlock Kincaid’s seemingly private and privileged understanding of ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately?’’
Perhaps one way of deciphering the complexity of ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ is through the lens of alchemy, an ancient science that dates back to the second and third centuries before Christ. Alchemists attempted to transform one chemical element into another by means of magic and primitive chemistry. One of their main goals was to change base elements into gold. Using alchemy as a way to understand a piece of literature may appear to complicate matters even further; however, the leap between science and the humanities may not be as far as one might think. According to Anthony Storr in The Essential Jung, the alchemists ‘‘linked change in matter with change in man.’’ Storr further notes that ‘‘some of the alchemists undoubtedly thought of their work as a meditative development of the inner personality.’’ It is for this reason, Storr suggests, that Carl Jung, a twentieth century Swiss psychologist, became interested in alchemy as a symbolic framework for surveying psychological growth and change in his patients. Jung often referred to alchemical processes in his studies of dreams, and believed that what the alchemists called opus, or the alchemical process and work, paralleled the process by which individuals arrived at their own identities. Thus, it is Jung’s symbolic interpretation of alchemical processes that may lend insight into the narrator’s psychological development in ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately.’’
Perhaps the first task in seeing ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ from an alchemical perspective, is to establish it as a story about transformation and process. According to Terree Grabenhorst- Randall in C. G. Jung and the Humanities: Toward a Hermeneutics of Culture, alchemy was ‘‘the art of transformation.’’ The goal of alchemy was to alter the composition of a substance in order to create an entirely new and pure substance. At first glance, it would seem obvious that ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ concerns a process, in that it is possible that the narrator has been getting up to answer the doorbell several times before the story actually begins for the reader. The fact that she returns to bed two times after being there at the beginning of the story suggests that she is in fact in the process of repeating certain events and then returning to bed. How then can this story be seen as a transformation? Doesn’t the narrator simply repeat the same story two times? Decidedly not. As Diane Simmons notes in Jamaica Kincaid, the narrator retells the events in the first half of the story the second time with ‘‘slight changes in language, and then significant changes in the action.’’ Listing the monkey who becomes antagonistic and the way in which the narrator engages with the monkey during the second telling of the events, Simmons concludes that the narrator’s ‘‘experiences are changing her and the story of self she is able to tell.’’ Other transformations within the story include the sky, which once ‘‘seemed near,’’ becomes ‘‘far away’’; the ‘‘black and shiny-beautiful’’ people become unattractive; the straight path becomes hills and the ‘‘leafless trees’’ begin ‘‘flowering.’’ One must wonder if these things are really transforming, or perhaps just the narrator is changing, and thus the way that she perceives things around her is changing as well. Whether it be of the narrator and/or her surroundings, a transformation is definitely occurring.
Like alchemy, which is a very process-oriented creative science, ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ undertakes the notion of process as a means of articulating the transformation of the narrator’s evolving identity. The cyclical nature of the narrative, or the mere fact that the story both begins and ends with the narrator in bed, suggests that, as Simmons points out, the narrator is ‘‘caught in an apparently endless cycle of departure and return.’’ Yet as mentioned before, after returning to the bed in the middle of the story, the narrator and her experiences are no longer identical to the character and the version of the story we read in the first half of the narration. Thus suggesting that the character’s identity and how she perceives herself in relationship to the world around her are evolving by means of a return and departure that not only circles (i.e. brings her repeatedly back to the same events), but perhaps spirals upwards. Interestingly, Carl Jung in ‘‘Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy,’’ states that the process of development of a person’s identity ‘‘proves on closer inspection to be a cycle or a spiral.’’ Indeed, upon such a close inspection, we can see that the narrator of ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ is caught in a cycle that is spiraling her upwards, or ‘‘north,’’ to a new identity. If the narrator were not changing, she would be forever repeating the exact same story. Instead however, she tells an altered story by returning to the same places, but on a changed, and thus new level. Read as a symbolic representation of the narrator’s psychological development, the story becomes like the alchemical vas, or the vessel within which the alchemical process is taking place. Indeed, it is within the confines of this short story that the narrator’s identity is beginning to transform.
