A Short Story Analysis: "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid

Essay by tyannabCollege, Undergraduate September 2007

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Jamaica Kincaid, born Elaine Potter Richardson, is originally from St. John's, Antigua (Britannica). She was born in 1949 and three years later she had learned to read by attending local schools which provided a british style education (Britannica). Her father was a cabinet maker and her mother was a political activist (Britannica). By the age of sixteen, she left her home in St. John's to come to America and be an au pair in Manhattan (Garner). She however felt that being an au pair was synonymous with being a slave (Garner). She soon began looking for other types of work which would allow for more creativity (Garner). She said that "I began writing in my early twenties out of desperation" (Faulkner). Her first published piece of writing was in a magazine called Ingenue and it was an interview with feminist Gloria Steinem (Britannica). Sometime after this publication, in 1973, she legally changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid to reconnect with her Caribbean roots (Britannica).

From there she became the assistant of George Trow who wrote "talk of the town" for The New Yorker (Garner). Later it came to the attention of William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, that she had exceptional talent and hired her to be a staff writer (Garner). In 1979 She married Allen Shawn, the son of William Shawn (Garner). Writing for The New Yorker is where she found her true style of writing (Garner). She actually stayed with the magazine until 1995 when she became unhappy with the new editor, Tina Brown, and left (Britannica).

1Some of her writings from her early days up through recent times are "Girl", "At The Bottom Of The River", "Annie John", "A Small Place", "Lucy", "The Autobiography Of My Mother", and "My Brother". "Girl" was written in 1978 and was her first fiction story, it focussed on her relationship with her mother. "At The Bottom Of The River" was written in 1983 and was a collection of short stories and reflections. "Annie John" was similar to an autobiography and dwelled on mother daughter relationships. It was written in 1985. "A Small Place" was written in 1988 and is a three part essay that talks about the spoiling of her home, Antigua. "Lucy" was written in 1990 and is very similar to the idea of "Annie John". "The Autobiography Of My Mother" was written in 1996 and deals with her mother's life. "My Brother" which was written in 1997 and is a description of her brother's death from AIDS. (Britannica)"Girl" is the short story of interest in this essay. What I understood from this short story, is about the passing down of the accepted values and behaviors of the culture from one generation to the next. However these values aren't really seen as just values. Kincaid makes them seem more like strict rules that the upcoming generation must adhere to. The way the mother speaks back to her daughter makes me think that with this kind of communication, it would only leave the child stifled from developing its own values and way of life. If you are to follow along with exactly what your parents told you, you would not be yourself, you'd be your parents. It doesn't give you a chance to find a different, and perhaps, better way of life. I think that Kincaid might have felt that same way, deprived of finding a better life than she was currently living. Kincaid and her family weren't the richest and it seemed like her mother was holding her down. She was always trying to explain that she could never be better than she already was. She knew where her place was and she believed she knew where Kincaid's was2too. She didn't think that it was possible for either of them to better themselves. Her mother really set up boundaries for her, not just in the way she acted and talked but on her entire life.

Usually I find that the last line of a story or poem is of some significance and this I feel is a good example of that. Kincaid ends with "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." This really what got me thinking. It's like her mother thinks that everything people think about you is just because of you. She obviously believes in some sort of fate that if you do everything right things will be just fine. Like when she talks about throwing the fish back the right way so bad things don't befall you. Other things, in her opinion, obviously can't effect you. It's just your own actions.

When Kincaid tries to respond and question, her mother either ignores her or gets angry. Not only did her responses lead me to think this but also the way the story was written. The sentences are very choppy, and very commanding.

I wasn't really able to find a long specific criticism of "Girl", but I did find a few small pieces and some general commenting on Kincaid's writing. One critic, Lori Horvitz, said that "Kincaid's writing employs highly poetic literary style celebrated for is rhythms, imagery, and characterization" (Horvitz). I would tend to agree with Horvitz on this. In "Girl" the short sentences do keep up a rhythm that flows through the story. I found it interesting how without ever describing the mother or the daughter I had a very clear picture in my mind of what was going on and the whole mood of the situation. Also another quote from the same critic is "there is a self contained world which they explore with great detail. Not to chart the existence of the world, but to show that human emotions manifest themselves everywhere" (Horvitz). We don't really see the existence of the world but we understand the great detail of emotions being felt in3this story. Another critic, Darryl Pinckney, says "Kincaid gives a tour of the targets of her cultural bitterness..." (Pinckney1). This is actually referring to her story A Small Place, but we can clearly see by the way she writes that her bitterness towards her culture shines through in a lot of her work (Pinckney1). A few more excerpts from Pinckney are, "unquiet memories of mother" "taken together the stories read like tone poems" "crowded poetic language" "she can suggest intricate landscapes, actual or psychological" (Pinckney2). I think we can all see how these relate to her story "Girl" as well as I'm sure most of her works. This story is not exactly a happy memory of her mother and her language does seem clumped together in the way she forms short sentences. We also get a good picture of this poor girl's mental state with having to deal with her mother.

Denise Gess, another reviewer, uses phrases like "deceptively simple repetitions" and "sly yet intimate voice" to describe Jamaica's writing. These are descriptions of her early writings for "The New Yorker" which was around the time she wrote "Girl". It's quite apparent how these techniques carried over into her short story. She's repetitive in the way that her mother keeps referring to her as "the slut i have warned you against becoming". Her "sly yet intimate voice" is shown in the line "but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?" It was a very ingenious way to end the story, it ends with us feeling very concerned for the girl, and that's probably what she wanted. (Gess)Even though I agree with the critics about Kincaid's writing, these two quotes really help to sum up her writing, my opinions, and the critics opinions. Sienna Powers wrote "In Kincaid's prose, we seem to watch her grow from green immigrant from Antigua barely out of her teens to the woman who, by the time of the end of her sting at The New Yorker, was well on her way to4becoming one of America's best loved writers" (Powers). That was just a nice quite about her writing's progression as she's' grown through the years in the United States. This next one is a description of her writings more close to the time "Girl" was written. Dwight Garner wrote "Writing in spare, deceptively simple prose, her fiction vividly and often harrowingly describes the difficult coming of age of strong minded girls who, very much like herself, were born into tropical poverty" (Garner).