Annie John

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Annie John

by Jamaica Kincaid


A bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel set in Antigua in the 1950s; published in 1985.


A young girl grows up on the Caribbean island of Antigua. In adolescence, she rebels against the model of middle-class femininity foisted on her and, alienated from family and friends, leaves home for England.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949. She lived with her Dominican homemaker mother and Antiguan carpenter stepfather as an only child until the age of nine when her three brothers were born in quick succession. Kincaid was a precocious child and excelled at her studies, attending Antigua girls’ school and then Princess Margaret School, government institutions whose curricula were modeled on the British system of education. At the age of 17, Kincaid left for New York to work as an au pair, then studied photography, attended college in New Hampshire, and began a journalistic career writing articles for magazines. In 1973 she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid and three years later became a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, a position that would last a decade. In 1983 Kincaid published her first collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River, which includes some tales that had initially appeared in the New Yorker. She would go on to publish the novels Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), and Autobiography of My Mother (1994). Kincaid has also produced non-fiction works: A Small Place (1988), a savage indictment of both the British colonial legacy in Antigua and the complacency of the post-independence generation of politicians; My Brother (1997), a biography of her brother who died of AIDS; and My Garden (2000), which not only explores the pleasures and pains of cultivating plants but also the historical effect of imperialism and trade on gardens. Many of Kincaid’s written works focus on mothers and mother-daughter relationships, though her 2002 novel, Mr. Potter, focuses on fatherhood. In Annie John, Kincaid explores her childhood and adolescence in Antigua in the poetic, hypnotic, and deceptively simple prose that has characterized her writing.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Antigua —an overview

Antigua is part of the Leeward chain of Caribbean islands of the Lesser Antilles. Its first inhabitants were the Arawak people, replaced in the twelfth century by the fierce Carib peoples, who held sway over most of the region. In 1493, during his second voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus landed on the island and christened it “Santa Maria la Antigua.” Together, Carib marauders and a lack of fresh water sources prevented the island from being colonized by Europeans until 1632, when a group of Englishmen arrived from overcrowded St. Kitts Island looking for land. They established a British colony, cultivating tobacco and importing African slaves for plantation labor. In 1674 Sir Christopher Codrington set up the first sugar plantation on Antigua, clearing forests to do so. The neighboring island of Barbuda was colonized in 1678, then leased by Codrington from the British Crown to grow produce for his sugar plantations.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the plantation economy on the history of the Caribbean region. Plantation slavery totally transformed the economy and the social complexion of the region. From plantation slavery came a rigidly divisive and hierarchical society, separating inhabitants by color and legal status and persisting even after the abolition of slavery in 1834. The remains of the earlier Arawak and Carib cultures, the transplanted colonial European communities, the importation of (predominantly West) African slaves, the later influx of indentured coolie labor from India and China—all these elements contributed to the island’s hybrid mixture of cultures. The mixture would provide rich grist for a writer’s mill. Residues of old-country religion, beliefs, traditions, folklore, music, and speech survived in the New World, as reflected in African-inspired practice of obeah or vodun in some Caribbean islands.

From slavery to political independence

Slavery was abolished on Antigua in 1834. Rather than institute a four-year transitional period, Antigua chose immediate and full emancipation, becoming the only island in the Caribbean to do so. The euphoria that greeted emancipation led to the establishment of “free” villages such as Liberta, Freemansville, and Freetown—communities of newly freed ex-slaves. In theory, the conversion of the slave economy into a wage economy offered the former slaves a measure of freedom. In practice, emancipation made little difference; some of the former slaves even found themselves worse off than before. New laws were enacted to prevent free movement of labor. The island also had little land available for farming, since the sugar plantations monopolized so much territory; meanwhile, other occupations, such as peddling, required special licenses. All these factors conspired to shore up the pre-emancipation status quo, giving the freed slaves little choice but to continue working for their former masters. Poverty and dismal working conditions would continue for the remainder of the nineteenth century, beyond the year 1871, when Antigua united under a common council with the rest of the Leeward Islands.

