The Mother Theme in Jamaica Kincaids Girl
In the story, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid, the premise and tone reflect that of a mother, who by her own past experiences and repression of being a woman in her time and tradition, administers guide to her own daughter in a changed world, to chasten her daughters modern ways and current views on society and their culture. The author sets the stage as a sort of “how to” format for the way women should behave, dress, and their expected duties; or at least the way she feels the daughter in this story should retain such etiquette.
Throughout this piece, tradition is emphasized, for instance the mother explaining to her daughter how to make, grow and prepare Caribbean food, most like the old ways in which she was taught. “ Cook pumpkin fritter in very hot sweet oil,” “Soak salt fish overnight before you cook it,” This is how you grow okra-far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ant,” “When you grow dasheen ( By the way, dasheen was grown for its tubular roots and leaves and must be cooked and drained to remove the oxalic acid that can irritate and harm the kidneys and gut), make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it.” The tone here tells the reader that the mother believes the cooking should be a woman’s job, most likely a handed-down tradition, though not necessarily something the daughter considers only a woman’s job now as old traditions sometimes change with the times.
Another area important to the mother is letting her daughter know how to be ladylike. She warns her several times on how to not become a slut or act like one. She might feel that her daughter is either too promiscuous or headed in that direction. They seem to be living in a poor region, so resorting to prostitution might be common in that area as a means of survival. But the mother does not want to see her daughter succumb to that lifestyle and emphasizes that through explaining how to dress appropriately, as to not lure or entice men.
“This is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like a slut.” The sense here is a mother who has no faith at all in her daughter’s capabilities on handling herself in a respectable manner, even down to how the daughter might dress. I feel the mother has major insecurities probably about herself, because of how she was raised and the negative things she experienced. If one dresses messy with ragged dirty clothing, it is a sign of poverty.
This is true even in modern society; that stigma is still quite prevalent. When one dresses with clean, neatly fixed clothing, properly sew and aligned, and is hygienically groomed, with freshly washed skin and clean hands and of favorable smell, they are presumed of a higher quality than the shanty ragged smelly dirty individual. This does affect a person’s self-worth and how society will treat them; this is a realty the mother knows all too well and is probably why she has these insecurities. The community in which she lives most likely sees a neatly groomed woman as being smart and disciplined and would not partake in immoral sexual behaviors; as the possibilities seem to be higher for the ragged dirty women in the mothers eyes and her community.
She adamantly questioned why her daughter sang “benna” and not to do so during Sunday school. Most likely due to the fact that “benna,” was a style of Caribbean folk music, introduced after slavery that centered their lyrics on flagrant gossip, societal scandals, worded with sexual scatology. Thus a clear reason for the mother to sway her daughter from such ungodly musical banter, as it is not religious in nature and could cause more harm than good in trying to teach the daughter.
I feel the mother sees image to be important in their Antiguan society, as most Antiguans lives are encompassed by their social status within the community. And even though the mother writes these instructions for guidelines on how her daughter should live, there is frustration within the mothers tone and demeanor; as she feels no matter what she says, her daughter might be too far gone into her own way of thinking. The mother thinks the daughter has already set herself up for a life of promiscuity.
The mother even goes to the extreme of instructing her daughter on “how to make medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.” This is a clear concoction to remedy an unwanted pregnancy. The mother probably herself had experienced a promiscuous lifestyle and once used this exact abortion recipe; thus wanting to let her daughter know that this is what can happen when you take to the bed with men.
She also reminds her to stay away from “wharf-rats boys or even give them directions.” Wharf-rat boys are seen as homeless, dirty beggars that hung out around the wharfs and were looked down upon. An actual wharf rat, in general, were rats that infested wharves and ships and carried diseases; so in hindsight, the mother could believe that these wharf-rat boys could infest her daughters mind, body and soul.
The reappearance of the word “clothes” and references to how clothing, neat appearance and maintaining good housekeeping skills seems to also correlate with how the author feels about the importance of self-respect and dignity. Dressing appropriately, respecting one’s body and how it is displayed in society reflects a person’s character. And I believe that the mother, though bent on transforming her daughters negative ways or possibilities for that to occur, does show that despite all of her grumbling demands, and takes the time to explain to her daughter “how to love a man.” She even goes into explaining many other ways to love a man if the original ideas don’t work and not to feel bad about herself if they don’t.
The mother clearly does love her daughter and wants the best life for her. And finally, at the end, the mother instructs her to “always squeeze bread to make sure its fresh,” surprisingly the daughter replies, “but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?” The mother can’t believe after everything she has just gone through with explaining, the only question she had was to ask about squeezing the bread. The mother is definitely caught off guard, surprised and disappointed that all she has spoken of might have all been for nothing.
Booth, A., and Kelly J. Mays. The Norton Introduction to Literature. New York, London: Norton 2010. Print.
“Jamaica Kincaid (1949-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 234. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007. 1-84. Literature Criticism Online. Gale. Shapiro Library, Southern New Hampshire University. 17 July 2011