Girl

by

Jamaica Kincaid

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Girl Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The speaker, a mother, tells a girl, her daughter, how to do the laundry, specifying that whites should be washed on Mondays and put on the stone heap, and that colors should be washed on Tuesdays and hung “on the clothesline to dry.”
This first piece of advice establishes that the girl’s life will be defined by regimentation and routine, as well as propriety—there is a proper place and time for every activity.
Themes
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Mother tells the girl not to walk bare-head in the hot sun.
Mother advises her to wear a headwrap, both to retain an air of modesty and to avoid having her hair curl in the humid heat, due to the social pressure for black girls to maintain straight hair.
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Caribbean Culture and Tradition Theme Icon
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Mother gives the girl a list of tips, including how best to fry pumpkin fritters and soak salt fish, and how to find the best cotton when making a blouse.
In offering homemaking advice, Mother is also passing along culinary traditions. Food is not only nourishment, but heritage.
Themes
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Caribbean Culture and Tradition Theme Icon
Mother tells the girl how to behave in Sunday school. Not only should she not sing benna, but she should also be careful to walk like a lady so that people will not think that she is the slut that Mother is certain she will become.
Benna, a form of calypso music with upbeat rhythms and suggestive lyrics, contrasts with the solemnity of a holy day. The community is particularly attentive to others’ manners, making it important that the girl is attentive to her own behavior.
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Mother tells the girl that she must not speak to wharf-rat boys for any reason at all.
These boys are poor and rumored to engage in criminal activity. The refusal to speak to them marks them as members of a lower and disrespected social class.
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The girl interrupts her Mother’s instruction not to eat fruit outside to assure her that she does not “sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school.”
This is the first time the girl speaks. She asserts herself as someone who follows the rules of propriety, countering Mother’s worst assumptions.
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Mother tells the girl how to maintain clothes by sewing and ironing. Mother also encourages her to pay special attention to her hemlines because, if they come down too far, she will “[look] like the slut” Mother is certain she will become.
Clothing can indicate sexual availability. Neglect can result in being mistaken for an indecent woman, though Mother suspects that this is the girl’s fate anyway.
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Mother tells the girl how to grow traditional crops, such as okra and dasheen, being sure to maintain proper distance between the house and the garden.
Mother demarcates interior and exterior spaces as separate realms of the girl’s future domestic sphere.
Themes
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Caribbean Culture and Tradition Theme Icon
Mother gives the girl instructions on how to socialize, including how to give a particular smile depending on one’s feelings about a person, how to set tables for tea and mealtimes, and how the girl should behave around strange men.
The focus of these lessons is on self-presentation. Politeness is valued, not authenticity. Mother mentions nothing about speech, but emphasizes behavior, suggesting that the girl will be judged only by her actions.
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Mother tells the girl how to manage her body, including the importance of always looking after her hygiene, even if she has to use spit to clean herself, and she warns the girl never to squat to play marbles.
Mother suggests that girls are more vulnerable to dirt, so they should keep their bodies away from it. Ironically, Mother tells the girl to use spit to clean herself, though spit is an unhygienic fluid.
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Mother proceeds with advice, such as “don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all” and “this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it.” She also gives demonstrations of how to make home remedies for terminating a pregnancy and for getting over a cold.
Mother’s advice includes local Caribbean proverbs as well as global proverbs, showing the influences of both local and foreign cultures in the formation of morals. The recipes are examples of black women’s self-sufficiency across generations.
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Mother instructs the girl on how to bully a man, then shows her how he will bully her. She then tells the girl that there are a few ways to love a man and assures her that, if those methods do not work, that there are other ways to do it. However, she should give up if those other methods do not work and should not feel like a failure if she does.
Relationships between men and women are, according to Mother, characterized by tension and manipulation. However, Mother expresses some laxity in her rules of propriety and gender norms by telling the girl that she can leave an unworkable relationship.
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Mother completes her instruction to the girl by showing her “how to make ends meet,” and also by advising her to “always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh.” This latter advice prompts the girl to ask what she should do if the baker “won’t let [her] feel the bread.” Mother, disappointed, asks if, “after all,” the girl will become “the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread.”
The expectation is that the girl will become a homemaker, but Mother’s hysterical suspicion is that her advice will make no impact at all and that the girl will instead become a “slut” who would be unwelcome in a bakery, a space related to domesticity.
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