The ‘‘drizzle’’ that the narrator encounters upon first walking outside signals the reader that her identity is indeed under construction. In the alchemical stage called Putrifactio a vapor is produced which indicates that the materials have begun to change forms. Simmons notes that in Kincaid’s novel Annie John, ‘‘dust-filled air’’ is used as a signal of change. Interestingly, the narrator encounters either a ‘‘drizzle’’ or a ‘‘damp dust’’ each time she leaves for her journey north. The presence of this moist vaporous substance suggests that the narrator, like the elements within the alchemical vas, is beginning to take on a new identity. The question then becomes, ‘‘what new identity is the narrator assuming?’’
One perspective might be that she is moving closer to womanhood. Moira Ferguson notes that according to Gaston Bachelard in Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, water is the most feminine and maternal of the alchemical elements. Therefore, the ‘‘big body of water’’ toward which the narrator walks can be seen to symbolize womanhood and/or motherhood. During the story’s first cycle, the narrator takes ‘‘years’’ before she navigates through the water, or tries to enter into womanhood, perhaps suggesting that she is not yet at ease with becoming a woman. Literally, she at first can not conceive how she might pass through womanhood. Notably however, after arriving at the water the second time, she crosses it without hesitation, thus reflecting that she is now more comfortable, or more capable of navigating this stage of her journey into womanhood. Each time, the narrator reflects that the ‘‘water looked as if it had been a painting painted by a woman.’’ Thus, even in her own mind, the narrator associates the water with the creative and formative energies of femininity.
The narrator’s encounter with the monkey also plays a role in developing the idea that she is approaching womanhood. Before proceeding with this line of analysis, I will briefly define three alchemical terms to aid in the understanding of this connection. 1) The Philosopher’s Stone—the goal of alchemy, or the end product of the alchemical process. For Jung, this goal was understood as selfrealization. 2) Nigredo—the stage in the alchemical process during which the elements darken. This stage suggests ‘‘that something of import is about to take place.’’ 3) Mercurius—in alchemical writings, Mercurius was understood to be the chemical element Mercury, the God Mercury (Hermes), the planet Mercury and/or the secret ‘‘transforming substance.’’ Jung found many similarities between Mercurius, who was fond of ‘‘sly jokes and malicious pranks,’’ and the image of the Trickster, who has often been portrayed in the arts as a monkey. Jung believed that ‘‘wherever and whenever [the Trickster] appears he brings the possibility of transforming the meaningless into the meaningful.’’ (Definitions taken from The Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis and The Essential Jung). To continue then, in both cycles of the story, the narrator’s encounter with the monkey is either preceded by darkness, or an anticipation of darkness. Before the first encounter with the monkey, she says, ‘‘It must be almost morning,’’ implying that she is walking in the still dark hours of the night. Prior to her second meeting with the monkey she says, ‘‘If the sun went out it would be eight minutes before I would know it.’’ In both cases, the anticipation of darkness or its presence parallels the darkening of the elements during Nigredo, thus signaling the reader that that which follows is significant. From the definitions above, we can figuratively understand the monkey as the ‘‘transformative substance’’ that converts the ‘‘meaningless into the meaningful.’’ The narrator’s encounter with the monkey becomes not just another experience, but an encounter that teaches us about the narrator. According to Jung in ‘‘Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy,’’ the number four signifies ‘‘the feminine [and the] motherly.’’ Interestingly, the monkey throws the fourth stone back at the narrator. If we understand the fourth stone as 1) the Philosopher’s Stone, or self-realization, and 2) something feminine, then the fourth stone figuratively symbolizes the narrator’s self-realization of womanhood. Once again however, we see that the narrator is not yet comfortable with this identification. She notes, ‘‘the skin on [her] forehead felt false,’’ meaning that being marked or identified as a woman, even to herself, feels unnatural.
