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Lucy: A Novel | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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Lucy: A Novel | Chapter 5 : Lucy | Summary



It is January once more. Lucy has been in the United States for a full year, and she's "making a new beginning again." She quits her nanny job and leaves Mariah's apartment to share an apartment with Peggy. The abrupt decision is driven by a letter she wrote to her mother shortly after her father died. In it, she said Mariah and Lewis were moving. Lucy made up a new address where her mother could reach her and promised to come home soon. After that, she felt she had no choice but to forge ahead.

Mariah doesn't take the news that Lucy is leaving very well. Overnight, their relationship goes from one of friendship to one of "master and slave." Lucy isn't too bothered by this—she knows Mariah is grieving the dissolution of her marriage. However, Lucy doesn't feel particularly sorry for Mariah. After all, "[e]verybody knew that men have no morals, and they do not know how to behave." Mariah should have expected Lewis's departure before she even married him. When Lucy moves out after the winter holidays, Mariah manages only a "cold goodbye."

Her new apartment and altered life give Lucy space to do some deep thinking. She reflects on how the "origin of [her] presence" in the West Indies "was the result of a foul deed." This deed was the forced enslavement of Africans by the British, who put them to work on sugar plantations in the West Indies. Still, colonialism isn't the reason why Lucy refused to sing "Rule Britannia!" in choir as a teenager. She was simply rebellious and unimpressed with British culture—and thought that being ruled by France would have been better.

Looking at her identification documents, Lucy notes her birthday—May 25, 1949—and thinks about her name—Lucy Josephine Potter—revealing these to readers for the first time. Lucy doesn't like her middle name—a tribute to a formerly wealthy uncle—or her last name, which is probably that of an English slave owner. When she was younger, she wanted to be called "Charlotte," "Emily," or "Jane" like one of her favorite authors. She felt no kinship to "Lucy" until her mother told her that she was named after Lucifer—or Satan. In that moment, Lucy "went from being burdened and old and tired to feeling light, new, clean." She knew who she was.

Lucy's old life continues to slip away as she embarks on her new one. With Paul's help, she gets a secretarial job in a photographer's office. Her new boss, Mr. Simon, lets her use the darkroom after hours to work on her own photography projects. Lucy doesn't mind spending time away from home—she and Peggy prove to be incompatible roommates after their first 24 hours together. She has also grown tired of Paul, who acts as if she belongs to him.

As Lucy predicted, she and Mariah remain friends. At Mariah's house for dinner one night, Mariah tells Lucy that she's moving to a commune. She gives Lucy a journal she purchased years ago in Italy. One night, when Lucy is alone in the apartment and idly wondering if Peggy and Paul are having an affair, she sits down with the journal. She inscribes her full name and contemplates her first entry. Despite the rush of thoughts that crowd her mind, she manages only, "I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it." Shame washes over her, and she cries until the ink blurs.


It is significant that Lucy's name is finally introduced in the last and eponymous, or self-titled, chapter of Lucy. Previous chapter titles incorporate the names of diverse characters—"Mariah"—or descriptions other people assign to Lucy—"Poor Visitor," "Cold Heart." Those chapters cover Lucy's first year in the United States, when she went from her mother's control to Mariah's watchful eye. It is only in the last chapter that Lucy truly finds her independence and determines the type of person she wants to be. Other characters may appear in this chapter, but its focus is entirely about Lucy.

Lucy's complex feelings about her name give more insight to her as a character than any other portion of the book. She hates her last name because of its British slave owner origin, yet she wishes she had a traditional English first name. She feels a special kinship with names bestowed upon her favorite authors, such as Jane Austen or Charlotte and Emily Brontë. This dichotomy illustrates the conflicting feelings she has about the role British colonizers have played in her life. She hates them for subjugating the people of her island, but she also admires some of their most well-known cultural contributions. Much like her conflicting feelings about her mother, Lucy loves and hates Great Britain at the same time.

The news that Lucy was named after Lucifer may shock some readers. Most people wouldn't find it a complementary reference, but Lucy loves it—so much so that she allows that image of herself to shape her developing personality. She takes a contrary attitude about nearly everything and thrills at making others uncomfortable with the truth. She's not a wicked person, but she does have a bad attitude. It's important to note that Lucy does not necessarily view Satan as being the epitome of all evil. In school she studied English poet John Milton's 1667 epic Paradise Lost, which included the message that devils were the children of God who were trying to overthrow him. From childhood, Lucy has viewed her mother as "not an ordinary human being but something from an ancient book."

Since in Lucy's eyes her mother is a god, it makes sense that her offspring, Lucy, would be a devil. Lucy never questions her mother's comment about her name, but readers should. There are at least two available interpretations. One is more sympathetic to Lucy's mother, who is in a fragile state emotionally and physically when Lucy asks about the origin of her name. She's pregnant with a child she tried to abort, she's malnourished, and she's constantly "bad-tempered." She may have just said something offhand to upset Lucy, never expecting the girl would love being connected to the devil. Her parting words, "What a botheration from the moment you were conceived," also indicate that she wasn't acting rationally. Lucy's other recollections about her mother portray a kind and thoughtful woman displaying unconditional love for her daughter, even when the girl tried to drive her away, so there's a good chance Lucy formed an image of herself based on a throwaway comment her mother might not even remember. A second interpretation is that Lucy's fond memories of her mother are in fact a distortion of who the woman was; oftentimes, children who are abused by their parents cannot see or reconcile the abusive behavior with the abuser, whom they love. Lucy's struggle to love or even have healthy and close relationships can be the result of emotional abuse in the household. No matter why her mother said it or how one reads Lucy's mother, the connection to Lucifer informs who Lucy is today.

True happiness still eludes Lucy. She assumed that breaking ties with family and Mariah would bring the peace and contentment she has craved since her early teens when her mother's expectations stifled her. Supporting herself and living in her own apartment generates a welcome freedom, but "[t]he feelings of bliss" she expected to accompany it "[are] nowhere to be found." Simply altering her circumstances isn't enough to change Lucy's perspective and personality. That's why she's reinventing herself into something no one at home ever considered her to be: an independent, sexually liberal woman and artist. If being happy all the time is, as she suspects, "too much to ask," then she will settle for upending the expectations of those she once held close.

Lucy ends on a somewhat tragic note. Readers' last image of her is of the young woman weeping at her desk. This is the most intense emotion Lucy displays in the narrative. Although she wept when she told Mariah about how her mother betrayed her, she didn't cry about her father's death. However, now she's crying so hard that the words she wrote on the page become completely illegible. More than anything else, Lucy wants to love someone with all of her being. The source of her shame and tears may be the realization that her love for her mother was that all-consuming passion—which she mistakenly discarded. Perhaps Lucy recognizes her error or maybe she's afraid that she'll never be able to love anyone that much again. Either way, her much-desired and self-imposed independence finds her terribly lonely. Until now, she's successfully disguised her bleak solitude, but with her life open before her like "a book of blank pages," she can no longer hide from the truth.

Literary critics generally classify Lucy as a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age story, that follows a character's maturation. However, it can also be read as a künstlerroman, which is the story of an artist's development. Lucy came to the United States with the intent of studying to be a nurse. She abandons that idea partly because it doesn't suit her acerbic personality and partly because it is the highest position her mother thinks Lucy can achieve. She veers away from science into art, a realm that captures the beauty of the mundane and provides an escape from the banality of everyday life. Although only in the beginning stages, Lucy is reinventing herself and her future through the lens of her camera and—at the very end of the novel—through writing.

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