At the Bottom of the River (1983)

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Date: 1999
From: Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion
Publisher: Greenwood Press
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 72. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 14,843 words

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[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Paravisini-Gebert offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of the stories in At the Bottom of the River.]

At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid's first book, gathers most of the fiction she had published in various magazines from 1978 to 1982. Of the ten stories in the collection, seven had appeared in the New Yorker; one ("What I Have Been Doing Lately") had been published in the Paris Review; another ("My Mother") echoes material included in a segment of "Antigua Crossings" in Rolling Stone. Of these stories only one, "Blackness," was previously unpublished.

Kincaid's "prodigal use of wildly imaginative metaphors" makes the stories of At the Bottom of the River dense, sometimes difficult texts for the reader to decipher (CBY 1991, 332). Barney Bardsley, writing for the New Statesman, argued that it was not a book "to read straight through," but rather to delve into slowly in order to "unlock a piece of yourself you did not even know existed" (33). Other critics have not been so generous; Anne Tyler, writing for the New Republic, called the stories "insultingly obscure" (33), perhaps because of the cryptic dreamlike quality of many of the texts.

The ten pieces that compose At the Bottom of the River are generally described by reviewers and critics as short stories--this despite the fact that they do not resemble traditional examples of this genre (or literary form). The tales differ from the traditional short story in essential ways; in fact, they seem to openly defy such categorization. Although they are short fictional texts written in prose, as in the traditional short story, the tales lack the unity of plot and consistency of characterization that readers expect from short fictional prose. Whereas the traditional short story is expected to offer a tightly structured narrative with one single plot line and sharply etched characters, Kincaid's "stories" are fragmented texts full of voices rarely fleshed out as plausible characters. Her aim does not appear to be to create believable, lifelike characters, but to evoke mood and atmosphere in the service of unfolding the trials and tribulations in the relationship between mother and daughter, the central theme of the book.

In style as well as in form the stories do not conform to the rules of the genre. They are said by critics and readers to be closer to poetry than prose. The language is brilliantly simple and lucid, but often it is in the service of a poetic lyricism that conjures the surrealistic attributes of everyday things and events. It fluctuates between the commonplace and the mysterious and fantastic. It is a style built on the use of recurrent motifs and reiterations, such as we find in musical refrains. Kincaid employs the Caribbean setting to great effect, evoking elements taken from folk tales, Obeah, and West Indian rhythms. She also borrows elements from some of her extensive readings of John Milton and the Bible, particularly those of the gospels.

In At the Bottom of the River Kincaid presents the most ordinary everyday events as if they were unfolding in a dream. In an interview with Selwym Cudjoe she has described her primary objective in the book as that of recreating the blurring of the lines between the dreaming and waking worlds of her childhood, when she believed that dreams could tell you things about your waking life, often things you did not want to know (230). In the stories collected in At the Bottom of the River she seeks to recreate that childhood perception of reality as not entirely to be trusted, not necessarily what it seemed. "I think that at some point I became obsessed with things being not that unclear, that things could not just vanish, that there could be some light that would show the reality of a thing, that this was false and this was right," she told Cudjoe (231). The stories of At the Bottom of the River captured that "yearning for something" that characterized Kincaid's early work, a time when she was experimenting with the most suitable styles, language, and voices to recreate the Antigua she carried within her despite her voluntary exile. The collection shows the various styles, structures, and themes through which Kincaid searches for her own voice as a writer and marks the process of her literary apprenticeship.


"Girl," the first story of the collection, was Kincaid's first work of fiction. The one-sentence story was written on a Sunday afternoon in February 1978, when Kincaid sat at the typewriter in her Hudson Street apartment and attempted to recreate her mother's voice in its first fictionalized incarnation. That afternoon she knew she had found her voice as a writer--a voice that turned out to be that of her mother (Simmons, 15). The story consists almost entirely of a mother's litany of instructions to her adolescent daughter, delivered in a preachy monologue interrupted twice by the daughter's own voice (clearly marked by italics in the text). The piece is written in the simplest of languages and describes the most mundane daily chores and circumstances; but it nonetheless succeeds in creating two vivid characters, with two distinct voices and two contending personalities.

In "Girl," Kincaid uses the mother's exhortations to her daughter to outline the limitations the latter must accept if she is to become the imitation of a proper English lady her mother desires her to be. These involve correct gender roles (such as not squatting down to play marbles) that link the child to domesticity and an acceptance of the patriarchal parameters under which her life must unfold (domesticity is often in the service of assuring the comforts of the males of the family). The struggle between the two characters--the rebelliousness implied by the daughter's two interruptions to the mother's monologue--is both familial and political. The mother's injunctions stem from a need to guide the daughter's behavior toward conforming to social and sexual patterns she has imbued from Antigua's English colonizers; the daughter's resistance is both part of her maturation process and necessary for her own decolonization (her breaking away from patterns of behavior copied from a dominant but not native culture).

The story opens interestingly enough with the reminder that Monday is the day for washing the white clothes--a "whitewashing" of sorts--with everything the image holds of sexual and racial symbolism. The West Indian setting of the story is promptly evoked through the many seemingly insignificant details of food (pumpkin fritters, salt fish, and dasheen), weather (hot sun), and culture (singing benna, setting the table for tea, blackbirds that may be something else altogether). In this particular setting two races and two sets of cultural presuppositions are at work. For the girl in "Girl," a black girl in a Caribbean colony, social success requires a mimicry of "white" ways as well as sexual "whiteness" or purity.

The mother's message, as internalized by the daughter in this incantatory repetition that is the text of "Girl," focuses most particularly on matters of propriety (the "soaking her little cloths" that indicates that the girl has reached puberty and is now a sexual being, not singing benna in Sunday school, not walking "like the slut you are so bent on becoming," [3]). This very concept of propriety interweaves cultural and sexual themes. Singing benna (a folk song) in Sunday school juxtaposes local folk culture as an element of resistance against Sunday (Church of England) school. Walking "like a lady" and not speaking to wharf-rat boys opposes notions of (British) ladylike behavior to local or native (i.e., natural) interest in sexuality. Her mother's injunctions against what comes seemingly naturally underscore the borrowed nature of her principles and her role as an agent in the imposition of foreign values on her daughter, thus linking the tensions between mother and daughter to the tensions between the colonizer and the colonized.

The mother's admonitions are also indicative of her society's notions of class. Her voice betrays her awareness of the connections between propriety of behavior and the possibilities of class mobility. The daughter for whom she craves the attributes of "a lady" must first learn to behave as such. She must not speak to those who are socially beneath her (wharf-rat boys) and must learn to recognize and respect social hierarchies (even such an insignificant act as setting the table has social repercussions, and she must learn to perform this task differently when it involves an important guest). In this context clothes emerge as a social text with deep significance. From the quality of its materials (cotton fabric should have no gum on it) to its cleanliness, neatness (the girl is taught how to iron a shirt so it does not have a crease), and state of disrepair (a hem coming down is indicative of potential sluttiness), clothing becomes a symbol of class status and moral superiority. Clothes, like manners, have the power to hide the girl's "natural" impulse to become a slut.