In Complex/Archetype/Symbol in the Psychology of C. G. Jung, Jolande Jacobi notes that ‘‘the number four occupied a position of fundamental importance in the alchemists striving for the Philosopher’s Stone.’’ Similarly, in ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately,’’ the symbolic association of the number four with the feminine world occupies a fundamental importance in understanding the narrator’s self-identification process. Her reaction to her first encounter with the ‘‘big body of water,’’ and her sense that her skin ‘‘felt false’’ indicate that although she is in the process of becoming a woman, she has not yet fully realized this identity. In addition, as Simmons suggests, ‘‘she will never be the same as before she left.’’ Thus, the narrator is not a child as she was before, yet she is not entirely a woman either. Instead, the narrator is seemingly caught in the ambiguous space between childhood and womanhood. The complexities and obscure nature of ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ reflect the fact that the narrator’s identity is not yet defined and determinable. She, like her story, are in a constant state of change, and hence, to define the meaning of the story, or to define who exactly the narrator is, would be to limit the possibilities of all that either the story, or the narrator could become. It was perhaps to capture the fluidity of personal transformation that Kincaid wrote ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ in such a complexly rich fashion. By simply stating that the narrator was becoming a woman, Kincaid would have deprived us of the experience of transforming that which at first seemed ‘‘meaningless into the meaningful.’’
Source: Dustie Kellett, ‘‘An Overview of ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1801
Generalizing about Caribbean authors, Daryl Cumber Dance notes, ‘‘Language and identity are inseparable. The quest for identity is [a] prevalent concern in Caribbean literature.’’ Perhaps because of this connection, many readers tend to examine Jamaica Kincaid’s stories as semi-autobiographical texts. In the scholarly journals in which literary critics publish their work, articles on Kincaid are sometimes interviews rather than interpretations of her work; even in interpretive articles, Kincaid’s biography becomes a reference point.
For example, in Moira Ferguson’s book Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, Ferguson frequently refers to the facts of Kincaid’s life to substantiate her arguments about Kincaid’s stories. When Ferguson argues that ‘‘part child, part adolescent, the narrator [of At the Bottom of the River] comes to terms with a world that fuses fantasy, Eurocentric conceptions of the world, and day-to day events,’’ she adds a footnote to support her point, noting that ‘‘biographical details from Jamaica Kincaid’s life suggest that the [stories] take place when the speaker is around nine years old.’’ In her discussion of Kincaid’s book Annie John, Ferguson notes the parallels between Annie John’s family and Kincaid’s family, suggesting that at various points throughout Annie John, ‘‘Kincaid may be talking about her ancestry.’’
Criticism that relies frequently on details of the author’s life is sometimes called biographical criticism. In biographical criticism, the author herself becomes a sort of text, which can be read and interpreted against an actual story. Knowing the facts of an author’s life can often be useful when studying a story. For example, knowing about Kincaid’s upbringing in colonial Antigua can help readers understand some of the social issues latent in her work; knowing she is a woman writer from a minority group allows readers to consider how her work differs from and interacts with the dominant culture.
Biographical criticism can sometimes be limiting, however. The danger is that the critic will examine the fiction to see how it creates the author, rather than the other way around. This is particularly true in semi-autobiographical stories like those of Kincaid, in which elements of her life are purposely woven into the text. In addition, biographical criticism of Kincaid has tended to lump her work together, seeing all her stories and books as connected, telling different parts of the same stories. This is not necessarily a bad way to look at her work, but particularly in the case of ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately,’’ this approach offers an unnecessarily limited perspective.
‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ was published in 1983 as a part of a collection of stories called At the Bottom of the River. Seven of the ten stories in the collection were first published separately in The New Yorker, where Kincaid worked as a journalist; another two were published for the first time in the 1983 collection. ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately,’’unlike all the other stories, was first published in the Paris Review in 1981. Notably, it is the only short story she ever published there, and one of the few that appeared outside of the New Yorker. Because it was initially published as a story separate from the others, outside of the context of her other work, ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ seems almost to demand consideration on its own terms.
