Annie John | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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Annie John | Chapter 3 : Gwen | Summary



Annie starts a new school when she turns 12. Immediately, Annie stands out from the crowd and proves herself as an advanced student. When she walks to school on her first day, none of the other girls pay much attention to her—she was new, after all—but she proves herself worthy of their attention. On the first day, the teacher assigns the girls to spend the afternoon in reflection and to write an essay on the topic of their choosing. When it comes time to share their essays aloud, Annie reads a moving, eloquent essay about visiting Rat Island with her mother every Sunday as a child. Annie had to bathe in the cold seawater as a remedy for her weak kidneys, but she was afraid of the water. Her mother, a "superior swimmer," would wade into the water with Annie on her naked back. After Annie's dip, her mother would drop her on the shore to inspect shells while she returned to the water to swim and dive properly. One afternoon Annie saw large ships coming into the harbor and, in looking at them, lost sight of her mother. Terrified, Annie scanned the water and called for her mother, to no response: "I couldn't think of anything except that my mother was no longer near me." The boats passed and Annie saw her mother on another stretch of land, unaware of Annie's concern. Annie realized that, since she could not swim, her mother could stay on the other side forever and there would be nothing Annie could do to be reunited with her. Annie ends the essay by stating that when she was finally reunited with her mother, her mother held her in her arms and told her to never worry about being abandoned. In reality her mother had turned her back and warned Annie not to eat "unripe fruit" before going to bed because it could cause nightmares.

After the successful essay recital, the girls clamored to walk beside Annie on her way home from school. Annie chooses one girl, Gwen, to be her best friend, and they relish excluding the other girls from their closeness. Over the next weeks Annie and Gwen grow incredibly close, walking to and from school every day, giving each other small gifts, and sharing their deepest secrets. Annie claims they are in love and that "parting was all but unbearable." Now that she loves Gwen, Annie no longer fears her mother's death, which she had previously obsessed over. Despite their closeness Annie never divulges to Gwen her changing relationship with her mother. She also fails to discuss this during her daily meetings at the cemetery with her other girlfriends. Instead, they spend their time discussing their breasts and what could be done to make them grow faster. When Annie gets her first period, she is the talk of her friend group as the girls both envy and pity her. Annie's mother tries to embrace her after school, but Annie no longer craves her mother's affection: "I could not understand how she could be so beautiful even though I no longer loved her."


Annie's story about Rat Island provides a perfect metaphor for her changing relationship with her mother. She describes their intimate closeness as her mother swims with the naked Annie on her back, paralleling the way they bathed together before Annie's transition into a "young lady." Then her mother swims without Annie and, after, rests on a different rock out of Annie's view. The terrified Annie thinks she has lost her mother. Annie cries and calls to her mother with no response, which parallels the heartbreak Annie felt in Chapter 2 regarding her mother's changed attitude. In the essay Annie writes, "She wasn't paying any attention to me, for she didn't know that I had missed her," suggesting Annie's mother doesn't fully understand the emotional impact of her new ambivalence. Mother's cold response to the dream, a warning that Annie should avoid unripe fruit, underscores this lack of empathy. Further, Annie's dream foreshadows her eventual emigration. In the memory Annie realizes that with "all that water between us" the only way she might reach her mother again would be to "take a boat." At the end of the novel Annie takes a boat to England, thus embracing the distance from her mother that she once feared. Interestingly, the fact that many of Annie's schoolmates are brought to tears by the story suggests camaraderie and a shared fear of change.

Once Annie arrives at school she quickly finds a new best friend with whom to share the displaced affection from her relationship with her mother. Just as with her mother, Annie chooses Gwen as the object of her affection because of their similarities: "our jaws [dropped] and eyes [widened] when we saw how similar [we] were." Just as Annie and her mother were inseparable, so now are Annie and Gwen: "If you saw one, you saw the other." Growing up, Mother taught Annie all there was to know about the world, and now Annie explores new terrain, like her changing body, with Gwen. Yet even in the newfound love with Gwen, Mother still lurks as Annie realizes her behaviors are "an exact copy, of course, of what we had seen our mothers do." Because there are so many similarities between Annie's new relationship with Gwen and her old relationship with her mother, the reader can expect the relationships to end in similar ways.

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