Jamaica Kincaid’s (1978) “Girl” provides a glimpse of the relationship between a girl and her mother, as well as the roles of family, community, and society in shaping a person’s identity and behavior. The girl represents Kincaid in her youth. The short story shows that the mother prescribes behaviors that she deems appropriate for females. She imposes these behaviors on the girl, who is expected to obey and conform. In addition, it is apparent that the child and her identity are constrained within these prescribed feminine behaviors, in contrast to masculine ones. Such a constrictive condition is a result of the parent’s dominant behavior toward the girl, and the family’s tendency to yield to social pressure. Considering Kincaid’s background and the cultural keywords used, the short story emphasizes how certain sociocultural characteristics are passed on through generations. The story touches on social problems involving the mother and her daughter, and illustrates the significance of familial relationships in shaping individual behavior. Kincaid also points to social issues, such as sexism or sex discrimination, gender stereotypes, and the effects of societal pressure on personal development.
In depicting a conversation or argument between a mother and her daughter, Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” includes the following points:
- An overbearing mother
- The mother’s pessimism about the girl
- Norms, stereotypes, and biases against women
- Family as a means of perpetuating social issues through generations
An Overbearing Mother
The overbearing and controlling nature of the mother is observable in Kincaid’s short story. Most of the story reflects what the parent says about what the girl should do and not do. For example, the mother teaches her daughter to wash clothes in a certain way, and to “cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil.” The mother also tells the girl to not sing benna in Sunday school, and not “speak to wharf-rat boys.” These directions show that the mother wants to control various aspects of her daughter’s life, including how chores are done, how relationships are developed outside the family, and how the girl presents herself to the outside world.
The mother-daughter relationship characterizes the woman’s motherhood and parenting style. The text is mostly about the mother’s thoughts, ideas, perspectives, rules, and instructions for the girl. Throughout the story, it is only twice that the girl responds to her mother. The girl says that she does not sing benna in Sunday school, and asks the hypothetical question, “what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?” Kincaid’s emphasis on such a familial relationship can be seen as a reflection of a lack of healthy communication between the two females. It seems that the parent does not have the will or desire to know and accommodate the child’s thoughts and point of view. This situation makes the reader wonder about the sociological meaning of the mother-daughter relationship, and what the girl really thinks or does in her home and outside when interacting with boys, churchgoers, the baker, and other people.
The Mother’s Pessimism about the Girl
Kincaid’s short story illustrates the mother’s pessimistic or negative view of the girl. The word, “slut,” is mentioned thrice to emphasize the mother’s belief that her daughter is becoming one, or has already become one. The mother also finds ways to establish this belief through assumptions and negative interpretations about the girl and her activities. For example, after telling her daughter to squeeze bread to check for its freshness, the girl replies by asking, “what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?” The mother interprets this question as an indicator that the girl will really be that “kind of woman.” This sarcastic remark is a pessimistic interpretation. The mother focuses on a supposed undesirable future of the girl, and seemingly disregards other possibilities. For instance, it is possible that the girl innocently says that the baker might not let her feel the bread, perhaps because of other reasons. The mother’s derogatory perspective tells the reader that she thinks poorly of her daughter, no matter what the girl says.
The mother’s negativity is also shown in other parts of Kincaid’s story. The mother asks if the girl sings benna in Sunday school, then lays down the rule that the girl should not do so. When the daughter says that she never sings benna in Sunday school, the mother ignores the young lady and just continues giving instructions and rules, without much consideration for the possibility that the girl actually does not sing benna in Sunday school. This part of the text illustrates the mother’s firmness in her negative perspective that the girl sings benna. In relation, the mother prescribes a way of getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy. This guidance reflects the mother’s assumption and expectation that the girl will eventually have an unwanted pregnancy. Thus, the text depicts the mother as a pessimist regarding her daughter’s life and future.
Norms, Stereotypes, and Biases against Women
The mainly one-sided conversation between the mother and her daughter shows Kincaid’s view of the norms, stereotypes, and biases in society. The short story presents what the mother thinks is appropriate, based on sociocultural expectations, customs, and traditions. For example, the parent instructs the girl that she should not squat to play marbles because she is not a boy. Also, the mother teaches the girl to “walk like a lady” on Sundays. Here, the teachings, directions, and guidance appear to be part of the girl’s training in preparation for life, as she gets older and becomes a woman. However, the same teachings, directions, and guidance inculcate not just positive or beneficial information, but also negative norms, stereotypes, and biases.
It is clear that the mother thinks that women and men should have different manners and conduct, especially when interacting with each other. Some of her directions provide positive training for the girl. For example, the mother teaches her daughter how to catch and prepare fish. However, the reader is given a picture of a society, where norms, stereotypes, and biases discriminate against women. The mother’s rants and rules show that girls should not squat like a boy; should do household chores, such as cooking, baking, setting the table, sweeping, sewing, and washing and ironing clothes; and should walk like a lady. Furthermore, the teaching on how to prepare medicine, in case the girl becomes pregnant and wants to stop it, implies that females may suffer from unsafe remedies instead of receiving safe healthcare. This maternal guidance creates a division between the sexes and discriminates against women. With such sexist training under her mother, the girl is given less freedom to do what she wants to do, relative to males.
Family as a Means of Perpetuating Social Issues through Generations
Kincaid’s “Girl” reflects the family’s role in perpetuating social issues from generation to generation. As the basic social unit, the family provides a social environment that nurtures children. However, societal problems, such as biases and discrimination, are also passed on from parents to their children. In the short story, the conversation between the mother and her daughter represents the family. In turn, this family represents a community or society that imposes pressure on individuals, such as sons and daughters, to follow sexist or discriminatory rules and social expectations.
The mother instructs her daughter to not squat like a boy, to do household chores, to “walk like a lady,” and so on. These lessons describe a society that separates men from women. It is a social environment where women are mainly limited to the home and men can go out without much restriction. This means that families set discriminatory rules that put pressure on their children. These children, then, become adults who set similar discriminatory rules for their own children in the future. This cycle perpetuates the ills of society.
Points to Ponder
The mother in Kincaid’s “Girl” symbolizes motherhood or, more generally, parenthood and its role in perpetuating stereotypes, biases, and discrimination. One might consider how this situation agrees with the saying, History repeats itself. As the mother sets an example to follow, the girl could eventually become just as gender-biased as her mother. Such similarities between generations are also alluded to in other literary works, such as E.B White’s essay, “Once More to the Lake.”
Many questions arise upon reading Kincaid’s short story. For example, how do the story’s socially constructed systems fit within ethical and moral systems? In terms of forbidding the girl to squat like a boy to play marbles, how does the mother’s instruction affect the girl’s personal development, identity, and social skills? How do the parenting style and rules in the short story reflect the mother as a teacher, a guide, and a role model for the girl? How does the mother see her daughter as a student or follower? Would the mother give the same or similar rules to the girl’s siblings? How would the familial training differ between the girl’s sisters and brothers? Is the mother’s parenting style a result of her own conformism to peer pressure, and her own obedience to her church, faith, or religion?
Kincaid, J. (2003). Girl. In A. Charters (Ed.), The story and its writer: An introduction to short fiction (6th ed., pp. 320-321). Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s. (Original work published 1978)