At the Bottom of the River
How Narrative Structure Can Send a Message
Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl communicates strong messages about both society’s expectations of women, and the way that certain things told to someone can have a large impact on them. The piece is written in the form of a continuous list. This style emulates our inner stream of consciousness and emphasizes the many messages expressed in the story and their lasting impact. The narrative form does a lot for the story, creating deeper meaning, and allowing the speaker to connect to readers more effectively.
Kincaid highlights the overbearing expectations of women in society through the story’s list consisting of countless demands. Though it does not directly address who is speaking or giving the orders, they can be interpreted as lessons and cautionary advice given by a mother or mentor figure to a “Girl,” like the one referenced in the title. The list can be seen as the girl’s inner thoughts, as she recalls what has been told to her, the messages running through her mind. The commands are given as guidance and explain standards to the girl, telling her to “always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach,” and to “try to walk like a lady.” The girl acts as a symbol for all girls, and the list of commands can be understood as standards set for all women. With the entire story being a list of such commands, Kincaid stresses how many standards there are for girls and how high the expectations are. The stipulations being rattled off to the girl in such a long list helps Kincaid to make a point about how much pressure is put on girls, suggesting that society can be oppressive to women.
The story itself does not blatantly affirm the speaker’s emotions, but its structure mirrors her thoughts and thus reveals her reaction to all of the pressure exerted on her. The continuous flow of ideas reflects a stream of consciousness, familiar to all readers. Most people can relate to certain things said to them that linger in their mind, sometimes being repeated over and over, like a mother’s advice teaching you “how you set a table for lunch.” The messages that are cemented in our minds and repeated this way are the ones that really mean something to us; they are important lessons we need to remember that have a strong impact on us. Kincaid gives readers a look into the mind of the girl. She doesn’t have to candidly say how the girl feels because she shows what is going on in her mind. As the list that reflects her inner thoughts, Kincaid reveals how deeply impacted the girl is by all of the things she is being told to do. Kincaid shows that these messages are all the girl can think about, and everything said to her has been completely internalized, suggesting that she is completely overwhelmed by it.
By embodying the girl’s inner thoughts, Kincaid is able to connect with her audience on a deeper level. Everyone can relate to the way past conversations repeat in your mind. The tone is also familiar to readers; the many pieces of advice and instructions for everyday life, warning you to be sanitary because “you might catch something” are given in the same voice any parent would use mentoring a child. This familiarity enables Kincaid to more effectively connect with readers, but specific word choice and certain phrases allow her to connect to readers on an even deeper, emotional level. Though some of the messages listed in the story are positive and guiding, others are more accusatory and crude. With all of the messages going through her mind, the girl remembers several demeaning things said to her, like advice given so that people “won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.” By including messages like this, with vulgar word choice calling the girl a “slut,” Kincaid evokes an emotional reaction from readers, who imagine a mother telling her daughter to “prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are.” In doing this Kincaid is able to capture the reader’s attention more, and create a sense of anger through her display of society’s standards for girls. As the list is also compiled of almost all things told to the girl, only two short phrases put in italics represent her own dialogue. The girl replies to two of the instructions given to her. In one of these instances she defends herself when she is accused of singing benna in Sunday school and told not to; she says “but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school.” The two times that the girl replies back are also relatable to readers as they resemble a desperate reply to the messages repeating in her mind; she is talking back. She is only speaking in her thoughts, however, which most people can relate to as a moment when you think back to a conversation and come up with comebacks or words that you wish you said to someone in that conversation. By including these two moments where the girl’s own words are used, Kincaid is able to further connect with readers. The fact that the entire piece represents the thoughts going through the girl’s mind, yet only two short phrases are her own dialogue, where she inwardly defends herself, shows how strongly the instructions and orders stick with her; they are the only things going through her mind. It also suggests a sense of oppression as this is all that matters to her, and she has no voice and no further personal opinions besides the two brief occasions that she uses her own words.
