Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” opens with the speaker, Mother, instructing the eponymous girl, presumably her daughter, on how to perform household chores. Though neither character ever addresses the other in a manner that would establish the parent-child relationship, the reader understands the nature of their bond, due to the main speaker’s instructive and scolding voice, as well as the secondary speaker’s interruptions to question the primary speaker’s instructions. The instructions detail the routine tasks of managing a household—tasks which the girl must learn in her transition to womanhood. Kincaid includes these lessons, passed down from mother to daughter, to demonstrate the way in which a girl’s life is predetermined by gender.
Two of the chores that a girl must learn are laundry and sewing. These responsibilities will ensure that her family is clean and presentable when they go out in public, placing her family’s reputation squarely on her shoulders.
As part of the routine, Mother tells the girl that the laundry is to be done every Monday and Tuesday, with specific methods on how to wash whites and colors. Mother also instructs her on how to find the right cotton fabric for a nice blouse, and how to hem a dress when she notices that the hem is coming down. This advice communicates the expectation that the girl will grow up to dress with feminine modesty, and that she will be able to make and take care of her own clothes, establishing domesticity as both a cultivated art, key in ensuring a good quality of life, and a routine drudgery. Instructions on how to iron a crease in her father’s khakis prepare the girl for the day when she will be ironing creases in her own husband’s shirts and pants. This advice is juxtaposed with instructions on how to hem a dress so that the girl will not look “like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.” With the juxtaposition of these pieces of advice, Mother simultaneously expresses the expectation that her daughter will dress according to gender norms, and that she will maintain enough modesty to find herself a husband.
In the same way that the girl will be expected to look after her own appearance and that of her husband, she must also maintain the integrity of the interior of her home and its surrounds. Mother’s instructions to her daughter on how to manage both interior and exterior domestic space show how women are expected to understand the natural world as well as they do their own homes. Mother shows the girl how to grow okra, but stresses the importance of cultivating it “far from the house,” because the tree “harbors red ants.” When growing dasheen, it is important to make sure that it gets enough water so that, when eaten, it will not cause the throat to itch. By ensuring the integrity of the garden, she also ensures the integrity of the home, keeping out pests and yielding good crops.
Learning how to sweep is another aspect of maintaining the integrity of interior and exterior domestic spaces. Mother tells her daughter how to sweep “a corner,” how to sweep “a whole house,” and how to “sweep a yard.” Women are responsible for eliminating dirt and messiness wherever they find it—even in the smallest spaces—or they risk being regarded as poor housekeepers.
In the monologue, the list of chores (which is meticulous) is designed to make the girl’s life easier—to tell her what she will need to know to keep her own house in order. However, the list is also constricting because it outlines a particular way to go about one’s household duties. Through instruction, Mother makes it clear that the ability to perform these duties will determine the girl’s worth as a woman. Thus, mother’s advice is both helpful and limiting. It encourages self-sufficiency, but also makes a woman dependent on her family and her home to give her a sense of purpose and value.
Gender and Domesticity ThemeTracker
Gender and Domesticity Quotes in Girl
This is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.
This is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.
This is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child.
Always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?