What I Have Been Doing Lately by Jamaica Kincaid

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The Meaning of What I Have Been Doing Lately

(Short Stories for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 5,054 words.)