By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Girl’ is a short story by the Antigua-born writer Jamaica Kincaid (born 1949). In this very short story, which runs to just a couple of pages, a mother offers advice to her teenage daughter about how to behave like a proper woman. ‘Girl’ was originally published in the New Yorker in 1978 before being reprinted in Kincaid’s collection At the Bottom of the River in 1983.
At just 650 words, Kincaid’s story can be regarded as a piece of flash fiction or micro-fiction. However, it doesn’t tell a ‘story’ in the conventional or traditional sense. You can read ‘Girl’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Girl’: plot summary
The story comprises one single sentence of 650 words, and takes the form of a dialogue between a mother and her daughter. Although this is not stated in the story, the setting – as Kincaid has subsequently pointed out – is Antigua, the Caribbean island where she was born and raised, and the reference to numerous local foods, such as okra, salt fish, and dasheen, all hint at the story’s Caribbean setting.
The mother gives advice to her daughter, the ‘girl’ of the story’s title. Initially, this is practical domestic advice about washing and drying clothes, as well as cooking tips, such as how to cook salt fish. It is also parental advice along the lines of not walking bareheaded in the hot sun.
But as the mother’s advice continues, we begin to learn something about her attitude to her daughter: she tells her to walk like a lady on Sundays, rather than the immoral and unkempt woman she is determined, according to the mother, to become.
The mother tells her daughter not to sing ‘benna’ in Sunday school: a reference to benna, a calypso-like genre of singing popular in Caribbean countries and characterised by scandalous gossip and a call-and-response format. At this point, the daughter’s voice breaks in, in italics, and protests that she has sung benna in Sunday school, so she is being cautioned against doing something she already knows not to do.
The mother appears to ignore her daughter’s interjection, continuing to give her advice, including how to wear a different smile for people she doesn’t like, people she actively hates, and people she does like. She then tells her how to dress so she doesn’t look like ‘the slut I know you are so bent on becoming’. This phrase is repeated several times in the story.
The mother carries on, becoming more critical of her daughter’s attitude and behaviour. She mentions Obeah, a mystical religion with its roots in African beliefs and rituals, and tells her daughter not to judge by appearances. She also offers medical advice, including how to bring on an abortion and how to catch a fish, as well as how to catch, or attract, a man to become her husband.
Indeed, much of her advice focuses on the kind of domestic chores a wife would be expected to perform for her husband in traditional societies.
The story ends with the mother advising her daughter how to squeeze a loaf of bread to tell whether it is fresh. The daughter speaks again – only the second time she has done so in the story – to ask what she should do if the baker won’t let her touch the bread. The mother responds, is her daughter really going to be the kind of woman the baker won’t let near the bread?
Kincaid’s story is about a mother passing on her wisdom to her daughter, but one of the clever things about the way Kincaid organises the story is the way she seamlessly weaves in moral advice about reputation among the more everyday, domestic knowhow she thinks her daughter needs to know.
The mother is concerned not just with ensuring her daughter becomes a good wife when she grows up, but ensuring that she is seen as a good woman, rather than a ‘slut’ (the word the mother uses several times in this short story) who is viewed as immoral and promiscuous by her neighbours and the wider community.
The title of Kincaid’s story, ‘Girl’, is significant because it becomes clear that the daughter in the story is actually a girl on the cusp of adulthood. This, then, is the mother having ‘the talk’ with her daughter, if not quite about the ‘birds and the bees’ then about how to be seen as a woman of good morals.
Kincaid hints at the girl’s adolescence through several suggestive details, such as the ‘little cloths’ she mentions early on: a reference to the girl’s underwear. This is a subtle allusion to menstruation and what the girl should do when she starts her monthly bleeding.
Given its brevity and the headlong structure of this one-sentence conversation, we as readers are not given any deeper knowledge about how the mother views the society of which she is a part. Does she approve of the patriarchal structure of her society, where women are prepared for their roles as good daughters, and then good wives and good mothers, from an early age? On one level, she is upholding this structure by uncritically presenting her recommendations as merely ‘the way things are’, we might say.
But this might simply mean that she wants her daughter to have a good life and an easy life, if not in terms of the daily grind of household chores, then in how she gets along with her neighbours and friends. By doing as the mother advises, her daughter will be thought of well by the community, and that will make her life easier.
Nor do we know whether she is right to return – as she repeatedly does – to sexual matters and the kind of young woman she fears her daughter is ‘in danger of becoming’.
The first of her daughter’s two interjections suggests that her mother may be misjudging her own daughter, since when her mother tells her not to sing benna in Sunday school, she responds that she doesn’t do that, implying this is an unfair ‘criticism’ of her behaviour.
This suggests – though it can only be inferred on our part, rather than confidently asserted – that the mother is concerned with her daughter being led astray, and her fears about her conduct and reputation may be unfounded, or at least exaggerated.
If this is so, then it only serves to underscore the traditional patriarchal structure of the Antiguan society that Kincaid is seeking to depict in ‘Girl’.
Of course, this would also be true of many other societies around the world, although assuming the story has a contemporary setting (if not in the 1970s then perhaps recalling Kincaid’s own girlhood, from a decade or so before), it implies that – assuming the mother’s attitudes are typical of the values held by that society more widely – there was still a strong sense of the importance of family in Antiguan society when the story was written. And a woman’s good reputation as a loyal wife and hard-working mother is important in upholding those values.
The story is also notable for its use of grammar: it consists of a single sentence, most of which is spoken by a mother who is giving advice to her daughter. The mother’s monologue is briefly interrupted by the girl on just occasions, but otherwise, this story consists of the mother’s words of wisdom to her daughter – about life, relationships, housekeeping, and the importance of reputation.