Kincaid uses unique narrative structure to create deeper meaning and to better connect with her readers. By mirroring the speaker’s inner thoughts, she presents the issue of society’s damaging and overbearing standards for women. In showing the way that high expectations and excessive instruction internally impacts girls, she is able to address the problem of society’s oppressive view of women and get readers more engaged in the topic.
Colonialism, Discourse, and (Re)Writing the Self in Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”
Jamaica Kincaid has portrayed troubled mother-daughter relationships extensively throughout her work, but her 1978 story “Girl,” from her first short story collection At the Bottom of the River, remains her most succinct depiction of this theme. Her fraught relationship with her own mother, Annie Richardson, undoubtedly fueled Kincaid’s preoccupation with mothers, daughters, and their often contentious bonds. In an interview with The New York Times, Kincaid admits of her mother, “[T]he way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me. I can’t help but think that it made me interested in the idea of myself as an object” (qtd. in Kenney 6). Thus, the mother figure in “Girl” is likely a fictionalized portrayal of Kincaid’s own mother. Like most of Kincaid’s work, “Girl” addresses the acculturating influence of mothers on their daughters. In that sense, “Girl” seems a story of disempowerment. However, if one assumes the narrator of the story represents Kincaid’s mother, the subversive nature of “Girl” becomes apparent. Kincaid emancipates herself from the tyranny of the mother by co-opting her voice and diverting it from its original purpose. What is initially intended as a tool of acculturation and colonization becomes, in Kincaid’s hands, a nuanced yet unflinching critique of those same practices. In this sense, “Girl” is ultimately a story of empowerment.
A continuous monologue from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, presumably the mother of the titular girl, Kincaid’s “Girl” superficially consists of a stream of imperatives concerning domestic life. At the outset, the mother’s commands seem innocuous: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil” (306). In this way, critic Diane Simmons asserts, “‘Girl’ can be read as a kind of primer in the manipulative art of rhythm and repetition. The story begins with the mother’s voice giving […] simple, benevolent, and appropriately maternal advice” (467). The reader, like the girl, “is lulled and drawn in by the chant of motherly admonitions” (468). However, as the narrative progresses, the mother’s advice grows increasingly disconcerting, particularly her advice on “how to bully a man” and “how a man bullies you” (Kincaid 307), as well as her instruction, “[T]his is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child” (307), which implies a self-induced abortion. Meanwhile, the girl herself is notably silent, save for two italicized sentences of protestation, and her half-hearted attempts at self-defense go unacknowledged by the mother, who, it gradually becomes apparent, is consumed by a single goal: to prevent her daughter from becoming “the slut [she] is so bent on becoming” (306).
Many of the mother’s more questionable injunctions are directly related to sex. According to critic J. Brooks Bouson, “[T]he unnamed mother in ‘Girl’ admonishes her daughter to be a good, dutiful daughter and to follow the mother’s—and society’s—rules of proper behavior so that she will not become the ‘slut’ that her mother repeatedly accuses her of being ‘so bent on becoming’” (25). The mother’s discourse both limits and controls the sexual proclivities of the daughter: “[O]n Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; […] you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the streets—flies will follow you” (Kincaid 306). While the age of the girl is unclear, the mother’s reminder to “soak your little cloths right after you take them off” (306) suggests that the girl has at least begun menstruating. Therefore, the implications of the mother’s monologue are clear: the entire story, in essence, becomes a thinly-veiled treatise on how to navigate the potentially perilous world of sexual adulthood. Bouson further argues, “The thrust of the mother’s message is that the daughter should be a good and dutiful girl and should not bring shame on her family” (25). Shame, in this particular context, is omnipresent. To the mother, even the simple act of purchasing bread can conceivably be complicated by a woman’s sexual history. When the girl asks, “[B]ut what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?” the mother responds,“[Y]ou 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?” (Kincaid 307). Shame, then, becomes both a crucial element of control in the mother’s discourse and a regulating force in the life of the girl.
