Lucy: A Novel | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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Lucy: A Novel | Chapter 1 : Poor Visitor | Summary



The main character and narrator, Lucy, arrives in the United States in the middle of January. She is from a tropical island and unused to the cold weather of her new, unnamed home, which is full of novel conveniences such as refrigerated food and elevators. Lucy is surprised that she's almost immediately homesick, since her family induced "such a rage" inside her that she "longed to see them dead at [her] feet." They're the reason she left.

Lucy lives in the maid's room in her new home, but she isn't a maid. She's a nanny for four little girls during the day and a student at night. The people for whom she works, who are white, blond, and relatively wealthy, tell her she's a part of the family, but Lucy knows she's not. As she reflects, "family [are] the people who become the millstone around your life's neck." She is lonely and hates the winter but writes home about how wonderful her new life is.

Her employers start to call Lucy "the Visitor" because she seems "not to be a part of things" and doesn't treat them as if they're family. Lewis, the husband, tells Lucy about an uncle who raised monkeys and became so used to them that he no longer knew how to be around humans. In return, Lucy tells him and his wife, Mariah, about a dream in which Lewis chases a naked Lucy around the house until she falls down a snake-infested hole. Lewis and Mariah don't know what to say and make feeble jokes about "Dr. Freud," but Lucy doesn't understand the reference to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). She was just trying to tell them that dreaming about them meant they were important to her.


Lucy Josephine Potter is the heroine and first-person narrator of Lucy, although readers don't learn her name until the last chapter of the book. Likewise, Chapter 1 holds no indication of the year in which the story takes place, nor where Lucy is in the United States. Lucy's story—an immigrant trying to escape her past in an unfamiliar land—transcends time and place. It is universal. It also mirrors author Jamaica Kincaid's own life. Kincaid left the West Indian island of Antigua as a teenager in the 1960s to become an au pair, or nanny, for a family in New York. Like Lucy, she also stopped speaking with her mother and became interested in photography. Kincaid is known for the autobiographical nature of her fiction, and Lucy is definitely an extension of the author herself. While the events and people she depicts are true to her, Kincaid concedes that individuals on whom she bases her characters may not agree with her representations.

Like Kincaid, Lucy comes to the United States to leave her past behind "like an old garment never to be worn again." Readers don't yet know why Lucy wants to leave and forget her family, but it's clear that her plan isn't working out as she had hoped. Lucy's new circumstances make her long for the familiar things of home although she does not intend to go back there again. Even worse, she finds herself thinking about her family more than ever. After just a few weeks apart, she realizes she will not be rid of them that easily.

Lucy's loneliness is amplified by the distance she feels between herself and her new employers. Like a telephone conversation garbled by static, Lucy and Mariah and Lewis don't quite understand what the other is trying to say. It's not a matter of language—they all speak English—but of meaning, intent, and cultural background. Lucy doesn't understand Mariah's reference to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), an Austrian psychoanalyst known for his theories about dream interpretation, because she didn't learn about him in school. Mariah and Lewis don't understand that only people who are important to Lucy appear in her dreams. Lewis's repeated lament of "Poor Visitor, poor Visitor" comes across as the strangest of all. He pities Lucy for feeling out of place and chastises her for not assimilating to her new situation. He and Mariah incorrectly assume transitioning to a new job, a new home, and a new country will be easy for Lucy, who had once thought the same thing. Emigration from her home island has taught her she was wrong.

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