Lucy: A Novel | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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Lucy: A Novel | Themes


Mother-Daughter Relationships

Much of author Jamaica Kincaid's work is about the relationships between mothers and daughters. Lucy's protagonist simultaneously hates and loves her mother—a godlike figure who is ever-present and ever-loving. Lucy's love is equally fierce, and she "even [thinks] of [them] as identical" beings. However, Lucy learns that her mother's love isn't entirely dedicated to her—she also loves the girl's brothers, maybe even more. It is the boys—not Lucy—who are the subjects of her parents' dreams of impressive jobs and social standing. To hear her father say such things isn't a big deal to Lucy, who thinks it natural for a man to "[say] these things about his sons, his own kind." However, it's a knife in the heart to hear her mother make such comments about her brothers—and not about her. Lucy's anger about what she perceives as a betrayal on her mother's part builds a metaphorical wall between them. Even so, Lucy finds she can't stop loving the woman who has wounded her. However Lucy tries to leave her behind, her mother's words ring true: "You can run away, but you cannot escape the fact that I am your mother."

Mother-daughter relationships aren't limited to family members in Lucy. When Lucy leaves her own mother in the West Indies, she finds a new maternal figure in Mariah. Mariah seems almost too good to be true. She's kind, generous, sympathetic, and endlessly supportive. Lucy idolizes her and explicitly says that Mariah "[is] like a mother to [her], a good mother." In this instance, the word good alludes to the lack of control Mariah has over Lucy's life. While she can offer advice, she doesn't have the grip on Lucy's sense of morality and self that her mother does. Yet, even this mother-daughter relationship ends poorly—Mariah is angered by Lucy's impending departure and begins treating her like an unfavored and unskilled employee. Their roles flip during the lead-up to Mariah's divorce and Lucy's leave-taking. Lucy provides unwavering love and support during Mariah's time of need, and Mariah lashes out when she feels betrayed. No matter the characters or their situations, Kincaid's depictions of the mother-daughter relationship are fraught with discord and conflicting emotions.

Many literary critics believe that the recurring instances of this relationship in Kincaid's work are a metaphor for the power struggle between colonists and colonizers. Kincaid agrees with this hypothesis. Kincaid employs this power struggle metaphor in Lucy, particularly in the way Lucy views her name. Although she hates her last name—probably acquired from a British slave owner—she has always desired a first name—such as Jane or Charlotte—that echoes her favorite English authors. As with her mother, Lucy hates the entity that oppresses her—Great Britain—but loves aspects of it, such as its literature. Lucy doesn't identify as British, and she no longer considers herself the same person as her mother, but she still clings to both.

Sexual Liberation

One of Lucy's most defining characteristics is her relaxed attitude toward sex and sexuality. She has three sexual partners during her first year in America—four if you count kissing Peggy, which Lucy doesn't—and describes her other sexual experiences throughout the book. It wasn't so unusual for a young woman to have multiple sexual partners in the early 1990s, when Lucy was published, but it was unusual for the 1960s, which is when Lucy is set. The women's liberation movement and the sexual revolution were still in their early stages when Lucy arrived in the United States in 1968. Little by little, liberal American women like Mariah were becoming more vocal about their sexual experiences outside of wedlock and their enjoyment of those experiences. Lucy feels no shame talking about sex or about having multiple sexual partners. In several cases, she lets lust guide her to her next adventure, be it Hugh, Paul, or the guy from the camera store.

Unlike Mariah, Lucy's openness about her sexuality isn't rooted in a societal movement or changing cultural standards. It's a harsh rebuke to the personal standards set forth by her mother. In what she thinks will be her last letter home, Lucy reminds her mother "that [her] whole upbringing had been devoted to preventing [her] from becoming a slut." With this, Kincaid implies that Lucy has been taught that sex is something only "bad girls" do. Good women, like Lucy's mother, would never engage in such behavior. Unlike her brothers, Lucy's value isn't in her intelligence or capabilities—it is in her virginity and her reputation. Once she understands that her mother's hopes for her don't go beyond being a good wife and mother, Lucy lashes out against these roles. She kisses boys and girls, has sex with people she doesn't love, and follows her libido wherever it leads. For her, sex isn't just about physical pleasure. It's about rebelling against cultural constraints and distancing herself from the woman her mother wants her to become.

