Girl | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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Girl | Themes


Mothers and Daughters

The relationship between a mother and her daughter builds the main theme of this story. Relationships between mothers and daughters are often complicated and fraught with misunderstanding. Where a mother might hear helpful instruction or worry in the words she speaks, a daughter is likely to hear criticism. For example, the mother asks her daughter, "Is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?" Here she suspects her daughter of singing inappropriate music, or at least singing it at an inappropriate time and place. Many young women in this situation would take this as criticism, as if the mother is saying the girl doesn't know how to behave in church. It could even be taken as questioning the girl's intelligence. The girl in the story is no exception, and she denies misbehaving. When she says, "But I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school," she says it several sentences after the mother's initial statement. This indicates she has been pondering it the entire time her mother has been talking. The mother ignores her statement, perhaps indicating she doesn't believe it. The girl doesn't repeat herself. Perhaps this means she isn't really being truthful and is only making a half-hearted attempt to get out of trouble. Or perhaps she knows it's not worth arguing with her mother. She's heard this all before.

Much of what mothers do and say comes from a combination of love and fear. The mother in the story loves her daughter and wants her to have a good life. This is why she teaches her how to do all these tasks. Certainly some of them, such as sweeping, will help the mother around the house. But others, such as the different ways of smiling or how to recognize when she is being bullied by a man, are only for the daughter's benefit. The mother teaches her daughter how to be perceived well in society and even how to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy out of fear for obstacles that may arise in her daughter's future.

A certain amount of brusqueness is to be expected in day-to-day dealings; however, harshness and distrust can be hurtful. The reader may wonder if the mother has reason to distrust the daughter. For example, does she have reason to suspect the daughter of wanting to be a "slut," or is she merely assuming she does? Perhaps she is thinking about her own interest in boys and getting noticed by them at her daughter's age and assuming her daughter's adolescence will be similar.

Jamaica Kincaid had a complicated relationship with her mother. She describes her mother as having been very loving toward her until Kincaid's three brothers were born, during Kincaid's adolescence. From that point on, her mother neglected her in favor of her brothers. Kincaid felt betrayed by this. Her complex feelings toward her mother are on display in "Girl" when the mother mixes love and concern with insults.

The story is written as a single long sentence. This is how the girl likely hears her mother's instructions. Perhaps the mother character illustrates how women since the beginning of time have heard their mothers' endless instruction, sometimes useful, often critical, seldom exciting.

The Conditioning of Women

"Girl" is a story about a mother teaching a girl to become a woman in a society where women occupy the traditional roles of wife and mother. At no point in the story does the mother encourage the daughter to read, study, or go to college. She does not tell her daughter she should become a doctor or lawyer or even enter the workforce at all. She may love her daughter, but she seems to have low expectations of her. Aside from teaching her to cook, clean, sew, garden, and manage a household ("make ends meet"), she tells her not to do anything to set neighborhood tongues wagging. The instructions on acceptable behavior include not singing inappropriately, not looking unkempt, and not talking to "wharf-rat boys"—presumably ruffians—"not even to give directions."

She also teaches her daughter how to catch a man. These instructions begin earlier in the story, when she tells her daughter to eat her food in a way that doesn't "turn someone else's stomach." As the story progresses, she gives the daughter more explicit instructions on behaving around men, presumably instructions on flirting. She shows her how to "smile to someone you like completely" and "how to love a man." She even tells her daughter what to do if her instructions don't work.

Many of the tasks the mother describes sound tedious, as if the mother expects the girl to do nothing more than repeat what she herself has done, what the girl's grandmother has done, and so forth. If she follows her mother's instructions, she will lead a very safe, very boring life. Indeed, the only exciting instructions the mother gives the girl are about things she should avoid, such as ruffian boys, men who bully, and unwanted pregnancies. The sole exception is when, despite her concerns, the mother teaches her daughter "how to love a man." This seems to be acceptable behavior—as long as she doesn't become the sort of woman the baker doesn't let near the bread.

Sexual Power (or Lack Thereof)

Most of the mother's instructions are either about dull household chores or things the girl might do to embarrass the family, such as eating sloppily, singing inappropriate songs in church, or letting flies follow her in the street. However, scattered throughout the monologue are instructions about sex, both having it and avoiding it.

Several times the mother instructs the daughter not to look or behave as if she is a promiscuous woman ("the slut you are so bent on becoming"). The reason for this is likely twofold. First, she doesn't want her daughter to embarrass the family by behaving in a way not considered respectable. Second, and equally important, she doesn't want her daughter to get hurt or raped. While it is now considered wrong to blame a victim's dress or demeanor for her being raped, this was not the case in the 1950s, when Kincaid was an adolescent, or even in 1978, when the story was published. If the girl were to be raped or gain a bad reputation for sleeping around, it would likely affect her marriage prospects and, therefore, in her mother's eyes, her chance at happiness.

Very casually, between instructions on how to make a cold remedy and how to catch a fish, the mother teaches her daughter how to give herself an abortion. This is a strong statement of sexual power, though the girl's partner will likely never know she has it. If she can keep herself from having an unwanted pregnancy, she can control the number of mouths to feed and how much time she has to spend doing domestic tasks. If she gets pregnant before she is married, being able to "throw away a child before it even becomes a child" means she will continue to be able to make decisions about her life.

Later in the story, the mother instructs her daughter "how to love a man" and tells her that if the instructions fail, there are other ways to do it. Closely juxtaposed with this is instruction on "how to make ends meet." This suggests the girl's power is limited in this area and she will need a man to gain financial stability.

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