Continuing into the twentieth century, the economic distress on Antigua led to violence in labor relations here. A labor movement, the Antigua Labour Party, formed in the late 1930s under the leadership of Vere C. Bird helped initiate both political reform and a movement for independence from Britain. In 1932 a pan Caribbean Labour Congress met to lay the foundations for a closer union among all the West Indian islands. Talks on constitutional decolonization began in the mid 1940s, but it was felt that some of the smaller colonies would find political, administrative, and economic independence difficult to sustain. All the discussion led to the idea of a West Indian federation of island states, a proposition accepted in principle by the first conference on such a federation (held in 1947). In 1957 Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, the Windward Islands, and the Leeward Islands formed a federal union under the control of Britain. The British initiated talks about the federation, whose members would have a degree of independence but without the power of taxation or control external affairs, which would remained in the hands of Britain’s colonial government. A type of halfway house between colonial rate and political independence, the federation failed to introduce significant change. It amounted to little other than the distribution of new colonial grants, the administration of a West Indian regiment and support of the newly created University of the West Indies. The federation collapsed in 1962. Antigua assumed the status of a British associated state in 1967—it was self-governing in all except matters of defense and foreign affairs. In 1981 Antigua and Barbuda as a joint territory became politically independent with Vere Bird as its first Prime Minister. Antigua remains a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy within Britain’s Commonwealth of Nations; it has a Governor General (appointed by the Prime Minister) who represents the British Crown, Antigua’s designated head of state.

Colonial education and Caribbean writing

British colonialism was all-pervasive in Caribbean cultures, especially in education and literature. Colonial educational policies reflected the legacy of Thomas Macaulay’s famous speech “Indian Minute on Education” (1835), which sought to impose English language and literature on native cultures so as to “form a class of persons, Indian [or native] in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Macaulay in Young, p. 729). Residues of pre-Christian religions, folk beliefs, words, and song and dances persisted in colonial society but plantation slavery erased much of African cultures. Educational practices sought to impose an English frame of reference. The English language was the sole means of instruction, and English literary texts were the primary fare for reading. Instructors denigrated Creole languages, (dialects based on a European language but specific to the region), dismissing them as pidgin, broken, or substandard English. Students were exhorted to model their speech patterns on proper British English. The use of Cambridge Syndicate Exams, which assessed the knowledge of Antiguan students by British standards, strengthened the educational links between the “mother country” and her colonial “offspring.” Royal Readers, widely employed in the primary school curriculum, inculcated English frames of reference, presenting students with English botanical examples, English Kings and Queens, English food and celebrations and even a temperate rather than a tropical climate as norms in life. Ending in the 1950s, the decade in which Annie John is set, V. S. Naipaul’s classic A House for Mr. Biswas (also in Literature and Its Times), about life in Trinidad, would satirize the absurdity of these educational examples being transferred in unmodified ways to the Caribbean context. Even in the early 1970s, when Nelson’s West Indian Readers would replace the Royal Readers, and make some concessions by using local names and products, literary texts still featured mostly English poets novelists such as John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, Jane Austen, John Donne, Charlotte Brontë, Robert Louis Stevenson, and William Wordsworth.


Like the author’s mother and grandmother, Annie John’s mother and grandmother are practitioners of obeah. Obeah, and the Haitian form of vodun or voodoo, stems from a shamanistic cult that originates in West Africa. Brought to the Caribbean by slaves, obeah was fused with elements of Christianity. In Annie John, as in the genuine belief system, the spirits that populate the obeah world can take different forms. For example, Annie’s mother is sometimes described as a snake or a crocodile. Instant transmutations are possible. The dead might come back in life and the sore that took a long time healing on Annie’s foot might be the result of a spell placed on her by one of her father’s jealous former lovers. It follows, given such a world view, that the transformation of Annie’s loving mother into a malevolent stranger takes on an almost literal reality for Annie.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Annie John is an impressionistic account of a young girl’s life from the age of 10 to 17. The novel describes her initial close relationship with her mother and charts her progressive alienation from family, friends, and the island she loves. Each of its eight short chapters centers around a central motif, event, or figure in the girl’s life that offers insights into her developing mind and personality.

