A quick analysis of ‘Girl’ by Jamaica Kincaid (as “performing writing” based on Della Pollack’s framework)

“Girl” is ostensibly a series of instructions from a mother to her daughter – instructions on how to do house chores, on suitable clothing to wear, on walking and behaving like a lady, on gardening, on playing marbles with boys, on fishing, on getting a man, on cooking, on how to “spit up in the air if you feel like it”.   The writing brings to life (i.e. it evokes) a world – certainly different from Ottawa – where Okra can grow too close to the house, where there are red ants to worry about and benna songs to sing (or not sing) in Sunday school, where learning to fish is as important as how to make medicine “to throw away a child before it becomes a child”.

The voice is stern and commanding, brooking no backtalk. But there seems to be a logic at work other than the validity of the mother’s voice — her intent is being undermined. Twice the daughter’s voice intervenes, resisting the mother’s scolding, but it isn’t clear where the daughter’s voice comes from.  The narrator seems to contain both voices. The girl becomes present in her absence which looms over the whole affair (including the title); a kind of absence that suggests a deeper connection between the girl and the narrator, perhaps that they are the same person.

Qualities of metonomy can be found in the self-consciously repetitious, fragmented and incomplete aspects of the story – one long sentence, one long thought, fragmented by punctuation, a sudden ending  — all under the title “Girl”, and yet offering the merest fragment of who this Girl might be.  The dictation of propriety is relentless in what it includes and also what it excludes, the softer sides of love such as empathy, fun, encouragement.  The Girl’s presence is in who every admonition is directed to, and yet she is almost entirely absent: we only sense her in the pattern of rules about what she is expected to do and how she is expected to behave.

The subjective identity of the narrator is, in a sense, inextricable from the Girl, a “we” of mother-daughter identity.  The Girl’s minor presence – two brief and seemingly inconsequential(?) challenges – suggests that perhaps it is the Girl who is narrating and working out her own identity through speaking, through recreating and re-enacting (with language) the complicated relationship with her mother, the complicated identity of learning to be a girl/woman, a (re)enactment through assembling the severe and protective and loving and damning instructions on how to be. The motives behind the sternness seem to be protective (despite their sometimes cruelty), and through this protectiveness the identities of the mother, and her mother, and her mother., etc. and the Girl, and her daughter, and her daughter, etc. merge.  We are implicated in this merging as readers; having been addressed as “you” throughout, it is hard to escape thinking about ourselves in the Girl’s place, the imposition of authority as we’ve experienced it, as imposed by our own parents, the ways these impositions can both protect and limit us.

There is an anxious even urgent quality to the writing – its nervousness rooted in doubts about the assumptions on which the instructions depend (assumptions about gender roles and division of labour, courtship, social appropriateness, and most severely/menacingly sexual identity, i.e. “like the slut I have warned you against becoming” … “you are not a boy, you know” .. “the kind of woman the baker won’t let near the bread”). We are addressed directly – you you you.  But then someone speaks on our behalf, a small voice: but I don’t sing benna on Sundays, what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?  ‘Girl’ is written in a verbal style as dialogue / monologue / performance.

The writing has force, feels urgent, the stakes feel high as if there are consequences for not following instructions, although we are not told what the consequences might be. The audience extends beyond the story’s immediate horizon – beyond the narrator/author’s relationship with her daughter to anyone who has been a daughter or had a daughter, perhaps to anyone who was raised by their mother.  The writing reads like a declaration, but what exactly is being declared is more ambiguous: a declaration of love for certain, of the difficult labours of women, of the troubled complexities of navigating social worlds as a girl/woman,  of the damning limitations put on girls, of the ways these limitations are passed down generation by generation, of the complexity of our relationships with our mothers, of the ways we recreate our parents in our relationships with our children.

[There did not seem to be citational qualities in this particular piece.]

Feel free to comment …

About Michael Lithgow, PhD

Course Instructor, Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication
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