This prose poem/short story was first published in 1978 in the New Yorker. It later appeared in Jamaica Kincaid‘s first short story collection, At the Bottom of the River, and it can be read in the Amazon preview. The story is one long run-on sentence of about 650 words.
Summary of “Girl”
A mother advises her daughter about many things—how to wash clothes, not to walk bareheaded in the sun, how to cook, how to eat, how to walk, not to sing benna in Sunday school, who to avoid, not to eat fruit in the street, how to sew and iron, how to grow food, how to clean house and the yard, how to smile at people, how to set the table, how to behave around men, hygiene, how to play like a girl, not to pick people’s flowers, not to throw rocks at blackbirds, how to make medicines, how to fish, how to bully a man, how a man will bully her, how to love a man, how to spit in the air without it getting on you, how to budget, and how to check bread for freshness.
Theme: Mother/Daughter Dynamics
The dominant mother’s role depicted is of teacher. Her speech is a stream of instructions and warnings. The advice is mostly concerned with doing practical things for herself and around the home, as well as how to behave publicly.
A major takeaway from this litany is the lack of warmth. There isn’t a single word of love or encouragement anywhere. Of course, the mother could be motivated by love, at least partly, but this doesn’t come through in her communication with her daughter. The speech is didactic and critical, and expresses a very narrow view of a mother.
Indeed, the structure of the story could be interpreted as a symbol of the mother/daughter relationship. With no setting, action or exposition, the story could parallel the mother’s interactions with the daughter. All she does is preach to her and criticize her. The story’s limits seem to parallel the relationship’s limits.
Related to the theme of mother/daughter dynamics is the theme of communication.
Almost the entire story is one-way communication from the mother to the daughter. Its tone, discussed above, doesn’t give the impression of a close, loving relationship.
There are two instances in the story where the daughter speaks up, which are italicized in the text. The first time, she says she doesn’t sing benna on Sundays and never in Sunday school. It’s noteworthy that this is after her mother has already moved on to other subjects. The implication is that the mother talks but doesn’t care about what the daughter says. Her defense was also ignored.
The second time, she asks how to squeeze the bread if the baker won’t let her touch it. The mother turns this into a criticism, once again questioning the girl’s morals.
The story suggests the communication between the two is poor, with the mother spouting instructions, and ignoring or criticizing the daughter’s responses.
Theme: Expectations for Females
The mother’s words cover the traditional role a woman would fill—lots of advice about keeping a home and interacting with men. Washing clothes, selecting food and cooking it, cleaning, setting a table, preparing home remedies, and knowing how to deal with men are all covered.
The tone is mainly neutral, but it’s distinctly harsh in one area—that the girl is promiscuous. Due to its repetition, it’s the part that stands out the most. It’s very important for a woman to have a good reputation in this area. The girl’s reputation doesn’t seem to be in question, though. The mother asked if it was true she sang benna in Sunday school, implying someone was talking about this. There’s no indication someone has impugned the girl’s character. The first time it’s said is particularly jarring:”. . . the s¦ut you are so bent on becoming.” It’s clear the mother strongly disapproves of any behavior that tends in this direction. The tone is even harsher considering the girl could be acting in a perfectly normal way. The story also ends with the mother accusing the girl of “being the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread,” making it the last thing we remember.
Interestingly, the kind of behavior that could get a girl in trouble isn’t uncommon. One of the things the mother teaches the daughter to make is a medicine “to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.” We can infer this is a piece of common knowledge that is passed on to girls. Not being promiscuous is one thing, but concealing it is just as important.
Kincaid has acknowledged that the power contrast between the mother and daughter is like the relationship between Europe and Antigua, “a relationship between the powerful and the powerless”, in her words.
Antigua had a small, wealthy white population and a large, poor black population. The local culture was subsumed by the British system.
Antigua was a British colony until 1967 when they became an Associated State with Barbuda; they gained full independence in 1981.
Kincaid explained that while the mother is showing the girl how to be in the world, she doesn’t really think the girl will get it right. She’s dismissive and views the girl with scorn. Kincaid explained, it’s “not unlike the relationship between the conquered and the conqueror.”
1. Why might a blackbird not be a blackbird after all?
This bit of advice expresses a belief that the blackbird might contain the spirit of a person or something else. This is consistent with the other statement about throwing back a fish so something bad won’t happen to you. The mother passes on these mystical beliefs to her daughter. These things contrast with the reference to Sunday school, where some form of Christianity is taught.
2. Why shouldn’t the girl sing benna in Sunday school?
Benna is an uptempo Antiguan music (Calypso) known for having gossip in the lyrics. It wouldn’t be appropriate to sing in a Christian setting. Again, we see the importance of appearances. The girl isn’t told not to sing these songs at all, just not at Sunday school.
3. How should the narration be taken? Is it happening in real-time?
I don’t think so. It reads like a remembrance of the things the girl’s mother had told her over a period of time, probably years. For example, “this is how to sew a button” couldn’t just be said and left at that. Obviously, the mother said that at the beginning of a demonstration, and would have explained further as she went. This applies to many of the other things said, as well.
A person would have to have a classifiable disorder to rant the story’s narrative in one sitting, without any explanations and running things together without any transitions. The presentation suggests this is how the girl remembers her relationship with her mother.
Some additional terms from the story:
- Okra: a mucilaginous, high-fiber vegetable
- Dasheen: a large-leaved root vegetable
- Doukona: a spicy pudding made from plantains
- Pepper Pot: a beef stew