Girl by Jamaica Kincaid
Throughout time mother/daughter relationships have been tattered as woman's liberation has taken place. Many mothers have the "old fashioned" opinion about what a woman should be. The short story "Girl", by Jamaica Kincaid, is a prime example of this relationship. The theme in "Girl" strongly suggests that a woman should be domestic and there is a certain way that she should act. Many elder women feel that a woman's role in life is to be domesticated. The theme of girl reinforces this opinion. The third person point of view places an important part in the reinforcement of the idea that a woman's place is in the home. "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." (Kincaid 296) This is the mother telling the daughter that this is the way to do things. The mother also goes on to describe other household chores and how to do them correctly. "This is how you sweep a corner." (Kincaid 296) She tells her daughter how to set a table for different meals, how to cook things, and how to pick out bread. The story does not tell a woman how to have a successful career, to go to college, or how to work outside of the home. Considering the year that this story is written, 1978, women's liberation is taking place. This gives setting a role in the interpretation of the theme. Many young girls started to rebel against their mothers as they decided to work out of the home. The young girl in the story is building resentment towards her mother because she feels that should be allowed to make her own decision on whether or not to be domesticated. This leads to the issue of why the point of view in this story is so essential. The mother telling this story never once stops to hear the daughter's input on these issues. She just simply tells the daughter that she needs to be domestic and there is no objecting to it. The characterization of this story is also important part to understanding the theme. This reinforces the idea that elder woman feel that a woman's place is in the home. Many women in society feel that a woman should act a certain way. This is once again reiterated in this story. The mother tells the daughter how to act. She tells the daughter how to act, how to dress, and how to talk. "Always eat your food in a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach." (Kincaid 296) A woman should be allowed to make her own choice on how she eats. "On Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut that you are so bent on becoming." (Kincaid 296) The mother is emphasizing that a way that a woman walks determines her sexual history. Once again this reiterates that a woman must act a certain way to not be judged. The setting of this story once again plays a major role in the theme of this story. "This is how to behave in the presence of men who don't know you very well." (Kincaid 296) The mother tells her daughter how to act in front of men, so that she will find an acceptable man. The theme definitely demonstrates that a woman is expected to behave in a certain manner. "Girl" tells the story of a sad mother/daughter relationship and the pressure that young girls faced when sent out into society. Many elements of literature demonstrate this in the story. However, the theme strongly suggests that elder woman feel that there is a right and wrong way to be as a woman. Throughout the story, the mother repeatedly accuses the daughter of being determined to become a 'slut.' This suspicion doesn't seem to be provoked by the girl's behavior. The girl seems to be well behaved as indicated by her first line of input in the story, 'but I don't sing Benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school.' This is a respond to her mother's question on the girl's singing of Benna, a music genre, in Sunday school, which was followed by instructions on not to sing Benna in Sunday school. The last line of the short story, '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'? could be interpreted as the mother again challenging the girl's morals. But I think this is instead challenging the girl's strength as a person. It seem ironic that the mother has harshly demand the girl to learn all of the mother's habits and methods, not giving the girl much of a word in any of her decisions, and then expects her to have the strength of her mother. Strength that was learned through experience, not instruction. The subjective identity of the narrator is, in a sense, inextricable from the Girl, a 'we' of mother-daughter identity. The Girl's minor presence ' two brief and seemingly inconsequential challenges ' suggests that perhaps it is the Girl who is narrating and working out her own identity through speaking, through recreating and re-enacting (with language) the complicated relationship with her mother, the complicated identity of learning to be a girl/woman, a (re)enactment through assembling the severe and protective and loving and damning instructions on how to be. The motives behind the sternness seem to be protective (despite their sometimes cruelty), and through this protectiveness the identities of the mother, and her mother, and her mother and the Girl, and her daughter, and her daughter. Implicated in this merging as readers; having been addressed as 'you' throughout, it is hard to escape thinking about ourselves in the Girl's place, the imposition of authority as we've experienced it, as imposed by our own parents, the ways these impositions can both protect and limit us. There is an anxious even urgent quality to the writing ' its nervousness rooted in doubts about the assumptions on which the instructions depend (assumptions about gender roles and division of labor, courtship, social appropriateness, and most severely/menacingly sexual identity, i.e. 'like the slut I have warned you against becoming' ' 'you are not a boy, you know' .. 'the kind of woman the baker won't let near the bread'). We are addressed directly ' you you you.
