The Girl is a short story narrating the experiences of a young girl in the Caribbean country of Antigua. The narrative is a series of instructions from an authoritative elderly voice, mother-to-daughter advice on behaving like a woman. She teaches her how to maintain a respectable outlook through her choice of clothes, sewing, and ironing them to remove all creases. The mother passes on knowledge on traditional Antiguan meal preparation, a community legacy, and warns her daughter against singing songs full of sexual undertones in Sunday school as they depict her as immoral. Throughout the narration, the daughter’s voice is only heard twice but her opinions are ignored as the mother continues giving instructions. The story’s main themes are powerlessness, gender, and sexuality, which are combined with literary techniques of symbolism and irony to relay messages beyond literal meanings and contrast the relationship between the mother and daughter.
A sense of powerlessness can be noted in the daughters’ demeanor, particularly when her mother ignores her. She appears to be under her mother’s complete control through the instructions to mold her into her mother’s likeness. Moreover, it seems like she is not allowed to have personal opinions and is discouraged from being independent as her mother’s will is imposed on her (McManus para. 3). Later, she is instructed on how to love a man, suggesting that she does choose between getting married or not. Additionally, there is an expectation of her being subservient to her husband when she is taught how to behave around men.
Gender and sexuality
Traditionally, in the Antiguan culture, girls are expected to learn how to be a homemaker from an early age, while boys are allowed to play with marbles. Femininity in the story is described as embracing modest clothing, knowing how to be friendly in moderation, and walking in a well-mannered way (O’Donnell 108). Additionally, girls are expected to learn their culture regarding food preparation, gardening, and rules about self-presentation and maintaining a respectable home. These factors represent the female gender roles imposed on girls from a young age (O’Donnell 101). The gender role imbalance is portrayed when the daughter is informed that due to her sex, she has no choice and cannot voice personal opinions.
Symbolism refers to a literary device that uses abstract images either in the form of people, words, ideas, or location to relay messages beyond their literal meaning. Symbolism is used depicted in Girl using food, especially bread, clothing, and singing benna at church, alluding to the daughter’s promiscuous behavior. Forming the basis of breakfast, bread has been integrated into the normal customs of family life. In the short story, the mother advises the girl to make sure the bread is fresh by squeezing it. In turn, the girl displays uncertainty with the baker’s willingness to let her feel it. This inability to squeeze the bread causes the mother to rebuke her, as it symbolizes her incompetence to lead a wholesome family life. Food, in general, is used to symbolize the mother’s strong belief in the importance of being a homemaker. The mother teaches her daughter recipes for pumpkin fritters, salt fish, bread pudding, doukona, and pepper pot (Kincaid 37). This knowledge is considered important, as it creates a link between womanhood and families. Some of the food listed, for instance, doukona and pepper pot, describe the origin of the narrator without using unnecessary terms. It depicts the Caribbean heritage, Antiguan, to be specific. The knowledge required in food preparation is passed down from mother to daughter and acts as legacies taught throughout generations.
Emphasis on clothing in the story is used to indicate respect in the Antiguan culture. The choice of clothes can indicate a woman’s character and closely link her to feminine housekeeping roles (McManus para. 6). In this case, shabbiness depicted the poverty and laziness levels displayed by a woman while neatness was associated with respect and morality. Various acts were involved in maintaining the outward appearance of a woman, including soaking clothes right after removing them, washing, and ironing. The mother warns her daughter against not sewing a hem once it starts coming off as a means of preventing the girl from looking like a slut.
Benna, an Antiguan music genre characterized by spreading gossip and rumors, is usually sung in a call-and-response manner. It is was used in the short story to warn the girl from engaging in immoral acts. Although benna uses words considered forbidden, the girl lacked knowledge of their meanings, which led her to sing these folk songs in church. This behavior is considered a sin and an act of disobedience, which her mother warns against: “do not sing benna in Sunday school” (Kincaid 37). When she denies this accusation by telling her mother that she does not sing benna on Sundays in church, the mother ignores her completely. In the short story, the benna symbolizes the girls’ sexuality and growing interest in the opposite sex; she is warned against speaking to wharf-rat boys. She is also asked to walk like a woman when going to worship.
The author uses irony to represent the rigid relationship between the mother and daughter. While the mother hopes to teach her daughter to be respectable in society, she disregards her opinions. As opposed to having a discussion whereby the two can express themselves, the conversation in the short story is mostly one-sided. The mother uses these strict instructions to intimidate her daughter, expecting a lot from her from a young age. Traditionally, in Antigua, children are not allowed to talk back to their parents, which is considered a sign of disrespect (McManus para. 6). Knowing these traditions, the daughter silently listens to the instructions, interrupting only twice, but she is ignored both times. Lacking the freedom to make her own decisions, she is expected to be a homemaker like her mother. Ironically, she is not taught to become a modern career woman; instead, she is instructed to conduct herself respectfully to get a husband.
The story revolves around a mothers’ instruction to her daughter on maintaining her respectability in society. Set in the Caribbean country of Antigua, it explores a young girl’s experiences and her relationship with her mother. Kincaid uses the themes of powerlessness and gender and sexuality to portray the societal expectations placed on Antiguan girls. Symbolism is used as a literal technique to relay hidden meaning represented through food and clothing. Additionally, it is considered ironic that the mother expects her daughter to turn out like her without being allowed to express herself or given a chance to explore life and discover what she likes and dislikes.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” At the Bottom of the River. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983, pp. 31-42.
McManus, Dermot. “Girl by Jamaica Kincaid.” The Sitting Bee: Short Story Reviews, 2018, Web.
O’Donnell, Rachel. “This Is How to Make a Good Medicine to Throw Away a Child before It Even Becomes a Child.” Journal of the motherhood Initiative, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, pp. 100-110.