The importance of appearances--the hiding of the true nature of things--is a central theme of this story, where the mother feels charged with the task of teaching her daughter the need for hypocrisy as a tool of survival. Her detailed instructions about how to regulate her smiles to give the receiver the proper message of acceptance or disdain, or setting the table in a way that indicates the importance of the guest, are elements in an understanding of the social landscape that has little to do with true feeling or a recognition of human rather than social value. Late in the story the mother will instruct the daughter on matters of transgression. She teaches her how to make a medicine to abort a fetus (a theme that resonates throughout Kincaid's fiction and is linked to her mother's unsuccessful attempt to abort her brother Devon). She also teaches her how to spit up into the air if she feels like it without suffering any consequences. Transgressions, if we follow the text, are acceptable only if they are in the service of concealing violations of the sexual rules that could result in social or class ostracism.

The one element of the native culture the mother openly embraces is Obeah, the African-based system of beliefs that involves the supernatural, witchcraft, sorcery, and magic and acknowledges the power of spells to inflict harm or help in healing. The presence and power of Obeah surfaces in the text through warnings about catching "something" if the girl picks up someone else's flowers or against throwing stones at blackbirds that may not be blackbirds at all but spirits in disguise. The making of medicines (a healing function of the Obeah practitioner) can be used to cure disease (e.g., a cold) or "throw away a child" (5). Other harmful, or at the very least manipulative, aspects of Obeah are hinted at when the mother speaks of ways of loving a man. Although validated by the mother's acceptance, Obeah is nonetheless presented as a system that is of value to aid in teaching the child hypocrisy and manipulation, not as a positive cultural force that can work toward the overall good despite its potentially harmful aspects.

Underlying these detailed teachings and admonitions is the mother's sense of responsibility for what her child will become, an important factor contributing to the tensions between mother and daughter. It points to the need for separation between the two, for the daughter to establish her own set of rules and expectations. The only potential for resistance in the story is embodied in the girl's two interruptions. Early in the text she breaks the mother's text to deny that she ever sings benna, and never in Sunday school. To this the mother does not reply. The second rupture to the mother's harangue is a question--but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?--that draws an angry remonstration from the mother. Is she to understand that after all her admonitions and instructions the girl will grow into the sort of woman whom the baker will not allow to touch the bread? Has she after all become the slut her mother has warned her against becoming? The character of these interruptions implies the daughter's siding with the local or native culture. The suspicion of her singing benna and the mother's perceived need to repeat her warnings against sluttiness of behavior indicate the daughter's tendency (despite her denial that she ever sings benna) to behave in a way that is native to her surroundings, an implied rejection of the colonizers' mores.

"Girl" announces the themes and concerns that will dominate Kincaid's subsequent fiction. The mother's voice and presence represent the social and familial forces against which the daughter must battle in order to grow into her own power and maturity. The link between the mother's power and colonial authority and mores, a theme Kincaid will develop more fully and openly in later fiction, is articulated here in a symbolic yet eloquent way. The story evokes the beauty and vigor of the world of Kincaid's childhood as well as its menacing elements, symbolized here by the power of Obeah, but it also points to the girl's need to leave that world if she is to escape the domination of the mother's all-powerful voice. Above all, in "Girl," Kincaid builds on autobiographical episodes to posit sexual awakening as the moment of rupture of the previously harmonious relationship between mother and daughter. The moment of approaching independence is the moment the mother's benevolence turns into aggression, when the battle for continued control of the daughter is fully engaged and the daughter must find her own voice to articulate her resistance if she is to survive.

"In the Night"

"In the Night," the second story of At the Bottom of the River, plunges the reader into the mystery of a West Indian night, recreating its haunting and menacing beauty. The story is divided into five short sections, each with its own individual focus, although all connected by the voice of the adolescent girl through whose perspective we glimpse the life of the Antiguan night.

The language of "In the Night" differs markedly from that of "Girl," which precedes it in the collection. Whereas "Girl" was written in the simplest of languages, "In the Night" is filled with poetic resonances, rhythmic repetitions, and symbolic references as the narrative voice takes us "behind the daylight facade of rationality" (Simmons, 77) into a world where the mundane joins the world of ghosts and wandering souls. The first section of the text, for example, opens with a description of the night as divisible, fragmented, not as time but as a space, with deep holes, edges, roundnesses--"flat in some places, and in some places like a deep hole, blue at the edge, black inside" (6). This space opens to allow the night-soil men to come in.

Kincaid plays on the reader's lack of familiarity with West Indian types and expressions to turn what is commonplace in Antigua--the night-soil men who come to empty the pails in those places where there is no sewer system--into mysterious figures who provide a link to the world of Obeah, magic, and apparitions. She describes these men as shuffling figures moving rhythmically, as in a dance, making a scratchy sound with their straw shoes. They have the ability--the power--to see a jablesse, a figure of folklore who has the power to assume any animal or human form.

In this first section of "In the Night" the narrative voice itself seems to wander the neighborhood, disembodied like a ghost, listening to the sounds of the nights. These sounds, in turn, merge what can be heard by the human ear (a cricket, a church bell, a house creaking, a man groaning, music played on the radio) with what is soundless by nature (the sound of a woman's disgust at the man groaning, the murdered woman's spirit back from the dead, the sound of a woman's head aching). Here there is a marked division between the male world of sound and the woman's world of soundlessness, underscored by the violence of the man as he stabs the woman, the undertaker's complicity in taking her away, and the reality of the woman having to resort to haunting the man from beyond the grave ("he is running a fever forever," [7]) as the only form of justice open to her.

This first section of "In the Night" underscores the power of Obeah, as both a major force in Caribbean culture and an important element in fostering Kincaid's creativity. The evocation of Obeah gives Kincaid access to a world where the boundaries between the mundane and the surreal are blurred, allowing her to use language and poetic imagery to convey the in-betweenness of Caribbean reality. In the narratives of At the Bottom of the River the commonplace and the fantastic merge and separate, giving Kincaid's style its characteristic poetic quality. This quality is particularly evident in the final paragraph of the first section of the story, where the narrator "sees" Mr. Gishard, a duppy or spirit, standing quite nonchalantly under the tree in front of the house where he lived when alive. The living accept his presence just as casually, acknowledging it as a natural element in the landscape, a continuation of the world of the living. In just the same casual way, Kincaid blends the real and otherwordly in her prose, giving the narratives in this collection their surreal quality, which comes from the use of commonplace language for what is for her American readers uncommon realities.

In the second section of the story the narrator abandons the third-person voice of the first part and speaks in the first person, assuming a more personal, more immediate perspective. This brief section focuses on the harmonious relationship between mother and daughter before other children were born. This is a recurring theme in Kincaid's fiction, linked to her own devastation when the first of her three brothers was born, a subject about which she has written repeatedly. The section describes a dream in which the narrator hears a baby being born, breathing and bleating. The image metamorphoses into that of the narrator and the baby as lambs eating grass in a pasture. The narrator awakens from her dream, having wet her bed, to find her "still" young and beautiful mother tending to her.