But then someone speaks on our behalf, a small voice: but I don't sing benna on Sundays, what if the baker won't let me feel the bread? 'Girl' is written in a verbal style as dialogue / monologue / performance. The writing has force, feels urgent, the stakes feel high as if there are consequences for not following instructions, although we are not told what the consequences might be. The audience extends beyond the story's immediate horizon ' beyond the narrator/author's relationship with her daughter to anyone who has been a daughter or had a daughter, perhaps to anyone who was raised by their mother. The writing reads like a declaration, but what exactly is being declared is more ambiguous: a declaration of love for certain, of the difficult labors of women, of the troubled complexities of navigating social worlds as a girl/woman, of the damning limitations put on girls, of the ways these limitations are passed down generation by generation, of the complexity of our relationships with our mothers, of the ways we recreate our parents in our relationships with our children. The voice is stern and commanding, brooking no backtalk. But there seems to be a logic at work other than the validity of the mother's voice ' her intent is being undermined. Twice the daughter's voice intervenes, resisting the mother's scolding, but it isn't clear where the daughter's voice comes from. The narrator seems to contain both voices. The girl becomes present in her absence which looms over the whole affair (including the title); a kind of absence that suggests a deeper connection between the girl and the narrator, perhaps that they are the same person. The phrases are a mother's way of insuring that her daughter has the tools that she needs to survive as an adult. The fact that the mother takes the time to train the daughter in the proper ways for a lady to act in their culture is indicative of their familial love; the fact that there are so many rules and moral principles that are being passed to the daughter indicates that mother and daughter spend a lot of time together. The reader gets the impression that the advice that the mother gives her daughter has been passed. Social values held to be important in human society are effectively portrayed in literature. Through literary works, individuals/writers are able to express their subjective interpretations of life and social reality as they experience it. Literature as the mirror of social reality is explicitly expressed in the literary work, Girl by Jamaica Kincaid. This literary work illustrate literature as a medium through which Kincaid was able to express her views about the values and norms imposed on women by the society, and sometimes, their own community and social group as well. In Girl, the theme of conflicts between a mother and her daughter and traditional and Western or modern values are portrayed by Kincaid's effective illustration of her relationship with her mother. Jamaica Kincaid, a contemporary American Caribbean writer, illustrates in her work the dynamics of human relationships among immigrants trying to assimilate with the dominantly Westernized English society. Written in 1978, Kincaid details in her short narrative, Girl, issues that the protagonist (or Kincaid) experiences as she and her mother's values clash against each other. In addition to exploring emotions of loss inherent in the mother-daughter bond, Kincaid also crafts her main characters as metaphors for the oppressive forces of colonization. Moira Ferguson comments in her critical analysis of Annie John, that Annie's mother exists as an allegory to "an imperial presence," an external force that "protects and indoctrinates" and inspires the girl's rejection of colonial domination. The colonialist themes that run throughout Kincaid's fiction infuse depth and political significance into her work. As Diane Simmons in World Literature Today states, "At heart, Jamaica Kincaid's work is not about the charm of a Caribbean childhood, nor is it about colonialism. Nor, finally, is it about black and white in America. At heart, her work is about loss" (466). In other words, to read Annie John solely on a polemic level is to miss much of the artistic texture and universal themes that give life to her prose. For her work on Annie John, Kincaid was selected as one of three finalists for the 1985 international Ritz Paris Hemingway Award. In addition, Kincaid is a recipient of the Anifield-Wolf Book Award and The Lila-Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund Award. Kincaid also received a nomination for the 1997 National Book Award for My Brother, a gripping chronicle of her relationship with her youngest brother, during his losing battle with AIDS. Despite the praise and numerous honors, there are those who condemn Kincaid's work, specifically A Small Place, for its "ill-chosen rage.' A Small Place, is "a short but powerful book that can best be described as an anti-travel narrative" (Dictionary of Literary Biography, 135). In this 81 page, slim volume of nonfiction, Kincaid examines the brutal effects of Antiguan colonial oppression and relentlessly indicts its white perpetrators. She writes accusatorily and directly to her white readers: "Have you ever wondered to yourself why it is that all people like me seem to have learned from you is how to imprison and murder each other, how to govern badly, and how to take the wealth of our country and place it in Swiss bank accounts? Have you ever wondered why it is that all we seem to have learned from you is how to corrupt our societies and how to be tyrants? You will have to accept that this is mostly your fault". (34-35). Girl," the first and probably most important piece of the collection, highlights Kincaid's evocative use of language, as she explores themes of enculturation and the "patriarchal politics of oppression"
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The short story of “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid is about a mother and her relationship with her daughter. It is a harsh one sided conversation between the narrator and her mother, with the mother doing all the talking. The story gives a rich description of what her mother expects from her in all aspects of her life, from chores, to how she plays, to what she sings in church. From each line you see the viewpoint of how her mother sees the world, what is proper in her eyes and her expectations for her daughter. Throughout the story the symbolism gives deeper meaner to every verse and shows deeper insight to their realsonship.
