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Annie John | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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Annie John | Chapter 1 : Figures in the Distance | Summary



An adult Annie John recalls her childhood, starting with the rumination that when she was 10, "I thought only people I did not know died." Childish Annie is afraid of the dead because "we never knew when they might show up again," calling for one of the living to join them on the other side. Annie's family home borders the village cemetery, so she spends many days that year watching the funeral processions and reporting back to her parents which person died. One day Annie learns that a girl close to her age, a child she met once, died. Annie's father, a carpenter, builds the girl's coffin, and since the dead girl's mother is too distraught to prepare the body, Annie's mother does it. Annie watches in horror as her mother bathes and prepares the corpse and is never able to look at her mother's hands the same way. She realizes quickly, however, the schoolyard value of having such a shocking story to tell, so she relishes sharing the details.

Annie's interest in death increases and she begins sneaking into funerals to glimpse the bodies laid out in their coffins. She feels frustrated that she never knew any of the dead while they were alive, to compare to the way they look in death. This changes when an acquaintance of Annie's, a girl with a humpback, dies. She sneaks into the funeral and immediately recognizes that the girl doesn't look as if she's sleeping; she looks dead. She returns home later than usual and tries to lie to her mother about her whereabouts, but her mother catches her in the lie and punishes her. At the end of the night Annie's mother still comes into Annie's room and kisses her goodnight.


This chapter introduces the reader to narrator Annie John: smart, spunky, curious, and independent—all characteristics Annie carries through her childhood and teenage years. As an adult Annie John looks back at her life and narrates the important events that shaped her maturity. The two things most important to Annie's childhood are her home and her mother, both of which she describes in great detail. Annie's childhood appears idyllic. She spends the summer surrounded by farm animals and good food, her mother a constant companion. At age 10 her life is so secure she doesn't even know that it's possible for children to die. By the end of the chapter, however, not only does she know children die, she also sees her beloved mother bathe and dress a corpse. After this, Annie refuses to be touched by her mother, an act that foreshadows the demise of their close relationship. Although nearly inseparable now, by the time Annie reaches adulthood, she wants nothing to do with her mother.

By the end of the chapter, however, she imagines her own death and her father too overcome with grief to build her a coffin. Although childish in her imaginings, these images are the first in which Annie imagines a life (or death) without her parents. Previously, she had viewed anyone living without a mother, like Sonia, the girl whose mother died in childbirth, as shameful. By the end of the novel, however, Annie will be wishing her mother dead so she can breathe freely. For now, death is simply something Annie observes, maintaining her distance and therefore her naïveté.

Furthermore, the bildungsroman form that Annie John follows usually requires a naïve, innocent child at the beginning, who will grow into an adult. This chapter follows that model by portraying Annie as very much a child with a huge capacity to grow and learn. By the end of the novel, Annie will have extricated herself from her childish admiration of her mother and created a new identity for herself outside of her mother's shadow.

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