The use of the word "still" marks the significant shift between the time when the mother could "change everything" and the darkness that follows (8). In her dream, the narrator is "in the night," the only light being that which she glimpses in the far-off mountains. Kincaid often plays with images of darkness and light in her fiction to signal transformations (see, e.g., the use of light imagery in "At Last"); the lights herald the presence of a jablesse, described here as "a person who can turn into anything," with eyes that shine as brightly as lamps and usually appearing as beautiful women (9). It offers the first instance in Kincaid's fiction of equating the figure of the still young and beautiful mother, who transforms herself into a shrew once the daughter reaches adolescence and other children are born, with the transforming qualities of the frightening figure of the jablesse.

In the third section of "In the Night" Kincaid once again draws from autobiographical material, this time focusing on a sharply drawn character modeled on her own stepfather. The section opens with a somewhat enigmatic technical device, which appears to put into question the truth or validity of the descriptive segment that follows it. The segment consists of a long paragraph completely enclosed in quotation marks except for the opening phrase: "No one has ever said to me" (9). Whether this puzzling phrase is meant to indicate that the quite straightforward description of the narrator's relationship with her father that follows is something that, although true, no one has ever said to her before, or whether it means that it is a fabrication because no one could ever say such things of her father, is left completely to the reader's discretion. As a device it may strike the reader as overly obscure, even unnecessary.

The rest of the segment is one of the most straightforward of the book. In it Kincaid paints a somewhat idealized picture of a kind and thoughtful man whose happiness centers on his family and whose daily habits, commonplace and conventional as they are, are marked with a dignified solemnity. The segment focuses particularly on his selection of clothes, as if the small vanities and renunciations that go into obeying the social conventions as to dress--he would like to wear pink but knows "it isn't becoming to a man"--were indicative of the solid respectability whose very dullness is endearing to his daughter (9). This tender portrait of a modest man living in a small colony, who orders the clothes for special days from England, is made particularly poignant by his dependence on books to escape the humdrum predictability of his life. His reading about rubber plantations and the circus, things he has read about but never seen, frame the limitations of his desires.

The fourth section of "In the Night" opens with a catalog of the many flowers that "close up and thicken" in the darkness of the West Indian night. This list of tropical blooms underscores the Caribbean setting of the story. Familiar as they are to the West Indian reader, with commonplace names like daggerbush, turtleberry, and stinking-toe, they appear as exotic and mysterious to the reader not familiar with the tropical landscape. The otherwise unremarkable listing closes with a surprising personification of the flowers--"the flowers are vexed"--that marks the transition between the evocation of the flora and the series of activities, both harmless and harmful, that go on under the cover of night: basketmaking, sewing, a carpenter crafting a beautiful mahogany chest for his wife, someone "sprinkling a colorless powder outside a door" to cause the birth of a stillborn child (11). Once again, Kincaid juxtaposes the natural and supernatural elements of the West Indian landscape in the aid of developing a style that, in At the Bottom of the River, still rests somewhat heavily on highlighting the exotic elements of Caribbean natural and cultural reality for the unfamiliar reader.

The fifth and final section of "In the Night" returns to the relationship between the girl and the mother, here presented as a couple delighting in their domesticity--the mother/daughter bond having replaced the husband/wife connection. The segment outlines the daughter's fantasy of growing up and marrying "a red-skin woman with black bramblebush hair and brown eyes," drawn as an idealized portrait of the mother figure (11). She imagines a life of great simplicity and self-sufficiency, in which the two would be complete unto themselves, living in a West Indian version of the enchanted cottage, harmonious and fulfilled. To accentuate the image of completion, Kincaid relies in part on what in other texts will become a symbol of rupture, the presence of two women standing on a jetty. Often in her fiction, most notably in Annie John, Kincaid will use the autobiographical episode of the daughter's departure from a jetty, as the mother waves goodbye, as the most absolute image of rupture and separation. In the fantasy of concord that closes "In the Night," however, the two women stand embracing on a jetty, undivided and whole. The portrait of their happiness that closes the story, the daughter's assertion that once she marries a woman like this she will be "completely happy" every night, counterbalances the many images in this story of the night as dark and menacing.

"At Last"

In "At Last"--as in "Girl"--Kincaid offers another dialogue between a mother and daughter. In the story, which is divided into two sections--"The House" and "The Yard"--the two voices probe the past they shared before the harmony between them was broken by the birth of other children. The two voices in the story are often undifferentiated, blurring the identity of the precise speaker, so as to underscore how much still remains of the closeness and intimacy they once shared despite their estrangement. As they dissect their joint lives, their tone grows increasingly sorrowful, as if the past they were summoning held something extremely precious and now lost. The reader perceives these voices as corresponding and merging but remote, as if coming from behind a closed door, or as if they belonged to disembodied ghosts coming back to the house they used to share when alive.

The first section of the story, "The House," follows the two characters/voices as they tour their former home, noting the impact of the time past on the objects once so familiar: the wood shingles are weather-beaten, the paint fraying, the unplayed piano now just collects dust. The emphasis in the opening paragraph is on loss and death: dead flowers, dead hair still left on the brush, letters that brought bad news. The mother's question ("What are you now?") and the daughter's answer ("A young woman.") hint at a period of separation between them or at two ghosts traveling back in time and observing their former selves as in a film (13). The longing to retrieve lost memories--expressed, for examples, in the characters' wish that "everything would talk"--points to their effort at recovering their past and examining it again in the light of the present, seeking a new understanding.

The series of questions and answers around which the first section of the story is structured involve episodes in their past that the daughter has misremembered or misinterpreted or things the mother now regrets having done. They provide a path through the significant moments of their relationship and offer clues as to the possibility of their recovering their former closeness. The first of these questions--"What was that light?"--becomes a leit-motif (a repeated element, like a refrain)--reiterated throughout the story, symbolizing the clarity the voices would like to shed over the past (13). Throughout the first section of the story the voices will follow the light, wondering where it comes from, watching it flash, making one of the voices wish she could shine in the dark. The emphasis on the light underscores the importance of "seeing" for the two voices, as seeing is linked to understanding the past. Their failure to see their joint history with clarity is announced by the appearance, in the final paragraphs of the first section, of a blind bird dashing its head against a closed window. Kincaid will use the bird image repeatedly to symbolize the frustration of a young woman struggling against her mother and her colonial environment, but here she has added blindness as an extra and meaningful element linked to the mother and daughter's tragic inability to see. (The image of the blind bird complements that of a caged hummingbird, appearing some paragraphs before, that dies after a few days, "homesick for the jungle," [16].) The women's defeat is underscored by the answer to the final question of this section--"What of the light?"--to which the answer is a dejected "Splintered. Died" (19).

Kincaid's technique of building her story around a series of questions allows her to present the tensions in the mother/daughter relationship in a dynamic manner; they are displayed before the reader rather than described, albeit enigmatically, their meaning veiled by metaphor. The way the questions are presented on the page--most often isolated as separate, one-line paragraphs--underscores their role in marking significant moments in their relationship. The first of the questions thus isolated, for example, shows the mother/daughter figures at their most harmonious, when one can still act as the mirror for the other. One of the voices remarks of the other that her lips are "soft and parted." The reply--"Are they?"--implies an acceptance of this self-reflectiveness, a validation of the other's gaze. The reply to the second of these standalone questions--an inquiry as to why the doors had been shut so tightly--draws a response that articulates the distance that has developed in the way they perceive the reality around them: the doors, according to the other voice, "weren't closed" at all. This is followed by the acknowledgment that once they had held hands and been beautiful together, but that was before the birth of other children brought pain and sleepless nights.