When examined apart from the rest of Kincaid’s body of work, the story no longer must be about childhood. Although many critics have identified the narrator as a little girl, who perhaps represents Kincaid as a little girl, the narrator could be anyone— man or woman, adult or child. In the original version of the story, Kincaid does not include the phrase ‘‘dutiful daughter,’’ which are the only words in the story that give any details about the narrator (and they tell us only that she is not a man). The narrator could be Kincaid herself, as an adult, or a fictional creation. Because the story lacks an identi- fiable narrator, its point of view is ambiguous. As readers, we cannot rely on the identity of the narrator to provide us with a framework for understanding this somewhat confusing and obscure tale.
As a result, we are thrust into the same position as the narrator. The narrator opens the door, steps outside, and begins a journey that he or she cannot comprehend, one in which every expectation is subverted: ‘‘Instead of the straight path, I saw hills. Instead of the green grass in a pasture, I saw tall flowering trees. I looked up and the sky was without clouds and seemed near as if it were the ceiling in my house.’’ Similarly, we open the book, start reading, and begin a story that is difficult to comprehend because it doesn’t meet our expectations for a story. We expect a narrator who will act as our guide to the story, but this narrator doesn’t seem to understand the story either. We expect a beginning, a middle, and an end to a story, with a conflict to be resolved and a climax near the end. This story twice repeats itself, and it seems to end where it begins, suggesting that it might repeat itself indefinitely. Moreover, nothing happens; the story seems to be a dream or a series of the narrator’s imaginings which conclude when he or she tires of them and resolve nothing.
Because the story subverts our expectations about stories, it calls attention to itself, requiring the reader to observe and consider even the way in which the story is put together. In a story that contains all the traditional elements of narrative— clearly stated protagonist (hero), antagonist (hero’s enemy or obstacle), setting, and chronology—a reader can easily read right over the basic elements of how the story is told. In contrast, ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ tells a story without using the basic tools of storytelling. By doing so, the very organization of the story suggests that there is more than one way to tell a story.
Kincaid’s unexpected writing style in ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ shares some characteristics of the style of writers in a literary movement referred to as Modernism. Modernist writers disrupted familiar forms such as linear time and plot, traditional grammar and syntax, and a bounded, coherent subject (or speaking narrator). Some scholars argue that Modernism was a response to the repressive nature of Victorian culture in the early twentieth century. The Modernist movement, which existed not only in literature but in all areas of culture, was seen by some as a rebellion against cultural codes that limited freedom. Scholar Marianne DeKoven suggests that ‘‘the downfall of the old order, linked to the radical remaking of culture, was to be the downfall of class, gender, and racial (ethnic, religious) privilege.’’ Although many think of Ernest Hemingway or poet Wallace Stevens as prominent examples of Modernist writers, such woman authors as Katherine Anne Porter and Gertrude Stein, as well as several African American authors of the Harlem Renaissance, are better examples of the subversive nature of the Modernist movement.
Kincaid is too contemporary to be considered a part of the American Modernist movement of the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, her situation is similar. Writing as a woman of color from a colonial background, Kincaid tells her stories against the dominant tradition. Until recently, most widely read stories about the West Indies and West Indian people were written from the perspective of the dominant culture. As a post-colonial writer, Kincaid retells those stories from her own perspective, that of the native culture.
The two versions of the story in ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ demonstrate that a single story can take more than one direction. Significantly, in between the two versions of the story, the narrator suggests even more storytelling possibilities: three times he or she introduces a possible story by saying ‘‘I could have said.’’ With the repetition of what could be said, the story suggests that the number of stories that could be told are infinite, and that this story is only one of many. By doing so, it again calls attention to itself as a story—as a fiction—and as a particular perspective on events. It calls attention to the fact that every story is made by choosing to tell some things and not to tell others and by showing one perspective and therefore not showing others.