“Figures in the Distance” dwells on death and separation and explores various incidents in the ten-year-old’s experience, including the death of acquaintances and friends. Her mother’s participation in the rituals of cleaning the corpse of a little girl provokes a reaction of extreme horror in Annie, who for the first time associates her mother with death and separation. Fascinated with dying and laying the body to rest, young Annie even participates in the funeral of someone else, a humpback girl she hardly knows, and later has to lie to her mother about why she did not complete her chores. Annie’s curiosity about death and burial takes place against the backdrop of obeah, a hybrid version of West African religion based on traditional beliefs and superstitions. Her Antiguan world is not always benign (as shown by the deaths), nor always rational (as reflected in the practice of obeah); in the world of obeah, things are not necessarily what they seem—the dead, for example, may not remain dead.

“The Circling Hand” explores the close bond between mother and daughter in childhood. From the child’s perspective, it offers a portrait of Annie’s mother as a strong, nurturing figure whose skills and knowledge inspire pride in her offspring. This blissful state is interrupted at the onset of puberty, when Annie’s mother starts demanding that her daughter learn to behave like a young lady, a source of tension that ultimately lead to their separation. Annie recalls how disconcerting her mother’s behavior was:

What a new thing this was for me: my mother’s back turned on me in disgust. . . . Before this young-lady business I could sit and think of my mother, see her doing one thing or another, and always her face bore a smile for me. Now I often saw her with the corners of her mouth turned down in disapproval of me.

(Kincaid, Annie John, p. 28)

The third and fourth chapters of Annie John focus on Annie’s friendships at school, firstly, her relationship with Gwen, the model of “young ladyness” and then an unnamed Red Girl, a wild and unruly child who represents all that her mother detests. These two friendships occur against the backdrop of Annie’s progressive alienation from her mother. Conversations with Gwen make Annie’s eyes widen at how much they resemble each other; Annie speaks of falling in love with Gweneth and of being “inseparable” from her (Annie John, p. 46). The red girl, on the other hand, is unkempt, her dress dirty and torn, her fingernails full of dirt and she had “such an unbelievable, wonderful smell, as if she had never taken a bath in her whole life” (Annie John, p. 57). Annie dreams of spending her life with the red girl on an uninhabited island, feeding on wild pigs and sea grapes. The two chapters also offer glimpses into the delights and horrors with which young girls view their developing bodies: “What perfection we found in each other, sitting on these tombstones of long dead people who had been masters of our ancestors. . . . Sometimes when we looked at each other, it was all we could not do to cry out with happiness.” (Annie John, p. 50)

In “Columbus in Chains,” Annie’s upbringing as a girl in an Antiguan household opens out into a consideration of the wider colonial context of her socialization and education. Annie writes a sarcastic caption in her school history book, satirizing the status of Christopher Columbus as a great man. She is punished for her sins by having to copy out sections of the poem Paradise Lost by England’s John Milton (also in Literature and Its Times).

“Somewhere in Belgium” elaborates on Annie’s frustration, alienation, and unhappiness and ascribes to her a heroine’s assertiveness and self-determination. At this point, she and her mother lead separate lives, only pretending to be mother and daughter for appearances’ sake, “but no sooner were we alone, behind the fence, behind the closed door, then everything darkened. . . . I had never loved anyone so or hated anyone so” (Annie John, p. 88). “The Long Rain” chronicles Annie’s lengthy illness and serves as a prelude to her eventual emergence as a fully independent and self-reliant woman. Introduced is the character of Ma Chess, Annie’s grandmother, an obeah woman who lifts Annie out of her depression and illness. Ma Chess becomes a mother substitute: “I would lie on my side, curled up like a little comma, and Ma Chess would lie next to me, curled up like a bigger comma into which I fit” (Annie John, p. 120). Annie’s separation from her mother, and all that her mother represents, is complete by the end of the book. The circling hand of her mother and her environment that earlier had seemed blissfully protective is now regarded as constrictive. But Annie’s anger still rages over what she sees as her mother’s betrayal:

Why, I wonder, didn’t I see the hypocrite in my mother when, over the years, she said that she loved me and could hardly live without me, while at the same time proposing and arranging separation after separation, including this one [her departure for England to study nursing], which unbeknownst to her, I have arranged to be permanent? So not I, too, have hypocrisy, and breasts (small ones), and hair growing in appropriate places, and sharp eyes, and I have made a vow never to be fooled again.