In "At Last," Kincaid builds an atmosphere of dread around a series of images of menace and apprehension. They follow on the images of death and decay of the first paragraph, but become increasingly important in the text after the articulation of the growing estrangement between the mother and the daughter. The daughter then emerges as a young woman standing near the dead flowers, the light turning the image into that of a carcass, a skeleton on which the mother lives and feeds. Although the two pray to be blessed and "to see the morning light," they live through a hurricane that shakes the house to its foundation, mirroring the shocks that jolt their relationship (17). Once these differences surface in the text, moreover, the two voices become less ambiguous, the two figures grow more easily identifiable by the reader. The mother's voice emerges with particular clarity, speaking to the daughter about the time when she was an infant and she had wished to feed her but her milk had soured, reiterating how much she had been loved, how she had been dry and warm. Then they had possessed the light, and the mother "would shine in the dark." As the first section draws to a close, Kincaid addresses more directly the birth of "the children," linking them to the transformation of the mother into the frightening figure of a jablesse who appears sometimes as a man, sometimes as a hoofed animal, having accomplished her metamorphosis from loving mother to figure of fear.

The second section of the story, "The Yard," is narrated by a different voice, that of a third-person narrator, objective and detached, who evokes the timelessness of the yard. This mythical yard contains all there is of childhood mirth, beauty, and promise; but it also contains everything there could be of menace in such a symbolic setting, one that provides a transition between the world of nature and the world of home and domesticity. Everything that the yard could contain that would hold fascination for a child (a sparrow's nest, a pirate's treasure, trees bearing fruit, marbles, a small garden full of bluebells) is counterbalanced by what the yard could contain of threat (an old treasure broken, a sharp quick blow, a duck's bill, hard and sharp, the oppressive heat). Kincaid thus prepares the terrain for a meditation on the permanence and significance of life and the physical world. "At Last," the title of the story, is the phrase that introduces the pivotal question--"To whom will this view belong?"--which is followed by an inquiry as to what becomes of things after they are dead and gone (16). The question appears to point to the repetitive nature and meaninglessness of life, to days following upon each other, identical and unchanging. But the final images of the narrative seek meaning in the hopeful sound of a child's voice (the daughter of the first section) again inquiring about the past. The question--"What was the song they used to sing and made fists and pretended to be Romans?"--seeks a link, a connection, albeit through a game, between an individual's life, however humble and obscure, and a historical consciousness (19).

In "At Last" Kincaid includes thematic and autobiographical elements that she will explore more fully in other writings, both fictional and nonfictional. One of the voices recalls having forgotten something under the bed, which, as it decayed, became covered with white moss; the episode will reappear in Annie John. The oft-narrated attack by red ants on her brother Devon appears here for the first time, although parts of that tale (the dangers of planting okra, which harbors red ants, too close to the house had already appeared in "Girl"). References to "the rain that time" anticipate the "Long Rain" chapter of Annie John. The allusion to an illness that caused a worm to crawl out of man's leg refers to the death of Kincaid's young half-uncle, which she narrates in several fictional and nonfictional texts, particularly in The Autobiography of My Mother. Kincaid, moreover, will experiment in this tale--as in many of the narratives that constitute At the Bottom of the River--with imagery that will recur in subsequent writings: a young woman crossing the open sea alone at night on a steamer, changes in the texture of skin as symbolic of profound emotional change, the image of the young bird dashing itself against a closed window described above, the hard prolonged rain of Annie John, the birth of other children as rupturing the harmony between mother and daughter. "At Last," as many of the stories in the collection, reveals Kincaid's apprenticeship as a writer. The stories illustrate how Kincaid, at this very early stage of her career, experiments with forms, symbols, imagery, and the creation of character, looking for the most appropriate vehicles for her narrative material.


"Wingless" explores the world of the child as she grows into an awareness of herself. The story, divided into six sections of uneven length, opens with a recollection of the routine of the schoolhouse, where a group of children chant rhymes to learn how many pennies in a shilling, how many shillings in a pound. In "Wingless," Kincaid returns to the use of light as symbol of self-knowledge and self-awareness that she had elaborated in "At Last," although here it is more explicitly connected to the notion of self-discovery. The narrator distances herself from the children reciting their lessons, as if to indicate that she has surpassed that stage in her own development, before declaring that she swims "in a shaft of light" and can see herself clearly.

In this first section of "Wingless," the narrator, a young woman on the threshold of womanhood, ponders her forthcoming adulthood, wondering what kind of woman she will become. She describes herself--in a brief sequence that foreshadows the "Columbus in Chains" chapter of Annie John--as perhaps standing on the brink of a great discovery after which, like Columbus himself, she may be sent home in chains. Looming above her is the figure of the mother, about whose love the narrator is not certain, whose love is fraught with strain, conflict, and ambiguity. She seeks to define herself against the mother, attempting to elucidate how much power she can wield against her once she becomes a tall, graceful, and beautiful woman capable of imposing her will on people.

The recurring motif in this segment of the story is that of the narrator seeking to see herself clearly. The process of attaining self-knowledge is inextricably linked to separation from the mother. The daughter must find another object for the "love like no other" that she bestowed on the mother before their relationship soured. She describes her mother's smile as the repository of her goodness, but later in the story that same smile will turn "red" and kill a man. The daughter, "a defenseless and pitiful child," must find a path away from a life reduced to an apprenticeship in dressmaking, a life that follows the pattern of the mother's life. (Kincaid's mother once apprenticed her to a dressmaker, in an episode that became to her symbolic of her family's inability to recognize her talent and promise.)

In this opening section of the story, the narrator of "Wingless" stresses her adolescent unhappiness and frustration. Powerlessness emerges as a dominant theme. She lacks the commanding understanding of the world that adulthood requires, and her life (and this segment of the narrative) is filled with questions: she doesn't understand the gradations of manners and cloth color; is she horrid now and will she ever be so?; her charm is limited and she has not learned yet how to smile; she has cried big tears as a result of her disappointments. She dwells on these disappointments, as Kincaid herself will do in her fiction, holding them close to her breast, "because they are so important to me" (24). The answers to her questions are not forthcoming, since she is not yet a woman but a "primitive and wingless" creature on the threshold of maturity.

The second section of "Wingless," a brief dialogue between mother and daughter, shows the mother as mocking and cruel, delighting in frightening the daughter and oblivious to any lasting harm she may cause her. The relationship between them is thus defined, as in so many of Kincaid's tales, as one of power, and the mother is depicted as utilizing any means at hand to maintain her supremacy. Kincaid builds on the common perception of the heart as the repository of love to develop the image of its being strangled as symbolic of the mother's willful destruction of her daughter's love for her.

