Analysis Of The Mother’s Tone In Girl By Jamaica Kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’ shows us the stifling reinforcement of gender norms through a claustrophobic and domineering style. The recollection of an unnamed girl’s mother allows us to experience the exponentially rising expectations of childhood, and later early womanhood. Although the mother ultimately wants nothing but the best for her daughter, her rising interference ends up feeling suffocating rather than motherly.
‘Girl’ frequently uses a paradoxical tone to highlight how the mother dispensing her advice feels less about character building rather, and about upholding her society’s standards on how to be a woman. The Mother’s advice seems to jump between stoic, no-nonsense advice such as “this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard” and crude accusations such as “like the slut you are so bent on becoming”. This jarring and uneven tone is meant to make us question how appropriate the mother’s advice is, can we really trust the advice of a mother who thrice in the extract accuses her daughter of being promiscuous simply for not attainting every standard she had set up for her? The frequent usage of words and phrases such as “always”, “this is how” and “make sure” keeps an imposing tone throughout the entire piece, there is little to no wiggle room for the daughter to interpret the advice. There is little doubt that the Mother wants to maintain a constant discipline in the Girl’s daily life, but the tone makes it clear that it her standards have become repressive.
But the almost-impossible standards imposed by the Mother can also be reflected in the very form of the piece; written as a huge, singular paragraph, Kincaid leaves little room for the reader to breathe. With no descriptive prose nor paragraphs, and relying solely on a single connected string of dialogue, it is in essence like a group of commands that one is trying to regurgitate from memory. To compound on this, the constant repetition of the phrase “this is how” in lines such as “this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on” adds a mechanical feel to the advice, like the Mother is coding a piece of software rather than teaching advice to a human. The advice is further denaturalised by order in which it is presented, in which the lines of advice are grouped together by subject matter (such as cooking, hosting, sewing) rather than in chorological order to the girl’s life. This further dehumanised the advice to feel like a sheet of instructions rather than a piece invoking motherly care. The utilitarian structure of the piece coupled with constant reiteration of commands not only reinforces just how strict and unflinching the Mother’s parenting habits are, but how gender roles can feel regimental and impersonal.
Futhermore, Kincaid shows the uneven dynamic in the relationship between the two by ensuring that the Mother’s own voice dominates the extract. The Mother’s dialogue makes up the absolute majority, with the Girl receiving a mere two lines of dialogue. Neither do these lines have agency, they are both retorts to the mother, as seen in “but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school”. When one takes into account that the mother doesn’t even dignify the retort with a response, it shows an unfair power dynamic between the two. Nothing is learnt by the mother through the daughter. Neither does she seem willing to entertain questions by the daughter as seen in “but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?” and her response of “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”. There is no attempt to assure her, and the lack of a question mark makes it clear she has no doubt in her message, showing that she feels absolute conviction in the guidance she is dispensing while refusing to see things from her daughter’s point of view.
It may be easy to think of the Mother has being cruel, but it is more complicated than that. Despite her harsh, unflinching tone, her guidance is done with motherly intentions. She only wants her daughter to grow up to become a well-functioning adult, her advice of “his is how to make ends meet;” and “this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways “(Kincaid) makes this very clear. But with the overwhelming and repressive way in which the advice is delivered, she leaves little room for personal growth, and the Mother is a warning about the stifling role that gender norms can impose upon a child.
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