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Course Hero, "Annie John Study Guide," October 2, 2017, accessed July 15, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Annie-John/.

Annie John | Themes

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Coming of Age

As a bildungsroman the central theme in Annie John is the titular character's coming of age. Over the course of the novel Annie matures emotionally from child to woman, and physically, as she undergoes puberty. When the novel opens, Annie believes her life to be a perfect, idyllic paradise. At age 10 she has few responsibilities. Her parents devote their entire attention to her: Mother chews up food too difficult for Annie to manage herself and bathes and massages her. Annie and Mother wear matching dresses to show off how adorable they are together. Living this way, Annie cannot fathom how a person survives without a mother; when she meets a girl whose mother has died, Annie considers the girl's loss deeply shameful.

When Annie turns 12, however, her mother insists they can no longer wear matching dresses because Annie "cannot go around the rest of [her] life looking like a little me." This moment causes a seismic shift in Annie's relationship with her mother. Annie wants things to remain exactly as they've always been, but Mother knows Annie cannot spend her life acting like a child—she must learn to be a "young lady."

As Annie grows away from her mother, she grows closer to her friends, first Gwen and then the Red Girl. While both girls are merely stand-ins for the affection Annie would have shared with her mother, each relationship teaches Annie more about her newfound identity. Whereas Gwen is a picture-perfect schoolgirl who follows rules and longs to become a wife and homemaker one day, Annie wants nothing to do with boys. She wants to read books, travel, and make a difference in the world. Her relationship with the Red Girl gives Annie opportunity to widen the gap she feels between herself and her mother by deliberately disobeying her mother's requests and stealing and lying. When Annie's friendships fizzle, she learns she must transition into womanhood alone, without relying on friends or family to guide her. She falls ill, the illness itself a sort of rebirth, and rises from her sickbed with the strength to announce, "My name is Annie John," before boarding a steamer to England in search of a new life.

Motherhood

The main event that guides Annie's coming of age is the loss of her relationship with her mother. Annie John and her mother share everything, even their name, so it comes as a huge shock to Annie when her mother insists she take on her own identity now that she's a "young lady." When Annie was a child, Mother represented her entire world: Mother cooked, cleaned, sewed Annie's clothes, bathed her, entertained her, taught her life lessons, and stored all her memories. She was Annie's champion, and Annie could do no wrong in her eyes. As soon as Annie starts puberty, that relationship changes, and Annie feels completely abandoned. The loss leads Annie to question whether her mother loved her at all, or whether she had been fooling her. She calls her mother a "serpent," like the serpent that once hid in Mother's fig basket, as she questions which aspects of their relationship were truthful and which were deceptive. The final break happens when Mother misunderstands Annie's behaviors on the street and calls her once-beloved daughter a "slut." Their relationship dissolves so much so that Annie exclaims, "I would kill my mother if I had the courage."

When Annie starts a new school at the age of 12, she writes an essay about how her mother used to bring her to Rat Island for therapeutic swims in the cold seawater. In the essay, which describes a dream Annie had about the incident, Annie and her mother are inadvertently separated and come to rest on different banks of the shores. Annie is terrified, but Mother doesn't seem to notice. In the essay Annie claims her mother comforted her upon learning of her distress, but in reality, her mother flippantly commented that Annie shouldn't eat unripe fruit before bed. This story becomes a metaphor for Annie's loss. As she matures, she and her mother experience a gulf in their relationship that pushes them onto opposite emotional shores. Annie's terror that "my mother was no longer with me" becomes a reality. At the end of the novel the divide becomes literal as Annie moves away from Antigua to England. Now, the ocean between them is real, a manifestation of the emotional separation Annie experienced during her maturation.

Colonialism

At the time the novel takes place Antigua was under British control; this meant England controlled Antigua's government and trade. Colonization had two effects: local Antiguans were pushed into poverty, and England embraced the financial benefit of Antigua's natural resources. Despite this, Antiguan children, like Annie John, pledge allegiance to the British flag and are taught to view Christopher Columbus, the man who "discovered" Antigua, as a god. The novel presents a tension between traditional and colonial life, seen most clearly in arguments about traditional versus western medicine. Annie's parents try both methods to treat Annie's illness in Chapter 7, yet Annie's grandmother—who stopped speaking to her husband when their son died after receiving Western treatment—heals Annie using traditional methods. At the same time, colonial expectations for womanhood require chastity and monogamy. These social pressures cause Mother to call Annie a "slut." Nonetheless, Annie's village continues to embrace polygamy for men. The local fishermen share the same wife, for example, and Annie's own father has multiple illegitimate children. When forced to choose between two friends—Gwen, who represents British culture, and the Red Girl, who represents native culture—Annie passionately chooses the Red Girl. This appears to be making the argument that Annie prefers native over British culture, yet Annie loves British novels, prefers Western medicine, imagines herself to be Jane Eyre in Belgium, and eventually moves to England.

The strongest argument against colonialism appears in Chapter 5. In this chapter Annie defaces an image of Christopher Columbus with a statement she heard her mother say in reference to her own controlling father after he lost the use of his legs: "The Great Man Can No Longer Just Get Up and Go." Annie writes the sarcastic comment under a picture of Columbus being taken back to Spain as a prisoner, which Annie adores because she hates Columbus. Her teacher is completely baffled and punishes Annie by forcing her to copy Milton's Paradise Lost. The event shows the reader that Annie differs from her teachers, her schoolmates, and even her mother: she thinks for herself regardless of the consequences.

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