Section three, which follows in a thematic progression, underscores Kincaid's notion of childhood as a state of complete powerlessness before the omnipotent mother. Here, the mother's power extends to being able to walk across a carpet of pond lilies, eating pond-lily black nuts. Having created this fairy-tale, miraculous setting (with its symbolic reminder of Christ walking on water), Kincaid then describes an encounter between the mother and a man dressed in clothes made of tree bark, a meeting full of physical and sexual threat (he speaks so forcefully that "drops of brown water sprang from his mouth"; he blew himself up "until in the bright sun he looked like a boil," 25). The mother, after initially attempting to shield herself, instead of using her cutlass to cut the man in two, kills him with her "red, red smile" (25). Kincaid uses the episode to emphasize the nature of the mother's power--she is not only able to make a man drop dead, but she does it effortlessly. Her weapon, a red smile, is linked by its effectiveness and mystery to Obeah and magic and by its color and implied treachery to the female arts of coquetry and seduction that the mother has sought to teach the daughter elsewhere in the stories of At the Bottom of the River.

In part four of the story the narrator dwells on the power of the sea, with its blinding storms "shaking everything up like a bottle with sediment," its sharp-toothed eels and its mystery, and on the seashore, full of noisy birds and noisier families. The sea follows her all the way home to "the woman" (26). In this new rendition of the mother, she appears as a power comparable to that of the sea, more frightening to the daughter than its mysteries. The section ends with a brief dialogue between the narrator (the daughter) and "the woman" (the mother) centering on the question of fear itself. The daughter's acknowledgment (in answer to a question) that she is very frightened of the mother figure is greeted by the mother's mockery and laughter.

Part five of "Wingless" offers a brief recitation of the narrator's fears, listed as if they were the frightening dreams of childhood. Cows, hurricanes, the lack of light, unfamiliar noises, boxes that must be handled with care, a big white building with curving corridors, a dead person. Ending the list, as the most frightening thing of all, is the woman she loves "who is so much bigger than me" (27). Here, as in other stories in the collection, most notably "My Mother," Kincaid uses the mother's hyperbolized size as metaphor for the daughter's perception of her limitless power.

The sixth and final section of "Wingless" evokes the stillness of the night and the peacefulness of the child falling asleep. It is the most poetic and lyrical segment of the story, built on refrain-like repetitions of the phrase "now so still" as animals and insects subside into sleep. The natural world thus surrendering to sleep is viewed subjectively, from the narrator/child's perspective, as the various creatures relinquish the activities that impacted on the narrator during the day (as they revolted her, pleased her, stole from her, gratified her). Kincaid returns here to the metaphoric use of light of the beginning of the story to describe how sleep leads to self-oblivion. Initially, the narrator swims in a shaft of light and can see herself clearly; here, as she falls asleep, she stands against the light, casting a shadow of which in her sleeping state she will be unaware. Her hands, which are made to stand for her entire body, her entire self, recede from the memory of her daily activities (touching, caressing, dressing, holding a cone of ice cream, praying) into a still, dreamless sleep.


"Holidays" is one of only three stories in At the Bottom of the River not set in the West Indies. The various locales of the seven brief sections (the mountains, a lake in Michigan, the seashore) recall the places where Kincaid vacationed during the four years she spent as an au pair with the Arlen family in the late 1960s. They will also feature prominently in several chapters of Lucy. These settings, however, are the only openly autobiographical elements in the story, which does not explicitly address any of Kincaid's known experiences during those years.

The first section of "Holidays" is the only one in the story in which the narrator assumes the first-person "I," identifying herself as a person on holiday, whiling her days away in a house from whose porch she can face the mountains. The cadences and rhythms of this segment of the narrative mark the voice as West Indian, an identification corroborated by details such as the calypso about a man from British Guiana that runs through her mind, the memory of a superstition about killing your mother, and her dream about not being on the porch facing the mountains. There is an underlying tone of wonder in this segment of "Holidays," as if the narrator marvels at finding herself in such a place, occupying such a space, surrounded by objects, books, landscapes that are unfamiliar and somewhat alien to her life. As she idly contemplates her surroundings and surrenders to sleep, her West Indianness looms larger, she attempts to write a letter (a symbol in Kincaid's fiction of an attempt to establish a link with her home), she asserts her belief in superstitions as if in affirmation of her origins, and she drifts into sleep and dreams of home (or, more precisely, of a place like Kincaid's own home in Antigua, where you cannot sit on the porch facing the mountains because the topography is marked by nothing much higher than a big hill).

In this first section of "Holidays" Kincaid builds a metaphor of budding creativity through a series of images (symbols) of artistic energy ready to burst. The narrator's idleness--her apparent listlessness, her walking aimlessly around the house, her poking the fireplace ashes with her toes, her solitary presence, the undisturbed silence, her efforts to look at herself--is depicted as necessary to the process of introspection and self-awareness that will eventually lead to writing. From the opening sentence, when she walks into a room where an artist has left some empty canvases (blank spaces providing the materials for art), to her abandoning her subconscious to the song from home, the reader is presented with a series of images of emerging creativity. She looks through the encyclopedia of butterflies and moths with beautiful pictures of the beauty that emerges from the chrysalis, she tries to write her name on the dead ashes of the fireplace but it is too impermanent a medium, she leaves a dark spot when she cleans her toe on the royal-blue rug (a veiled reminder of Kincaid's colonial roots), she attempts to write a letter in another failed creative effort, she surrenders to the lure of the rhythms from home and falls into a dream. If At the Bottom of the River marks Kincaid's apprenticeship as a writer, this section of "Holidays" illustrates her consciousness of that apprenticeship as she depicts the budding artist as a young woman in search of a medium.

The second segment of the story consists exclusively of dialogue, not of conversation necessarily, but of various disconnected utterances presented out of context. The speakers are not identified, and the fragments appear as if overheard by a narrator vacationing at the seaside. The link between them is precisely their being scraps of chit-chat typical of vacationers: things they have back home; comments on the sunset, the pebbles, the houses, their plans for dinner; descriptions of new friends. Altogether they help define an atmosphere of holiday-making, where new superficial acquaintances are made, and people pursue amusement as their main goal. The phrase that closes the segment, however, deflates the levity and merry-making of the vacation, by recalling how later, on thinking back on the holiday, "we will be so pained, so unsettled" (33).

Section three of the story catalogs a series of vacation disasters, offering a perceptively amusing list of the many cheery catastrophes that can mar a middle-class vacation. The narrator offers no commentary; there is no speaking "I" to place the list in a subjective context. Yet its cumulative impact is that of mockery. Deerflies, skunks eating garbage, a camera forgotten in the sun, stepping on dry brambles, sunstroke, a skirt hem caught in barbed-wire--the list of trivial melodramas plays against the expected vacationer's reaction to them, highlighting their insignificance and mocking the vacationer in the process.

The fourth segment of "Holidays" strikes the reader as out of place in the story. Unlike the other parts of the narrative, this one seems at best only tangentially related to the holiday theme of the other segments. The focus is on a young blind man walking out in the midday sun, observed from inside a house (by vacationers perhaps--hence the possible tangential connection to the central theme of the story). The narrator--again an objective, depersonalized voice--describes the tragedy of the lovesick man who lost his sight in an attempted suicide after killing a man he saw kissing the woman he loved. He is surrounded by the indifference of all around him; even the dogs shun him, as if to underscore that a vacationing spot is not an appropriate place for such a reminder of pain, passion, and intense drama.