In addition to circumscribing the girl’s sexuality, the mother’s discourse also reinforces traditional gender roles. “This is how your iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease,” says the mother, and “this is how your iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease” (306-307). In this instance, the mother implies that a woman’s job is to take care of the men in her life, even down to the most mundane details. Similarly, the mother dictates how a respectable girl should behave, particularly if there is an eligible bachelor present: “This is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you don’t completely” (307). The message is plain: a girl must always be outwardly affable and agreeable, even toward people she detests.
Herself a native of a former British colony, Kincaid tacitly invokes a comparison between the dominating voice of the mother and colonial discourse. Much like the mother in “Girl,” “the colonial system, in pretending to nurture the child, actually steals her from herself (Simmons 466). And much like Kincaid’s own mother, the colonial tradition writes the life of its subjects for them through the implementations of metanarratives, or overarching accounts or interpretations of events and circumstances, that provide a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and give meaning to their experiences. The rhetoric of “Girl” comprises a kind of metanarrative of its own, one in which young women devote their lives to cultivating the domestic sphere, maintain a facade of sexlessness for the sake of public approval, quietly abort the babies they do not want, and certainly “don’t sing benna in Sunday school” (Kincaid 307).
Kincaid, however, combats the metanarrative of the mother, and thus the colonizer, through writing. Bouson states, “If the mother’s internalized voice is a potent force in the development of Kincaid’s writing, Kincaid also finds her writing an effective way to talk back to her mother, allowing her to get the final word in her ongoing, internal dispute with her mother” (26). In this case, Kincaid achieves the “final word” through her usurpation of the mother’s voice. After all, “Girl” is ultimately Kincaid’s story, not her mother’s. Viewed through this lens, what on the surface appears to be a litany of instruction designed to indoctrinate and acculturate the girl becomes an ironic critique of the mother’s rhetorical purpose. As Bouson argues, “[I]n capturing the mother’s controlling and assertive—and also insulting—speech, Kincaid, in effect, uses the mother’s speech to condemn her” (26).
Kincaid also similarly emphasizes the nuances and subtleties that complicate the simple, orderly world of the mother. The mother’s instruction “this is how to make a medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child” (Kincaid 307) is especially subversive as it provides the girl with reproductive agency over her body. However, because this motherly wisdom is contingent on the girl’s sexual activity, there is also the implication that the mother imparts this advice to the girl as a way to preserve her reputation should she engage in premarital sex, which the first half of the mother’s monologue seems to caution against. This suggests that the mother is at least subconsciously aware that the values she works so tirelessly to inculcate in the girl are not always realistic or even desirable. To further complicate the gendered metanarrative, the mother also recognizes and prepares her daughter for the potential reality of domestic abuse and even gives suggestions as to how the girl should exert power over her future husband: “[T]his is how you bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up” (307). The mother, clearly, is not wholly blind to the perils of being a woman in a patriarchal society, and the subtleties of her rhetoric reflect this awareness.
In a way, the mother figure paradoxically represents both the colonizer and the colonized. Her discourse works to absolve her daughter of agency and circumscribe her identity, yet, as a colonized subject herself, she peppers her rhetoric with subversive hints that undermine the legitimacy of the colonial metanarrative. Kincaid, by assuming her mother’s voice, exposes this paradox and destabilizes the authority of the mother and, by proxy, the imperial regime that produced her. In so doing, Kincaid assumes a degree of power that was likely not afforded her as a child growing up under her mother’s thumb in Antigua. Through her writing and damning portrayal of her own mother, Kincaid reinscribes herself in a new context—that of the colonized subject liberated from the confines of colonial discourse.
Bouson, J. Brooks. “‘I Had Embarked on Something Called Self-Invention’: Artistic Beginnings in ‘Antigua Crossings’ and At the Bottom of the River.” Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: State U of New York, 2005. 19-36. Academic Search Complete [EBSCO]. Web. 20 Feb, 2017.
Kenney, Susan. “Paradise with Snake.” New York Times 7 Apr. 1985: 6. The New York Times on the Web. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. Ed. Tobias Wolff. New York: Vintage, 1994. 306-07. Print.