(Annie John, p. 133)

Mothers and daughters

Annie John is written in first person from the daughter’s point of view. No other voice is offered in the novel. Consequently, readers share all the passion of the young girl’s experiences, from her early happy relationship with her mother to her later angry and rebellious responses based on what she reads as her mother’s betrayal of her love and trust. Most of the novel is in the past tense. The exception occurs in the final chapter, written in the present tense, as if Annie, on the point of departure, is narrating the tale of her emergence as a young woman.

In the first section of the novel, Annie’s mother is portrayed as a figure who fulfils her daughter’s every need and desire. The child Annie is valued and protected. Every aspect of her is depicted as special to her mother. Small items of childhood memorabilia are preserved in a trunk and brought out periodically, as part of a ritualized, loving recollection of shared experiences and emotions. Annie feels also included in all aspects of her mother’s daily life, from the mundane daily routines of shopping, cooking, and washing to the more esoteric aspects of obeah rituals, such as the special baths they take together to fortify themselves against potentially hostile forces. Annie—who spares no opportunity to dwell on her mother’s abilities, beauty, and wisdom—desires nothing less than to be like her mother, often wearing dresses that are an exact copy of her mother’s. Even their two names are identical. The portrait is very much that of an intense form of love, with the mother’s evident adoration of Annie mirrored by the child’s feeling for her mother.

Such a close-knit mother-daughter relationship is in many ways typical of how psychologists spoke of the female child around the time of the novel’s publication, describing a daughter’s perception of her mother at this stage as either all powerful (the “phallic” mother) or powerless (the “castrated” female). In the former instance, the daughter may find it difficult to separate from her mother, finding her so omnipotent and overwhelming that the daughter has difficulty establishing her own identity. In hindsight, Annie renders an account of her mother that shows how such an encircling arm can feel constrictive and be detrimental to the daughter’s development. Psychoanalysts such as Luce Irigary have noted that a mother-daughter relationship can be destructive as well as mutually supportive. Nancy Chodorow has added a cultured understanding by insisting that one should take into account the social context of mothering. When looking after children is culturally sanctioned as primarily a mother’s responsibility, and when it becomes the main outlet for expressing a woman’s identity, then, argues Chodorow, a woman is likely to invest much more energy in the upbringing of her children and may look to them exclusively for her own sense of self-worth (Chodorow, pp. 64, 208-9, 212-15). In such a situation, the boundaries between mother and daughter may be more blurred than is beneficial for both; the two may enter into an unhealthy relationship of mutual and childlike dependency and identification.

In Antigua, as elsewhere in Western middle-class society around the time the novel takes place, there was an insistence on the domestic sphere as the proper place for women, which gave Annie’s mother and those like her few outlets in life and encouraged their keeping a tight grip on their children. Speaking of her own mother, Kin-caid reflects on “the sort of benign, marvellous, innocent moment you have with the great powerful person who, you then realise won’t let you go” (Kincaid, From Antigua to America, p. 147). Edith Clarke’s famous 1957 study of family relations in Jamaican society, My Mother Who Fathered Me, lends support to this way of understanding Annie John. Clarke describes a pattern of mother-child relationships in the Caribbean that are intense and involving. Clarke’s estimation of Caribbean society in the 1950s was that it was by and large patriarchal; men had not only greater roles in public political life, but also enjoyed greater social and sexual freedom. What Clarke discovered was a pattern of woman-centered households in working class Jamaica; the extra familial and extra-marital relationships of men encouraged their absence from the household. Sexual promiscuity, while seen as a hallmark of virility in men, was frowned upon in women. Meanwhile, child rearing was almost exclusively the responsibility of women so motherhood was of huge significance, with well-brought up children earning women a great deal of praise. The closeness and intensity of the mother-child relationship could be broken by the child’s entry into the education system; going to school instituted a rift in what was largely a seamless companionship between mother and child. Annie’s development away from her mother begins with her attendance at school and her transfer of affection to girls in her peer group.