The second version of the story continues to open new possibilities. The narrator sees a group of people from two perspectives. First, the narrator finds them appealing: ‘‘I saw a lot of people sitting on the beach and having a picnic. They were the most beautiful people I had ever seen. Everything about them was black and shiny.’’ But when the narrator gets closer, he or she has a new perspective: ‘‘[W]hen I got up close to them I saw that they weren’t at a picnic and they weren’t beautiful and they weren’t chatting and laughing. All around me was black mud and the people all looked as if they had been made up out of the black mud.’’
By presenting these two versions of this part of the story, Kincaid makes the issue of perspective more complicated. It is relatively easy to pronounce that a story can be told from many perspectives. We often say ‘‘This is just my interpretation’’ or ‘‘That’s just how I see it’’ as a way of defending our perspectives; if there are an infinite number of possibilities, then no one perspective can be right. In ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately,’’ however, one perspective is clearly mistaken. The narrator did not intend to mislead with the first version of the story; it was a truthful and accurate report of how an event looked from a particular viewpoint. The problem is that viewpoint did not allow the narrator to see what was really happening. Paradoxically, in the midst of an ambiguous story in which it is difficult to see what is going on, and which celebrates the possibility of multiple perspectives, Kincaid affirms the existence and importance of truth. Ironically, Kincaid arrives at the affirmation of truth through a series of ever-shifting fictions.
From the perspective of biographical criticism, one valid interpretation of ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ is that it is a story about growing up and moving from childhood to adolescence and adulthood in the Caribbean. From an equally valid but different perspective, however, it is also a story about the power of storytelling to reveal truth and about the very process of writing stories.
Source: Shaun Strohmer, ‘‘An Overview of ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586
The reader interested in the philosophical vision that informs all of Kincaid’s work must come to terms with the allegory in ‘‘At the Bottom of the River.’’ At its most basic level the story affirms the fall of man from innocence into knowledge. Based simply on the fact that the narrator is able to return in her vision to the undivided world, the reader may infer that the knowledge of the prelapsarian world constantly lures the individual who feels its existence back into union with it. . . .
The reality of the actual world in which people must live, of course, invariably intrudes on the remembered world of harmony as well as the dream world which attempts to recapture it and confronts Kincaid’s narrators with truths that they have known and often tried to ignore: that people die; that they hurt each other; that they must be separated from people they love; that one must live in the world with the knowledge that he will die. In short, the narrators in the early stories are most often like the man on the threshold in the ‘‘At the Bottom of the River’’ allegory, and for this reason many of the stories offer variations on the mythic story of the fall of man. ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately,’’ for instance, tells of a little girl who is lying in bed before the doorbell rings and who imagines two versions of a story to be told in response to the imagined question about what she has been doing lately. In both answers the girl tells of intentionally falling into a hole, in effect an acknowledgment, on her part, of the fall of man. In the hole there is writing that she cannot read, an indication that she does not know how to deal with the fall; and so she climbs back out, attempting to deny her knowledge. In one version she thinks of building a bridge or taking a boat across the sea, and she becomes sad. In another she throws a rock at a monkey three times and he throws it back. Both versions of the story underline the point that things are separate from each other: land from land and man from other creatures. . . .
Story after story in At the Bottom of the River shows men and women in varying degrees of alienation from themselves, from each other, and from the wholeness and completeness that characterize the harmonious prelapsarian world. . . .
Thus far, therefore, the allegory in ‘‘At the Bottom of the River’’ has provided two different kinds of vision. The first is that of the man who simply refuses to accept the burden of consciousness, an alternative that is not really an option for Kincaid’s characters. The second is the one that most of them have chosen, or more accurately, inherited: that of living with the knowledge of their mortality and with the understanding that such things as beauty and joy are subject to destruction without warning, a fact which creates frustration and despair. And moreover, memories of wholeness and completeness compound the frustration. In the early stories Kincaid presents the human dilemma inherent in this second alternative in the form of verbal collages which show people existing between the world of harmony and that of lost oneness with nature. . . .
Source: Bryant Mangum, ‘‘Jamaica Kincaid,’’ in Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Daryl Cumber Dance, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 255-63. Bryant Mangum is a member of the English Department at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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