The Historical Analysis of ‘Girl’ by Jamaica Kincaid
“Clothes Make a Man” by Xavier Herbert, “The Land of Sad Oranges” by Ghassan Kanafani, “The Intruder” by Jorge Luis Borges, and “Civil Peace” by Chinua Achebe are all examples of stories that have a historical connection. However, none of these works of literature have been executed in such an extraordinary way as “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. “Girl” connects historically with Jamaica Kincaid’s personal experiences and beliefs, the feminist movements that were happening during the time period that the story was wrote, and the history of Antigua. Jamaica Kincaid was born in St. John’s, Antigua, on May 25, 1949. She did not endure a good relationship with her family after her brother was born. She often found herself overshadowed by her younger sibling. She was pushed aside by her mother because she was female. This fueled her feminist ways, and she sustained them from this point on (Kittelstad, 2019).
Her poem “Girl” is about a mother talking to a daughter. “Girl” was first published in 1978 (Kittelstad, 2019). Throughout Jamaica Kincaid’s poem, the mother is explaining to the daughter how to accomplish different tasks and to be adequate about it. It may be possible that she wrote this poem over what she wishes her mother would have taught her. The poem starts off with the mother figure explaining how and when to wash clothes. “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the colors on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry;” (Lim & Spencer, 1993, p. 763). The mother mentions clothing again when she says: “this is how to sew on a button, this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming;” (Lim & Spencer, 1993, p. 763-764). She feels as if nice clothes are important to make a good appearance. The mother wants her daughter to keep up a good image, so she is respected (“Girl,” 2019).
There is some repetition found in this poem. The word “slut” is presented multiple times in this poem. Each time the word is said, it is then followed by the mother saying the daughter is bound to become one (Lim & Spencer, 1993, p. 763-764). Just as the mother in the poem is against her daughter on becoming something she does not like, so is Jamaica Kincaid’s mother. Her mother did not accept her career choice to be a writer. However, that did not stop her from achieving her dream. Jamaica Kincaid moved from Antigua to New York at the age of seventeen. Her family wrote to her while she was in New York. They wanted her to send them money, but she proceeded to ignore their letters and denied sending them anything back. Jamaica Kincaid said in an interview: ‘[When] I first arrived, I was incredibly depressed and lonely. I didn’t know there was such a world as the literary world. I didn’t know anything, except maybe how to put one foot in front of the other,’ (Kittelstad, 2019). It was here, in New York, that she was able to receive opportunities to share her literature with the world. George S. Trow, a friend of Jamaica, was a New York columnist. He helped her gain a spot in a magazine and kickstart her career in the world of literature. She soon learned that she was finally in a place where she was able to express herself and fulfill her passion (“Girl,” 2019).
It did not take long before Jamaica Kincaid became well-known. Her literary works gained her a lot of acknowledgment from women around the world, especially during the feminist movements. It’s ironic that she uses mother and daughter themes throughout her works of literature, considering she did not have a good bond with her own. In a way, ‘Girl” could be interpreted as the mother having all the power and the daughter being powerless. However, most women see “Girl” as being about men having power over women. In the poem, it says, “this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming;” (Lim & Spencer, 1993, p. 764). The mother in the poem is saying that women need to act a certain way around men. It also says in the poem “this 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;” (Lim & Spencer, 1993, p. 764). This is saying that women need be perfect in order to be good enough for a man. These are the type of things that men expect out of women.
The whole poem is filled with what women must do in order to be considered a good woman. “Girl” flows from one task to another. Most of the lessons that the mother teaches are related to household chores. In the poem, the mother explains how to cook, make medicine, and set the table. These tasks are found when the mother says: “this is how to make bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child;” (Lim & Spencer, 1993, p. 764), and “this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast;” (Lim & Spencer, 1993, p. 764). The tone of the poem sounds singsong and there are no periods that signal a stopping point throughout the whole poem. It is one big paragraph that all runs together. This writing style that the author uses gives the feeling that women are used to this never-ending cycle.
Not only does Jamaica Kincaid’s works of literature connect with feminism, but it also connects with her homeland. Antigua is a cultural-mixed country. Half of the country follows British culture and half follows African culture. Many of the people in Antigua, including Kincaid, struggle with this. During the 1970’s when the poem was published, Antigua was working on becoming an independent country. This can tie in with “Girl” because just like the country was torn between two different cultures, the daughter has to choose between listening to what her mother taught her or to act her own way. Jamaica Kincaid felt like there weren’t very many opportunities in her country, especially for women (“Girl by Jamaica Kincaid,” 2008).
The setting of “Girl” most likely takes place here because it mentions things from both African and British cultures. Both of these cultures can be seen when the mother says, “this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make daukona, this is how to make pepper pot;” (Lim & Spencer, 1993, p. 764). Bread pudding is a British dessert while pepper pot is an Antigua soup. Another time Kincaid referred to something related to the British culture is when she mentioned setting how to set a table for tea (Lim & Spencer, 1993, p. 764). Tea is a big part of the British. This connects with the cultural-mix that Kincaid dealt with when she grew up in Antigua (“Girl by Jamaica Kincaid,” 2008). Whatever is happening historically can have an immense influence on what authors are writing about. The story “Girl” can be interpreted in many ways, but her message is clear. Jamaica is a leading voice when it comes to feminism. She is heard through her works of literature.
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