Girl, a short story by Jamaica Kincaid, was first published in the June 26, 1978 issue of The New Yorker, and later in the award-winning collection, At the Bottom of the River, in 1983.
The author, born and raised in Antigua in the West Indies, relates a narrative of a young girl’s passage to womanhood at the unmerciful dictation of her mother. The author’s format; style of writing and colorful language, brings an immediacy to the piece which allows the reader easy access, but there is also a compulsion at work here, insisting that we read the passage all the way through to find out what her message is.
She recounts, in almost shopping list manner, the numerous instruction she received on matters of life and love, or lack thereof. Her mother is a harsh task mistress, continually making claims about her daughter’s behavior, that are strenuously protested, but to little avail in the end.
For, from the adult woman’s perspective and experience, the ‘girl’ is not meant to succeed or be happy. These are the realities. Perhaps, because of the mother’s own failures and frustrations in life, she strives to bring her daughter down to her own level. Whether in an attempt to protect her through ‘tough love,’ or out of bitterness due to the status in her society she now occupies, the mother employs a variety of methods to accomplish this feat.
The girl’s mother attempts to direct her daughter, as most mothers do, through the process of maturation from girlhood to womanhood, but does so by using completely contradictory messages of support through positive-seeming instruction, conflicting with negative reinforcement brought about by low expectation.
The mother’s message of growth is very short on hope, and heavily reliant on the rough and ready, some may say ‘brutal,’ lessons that the adult knows from hard reality, and the child had better be made aware of before these realities hit home.
Yet, while trying to guide the girl with the lessons of practical behavior, discipline and common sense, the woman sets her up for failure from the start. Why? The defeated attitude of the mother, perhaps. Experiences of other girls in this society, and the larger world, begs the question: is this approach typical of mother-daughter relationships?
She leaves the girl with very little hope for once womanhood has been achieved. The litany of steps that must be taken to be a good housewife is quite extensive. The chores not only tedious, but wide-ranging.
The manners a ‘good girl’ is expected to master require not only excruciating balance, but almost inhuman self-control. And for what? Her own mother believes she will fail, that she will become a fallen woman. Is this common amongst the broader population?
The purpose of all the rules and reminders is set to break the will, the spirit, of a young girl. All adult women seem to know this through cruel experience. This is what life is: a constant round of house chores all aimed at pleasing the man of the house, coupled with the knowledge that if she falters publicly or privately, she will be deemed a ‘slut.’
Does her mother want this? Because, her mother has quite a store of information with regards to matters of a sexual nature. Success in toil or failure in ignominy, this is what society has in store for girls. There is no escape evident.
Whether through the everyday role of the subservient female, placed on all the women by society, or the bitter memory of her own failings in life, the girl’s mother prepares her daughter for a losing existence in the eyes of her community due to the unequal status of all women as seen by the tightrope the ‘fair sex’ is forced to walk.
Kincaid’s focal audience is almost certainly female, perhaps even primarily African-American, but generally, all women, know this! She catches her listener early, almost casually, but in that is the strength of the lure, and she reels them in. Regardless of background, most all women, it is assumed with good reason, have had to face just the kind of issues that she raises in this piece.
A secondary audience, not quite as important, but even so, for the sake of creating some empathy for the struggles of women (and as they are the genesis, ultimately), would be men. And, in order to foster greater compassion and understanding in them towards the ‘women’ in their lives, would definitely lend this account to their attention, as well.
The context of the cultural background of the Caribbean, a former colony, slave-holding society, but majority Afro-Caribbean, yet overlaid with the propriety of a white, British staidness, almost of another era altogether, is obviously hugely relevant, as we explore with Kincaid, practically the bottommost rung of the societal ladder.
The author would like us to, first of all, recognize the struggles through a harsh reality that people of African descent, the progeny of slavery, have to go through, especially in a white dominant culture. Or, one whose basis is such. Particularly, of course, women, for whom circumstances are doubly difficult. She would like to see women stand up, to not let their existence be labeled by others, and for men to stand with them and not allow these women, whom they know, to have to endure the criticism and judgmentalism of others.
But what were the current events of that time, and what women wanted, juxtaposed against what men were willing to allow. That time is not so far removed from the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, coming as it did at the culmination of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.
By laying out for us her own personal experience– and though it is not stated, we can take it for granted (for purpose of power of projection), that this story is autobiographical in nature, she seeks to persuade people that who she is now, is not necessarily a component of who she was then or how she was taught.
As one long list of instructions, or chores and rules, the ‘instructional’ aspect, itself, moves swiftly along, so as not to lose us along the way. Anyone can, and is expected to, recognize it for what it is, and feel a familiar sense of anxiety and annoyance at being handed such an exhaustive litany of things to do. It well illustrates for any reader what women all ready know, but men are just learning… this is what woman has to put up with. And you thought it was so easy?
“Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them in a stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry,” shows us the setting of these onerous chores from the days of the week, from one end to the other, and there is more to come.
She speaks of other chores that need attending, “cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it,” again, such scenes of domesticity, woman’s work to be sure, that can only in future be conducted by the girl.
Jamaica Kincaid adds some further flavor to give us a ‘taste’ of the region, her native Caribbean; “When you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it will make your throat itch when you are eating it; …this is how to make doukona; …this is how to make pepper pot,” (italics mine).
Again, her opposition is her mother, bane of her being by that point, and perhaps all mothers in that society as well. With, a greater master overseeing it all, men; the layering of history, ethnicity, class, status, gender.
When her mother accuses her of things (being a slut, singing in Sunday school), she responds. When her mother asks, “is it true that you sing benna (sing popular music) in Sunday school?” The daughter protests, “but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school.” Interspersed throughout are these maternal attacks, “on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” and, “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.”
Her mother seems almost to be goading her in to ‘becoming’ precisely what she says she doesn’t want the girl to ‘become.’ The shaming is palpable in this culture, the girl protests her innocence. The power of the piece, and analogous to the entire tale, about becoming and having become.
Men may be shocked to learn how brutally women can act towards each other. Or not, but it is relevant to keep in mind. Further lessons, delivered with a man in mind, become more physical, rougher; “This is how to 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; …this is how to make good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.”
But women know that, even bore they grow up, and go out and must face the unrelenting scrutiny of the male-dominated society, they must first run the gauntlet of female-to-female harassment. In the form of an ‘education.’
Either because of another’s jealousy, or because of a program of tough love, many women in this milieu are hardened in body, mind and spirit before they even enter the real world of adulthood. They will be survivors. The others, who don’t make it, who cannot or will not measure up, will be the fodder and the pitiful examples which will be used by society to engender obedience, through fear. These are the sluts.
Her mother cannot help herself, to the very end, she must have the final word on what her daughter is not just becoming, but, all ready become, in an unforgiving give and take sure to follow their relations all their lives. Attack, and defend. As the girl wails her innocence, mother lowers the boom in a voice of doom, “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?”
In other words, a slut. The mother has placed the daughter precisely where she feels most comfortable wit her, in her own shoes, having fallen so low.