Sea Symbolism in ‘Annie John’

As a Caribbean author, Jamaica Kincaid submerges Annie John, the novel, in rich sea symbolism. Living on the island of Antigua, and with Dominican parentage, the novel Annie John is immersed in deep, sea imagery, in which the author connects Annie John’s insular origins with the themes of (i) birth-rebirth (ii) childhood (iii) journey and immigration (iv) history (v) mother and motherland and (vi) separation-death As a terrific mass of water, the sea evokes images of the womb, the West Indian navigation of Christopher Columbus in conquest of New World gold, the horrendous Middle Passage during the period of Chattel Slavery, consequent colonialism, and contemporary immigration. From the times of our ancestors to modernity, the seas have moulded life in diverse ways.

Jamaica Kincaid portrays the sea as the medium of birth and rebirth. The human foetus playfully swims in amniotic fluid, a natural water environment, in its mother’s uterus until delivery. This water in the womb nourishes the unborn during the 9-month incubatory period, completely surrounded by a life-giving essence. In the same way for Annie John, from birth, she is enclosed in the blue Caribbean Sea. One of her favourite pastimes as a child includes naked sea-bathing, “since this bathing in the sea was a medicine and not a picnic, we had to bathe without wearing swimming costumes” (Kincaid 42). She never dreams that she would finally be separated from her island home, but in the end, she is reborn – fully mature as a young adult and ready to experience an outside world without her mother. Further, as Annie John travels by ship to pursue her studies, she puns on the word “berth” symbolising a rebirth of sorts as she launches out on a journey to new terrain. “I … lay down on my berth … I could hear the small waves lap-lapping around the ship. They made an unexpected sound, as if a vessel filled with liquid had been placed on its side and now was slowly emptying out” (Kincaid 148). As she hears this sound, it is reminiscent of the point of delivery of a child, as labour is induced and the water breaks, signalling the end of term of a pregnancy. The amniotic fluid empties in preparation for labour and the emergence of a new life.

In her girlhood, Annie John enjoys the game of marbles likening it to the sea. Employing rich, descriptive terminology, she elucidates on her first encounter with marbles – “it was my mother who gave me my first marbles … they looked to me like miniature globes, the white representing the seas, the colours representing land masses” (Kincaid 55). In her eyes, the marbles resembled planet Earth, diagrammed with land and seas. The sea imagery here enables Annie John to see herself as one, in a sense, holding the world in her hands, toying and manipulating it to her own fancy. When scrutinising the game of marbles, the layout includes a wide circle in which are positioned several marbles, parallel to the galaxial system in which revolves several clusters of planets.

Sea imagery retains a potency in the novel as the channel of change and rediscovery, underlining the theme of personal journey. Annie John’s parents both migrate to Antigua from Dominica, fleeing family crises and economic challenges. At the book’s conclusion, Annie John too must escape her beloved island home, bound for England to improve her prospects there. In the era before air-travel became common, navigation stands as the only medium of transport (especially for the poor). These characters embark on a metamorphosis and self-discovery in which they must remove from their once familiar environment to the great unknown.

Personal, national and world histories are united by sea imagery in Annie John. In her history class, she learns from her texts about Christopher Columbus and other European explorers who sailed to the ‘New World’ on a mission to aggrandise themselves, under the famed three-fold dictum: God, gold and glory. Afterwards, British and French voyagers and buccaneers navigate to exploit the newfound islands of their wealth. She unmistakably remembers, “a picture of Columbus that took up a whole page, and it was in colour – … at the bottom of the ship” (Kincaid 77). Annie John also evokes the time of slavery, when her African ancestors would ride aboard ships, surviving the horrific Triangular Trade and treated as living cargo. In her modern world, her seafaring parents and later she herself would flee their homes that restrict their movements and possibilities for progress to venture into a new land of promise.

The sea in Annie John depicts a prevailing spiritual connection to the mother. As an unborn child relishing in its maternal connections, and encased in amniotic fluid, Annie John, in the initial stages, glories in the intimacy existing between herself and her mother. She bathes with her mother in the sea, perches herself on her mother’s back and in time of loneliness and danger, cries out for her mother. Likewise, in Antigua, her own motherland, she loves her little island home with her adoring parents. From her spirited and mischievous schooldays, the reader understands that her protective family feed her with lots of fish (one abundant food source in the Caribbean) as they instruct, strengthen and sustain her until young adulthood. Nevertheless, these times pass as her mother induces labour and causes an eternal separation. On her way to the port on her journey to England, she recalls: “I passed by sounds and smells that were so familiar that I had long ago stopped paying any attention to them … but now here they were, and the ever-present ‘I shall never see this again’ bobbed up and down inside me. (Kincaid 145).

The sea incidence of little Annie John augurs the gradual estrangement from her mother and her development into adulthood. Propped on her mother’s back “arms clasped tightly around her neck” (Kincaid 42), Annie John and her mother delight themselves bathing in the sea, building sand castles and enjoying one another’s company. Strangely, they drift apart and in terrified panic, Annie screams for her mother as she could no longer see her (Kincaid 42, 43). This traumatic event recurs as a cryptic dream, reminiscent of her alienation and imminent separation from her mother. In her girlhood, Annie John takes pleasure in the warmth, sweetness and closeness of the mother-daughter relationship: visiting the town together, listening to stories and relishing mouth-watering dishes. However, as she enters adolescence, her mother becomes colder and more distant. Annie laments much later as she marches to the boat bound for England (from an estranged mother to the motherland): “Why, I wonder, didn’t I see the hypocrite in my mother when over the years she said that she loved me and could hardly live without me, while at the same time proposing and arranging separation after separation, including this one, which unbeknownst to her, I have arranged to be permanent?” (Kincaid 133). As Annie John and her mother finally part ways, the large distance renders her (mother) “just a dot … swallowed up in the big, blue sea” (Kincaid 148)

As the book concludes, Annie John returns not to Africa, her ancestral motherland, but England, the colonial motherland to further her education. She ironically explains her departure from Antigua in sea imagery, closely resembling that of a sea buoy defying gravity: “I passed by sounds and smells that were so familiar that I had long ago stopped paying any attention to them … but now here they were, and the ever-present ‘I shall never see this again’ bobbed up and down inside me” (Kincaid 145). Even as she navigates her way through life, she realises her life will not only be always surrounded by the sights and sounds of the sea, but also inside of her.

Bibliography

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John, Vintage Publishers, 1997.

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