Further complications result from Annie’s coming of age. Suddenly her mother is a stranger bent on turning her into a young woman who conforms to Antigua’s middle-class ideals of femininity and respectability. Annie’s manners and behaviors are scrutinized and policed lest she be taken as an unruly child or loose woman. Annie must learn all the social graces of the proper lady. Any departure from this ideal—playing marbles or talking in a free manner with boys—incurs keen displeasure and angry warnings from her mother that her daughter is turning into a “slut” (Annie John, p. 102). What is significant about this accusation is that Annie’s mother’s anxieties about her daughter crystallize around her child’s developing sexuality. Another scene in the novel also lends support to such a psychoanalytic reading. Annie’s awareness of her parents’ sexuality when she stumbles on their love-making is the scene of another quarrel with her beloved mother that leads to mutual antagonism. During her illness, in a bout of fever, Annie wakes up and tries to wash off what seems like dirt on some family photographs. When she finally wakes from her delirium, she finds that her attempts to clean the photographs have resulted not only in her rubbing out of the image of her father and her mother from waist down, but also in the erasure of her own body image. This important scene in the book can be read as indicative of Annie’s attempt to avoid confronting her own growing sexual development and to return to a state of infantile sexual ignorance. Annie’s desire to erase her sexual knowledge symbolizes an unconscious desire to return to the blissful state of childhood where, in her own mind, mother and daughter relations were perfectly harmonious.

Columbus in chains

If Annie rebels against being a well-behaved girl, her rebellion is also directed at an education and curriculum that is a product of British colonialism. The chapter “Columbus in Chains” dwells on Annie’s mother’s trust and investment in the school and its colonial curriculum. Annie’s socialization as a young girl bears the stamp of a colonizing England whose codes of respectability her mother has adopted. Annie is made to eat big English-style breakfasts because they are deemed good for her. Instinctively the daughter is more aware than her mother of who the daughter is, and who she is being asked to become. Annie proves to be the more canny judge of colonial influence; she prefers new plain exercise books to the older ones adorned with the picture of Queen Victoria, and resists the conventional veneration of Columbus and his heirs by figuring out that their ascendancy has contributed to the slavery of her ancestors. Her observation that the school’s dunce cap can sometimes, ironically, seem like a coronet if seen from a certain angle of sunlight suggests that she manages to penetrate the pomp and splendor of empire to reach the colonial subjugation behind it. Finally, her remarks that it was difficult to tell whether one belonged on the side of the colonial masters or slaves from the English lessons to which she was subjected, shows just how damaging colonial education could be to the colonized. Annie’s anger is in many ways directed at the betrayal and treachery of her mother and a colonial system that pretends to educate the girl for her own good but in reality robs her of her own identity.

Sources and literary context

Kincaid drew on a combination of sources to create Annie John, including canonical English works. Not unlike mother-daughter relations, Jamaica Kincaid is aware that the literary legacy of colonialism is an ambivalent one. Annie must copy out Books 1 and 2 of the thoroughly English poem Paradise Lost as punishment, but her identification with the rebel figure of Lucifer affords her some understanding of her own state of mind. Annie John also uses biblical references to great effect, picturing childhood as a kind of paradise, for example, and comparing her exile from Antigua to the exile from the Garden of Eden. Sometimes her mother is associated with the Garden’s serpent, and other times, the innocence of childhood is juxtaposed to serpentlike forces that threaten her (and her mother’s) youth. An English novel that has a significant impact on Annie John is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (also in Literature and Its Times). Annie sees her own struggle as not unlike that of Bronte’s heroine and even daydreams about Belgium, a place in which Bronte herself spent some time, as a place of refuge. Unsurprisingly, Jane Eyre was one of Kincaid’s favorite books as a child.

Among Caribbean writings, Annie John takes its place as one of a recent stream of works by women from the region. Critic and novelist George Lamming argues that the colonial importation of Englishness had severe consequences for Caribbean writers. First, it threatened to perpetuate colonial structures by grafting English views onto a “native” elite; second, it undermined the growth of a body of independent Caribbean writings by alienating writers from their locale and robbing them of an audience for such writings. Not only did people read the books written by English authors but only they were considered real writers. In this literary and educational climate, the indigenous writer had very little chance to establish himself or herself. The lack of a ready audience, as well as the scarcity of opportunities to publish in the Caribbean, contributed to the self-imposed exile of many Caribbean writers. A collection of prominent writers appeared in Britain, particularly in the post World War II era. The well-known authors of that generation—George Lamming, V. S. Naipaul, Sam Selvon, Wilson Harris, Jan Carew, and Andrew Salkey—met with a warm reception from English publishers and readers, so warm that Caribbean critic Ken Ramchand bemoaned London in the years after World War II as “indisputably the West Indian literary capital” (Ramchand, p. 63).