The Past

Lucy comes to the United States with the hope that she will be able to leave her past firmly behind her in the West Indies. She does not want to remember the expectations of her family and community or the heartbreak she endured when it seemed that her mother loved Lucy's brothers more than her. She believes the past is a straight line to "the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in," but her experience proves the opposite. Lucy frequently thinks about situations from her youth and stories her mother told. Even in a new country, she sees, hears, and remembers things that bring the past flooding back. Those memories affect her decisions in the present. For example, Lucy initially comes to the United States with the plan of becoming a nurse. One of the reasons she quits nursing school is because her mother was friends with a nurse who was saddled with a lonely and depressing life. When her mother says she can't wait to see Lucy in a nurse's uniform, Lucy believes she means she hopes Lucy's life is a disappointment. Remembering this, Lucy quits nursing school out of spite for something she had purportedly left behind. Similarly, Lucy takes Mariah's side during her disagreements with Lewis because her mother taught her to always take the side of the woman, not the man. Had she truly left her past behind her, Lucy would be able to look at their arguments objectively and see Lewis's point of view. Instead, she does what her mother told her even though she claims she doesn't want to have anything to do with her. No matter how hard she tries, Lucy can't leave the past behind.

Some literary critics categorize the past as presented in Lucy as cyclical, but another way to think about the past is to say that Lucy learns that the past is permanent. It cannot be discarded through sheer force of will or the making of new memories and experiences. Everything a person is relies on who or what they were before. Even Lucy's decision to reinvent herself is rooted in her discord with her mother, which began when she was nine years old. The past is simply something that can't be escaped.

Growth and Reinvention

Although Lucy doesn't achieve her ultimate goal of escaping her past, she does change quite a bit during her first year in the United States. Angry and homesick when she first came to the United States, a year later Lucy is placidly content and has no intention of going home. She has made and lost friends and felt sympathy in situations where she formerly would have scoffed. Her feelings about her mother demonstrate just how far she has come. In Chapter 1 Lucy outwardly despises her mother and connects every aspect of her life back to her. Her mother is all Lucy can think about, especially when new letters arrive. By Chapter 5 Lucy has come to accept her mother's former role in her life. She remembers the good times alongside the bad and for the first time openly acknowledges how their rift began. Lucy doesn't do a complete turnaround and decide to go home. Instead, she moves on in the only way she knows how: she promises to come home but cuts off all contact by providing her mother with a false address.

Lucy also shows growth by deciding to leave Mariah's home and employment. The assistance Mariah and Lewis provided when Lucy first moved to the United States is no longer needed a year into her stay. She has become familiar with the country's culture and customs and is confident she can survive on her own. Mariah goes through something similar when she and Lewis separate. At first, she clings to Lucy for support. When Lucy moves out, Mariah attempts to continue the comfortable life she has always known, remaining in the same apartment with the same furnishings. But by the time Mariah and Lucy meet for their final dinner together, Mariah is ready to leave city life behind for a peace- and love-filled commune. She, too, has managed to grow beyond adversity.

Part of Lucy's growth comes from her continual reinvention of herself. She begins the narrative as an immigrant in an unfamiliar land and then becomes an au pair who spends the summer lakeside with her wealthy employers. By the fall she begins converting herself into an artist who surrounds herself with other artists. In her second American winter, she is an assistant in a photography studio and pays for the roof over her head. Each time Lucy reinvents herself she learns something about her surroundings and herself that helps her prepare for the next stage of her life.

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