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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid

  • Text (online -- broken as if it were a poem)
  • Text (interactive, online -- including pre-packaged interpretations)
  • Video (student production -- very well done but perhaps it forces an interpretation upon the work)
  • Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction
  1. Is this a story? Do any of the characters change? Should they have changed? Does your perspective change when the characters do not? Support your answers from the text.
  2. What effect does the lack of quotes give?
  3. Is this a dialogue or a monologue? How does this affect our view of the speaker?
  4. How fast does time pass during the course of the work? Are these independent clauses spoken one after another or must actions take place between them? How does the passage of time affect interpretation, either way? Write down how long you think these words were spoken and why you think that. Compare your answer with your classmates.
  5. Make a list of things attributed to the younger woman. Add question marks or questions to items you're not sure if you buy. Make a list of characteristics you suspect about the speaker.
  6. Why might a mother say, "don't squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know?" How old might the daughter be? Write down your answer. (It's difficult to assess as it may not be our culture. A low number would affect how the reader interprets the text; however, older girls can be interested in the affairs of younger children, especially those interested in having children of their own one day.)
  7. What kind of mother would say, "this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn't fall on you?" All serious business?
  8. What does the addressee respond to? What does she not respond to that you would think she would? Why do you suppose she does not?
  9. How does the title elaborate or alter our understanding of this work?
  • Without the above questions, interpretations on the internet tend to be rather flat: Bad mama tongue-lashes her daughter. The Bedford virtual anthology does suggest that the mama is a product of her society and can't help being... unfriendly. The unfortunate problem with jumping to Bedford's interpretations is that we lose sight of the characters in favor of pre-packaged interpretations guided by politics. They may be reliable, but the story should be tackled for itself before tacking on one's pet interpretation templates. Let's focus instead on characters: What do they do, and what should they do?
  • The girl states, "but I don't sing benna on Sundays at all" [emphasis mine]. Afterward, she states, "and never in Sunday school" [emphasis mine]. What does the effect of the second half of the statement make? If she doesn't sing on Sundays at all, why does she state "never in Sunday school." Perhaps the implication here is that she does sometimes sing benna on Sunday.
  • But more important is that she does not respond to what we would think she would respond to: the shocking "on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming." Clearly, the girl is not afraid to deny. Why doesn't she deny wanting to be a slut instead of denying spreading gossip (benna)? How does this inform their characters and their world?
  • Note, too, that the mother stated, "on Sundays." So is it okay to walk "like the slut" on other days of the week?
  • Notes on the use of "slut":
  1. That the daughter does not respond suggests the term is not terribly damning.
  2. This may mean something closer too overly flirtatious. An Alice Munro character discussed how girls tested out flirtation with everyone. Perhaps the daughter is the kind of girl who wants to be seen as attractive and flirts with everyone, so the term has no denigration in her mind (at least at this point in her life).
  3. Also, in a word processor, count the words in phrases that sound cruel and cutting to you. Now count the rest--full of useful advice. Coupling this with the daughter's lack of emotional despondency, does this mother truly sound like she doesn't love her daughter? Has one of your parents ever disapproved of one of your behaviors?
  4. Does the mother even disapprove of this behavior? It's only on Sunday that the mother suggests it's wrong.
  • The mother states, "this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man; and if this doesn't work there are other ways, and if they don't work don't feel too bad about giving up." Does this sound like a helpless, embittered victim? If society has pushed her down, it sounds like she's coping quite well.
  • When the daughter asks, "but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?" The mother responds, "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?"
  • How could the daughter become a woman that the baker will let near? Let the text suggest an answer. Two possibilities exist, but they may be closely related.
  • Feel free to suggest other interpretations, questions or new ideas.
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