The stellar success of the postwar male writers has in many ways obscured the presence of female Caribbean writers, such as Una Marson, Sylvia Wynter, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, Gloria Es-coffery, Beryl Gilroy, and Jean Rhys (whose Wide Sargasso Sea is also in Literature and Its Times). Until recently works by these writers have suffered critical neglect. Publishers and outlets such as the BBC Caribbean Voices broadcast programme, key in the encouragement of Caribbean writing, tended to veer away from the domestic subjects that was the focus of some women’s writing. In her memoirs, Beryl Gilroy, who migrated to London in the 1950s but was published only in the 1980s, observed that the camaraderie of male writers, publishers and their advisers did not easily extend to women like herself, whose writing, publishers considered “too psychological, strange, way-out, difficult to categorise” (Gilroy in Anim-Addo, pp. 211-13). Not until the 1970s and ’80s did Caribbean women command a presence in mainstream publishing.

Annie John can be situated as part of a wave of Caribbean women’s writing that entered the mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s. It keeps company with works by Gilroy and others (Merle Hodge, Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior, Grace Nichols, Jean Binta Breeze, Erna Brodber), who share an overriding concern with portraying the distinctiveness of women’s experiences. Their works explore how women’s identities, sexualities, lives, and experiences have been shaped, not only by colonial history, but also by the predominantly patriarchal biases of Caribbean culture. Many commentators have observed that much of the women’s literature of this period is autobiographic and concerned especially with the domestic spaces of women’s lives: motherhood, the rituals of child-rearing, storytelling, woman-focused religious practices like obeah, grandmother and motherly ancestral tales, myth and folklore, oral traditions and songs that are passed down by maternal-figures. Noteworthy examples of such bildungsroman include Merle Hodge’s ground breaking Crick Crack Monkey (1970) and Merle Collin’s Angel (1987).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The personal as political

Some recent readings of Annie John, regard Annie’s mother as both the agent of colonialism and also of patriarchy, or male-dominated society. There is much evidence to support this understanding in Kincaid’s memories about her childhood, and in her account of her own fraught relations with her mother. Kincaid’s “On seeing England for the first time” is an angry autobiographic essay on how the veneration of all things English pervaded every aspect of her childhood, from breakfast foods, to the way one held one’s fork to eat peas, to the use of language and the biased teaching of history, geography, and literature. The impact of such colonial influence was to make her feel small and powerless because she was not, and could never be English. Asked if her novels are autobiographic, Kincaid has responded by saying that her development as a writer whose fiction touches on broader issues is intimately bound up with her personal psychology:

It dawned on me that in figuring out the relationship between the girl and her mother, and observing the power of the mother, and eventually her waning authority, that it was leading me to a fictional view of the larger relationship between where I come from and England. I must have consciously viewed my personal relationship as a sort of prototype of the larger, social relationship that I had witnessed.

(Kincaid, “From Antigua to America,” p. 144)

All of Kincaid’s works have this autobiographic element. An event, incident, or relationship, is to be viewed allegorically—as an expression, for example, of the unequal power structures in contemporary society, whether it be colonial or male-dominated, or both. She herself has acknowledged her particular tendency to focus on “women’s things,” to “reduce everything to a domestic situation” as a means to understand the world around her (Kincaid in Simmons, p. 19).


The house we live in my father built with his own hands. The bed I am laying in my father built with his own hands… . The sheets on my bed my mother made with her own hands. The curtain hanging at my window my mother made with her own hands. The nightie I am wearing, with scalloped neck and hem and sleeves, my mother made with her own hands. When I look at things in a certain way, I suppose I should say that the two of them made me with their own hands… . Lying in my bed for the last time, I thought, This is what I add up to.

Annie John, pp. 132-33)

Kincaid weaves her tales from clear, precise, simple prose and makes strategic use of repetitions, especially phrases, sentences or incidents that reappear as motifs in a story. Often Kincaid’s rhythmic repetitions have a very hypnotic quality and act to draw the reader into the mind of its first-person-narrator. The repetition of “built with his (or her) own hands” in the last chapter of the novel conveys to the reader the all-encompassing and oppressive nature of parental presence and control. Introduced into this repetition and contrasted to it is the assertive use of the personal pronoun, I. Setting the child against the parents, rendering more keenly the girl’s single-minded determination to flee them and her island home.

