Jamaica Kincaid - "Girl"

Jamaica Kincaid: Girl
Reclam: “Short Short Stories; Universal”(pp. 124-126)

"Girl" appeared as the opening story in Kincaid's collection of stories, At the Bottom of the River (1983), her first book. It is a lengthy catalogue of rules of behaviour for a young girl. The authoress comes from Barbuda and Antigua - a small island nation in the Caribbean. She herself experienced the pressures of poverty, colonialism and an ambivalent mother so that the cultural background of the story is not difficult to guess. Like all of Kincaid’s works, “Girl” is based on Kincaid’s own life. The relationship to a distant mother is a recurring theme in her texts.

Summary and elements of a short story:
“Girl" is a one-sentence dialogue between a limited number of characters: possibly a mother and her daughter. There is no introduction of the characters because the story begins abruptly with words spoken by an unidentified narrator. It is not immediately clear who is telling the story. There is no plot presented in a chronological order.
Despite the fact that there is no description of the setting we can assume from Kincaid’s autobiography that the daughter is a young West Indian girl learning from her mother how to be a proper woman. Only twice in the story she speaks against her mother’s warnings, prohibitions and accusations. The story is mainly a speech delivered by the mother who is talking most of the time; she gives a long series of instructions and warnings to the daughter. The mother understands a woman's "place” in Caribbean families. So the story contains much advice daughters are constantly hearing from their mothers to ensure that their daughters can survive as adults. Commands like “wash the clothes on Monday” (p. 124, l. 1) or “this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants” (p. 125, l. 2) are listed to show how a mother tries to prevent her daughter from turning into the slut that she is so bent on becoming (cf. p. 124, l. 21).
The mother’s advice leads to the final 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?” The question-mark at the end of the story leaves the impression that there is an open ending. The reader is not convinced that the daughter will follow her mother's orders. Hopefully, she will not become a "slut," but she may become a modern woman striving for equality.

The words Jamaica Kincaid employs in her story are mostly taken from the word field “household”. Domestic terms like “cooking, sewing, planting, cleaning, setting the table” and so on, are the central theme in “Girl”. Those household chores and the harsh but familiar tone also lead to the assumption that the person speaking is possibly the girl’s mother or at least another female authority since they are talking about how to “bully a man” (p. 126, l. 4) and how to arrange an abortion, (compare p. 125, l. 24). The use of words like "slut" tells us what she will think of her daughter if her daughter doesn’t behave the way her mother thinks she should.
The female authority obviously is the leading figure in the text as you can see looking at the shares in speech. The girl dares to interrupt the monologue only twice (signalled by italics) when she says or at least thinks that she doesn’t sing the non-religious “benna” songs that she’s expected to sing in school on Sunday (p. 124, l. 10 ) and when she asks “but what is when the baker won’t let me near the bread?” (p. 126, ll. 9-10). It’s clear to the reader that the dominant person giving commands has heard the same words maybe from her mother and tries to pass on those traditional expectations of women.
The story can also be regarded as a monologue in the stream of consciousness style. The girl always thinks of her mother’s repressive demands and she only expresses doubt and resistance twice.

Stylistic devices:
The authoress uses a couple of stylistic devices in order to make her text more effective. What makes the text very detailed are the frequently occurring repetitions like “wash the white clothes on Monday (…), coloured clothes on Tuesday” (cf. p. 124, ll. 1 - 2) and “this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set the table for dinner with an important guest” (cf. p. 125, ll. 11, 13). That shows the reader how limited the girl is in deciding independently how to fulfil her duties.
Jamaica Kincaid’s story is basically an enumeration of instructions, only interrupted by the three questions (p. 124, l. 11; p. 126, ll. 9-12 ). The authoress doesn’t use any full stops in her list of orders. Thus she emphasises how continually the speaker keeps telling the young girl what to do in a very detailed way. It also underlines that the girl is not expected to contribute to the monologue.

After having worked on this short story for quite a long time we draw the conclusion that its message is a very general one. Even in our society the generation-gap between mother and daughter leads to much advice that is thought to be good for the daughter’s future life.

- Invitation to Literature, Cornelsen Verlag
- 6th January, 2009:

Cornelia and Claudia

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