Part five, like part two, consists exclusively of dialogue. It follows a conversation between a vacationer and a native at a tropical holiday spot. Its recurring motif--"things are funny here" (34)--seems intent on establishing the locals' inability or unwillingness to follow European custom: they are holding a May fair, but it is July; they swim in the warm seawater just before their Christmas dinner. The juxtaposition of perspectives--the vacationer's and the local resident's--together with their agreement that "things are funny here"--temporarily bridges the cultural gap between them, creating the kind of temporary alliance possible only while the vacation lasts.

The sixth segment of "Holidays" follows two young middle-class American boys from vacation to vacation as they grow up into gentlemen looking for "large-breasted women" (35). The theme that threads its way through the various vacations briefly evoked in the story--fishing in Michigan, visiting the Mark Twain museum in Missouri, milking cows in Wyoming, changing a car tire somewhere--is that of the loss of innocence and wonder that is the lot of male American adolescence. They are shown as moving from guilelessness as they fish together, needing none of the comforts of domesticity and position, to limited horizons as they get trapped in the expectations of their gender and class. Their lives, as vacation follows vacation, become impoverished, reduced to a cliché of male success. What was promise and purity in their childhood disintegrates into a false notion of gentlemanliness and a caricature of lust.

The seventh and final segment of "Holidays" works as a counterpart to section three. There, the catalog of insignificant disasters made a mockery of middle-class holiday-making; here, Kincaid outlines the ideal holiday for the ideal American happy family, a holiday so perfect as to be almost a parody or hyperbolized version of a vacation. Its very perfection distorts its reality. In section three, all the little mini-disasters pointed to the vulnerability of a middle-class holiday, one that could be marred by the tiniest of mishaps; here every detail--the beautiful family, the fields covered with flowers, the constant laughter, the lack of anxiety, the funny postcards--points to the mindlessness of such pleasurable pursuits. The description of this idealized perfect vacation contains within it the seeds of the bitter irony that Kincaid will pour on the figure of the tourist in A Small Place.

"The Letter from Home"

"The Letter from Home" is, like "Girl," a brief one-paragraph, one-sentence story. And, like "Girl," it uses the incantatory recitation of a woman's daily chores--the mundane description of the restrictions of the female world--to accentuate the menace that lurks behind everydayness and domesticity. The story, although structured as one long, unbroken paragraph, can nonetheless be separated into two distinct voices and two clearly defined styles. Given the autobiographical subtext of Kincaid's writing in At the Bottom of the River, the reader is justified in assuming that the story focuses on a letter from the mother at home received by the daughter abroad.

Kincaid seeks to differentiate the voices stylistically in the text. The sections of the narrative that constitute the letter from home, for example, are characterized by simple declarative statements almost invariably beginning with "I"--"I milked the cow, I churned the butter ..."--that seem to float above the surface of reality, not breaking through its superficial layer to communicate to its addressee (the daughter) anything of the emotions and thoughts of the writer (37). They can be readily distinguished from those sentences focusing on the receiver of the letter, which are longer and more complex in structure and describe her as engaging with her surroundings in a more vital way. These sentences rarely begin with "I," and are not centered on the daughter's own self, seeking instead to describe her environment, the objects surrounding her, the weather, her emotions and responses. It is as if the daughter, confronted with the mother's "I," could not bring herself to assert her own voice.

Kincaid offers subtle clues in the story as to the setting for these two voices, placing one in the Caribbean, the other somewhere in the snowy north. The sections focusing on the mother, for example, focus on domestic activity in a place where she must light candles at night (implying a lack of electricity) and where things moving in the shadows may be menacing spirits. The sections focusing on the daughter, on the other hand, speak of tree branches "heavy with snow," humming refrigerators, a goldfish living in a bowl, hats on hat stands, and coats hanging from pegs. The complexity of the daughter's new environment--with its appliances, houses with many rooms, dripping faucets, hissing gas, books, and rugs--contrasts sharply with the simplicity of the mother's surroundings, evident in the uncomplicated nature of her daily chores and the simple syntax of the sentences of her letter to her daughter.

"The Letter from Home" contains two brief sections clearly differentiated by punctuation from the rest of the text. The first, in quotation marks, offers bits of ambiguous dialogue spoken by an unidentified man. Some of this dialogue--an inquiry as to the children being ready, for example--could belong to the daughter's world (an autobiographical element perhaps, given Kincaid's work as an au pair on her arrival in the United States, when letters from home were most painful to receive). Some could belong to the world of the mother, as in the inquiry as to whether the children will bear their mother's name (Kincaid, an illegitimate child herself, bore her mother's maiden name).

The second of these sections, enclosed in parentheses, introduces the first of several biblical references in the story. The parenthetical segment consists of six questions about heaven and hell, the meek lamb, the roaring lion, and the streams running clear. Their combined purpose is that of ascertaining whether the worlds that the mother and daughter live in conform to the rules spelled out by Euro-Christian logic. These questions emphasize Christian geographical hierarchies--heaven above, hell below--and the power hierarchies of colonial relationships--the lamb lies meek, the lion roars. The allusion to colonial relationships is stressed in the line that follows the parenthetical segment, which alludes to ancient (conquering) ships still anchored in the peninsula.

"The Letter from Home" ends with two biblical images that accentuate the gospel-like resonances of the brief narrative and underscore the narrator's rejection of the God-fearing "home" she has left behind, a home that occasionally intrudes in her new life when she receives a letter from her mother. The first follows the daughter's description of a universe created by divine wisdom, a universe in which the earth spins on an imaginary axis whose existence is accepted as a matter of religious and scientific faith, a universe where valleys correspond to mountains that in turn correspond to the sea, which corresponds to dry land. This image of perfect harmony and symmetry, however, masks the ultimate menacing correspondence, that of the earth to the snake after the Fall. The snake, having lost its limbs as punishment for drawing Eve into sin, must forever lurk in the shadows awaiting its prey. This image of the snake as a menace is linked in the story to the figure of the mother, who early in the narrative had described herself as having shed her skin. This final correspondence frees the daughter's voice, for in the second and final biblical image she assumes the "I" she had avoided until now, assuming her own declarative voice to describe the figure of the shrouded Christ (identified by the capitalized "He") beckoning to her and whistling softly. She slyly rows her boat away, "as if I didn't know what I was doing," showing through that pretense of ignorance (and the implied acknowledgment to the reader that she knows precisely what she is doing) her determination to leave behind the world of her mother and her willingness to challenge divinity itself (39).

"What I Have Been Doing Lately"

Of the stories collected in At the Bottom of the River, "What I Have Been Doing Lately" is the most lighthearted and playful. Kincaid is not known for giving in to whimsy in her writing; on the contrary, she has often been taken to task for prose whose tone is too steeped in anger, particularly in her fictional and nonfictional portraits of her mother. In her early prose, her surreal fantasies lean heavily toward the menacing and frightening. In "What I Have Been Doing Lately," however, we find Kincaid at her most whimsical. The story--a narrative whose structure loops on itself twice like an amusement-park roller coaster--blends the nonsensical elements characteristic of children's narratives with the formalistic and thematic experimentation we have come to associate with the work of writers such as French "New Novelist" Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose writings Kincaid admires, and Julio Cortázar, short-story master of the 1960s Latin American "Boom."

