Termed as ‘prose-poetry’, Jamaica Kincaid’s 1978 short story “Girl” is a lyrical, rhythmic list of instructions a mother tells her daughter. Being just one sentence, reading the story feels like drawing in a long breath that is only let go until the final moment. The plot is barely discernible, but character and tension are cleverly explored through the Mother’s commanding instructions about how her daughter must prepare for domestic life and place in society.
Applying a cultural reading to “Girl” allows us to examine how colonial legacies create a culture of suppression and conformity. Such a reading is rooted in the evocative language describing the setting, context of the author, context of production and allusions to a colonial past and unique syntax and rhythm used in the text.
Through establishing the setting, Kincaid gives her voice authority and authenticity when portraying the culture of the place. Various words are sprinkled throughout the text in the mother’s instructions, such as foods like ‘pumpkin fritters; sweet oil; salt fish; okra; dasheen; doukona’ and ‘pepper-pot’, which suggest the setting as somewhere in the West-Indies. These words are naturalised in the text, showing Kincaid comes from a West-Indian or Antiguan viewpoint.
Such descriptions of food not only have nostalgic connotations but also show an understanding of the place, automatically telling the reader that she speaks about something deeply personal. Describing food also establishes culture as a key part of the text, as food is a very specific part of the culture and national identity. Other aspects of culture are referenced in benna (calypso music—’songs of the sort your parents didn’t want you to sing’), Sunday School, superstitious beliefs and ‘playing marbles’. The reader is positioned to understand cultural examination as integral to the text, making a cultural reading relevant.
Kincaid’s own context and early is life important in understanding the culture of suppression in “Girl”. Kincaid grew up in Antigua during the 1950s and 1960s, a hard childhood overshadowed by her mother’s disregard for her needs and her struggle with the British Public School system (her teachers constantly saw her as a ‘trouble-maker’). Her first experience when she came to America at 16 was working as an au-pair, which she likened to slavery. Themes of servitude are evident in the text with the multitude of repetitive instructions the mother gives, ‘this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard’.
Such repetition is drilled into the Girl’s mind, making her complacent, not allowing any room for individual expression. The mother-daughter relationship in the text is also likened to Kincaid’s own, as the Girl’s weak defences to her mother’s accusations are scorned, showing a disconnect between the two. This also shows how the culture of conformity is perpetuated in society, as the Girl will condemn her own children to the same oppression as it is all she has known. The text outlines the implications of a suppressive culture, making a cultural reading appropriate and important.
Understanding the context of production shows how Kincaid has explored colonial legacies and how they work to create a suppressive culture in “Girl”. Antigua was colonised by Britain and intended to be a ‘slave-breeding’ colony some centuries before “Girl” was written. Christian missions were set up and became a major part of the long and awful history that ensued. Christianity is alluded to through Sunday School, a colonial institution, and how the Girl must ‘on Sundays try to walk like a lady’.
Kincaid hints that such institutions have an influence on the mother’s traditional Christian values. Avoidance of dishonour is evident in how the mother is convinced her daughter is ‘bent on becoming a slut’ and tries to prevent this by showing her ‘how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down’. The Girl is also told ‘how to smile to someone you don’t like at all’, showing she is taught to compromise her own needs and identity for the comfort of others.
Women are also meant to be subservient to men and do all the housekeeping, as well as act a certain way so they ‘won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming’. Such an institution’s effect is also evidenced in how the mother reprimands the daughter for singing benna* in Sunday School as she feels the Church deems it sinful. In the text, benna is a form of self-expression, one that is crushed by the influence of the Church. These colonial legacies create oppression as they render the girl compliant, subservient and disempowered.
Unique use of syntax and consideration of rhythm in “Girl” help to show how ingrained cultural constructs are. As the story is just one sentence, all the structure of clauses within are arranged in a syntax that works to create a ‘mind-numbing beat’ (Schader, 2016). Such a beat is created through repetition of certain phrases, such as when the mother explains ‘this is how you catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don’t like’. Although slightly different, ‘this is how’ is repeated, and there is sibilance in ‘fish, ‘catch’ and ‘throw’.
The ‘this is how’ phrase isn’t used in the next clause, but returns later: ‘this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you’. After a small break, the incantation continues. The rhythm of the mother’s monologue works to instil her values into the Girl, showing how they are naturalised and repeated in society. This also creates a build-up of tension, as we are left apprehensive for a small moment without the familiar sounds of ‘this is how’. It also puts the same weight of importance on the different clauses, even though we can see the clauses concerning men are of greater emotional value.
At this point, the mother is most expressive, perhaps of her own anguish and pain in her life, as she instructs the Girl on increasingly more serious things: ‘this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel bad about giving up’. This re-establishes the idea that culture repeats itself as the mother passes on information to the daughter, but also shows the emotional costs of such a culture—one where women (and men) are compromised in love. Kincaid’s deliberate use of rhythm reflects the emotional toll of a suppressive culture that is ingrained in society.
A cultural reading allows us to investigate the implications of a suppressive culture, and how such a culture makes people conform so that it repeats itself. Understanding the author’s context shows how her own experiences have shaped the culture of servitude in “Girl”, and how such an environment suppresses individual expression. Context of production and Antigua’s colonial legacies naturalise values that also suppress individuals, leaving them unable to counter such a culture. Kincaid’s unique and poetical use of syntax and rhythm emphasises the repetitive nature of such a suppressive culture and how it defeats emotional expression.