Lucy: A Novel | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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Lucy: A Novel | Chapter 3 : The Tongue | Summary



It is summer. Lucy, Lewis, Mariah, and the children are at Mariah's family's lake house. Lucy has grown to love many things about her new life—the seasons, Mariah's youngest daughter (Miriam), and Mariah herself. Mariah increasingly reminds Lucy of both the good and bad parts of her own mother, but she and Mariah have much more fun together than Lucy ever felt she could have with her real mom. They argue about things, such as Lucy's friend Peggy—whom Mariah thinks is a bad influence—but Mariah usually realizes that her desires for Lucy's life don't outweigh Lucy's. Lucy's mother never understood that. That's one of the reasons why Lucy doesn't even open her mother's latest letter. It remains sealed in its envelope like the other nine.

Lewis and Mariah's relationship begins to crumble during the summer at the lake. Their affection for each other seems forced, as if they're trying to convince each other they care. The tension in the lake house reaches a boiling point when Lewis runs over a rabbit with the car. Mariah is certain he did it on purpose to punish the rabbits for eating his vegetables. Lewis insists it was an accident but concedes that he's not sorry that it happened. Not long after, Lucy realizes Lewis doesn't love Mariah anymore. He's also having an affair with Dinah, Mariah's best friend, whom Lucy hates. Mariah doesn't notice any of this. She's consumed by efforts to protect the countryside surrounding the lake house. Lucy thinks that's a little hypocritical—Mariah and her friends "[make] no connections between their comforts and the decline of the world that lay before them."

Mariah and Lewis throw a party so Lucy can meet other people her age at the lake. She immediately takes to Hugh, Dinah's brother, who is the only person who doesn't treat the West Indies as just a pretty vacation spot. They have sex just hours after meeting. Lucy is horrified that she forgot to use protection—Mariah is always reminding her about it when she goes out with Peggy—but she refuses to worry. Should the need arise, her mother taught her which herbs to cook and drink "to bring on a reluctant period." Those herbs don't grow in the United States and it would be humiliating to ask her mother to send them, but at least she knows what to do.

Hugh isn't the first person Lucy has slept with. That was Tanner, who seemed proud of the blood that trickled out of Lucy until she told him it was her period. She also made out with an unnamed boy in the library and her best friend at home, plus Peggy. She thinks of all these people as she kisses Hugh toward the summer's end. She won't miss him much at all.


The title of Chapter 3, "The Tongue," is a reference to Lucy's ruminations about kissing. She sees, experiences, and remembers a lot of tongues in this chapter—Lewis kissing Mariah's neck and then later Dinah's, as well as her own kisses with Hugh. However, the phrase "the tongue" is also about Lucy's ability to notice things that other people don't. For example, when she first kissed Tanner, she thought more about the fact that tongues have no flavor than how the kiss actually felt. Instead of getting caught up in the moment, she looked at the experience with a critical eye. Similarly, she can tell by their body language that Lewis and Mariah are unhappy in their marriage and that Lewis and Dinah are more than just friends. That heightened sense of perception contributes to Lucy's cynical view of the world. Instead of blindly believing in the beauty around her as Mariah does, Lucy's eyes are attuned to the evil and instability lurking underneath. Perhaps this is because she has had a far more difficult existence than Mariah and is already well acquainted with the ugliness of life. It could also be because of her role as the outsider looking in. It is much easier to spot problems in the system from a distance.

Lucy is no longer trying to keep her distance from Mariah and her family. She has come to love Mariah, so much so that she keeps her usually tart tongue silent when she thinks she might hurt Mariah's feelings. Mariah has effectively become Lucy's substitute mother, one to whom Lucy can speak boldly and frankly. A good example is the way they talk about sex. Sex wasn't something Lucy and her real mother could openly talk about back home. When Lucy's mother taught her how to end an unwanted pregnancy, she presented the herbal tonic "as a way to strengthen the womb" even though "underneath [they] both knew that a weak womb was not the cause of a missed period." Lucy and Mariah don't bother with such "innocence and politeness." They speak openly about contraception and Lucy's responsibility to use it. At home in the West Indies, Lucy is expected to be a "good girl" and feign ignorance of sex. With Mariah, Lucy is free to acknowledge, speak about, and act on her desires. This openness can be partly attributed to the counterculture-led sexual revolution of the late 1960s, which is when Lucy takes place. That was when many American women of Lucy's and Mariah's generations began ignoring conventional and repressive ideas about female sexuality. Unlike older generations, they refused to be ashamed of their bodies and their desires.

Lucy isn't as angry as she was when she arrived in the United States six months ago. She still has no desire to see her family or set foot back on her island, but her flaming rage has cooled and hardened. She recognizes that it's useless to try to forget her mother completely—memories about their life together and stories her mother told her come unbidden at every turn. However, she also knows she mustn't let past hurts intrude on her current happiness. That's why she no longer opens her mother's letters. Reading her mother's words, even without responding to them, would diminish the personal autonomy Lucy has established and weigh on her newly buoyant attitude. For the first time in a long while, Lucy looks forward to what each new day will bring. As she tells Mariah, it's not romantic love that has made her so happy, but the feeling that "life isn't so bad after all." Lucy isn't an optimist, but she relishes this newfound feeling of hope.

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