Like a modern-day Alice in her darker and more foreboding Wonderland, the narrator of "What I Have Been Doing Lately" sets out on reluctant adventures when she gets up from bed to answer the door, only to find no one there. She starts walking north through an ever-changing landscape, encountering wondrous and sometimes menacing things, tumbling down a deep hole, returning to the surface, running into a woman who asks her what she's been doing lately, to which she replies with the tale of how she was lying in bed when the doorbell rang--thus starting the tale from the beginning again. The second telling of the story reworks significant elements of the narrative, adding details, redirecting incidents, refocusing themes, only to end with the narrators going back to lying in bed, "just before the doorbell rang" (45). This looping of the narrative, which has us return twice to the beginning to start anew, results in a self-reflective text, what is known in literary criticism as a metanarrative (a text that calls attention to the techniques and devices on which the author relies for effect).

In style, "What I Have Been Doing Lately" is built around simple declarative sentences that describe a landscape often absurd and nonsensical, where contradictory realities merge, as in dreams. As the narrator steps outside, it is either drizzling or there is a lot of damp dust in the air; she walks down a path, past a boy tossing a ball, but when she looks back the path has been replaced by hills and instead of a boy there are flowering trees. She sits for years by the banks of a big body of water before taking a boat across. From the opening lines, the style signals an entrance into a world of childlike bewilderment, where disbelief is suspended and little is anchored in reality. From the moment the narrator steps out of the door, the writing revolves around itself. Kincaid, in the double retelling of her story, explores various modes of narrating her tale, showing the process through which narrative material becomes art. It is a story of apprenticeship, conscious of its artificiality, of its presentation of writing as an evolving process.

Thematically, "What I Have Been Doing Lately" returns to the notion of the voyage as a separation from loved ones, the mother particularly, and explores the narrator's yearning for home. The cyclical structure of the story, which keeps bringing the narrator back to her present, away from the home she yearns for, underscores the permanence of that separation and accounts for the note of sadness with which the story ends. "I felt so sad," the narrator tells us, "I couldn't imagine feeling any other way again" (45). Here, as in almost all her narratives, Kincaid draws on autobiographical materials familiar to her readers, albeit in an elliptical way, placing these elements in an incongruous Wonderland setting. When she sets out on her voyage she looks south (toward her Caribbean home), but decides to walk north. She comes to a big body of water, but it takes her years to get across. She looks behind her, but everything familiar has vanished; a deep hole opens before her and she plunges in. She resurfaces because she misses all the people she had loved, only to run into a woman whom she mistakes for her mother and whose question sends her back to that bed in which she is lying when the doorbell rings. To the reader familiar with Kincaid's personal story, it is easy to read in these details the correspondences with her own experiences, glimpsing, in the process, how she has turned them from autobiographical fact into the materials for fiction. They help her create a system of symbols that guide the reader through her writing, like a key that opens the path to understanding her literary universe.

Kincaid provides such keys in "What I Have Been Doing Lately" through the differences between the telling of the story and its retelling as the tale loops on itself. Whereas the first telling dwells more extensively on the Wonderland elements of the narrative landscape, the second part is more solidly grounded in reality, more focused on elucidating the themes of voyage, separation, and longing. Now, coming across the great body of water is as easy as paying her fare, but the reality found in her new environment is not the beautiful world she expected, but one in which she is surrounded by black mud, where people whom she thought would be laughing and chatting and beautiful are no such thing at all. Thus, with great narrative economy, Kincaid articulates the themes of disappointed expectations and sadness and regret for what the narrator has left behind, expressed in the dreamlike vision of the bend leading to her home, where she would find her freshly made bed, her mother, and those she loved--only to discover herself back in bed just as the bell is about to ring.


"Blackness" is one of the most lyrical stories in At the Bottom of the River. The narrative, divided in four separate sections, draws on the incantatory rhythms of prayers and the psalms for its poetic resonances. Yet, unlike its biblical rhetorical models, which aspire to lead toward God's light and salvation, "Blackness" moves the narrator toward darkness and oblivion. The narrator of "Blackness"--unlike the many narrative voices in At the Bottom of the River, who seek clarity and self-knowledge through swimming in shafts of light--seeks self-erasure in the darkness.

The first section of the story evokes the paradox (or contradictions) of the blackness in which the narrator would like to be engulfed. The blackness, which descends like a heavy fog onto her world, is all things: silence and deafening sound, visible and invisible, not her blood but something that flows through her veins. The enigma of blackness, its perplexing incongruities, is meant to mirror the narrator's despair, her inability to keep herself out in the light.

In those instances in the story when the narrative voice surfaces from the darkness, moving toward the light, it revels in the joy the light brings. Most of the images of joy in the story are directly or indirectly related to the light: faces turned toward the sky, a "silver of orange on the horizon," the last vestiges of the setting sun, a rolling green meadow, a spring of clear water. The narrator, however, when questioning her own nature, acknowledges the fascination of the blackness. Her lamp remains unlit, and she recognizes the darkness as buried deeply and permanently in the human breast, while the glimmering light is shallow, impermanent. Through this first section, Kincaid will develop the image of the mine and of the narrator as a miner seeking "veins of treasure" (48). The image that closes the opening segment of the story is precisely that of the heart as a mine holding a treasure of love, joy, and pain, buried in darkness but penetrated here and there by shafts of light.

In the second section of the story the narrator falls into a dream that plays on images of light and darkness, thus picking up the thematic thread of the first part. She dreams of bands of men returning from battle, exhausted, the chambers of their weapons empty. As they pass her house they obliterate the light, "and night fell immediately and permanently," blotting out everything that she found pleasurable, all the beauty and safety of her world.

In the third section, the narrator identifies herself as a mother watching her daughter, who is transparent in the light. As in many other renditions of motherhood in Kincaid's fiction, this one is tinged with a note of cruelty, although in this case it is the daughter, not the mother, on whom cruelty and pitilessness have taken hold. The mother is all sacrifice, going to great lengths for her daughter's joy and comfort (she chewed her food for her when she was small, she carries a cool liquid in her flattened breasts to quench her thirst, she creates moments of joy for her); the daughter is all greediness and self-absorption in her eagerness to take what is offered. For the portrait of the daughter, Kincaid borrows elements usually associated in her fiction with mother figures, chief among them the qualities of the jablesse who is able to mutate her body into frightening forms: revolving eyes burning like coals, teeth that suddenly grow pointed and spark, arms that grow to "incredible lengths" (50). She feels no pity for the hunchback boy whom she renders deaf and incapable of direction and whom she leaves in a hut built on the edge of a steep cliff. In her preternatural wisdom--her knowledge of things beyond the physical world that is akin to clairvoyance--the narrator of "Blackness" prefigures the characterization of Xuela, the protagonist of Kincaid's third novel, The Autobiography of My Mother.

The daughter in this section of "Blackness" stands "one foot in the dark, the other in the light" (51), bridging the gap between the two worlds, one threatening to engulf the narrator, the other offering fleeting glimpses of joy. She has the ability to move from one to the other, rushing "from death to death" (51). As someone who has mastered the powers of the jablesse, with her connections to the underworld and the darkness, and as someone enamored of "great beauty and ancestral history," the daughter is, unlike the narrator, self-affirming and beyond despair. She can always return to the light.

