Essay on “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid

Elaine Potter Richardson is a Caribbean American writer, born May 25, 1948 in St. John’s, Antigua. At the young age of seventeen, Elaine left her home in St. John’s to live in New York City. According to the Britannica, Elaine worked as an au pair before winning a photography scholarship in New Hampshire. In 1973 Elaine took the name Jamaica Kincaid, she did this, so she could remain anonymous in her writing. After submitting articles to The New Yorker for a few years, she eventually became a staff writer in 1973. The Britannica goes on to say, Jamaica’s writings often chronicled Caribbean culture, her later work reflected themes of family relationships as well as personhood (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). Jamaica’s short story on “Girl” sparked my interest by the way it is written. It is not written in the typical way most other stories are, it does not follow Freytag’s Plot Structure. I also found Jamaica quite fascinating, she was raised in poverty, but she did not allow that to hold her back from pursuing her goals.

The theme of “Girl” relays a message of domestication and reputability. Throughout the story the narrator is advising her daughter how to carry out these roles. The mother uses domestication to influence her daughter against promiscuous activity. In her writing Kincaid instructs: “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 that I have warned you against becoming” (Kincaid). Kincaid references the daughter singing benna in Sunday school, to which the daughter replies: “but I don’t sing benna on Sunday’s at all and never in Sunday school” (Kincaid), this relays the message that the daughter should not par take in activities that would influence her reputation, as benna is consider gossip and relays a sexual message.

In Kincaid’s words, “Cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil” (Kincaid), “soak salt fish overnight before you cook it” (Kincaid). The use of food and clothing is a symbol for domestication. The mother instructs the daughter how to keep up with the weekly cleaning of the laundry and how to properly maintain her clothing. Kincaid writes, “This is how to hem a dress, when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut, I know you are so bent on becoming” (Kincaid). The mother’s instructions for keeping up with her appearance and clothing symbolizes the values she holds for her reputation.

The literary criticism I consulted is from “Performance and the Gendered Body in Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’ and Oonya Kempadoo’s Buxton Spice” by Carol Bailey. Bailey states, “Jamaica Kincaid’s compact and succinct story ‘Girl,’ the lead story in the collection At the Bottom of the River (1983), has been lauded as one of the premier works in Kincaid’s corpus, particularly her discourse on the making of ‘woman’ in postcolonial Caribbean contexts.” Bailey goes on to say, “The text is essentially a set of instructions offered by an adult (assumed to be a mother), laying out the script for the performance of womanhood in the fictional society in which the female child is expected to live and perform her gender.” Bailey concludes, “’Girl”s emphasis on performative acts reiterates the inextricable link between gender and performance. Undoubtedly, this landmark Kincaid story is in dialogue with Butler’s theorization of the centrality of stylized acts in the creating and crafting of gendered selves” (Bailey). Bailey’s criticism is an accurate portrayal of “Girl”, I agree that there is a stereotype that women should be the ones performing the “housewife” role while men are viewed as a dominate provider. Although Jamaica’s story “Girl” was written in a time where this was the norm, I feel that these beliefs are still prevelant in many cultures today.

Jamaica Kincaid is a strong woman who pursued her dreams, despite the difficult relationship with her mother, she was able to use this to her advantage in her writing. Although her family did not support her in her journey to become a writer, she never allowed this to hinder her personal or professional life. Jamaica is a prime example of hard work and dedication.