One of the first symbols is in the first line is the color white. The use of the color white is foreshadowing the tone for the whole short story. White represents pure, virgin, and clean. The mother is reprimanding her child for the way she walks “on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you so bent on becoming” (380). The narrator’s mother already has concerns of her daughter becoming sexually promiscuous and tarnishing her reputation. The mother’s tone is harsh throughout the whole short story. She is demanding her daughter does these things as she dictates. This is not a sweet moment between a mother and her daughter. The conversation is laced with insults and fears. The mother also warns her daughter about eating on the street “don’t eat fruit on the street-flies will follow you” (380). Flies are seen as bottom feeders, dirty and irritating and when flies are surrounding an animal it is seen as filthy. She is telling her daughter that she will be seen as dirty if her fruits are out for everyone to see.
This has to do with being covered and not letting everyone stare at you. This supports her idea that her daughter will become promiscuous and not respectable. Another symbol example is the importance on clothing. The mother cautions “when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up after a wash” (380). The mother’s emphasis on clothing highlights her view of how you dress is a reflection of you as a person. Its gives insight to your character and personality that you take pride in how you look. Clothing is used cover your body, when you are covered you are seen as respectable in her community. In the conversation “this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming” (380)
This is the second time that her mother accuses her of turning in a slut. The hemming of the dress is no longer a lesson in how to sew, but the act itself has tuned into being seen as respectable and that reinforces her mother’s view. In addition, “Benna” is also a symbol in the text. The word benna is one of the cultural symbols she uses. It gives insight to where the story is taking place. It also gives the reader the first response to her mother who has been talking the whole time. “I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday School” (Kincaid 380). Why did the narrator feel compelled to finally speak up for herself in this moment? What did her mother mean by accusing her of this that the narrator feel she had to defend herself? From this short sentence the reader can assume that something that has changed culturally. If the daughter is implying that singing Calypso music is frowned upon and considered taboo that means singing it in Sunday school would be a grave disrespect. The other aspect of the sentence is the use of Sunday school, the introduction of Christianity has added to the mother’s fears of her daughter being respectable.
The mother is also going through changes culturally and that has influence her concerns for her daughter. Another example of cultural symbolism is the “this how you set a table for tea” (381). This line in the story shows a reference to Britain through tea. The reader can accept that what has been going on culturally is in reference to Britain. There are foreigners in her country who could be judging the country as they interact with the natives. Her constant fear of her daughter becoming a slut is stemming from what the mother now views as proper behavior. They are many symbols that come from food. The use of food in this short story has a small number of layers. There is the superficial layer that acts as a cultural symbol in her use of her native dishes in the text. It also adds depth to the short story and shows the reader where the narrator and her mother are living “this is how to make bread pudding, this is how to make doukona, this is how to make pepper pot” (381).
The reader has only seen the mother in the fierce, menacing tone. Upon further analysis of the symbolism, it shows that her mother doesn’t want her to forget her cultural heritage among all the changes going on currently in her life with Sunday school and the British being in her country. She wants her daughter to learn how to cook these native dishes as a way of passing down her legacy. Another layer is the mother finds cooking to being part of being a respectable women. Cooking is something the mother puts value on. She believes that a woman who can cook is valuable to their society. Over the course of the text she come back to instructing on how to cook. The reader is also able to see it in the beginning, middle and end of the short story. It is not just being able to make these dishes, but the whole act itself “cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil” (380).
The mother believes that cooking strengths the bond her daughter will have with her family and with the community. The last symbol in food is the when the mother tell her how to she is to squeeze the bread “always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; 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” (381) This goes back to the overall theme of the entire story. Her mother wants her be the kind of lady that the baker lets squeeze the bread. The word squeeze is suggestive in a way that the mother doesn’t want her daughter to allow anyone to “squeeze” her. It also reinforces that her daughter should not become a slut or she will be not be a functioning member of society. Sluts and wharf-rat boys are not part of their society; her mother warns “you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys” (380).
They are outcast, if she becomes a slut the baker will not allow her to touch the bread and she will be an outcast like the wharf-rat boys. The final symbol is housework; the importance of it is seen throughout the short story. The narrator’s mother makes many references toward housework, “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” (380). She sees housework as a way of keeping busy so her daughter doesn’t become promiscuous. It also establishes her role as women taking care of her house. In their culture this seen a respectable and earns them respect from their community.
This short story looks like a simple stern lecture from a mother to daughter. When you look at each sentence in-depth, you see mother has fears that are based not in anger but in reality due to all the changes going on in their culture. These fears are expressed sometimes harshly by calling daughter a slut, and her tone throughout the story. At the end it is just a mother being concerned with her daughter and wanting the best life possible for. The symbolism gives more insight than what the reader can read just on the surface. It shows a whole different character for the mother and sheds light as to why the mother has these expectations and fears. What people fear shapes them and their relationships
Kincaid, Jamica. Literature A Portable Anthology. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford St Martins, 2013.