Simmons, Dianne. “The Rhythm of Reality in the Works of Jamaica Kincaid.” World Literature Today 68.3 (1994): 466-72. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
Representations of Caribbean Women in “Girl”
Mothers usually have their children’s best interest at heart, guiding them through life at an attempt to prevent offspring from repeating their own mistakes. In the short story, “Girl,” Kincaid depicts her teenage years after her mother gave birth to Kincaid’s three younger brothers in succession. The psychological perspective of this story raises many questions from critics on whether or not the mother’s state of mind and outlook on women altered after she gave birth to her three sons. Kincaid’s story amplifies there is an importance in cultural standards, gender roles and sex, and behaviors among Caribbean women. Throughout the story, the speaker portrays herself to be the mother and gives her daughter advice in several different areas of life, which greatly confuses Kincaid.
According to Kincaid, in the Caribbean culture, there may be more reinforced, strict, and ridged expectations of gender roles. In the story, Kincaid’s Caribbean mother reinforces these ideals by making it clear she is trying to help Kincaid reach this standard which the mother, herself, likely grew up in. The mother makes a mention of her childhood standards by stating: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap,” and continues directing her daughter to wash the color clothes on Tuesday and to let them dry on the clothesline (Kincaid 95). One critic, Carol Bailey, also argues “Girl” implies there are certain standards for young Caribbean women. Bailey critiques how the speaker in Kincaid’s story is repetitive when she mentions “the slut you are so bent on becoming.” Carol Bailey explains, “The variations of this expression recur throughout the text and might be one of the seemingly obvious lines that suggests the speaker’s complicity with the system and illustrates her efforts to shape a woman who performs the script of chastity appropriately” (109).
The oppression of gender roles can also restrict a woman’s ability to navigate sex and sexuality. In the text, Kincaid’s mother states her daughter is walking like a “slut” by suggesting: “[O]n Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming” (Kincaid 96). Kelly Falla critiqued this topic by stating, “The mother thinks the daughter has already set herself up for a life of promiscuity. The mother even goes to the extreme of instructing her daughter on ‘how to make medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.’ This is a clear concoction to remedy an unwanted pregnancy” (Falla 3). The repeated shaming of appearance and its link to promiscuity portrays the mother had internalized issues about her own gender’s ability to be sexual. The fact Kincaid’s mother knew about an abortion recipe confirms she may have used it herself before.
Throughout the short story, the young girl does not seem to completely understand her mother’s instructions on how to behave. The daughter reaffirms she does not understand by speaking in the text. She asks: “but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?” (96). Kincaid ends the story with the mother’s vague response to her daughter’s question about feeling the bread: “[Y]ou 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?” (96). According to Kim Becnel, “The most obvious meaning of the mother’s question is the implication that the girl will, indeed, grow up to be a ‘slut’ and, therefore, due to her lack of virtue, will not be allowed to handle the bread.” Becnel goes on to mention, “It is, however, also possible to interpret it as the mother’s shock that her daughter, whom she has been so certain will grow up to be promiscuous, will, in fact, be such a virtuous and unavailable woman that she will be unable to entice the baker into letting her touch his bread with all the sexual connotations therein implied.”
While it appears there are many possibilities the mother feels could happen to her daughter, the daughter still questions her mother’s true intentions. This leads the mother to be more concerned, implying some of these situations are inevitable. The mother’s interpretation of her daughter’s responses leads her to believe her daughter could be taken advantage of one of these days. The mother’s ideology of cultural standards, gender roles and sex, and behaviors confirms there is an unwritten rule about how Caribbean women should act.
Bailey, Carol. “Performance and The Gendered Body in Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’ And Oonya Kempadoo’s Buxton Spice.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 10.2 (2010): 106-123. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Sept. 2016
Becnel, Kim. “Literary Contexts in Short Stories Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” Literary Contexts in Short Stories: Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’ (2007): 1. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.
Falla, Kelly. “Theme Analysis of “Girl” by Jamaica Kinkaid.” 2011. Microsoft Word file.
Kincaid, Jamica. “Girl.” Portable Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed. Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell. 9th ed. Boston: 2015. 95-96. Print.