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Lucy: A Novel | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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Lucy: A Novel | Context


Afro-Caribbean Literature

Before the 16th-century arrival of Spanish colonizers, most residents of the Caribbean region that included Antigua were Taino and Carib Indians. Although both groups had oral traditions, neither they nor the enslaved African population that followed had a written tradition, and their oral traditions were lost through colonization. The first generations of Caribbean writers primarily adopted the styles of the region's colonizers. While the works of Caribbean writers reflected awareness of a distinct cultural identity, a movement toward a distinctive literary form did not emerge until the 1920s. The leaders of this movement were mostly poets from islands that had been colonized by the Spanish and the French. The emergent literary tradition incorporated and shaped both national and pan-Caribbean identities. These writers drew together many cultural strands and sought to affirm the power, dignity, and value of non-European and, especially, black discourse.

In the mid-20th century, the British Caribbean colonies developed a new literary style in the form of folk dialect narratives, which were written in vernacular language. More traditional in form than earlier French and Spanish Caribbean works, these folk dialect novels were nonetheless groundbreaking for their authentic depictions of Caribbean life. One such novel was A Brighter Sun published in 1952 by Trinidadian author Samuel Selvon (1923–94). It describes the relationships between Trinidadian East Indians and Creoles. The term Creole in the West Indies is most often used to describe a person descended from Spanish or French colonists who speaks a dialect of Spanish or French. Selvon's Brighter Sun was the first narrative created by an East Indian author writing with authority about these groups of people and their lives. In 1956 he followed this with The Lonely Londoners. Barbadian author George Lamming (b. 1927) wrote In the Castle of My Skin, an autobiographical coming-of-age novel, in 1953.

While these novels were published during author Jamaica Kincaid's childhood, she was raised on a diet of English literature. Indeed, she speaks of having been enthralled as a child with the 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost by English poet John Milton (1608–74). She was also intrigued with Jane Eyre, an 1847 novel by English author Charlotte Brontë (1816–55). When she began writing, she hadn't heard of many West Indian writers—certainly no Antiguans—and hadn't read any of their work. Indeed, she views herself as part of an Anglophone, rather than Caribbean, writing tradition. According to a 1994 interview, Kincaid believes, "[I]f I owe anybody, it would be Charlotte Brontë ... It would be Virginia Woolf." In that same interview, she denies the existence of a West Indian writing tradition separate from its British roots: "There might be [one], eventually, but we are of the English-speaking tradition." Still, Kincaid's work complements themes common to Caribbean writers, such as family relationships, resistance to colonial rule, and childhood on the islands.

Colonial Education on Antigua

The main character in Lucy is from an unnamed island in the West Indies. This island group separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. Because Lucy is largely autobiographical, most literary critics assume that the character Lucy, like author Jamaica Kincaid, comes from the island of Antigua. It is one of the many islands that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) visited in 1493 during his first voyage to the New World. The British colonized Antigua in 1632. By 1678, African slaves brought over to tend to British sugar plantations made up nearly half of Antigua's population; by the time of emancipation, in 1834, 94 percent of the population was black. After emancipation, freed slaves lived in poverty, and many continued to work on sugar plantations for low wages because there were few other sources of employment. In the late 1960s—when Lucy leaves home—Antigua is still under British control, although it received full independence in 1981.

As with most colonizers, the British viewed their own culture as superior to native culture in Antigua. When Britain took control of the island, English became the national language and was taught in schools. Antiguan schools followed the British colonial education system, which was developed to force native peoples to assimilate to British culture while leaving their native culture behind. "I was brought up to understand that English traditions were right and mine were wrong," Kincaid said in a 1992 interview. Antiguan students read the works of English authors such as John Keats (1795–1821), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Charlotte Brontë (1816–55), and William Shakespeare (1564–1616) rather than West Indian authors or English authors of color. In another interview, Kincaid lamented that Antiguan students were taught to identify every flower in England but were taught nothing about the flora and fauna of their home. They knew more about England's history and landscape than they did their own. This type of education contributes to a sort of double identity in colonized and postcolonial individuals, which American sociologist and social reformer W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was the first to describe as "double-consciousness." As a child and teen, Lucy sees herself as Antiguan but also British, aspiring to be like the heroines in the English novels she reads. As a young adult in the United States, she is neither American nor British nor even Antiguan. She is caught in between, speaking the language of all but not fully understanding or accepting the culture of any.

Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman

Many literary critics have interpreted Lucy as a bildungsroman, while others have suggested it is more accurately described by the related subgenre künstlerroman. Bildungsroman and künstlerroman are literary genres that originated and evolved in Germany during the 18th and 19th centuries. A bildungsroman (education + novel) is a coming-of-age story. It usually focuses on a character's growth from childhood toward adulthood. Typically, the character experiences an emotional awakening that causes them to see the world differently from how they saw it as a child. Traditional bildungsroman novels have two key concepts: the protagonist must struggle against society to shape their identity, and they must successfully settle into their adult life. The 1795–96 novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship by German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) is considered the classic example of the bildungsroman.

Lucy differs from most stories in the bildungsroman genre because it takes place over the course of a single year. The main character still comes of age, but in a different way than in most coming-of-age stories. At 19 Lucy is technically an adult when she arrives in the United States. However, during the following year, she transforms from an angry girl trying to escape her past to a contented young woman. By year's end she accepts her past as a part of her present. The classic bildungsroman usually ends on a positive note, but Lucy more closely resembles a more contemporary, less optimistic bildungsroman, as the novel's ending borders on sadness. Although she is pleased with the life she has created for herself, Lucy still longs to love someone as deeply as her mother loved her.

The künstlerroman [artist + novel] is a subcategory of bildungsroman that focuses on the maturation of an artist, musician, writer, or other creative individual. A classic example of this subcategory is the 1916 publication A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Irish writer James Joyce (1882–1941). Lucy fits into this category because it follows the development of Lucy's interest in photography and her pursuit of it as a career. Some might argue that Lucy is more künstlerroman than bildungsroman. Künstlerroman characters are more likely than bildungsroman characters to reject societal expectations and chase their dreams of becoming artists. Throughout the novel, Lucy is clear that she has no interest in settling for a common life like her mother or Mariah. She wants to stand out and invent herself anew, no matter the risks.

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