First published in the June 26, 1978, issue of The New Yorker, "Girl" was the first of what would become more than a dozen short stories Jamaica Kincaid published in that magazine. Five years later, "Girl" appeared as the opening story in Kincaid's collection of stories, At the Bottom of the River (1983), her first book.
"Girl" is a one-sentence, 650-word dialogue between a mother and daughter. The mother does most of the talking; she delivers a long series of instructions and warnings to the daughter, who twice responds but whose responses go unnoticed by the mother. There is no introduction of the characters, no action, and no description of setting. The mother's voice simply begins speaking, "Wash the white clothes on Monday," and continues through to the end. Like all of Kincaid's fiction, "Girl" is based on Kincaid's own life and her relationship with her mother. Although the setting is not specified in the story, Kincaid has revealed in interviews that it takes place in Antigua, her island birthplace.
When At the Bottom of the River was reviewed in major publications, reviewers praised the rhythm and beauty of the language and found the mother-daughter relationship fascinating, especially as it changes and develops throughout the volume. But a few, including the novelist Anne Tyler, found them too opaque. Tyler called the stories "almost insultingly obscure," but still encouraged readers to read the volume and to follow the career of "a writer who will soon, I firmly believe, put those magical tools of hers to work on something more solid."
The story begins abruptly with words spoken by an unidentified voice. "Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk barehead in the hot sun. . . ." The voice continues offering instructions about how a woman should do her chores, and then about how she should behave: "on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are bent on becoming." At the end of the first third of the story, another voice, signaled by italics, responds, "but I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school." This speaker is presumably the daughter of the main speaker. Without any reply to the daughter, and without missing a beat, the mother continues with her litany. She suggests how to hem a dress "and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming."
As the story progresses, the mother's tone becomes more insistent and more critical. The chores and behaviors are more directly related to a woman's duties to men, such as ironing a man's clothes. The mother again comes back to her earlier admonition: "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." The lines of advice are loosely grouped into sections of related lines. In a section that recognizes the powers of obeah, a mystical religion based on African beliefs, she cautions the daughter against taking appearances for granted, and explains how to make several medicines to cure disease, bring on an abortion, and catch a man. Finally she shows the daughter how to squeeze bread to tell whether it is fresh. For the second time, the daughter speaks: "but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?" This time the mother replies to her daughter, "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?" With that, the story ends. There is no action, no exposition of any kind, and no hint of what happens to the characters after this conversation.
Daughter : The daughter is an adolescent or pre-adolescent girl in Antigua, learning from her mother how to be a proper woman. She speaks only twice in the story, voicing impulsive objections to her mother's accusations and warnings.
Mother : The mother is a woman in Antigua who understands a woman's "place." She lives in a culture that looks to both Christianity and obeah, an African-based religion, and that holds women in a position of subservience to men. She recites a catalog of advice and warnings to help her daughter learn all a woman should know. Many of her lines are practical pieces of advice about laundry, sewing, ironing, sweeping, and setting a table for different occasions. Other harsher admonitions warn the daughter against being careless with her sexuality, "so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming."