Mother’s Litany of Chores in Kincaid’s “Girl” Report (Assessment)
Updated: Nov 14th, 2020
In my view, Kincaid’s Girl is very multilayered for such a short piece of literature. I do not hope to reveal every layer, but I would like to point out several patterns, in which I would pay attention to the educational relationship between the girl and the mother with a focus on the way this relationship affects the girl and the way it is formed and affected by the experiences of the mother. According to my analysis, these patterns indicate that the mother’s advice has significant value for the girl’s survival in the context of the sexist society that they live in, but it may have multiple negative consequences as well.
The Character of the Mother
Initially, both the content and the organization of the short story seem to portray the mother in a rather negative light. Indeed, the story is organized as a very long sentence, which predominantly consists of a stream of advice and reprimands uttered by the mother (the girl has only two lines in the story). As a result, the mother appears to be very domineering; her advice becomes overwhelming, which must translate the feelings of a girl who has to listen to this stream of advice throughout her life. Moreover, the woman expresses distrust in the girl’s actions and a continuous belief that her daughter is behaving in a somehow wrong way. It is noteworthy that the first girl’s interjection occurs only two pieces of advice after the accusation that she tries to deny, which creates the impression that she was trying to speak up earlier while the mother would not listen to her. In the end, the mother appears to be a cold, bitter woman who continually shames her daughter’s sexuality and applies derogatory words to her, which is likely to have a rather negative effect on the girl’s image of herself and the world. However, additional analysis proves that there are more layers to this character.
The Key Concern: The Concept of a “Slut”
The major concern that the mother appears to have is the idea that her daughter is “bent on becoming” a “slut” (Kincaid 505). In particular, the mother is apparently disturbed by the fact that the girl talks with “wharf-rat boys” (even if it is done to help them), squats when playing with marbles, and walks in the wrong way. Two of these assessments seem to be rather subjective (the social status of a “wharf rat” is questionable, and so is the “rightness” of one’s walk). Moreover, these activities seem to be normal for a girl who is sociable, active, willing to help other people, and is not ashamed of her body. Later, the mother also reveals that it is possible to somehow behave like a “slut” in the presence of men. This piece of advice reminds me of victim-blaming because it insinuates that men are somehow capable of knowing that a girl is a “slut” even if she does not “know” it. Finally, the girl’s reputation is tarnished in her mother’s view by the rumor about singing “benna” in Sunday school. Given the fact that the mother does not acknowledge the girl’s attempt at protecting her reputation, the process of becoming a “slut” may not always depend on a person’s actions.
To sum up, the mother is preoccupied with the idea of her daughter becoming a “slut,” but the features that, in her view, constitute “slut-like” behavior indicate gender equality problems in their community, which the woman seems to have accepted. Now, she attempts to pass the acceptance to her daughter. The features of “slutty” behavior, which are mentioned in the text, are connected to the issue of shaming female sexuality, which is harmful on its own, but they also restrict the opportunities for the girl’s socialization. Thus, the harm of this form of tutelage (the transmission of the sexist views that dominate the community) is rather apparent.
The Mother’s Advice as Education
The final phase of the story is the mother’s question: “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?” (Kincaid 506). It can be inferred from this phrase that she does not really believe that the girl will turn into a “slut.” This phrase still indicates the mother’s disapproval of female sexuality, but it also seems to imply a hint of faith in the girl. The same suggestion can be based on the fact that the mother seems to be dedicated to educating the girl. She provides a very extensive overview of the things that she expects the girl to have to do in the future, which includes the household chores, but also incorporates information about the relationships between people and other pieces of advice, for instance, a recipe for an abortion medication. It is likely that this medication is not safe, but it is probably the only option that the woman is aware of, and she dutifully transfers this knowledge to her daughter.
Certain objections can be made to this conclusion, however. For instance, the lack of full stops in the story makes the advice sound hasty and suggests that the mother does not attempt to make sure that the girl understands or memorizes the information, which should limit the effectiveness of the studies. Similarly, with the exception of the final statement, no hint at her having any faith in the girl is made. As a result, it can be inferred that the woman regards the training as another chore. From this perspective, the mother’s expectations about the girl, including her apparent hope that the girl will not become a “slut,” appear to indicate that the mother is bitter about her effort being wasted.
The Mother’s Position in the Community: Explaining the Advice
The woman does not appear to be bitter only about the girl; for instance, she is disappointed in romantic relationships, suggesting that it is not too bad to give up trying to love a man. Also, it may be inferred that not only the girl perceives the string of advice as never-ending and mind-numbing. Judging by the fact that the woman seems to provide demonstrations for most activities that she teaches the girl to perform, it also appears that she is constantly working. She is likely to be exhausted by the continuous work, which does not pay off. The disappointing factors of her life are likely to contribute to her bitterness, affecting her behavior.
It is also noteworthy that the mother’s demonstration of the actions suggests that these activities are something that she has to perform on a daily basis, including the act of being a lady (not a “slut”). From this perspective, it is apparent that both female characters are likely to be held to the same standards by the community. Given the outcomes of ostracism, it can be suggested that the mother has learned some of the skills as a survival technique, which her daughter is going to need as well if she is to remain in the same community.
Conclusions: The Effect of the Community and the Implications of the Advice
There is a hint at the woman being domineering outside of the relationship with the girl: she apparently teaches her to bully a man. However, it is also apparent that the society, in which the family lives, does not exhibit gender equality. The girl is prohibited from doing natural things because she is a girl; there is a clear distinction between “good” women and “bad” women (sluts), which is characterized by the relationship of these women with men. Apparently, men experience more freedom since childhood, while women are bound with continuous fear of somehow tainting their reputation to the point where the baker would not allow them to touch bread: a manifestation of extreme ostracism. Given my analysis of the things that can taint this reputation, it can be suggested that this problem can be out of a woman’s control as well.
From this perceptive, the mother and the girl seem to be the victims of the situation, and the obsessive concern for her daughter’s reputation that the mother exhibits may prove it. The sexism also intersects with their poverty, which must have contributed to the woman’s bitterness towards everything, including her daughter. To sum up, the woman’s advice and views can be explained by the context, and in this context of a sexist disadvantaged community, it may be regarded as invaluable for the girl’s survival. However, the effects that it might have on the girl’s self-esteem, self-worth, and the perception of the world appear to be less positive, and the perpetuation of sexist attitudes cannot be regarded as a helpful influence. Still, the mother passes these attitudes to her daughter together with the recipe of the abortion medicine, remaining unaware of the harm that they can do or viewing it is a necessary evil.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by Richard Bausch and Ronald Verlin Cassill, Norton, 2000, pp. 505-506.
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