Hence all of Kincaid’s novels work on multiple levels. In Annie John, her critique of the specific socialization of young girls is also a critique of the larger colonial relationship between Britain and Antigua. Her depiction of motherly betrayal is also that of what she deems the sham idealism of the colonizers, the betrayal of the just and enlightened society that British imperialists pretend to offer the colonized.

The colonial orientation of the 1950s Caribbean educational curriculum largely gave way to a more solidly Caribbean-focused curriculum, beginning in the 1980s. In terms of literary culture, writers from the region are now widely taught in institutions from primary to tertiary levels, reflecting the present stature and importance of Caribbean writers in world literatures. But critics like Tiffin argue that the history of education in the Caribbean is still one of persistent “Anglo-control and Anglo-orientation”; lessons might reflect a greater preoccupation with local matters but entrants to the University of the West Indies in the 1990s were still required to submit a Cambridge “controlled” English exam paper. (Tiffin, p. 47). The situation is similar with respect to language. Educators and linguists now recognize Creole languages as part of a Caribbean language continuum that encompasses both vernacular dialects and Standard English, and Caribbean writers have been employing these variations and nuances of language creatively. Yet Standard English is still the language of formal instruction, and how well one speaks and writes it is used as an effective indicator of class and educational level. The interest in Caribbean women’s writing overlapped with the rise of women’s movements both in the Caribbean and in the developed Western world in the 1970s. Within the Caribbean, the movement has given rise to women’s resource and research centers within institutions of higher learning and to a rich body of sociological and anthropological studies on women, men, and gender relationships. While refusing to be identified as a feminist writer, Kincaid has admitted that a lot of her initial success as a writer is due to the rise of feminism (Kincaid, “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist project,” p. 401).


Many of the early reviews of Annie John focused exclusively on it as a novel about mothers and daughters rather than one about postcolonial issues (De Abruna in Bloom, p. 26). A critic for the New York Times Book Review regarded Kincaid’s coming-of-age story as timeless, a “touching and familiar” tale whose lessons about being a daughter can be extended to all cultures and societies (the New York Times Book Review, p. 24). Similarly, a New Statesman reviewer described Annie John as an “evocative idyll of childhood and budding womanhood” that details the “inevitable betrayals” by the mother of the daughter at the onset of puberty (New Statesman, p. 30). Many critics write approvingly of the simplicity of Kincaid’s writing and find her portrait of Caribbean culture charming. A reviewer for the Village Voice Literary Supplement noted the hypnotic quality of Kincaid’s writing style, asserting that “her language recalls Henri Rousseau’s painting: seemingly natural, but in reality sophisticated and precise” (Village Voice Literary Supplement, p. 7). Such observations smack of a certain fascination with exoticism, the exotic mystery and thrill that non-Western societies represent to Western critics. Showing appreciation for the balance her novel strikes, the London Times complimented Kincaid’s writing style and its “evocative clarity, which make her “universal and well-explored theme” distinctive (Times Literary Supplement, p. 1, 374).

—Gail Low

For More Information

Anim-Addo, Joan. Leaves in the Wind: Collected Writings of Beryl Gilroy. London: Mango, 1998.

Bloom, Harold. ed. Jamaica Kincaid. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998.

Chodorow, Nancy J. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 1979.

Dyde, Brian. A History of Antigua. London: Macmillan Education, 2000.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. London: Vintage, 1997.

_____. “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project.” Interview by Selwyn R Cudjoe. Callaloo 12 (spring 1989): 396-411.

_____. “From Antigua to America: An Interview.” In Frontiers of Caribbean Literature in English. London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1996.

Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. London: Michael Joseph, 1960.

Ramchand, Kenneth. The West Indian Novel and Its Background. London: Faber, 1970.

Review of Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid. New Statesman, 20 September 1985, 30.

Review of Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid. New York Times Book Review, 25 May 1986, 24.

Review of At the Bottom of the River and Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid. Times Literary Supplement, 29 November 1985.

Review of Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid. Village Voice Literary Supplement, April 1985.

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