By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’ is a short story by the Antigua-born writer Jamaica Kincaid (born 1949). It was first published in the Paris Review in 1981 before being reprinted in Kincaid’s first published book, At the Bottom of the River, in 1983.
The story is narrated by someone – probably a young girl – who recounts her dreamlike experiences which involve leaving her house at night, going for a walk, crossing a body of water, and falling down a hole, before meeting a strange woman who asks her what she has been doing lately.
You can read ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Kincaid’s story below. The story takes around five minutes to read.
‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’: plot summary
The story’s title also form its opening words. The first-person narrator of the story tells us what she has been doing lately. She was lying in bed one night when the doorbell rang. But when she ran downstairs and answered the door, there was nobody there. She went outside and walked north, barefoot, describing the things she saw.
She came to an expanse of water but could not cross it as she had no boat and she couldn’t swim. However, years passed and she then had a boat and got into it and rowed across the water. It was midday when she reached the other side of the water, and she got out and walked along a path – for how long, she couldn’t say.
When she looked behind her back the way she’d come, the landscape had changed and was full of hills. When she faced forward again, a hole had opened up in the ground. She was curious about what was in it so she fell into the hole – repeatedly. Inside the hole she could see some writing but it was in an unfamiliar language. But as she was falling, she realised she didn’t like the sensation and she missed the people she’d left behind, so she willed herself to come out of the hole and sure enough, she was back at the opening to it. She told the hole that it could close up, and it did so.
She walked on for several days and nights, but felt no thirst and no pain, despite walking so far. She saw someone coming towards her, and was convinced it was her mother. However, when the figure came closer, she realised it was not her mother but another woman. When she reached the narrator, this mysterious woman asked her what she had been doing lately.
The narrator discarded several possible responses she could have given, and instead began to tell the woman everything she has just told us, which form the story up until this point. However, some of the details are the same and others are different from before. The story ends where it began: with the narrator lying in bed when the doorbell rang.
‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’: analysis
The rather illogical narrative structure and style of ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’ may well put us in mind of the world of dreams, and it is tempting to read the story as a dream-text: a kind of late twentieth-century take on the medieval dream vision in which a narrator would often leave home on a journey, during the course of which they would encounter various archetypal figures and experience strange sights.
Kincaid’s story appears to tap into a number of symbolic figures and archetypes which, like the figures and images in dreams, invite numerous possible interpretations. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, called this phenomenon condensation (or at least, that’s how the term has been rendered into English), because several meanings are condensed into one symbol.
In ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’, the hole is filled (as it were) with a number of different interpretive possibilities. The hole might be analysed as a symbol of ignorance – note the writing that she narrator sees as she plummets into the hole, written in a language she does not understand – but it might just as easily represent some (dawning) knowledge which will lead to a loss of innocence.
Does the hole, then, represent some kind of symbolic ‘fall’, akin to the Fall of Man from the biblical story of Adam and Eve? Has the narrator come into some kind of knowledge which represents her loss of innocence?
Perhaps, but then, if we read it this way, we must also reckon with the fact that the narrator can apparently reverse this knowledge, for she comes back up out of the hole and even commands it to close up. It is as though the hole had never been. One way to interpret this is to see this encounter with the hole as the narrator taking a tentative step towards knowledge, before pulling herself back into a realm of innocence, because she feels she is not ready to fall just yet.
It is certainly suggestive that, at one point, we are told that years had passed: something else that suggests the narrative should be viewed as a dream, where long spells of time pass in what is actually a very short period.
Is the (girl?) narrator gradually growing into a woman? If so, we might view the woman who comes towards her as herself: her older self who is slowly coming into being. After all, she initially mistakes the figure for her mother – she is ‘sure’ that it is her mother – only for this original assessment to be proved wrong. Many girls will grow up to resemble their mothers in appearance, if not in other respects, too, so the idea that this strange woman is the narrator’s own (older) self is certainly tenable.
But of course, ultimately any analysis or interpretation of Kincaid’s story must bear in mind the cyclical nature of the story’s structure. ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’ begins and ends in the same way: with the narrator lying in bed and the doorbell ringing. This might suggest that the dream – if it is a dream – is a recurring one.
But it also suggests that any ‘coming of age’ or ‘pathway to knowledge’ which the story’s surreal dreamscapes might suggest is not a sudden or linear process, but one which happens cumulatively over time, with many setbacks, false starts, and returns. If we can read ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’ as a story about growing up, then it is one which offers no one rite of passage, but a series of headlong experiences which will remain with us, even while we remain back where we started, for now at least, back in our beds, ready for the process to begin again.
Unless, of course, that final image of the narrator back in her bed is merely wishful thinking. Can we ever truly return home once we have left it and begun making our own way in the big wide world? Kincaid’s story is such a powerful story about growing up not least because the ambiguous narrative encapsulates the chaos and confusion of the process, whereby we change and yet feel – or desire to feel – the stability and familiarity of the home we have left, perhaps, in truth, forever. And perhaps that figure who approached the narrator was her mother, after all – but a mother she was no longer able to recognise, because she, the narrator, had changed too.
Image: by Vogler, via Wikimedia Commons.