In the last section of "Blackness," the narrator hears "the silent voice" of self-erasure and oblivion calling to her, obliterating the blackness. The brief segment recalls an image familiar to moviegoers: that of the hero or heroine walking in acceptance toward death, embracing the mist that brings an end to disease and despair. Following the familiar choreography of such scenes, almost a cliché in the Hollywood filmmaking of the thirties and forties, we follow the figure of the narrator as it moves slowly toward the voice, shrugging despair and hatred like a mantle, embracing the mist that drowns her, erasing her image from the screen.

"My Mother"

"My Mother" is considered by many critics to be the second most successful story in At the Bottom of the River, after "Girl." It offers Kincaid's most sustained rendition of the theme of the love-hate relationship between mother and daughter in this collection. The story, which is divided into nine brief sections and narrated in the first person, chronicles a young girl's struggle to gain emotional independence from her mother. It focuses on the interconnected themes of power and powerlessness to which Kincaid will return so often in her stories and novels.

The first section of "My Mother" opens with a statement of the devastating burden that anger at her mother places on the daughter, expressed in a hyperbolic, exaggerated note that sets the tone for the rest of the story: immediately after wishing her mother dead, the daughter cries enough tears to drench the earth around her. This use of rhetorical overstatement as a stylistic device will aid Kincaid in the portrayal of the mother as a larger-than-life figure and of the emotional connection between them as deeper and more binding than such connections normally are. She will also establish the themes around which the tale will revolve, themes she has elaborated in earlier work: the immeasurable closeness that linked mother and daughter, a suffocating, overwhelming love; and the devastation of the separation between them when puberty sets in and the daughter must grow a bosom of her own on which to rest her head. The flood of tears that opened the story then becomes a small pond of "thick and black and poisonous" water, and the relationship between mother and daughter becomes one of pretense and hypocrisy.

In the second section of the story, Kincaid plays with images of light and shadow to depict a ritualized dance of broken harmony between mother and daughter. The sequence, unfolding like a dream, opens with a familiar image in Kincaid's writing--that of the young woman seeking her reflection in the mirror as symbolic of the search for an identity independent of the mother. The effort is fruitless because the room is submerged in darkness and the mother controls the light. The play of shadows in the glow of the candles lit by the mother is depicted as a dance that mirrors their conflictive relationship, reversing the established balance of power, where the all-powerful mother reigns supreme. The shadows make a space between them "as if they were making room for someone else," displacing the daughter. But then the mother's shadow is shown dancing to the daughter's tune, giving her a fleeting sense of control before the mother blows out the candles. The daughter's brief and illusory taste of power underscores the mother's strength and authority and returns the daughter to her initial posture, still sitting on the bed, "trying to get a good look at myself" (55).

In the third section of the story, mother and daughter transform themselves into lizards by means of an oil rendered from reptile livers. The mother's transformation is described in great detail; the daughter's is presented as a secondary, imitative gesture that disallows any possibility of her own independent metamorphosis. The mother's mutation into a reptile, usually a snake, is familiar to Kincaid's readers. It is often linked to the representation of the mother as a jablesse, a creature of evil that can transform herself into anything she wishes. The details used to describe the mother's new form are frightening, even revolting: teeth arranged into rows reaching back to her throat, hairlessness, a flattened head with blazing, revolving eyeballs. The daughter's mimicry of the mother is poignantly described as having reduced her to traveling on her underbelly, with a darting and flickering tongue.

In the fourth section, mother and daughter are standing on the seabed in a perfect mimicry of harmony, both aware of the hypocrisy and pretense needed to sustain their hapless relationship. The daughter sighs--"the kind of sigh she had long ago taught me could evoke sympathy" (56)--and the mother receives her sighs as her due, in a wordless play of appearances. Once again, Kincaid elaborates a symbolic representation of the mother/daughter relationship as one fraught with tensions that arise as the daughter grows into adulthood and must establish a relationship of equality with her mother. The process of maturation, presented in this section as a physical transformation that gives the daughter an impregnable carapace and makes her feel invincible, shakes their wordless arrangement to its foundation. Their relationship requires the mother's dominance and the daughter's submission; hence the daughter's ire when her hopes to see the mother "permanently cemented to the seabed" are disappointed and the mother looms above her, still bigger and more powerful. The daughter's struggle and frustration against this imposed powerlessness leads her to a rejection of her mother's caresses, followed by "a horrible roar, then a self-pitying whine" (56). Kincaid recreates the daughter's bitterness through images of repulsion: as the daughter becomes a woman (like her mother) her skin blackens, cracks, and falls away; like the mother, she grows rows of teeth in retractable trays; as they walk out of the Garden of Fruits they leave in their trail small colonies of worms. These images are meant to evoke for the reader the festering anger that poisons the daughter's life.

In the fifth section, Kincaid continues to build on the daughter's festering bitterness as a developing theme. Here, after establishing the mother's contemptuous mimicry of the daughter, the daughter attempts to defy and destroy the mother by building a house for her over a deep hole. As in the preceding section, Kincaid portrays the daughter's growth into womanhood as a series of physical transformations undergone in symbolic spaces; here, the mother and daughter find themselves in a cold and dark cave where the daughter grows special adaptive features (lenses that allow her to see in the darkness, a special coat to protect her from the cold) only to find the mother mocking her achievements and laughing at her. The daughter then builds a beautiful house with all the features that would please her mother--her own mockery of perfection and happy domesticity as it conceals a menacing hole, symbol of the emptiness of their own domestic felicity. She hopes that the mother will fall into the hole and thereby into her power, but the mother once again proves her omnipotence by walking on air once she enters the house and praising its excellence. The daughter is left to her admission of defeat (she fills up the hole) and venting of her rage (she burns the house to the ground).

The sixth section returns to an earlier theme--that of the mother as a colossal physical presence that overwhelms the daughter, leaving her glowing red with anger. The daughter's attempt at separation is at best only partially successful: she lives on an island with eight moons, but covers their surface with expressions she has seen on her mother's face; she builds a house across a dead pond from her mother's, but cries constantly for the latter's company. Here, Kincaid expands on an image she had used in the first section of the story--namely, that of the poisoned pond (which earlier had been formed out of the daughter's tears of bitterness and regrets) as the symbol of strains that lead to a separation between mother and daughter, strains linked to the daughter's desire for an independent existence. The section ends with the daughter's crying herself into a deep dreamless sleep.

The seventh section returns to a pivotal moment in Kincaid's personal history, one she has used as symbol of separation before and after the writing of "My Mother": the mother walking the daughter to the jetty from which she will board the boat that will take her away from her home island. But here she reverses the by-now-familiar elements of the anecdote so that what begins as a ritual of separation ends as a rite of reconciliation and oneness. She returns to the sleep motif of the previous section--where the daughter, worn out by her burning anger at the mother, falls into a dreamless sleep--although here the daughter's sleep in the cocoon of a boat encased in a large green bottle and the dream takes her back home. Like a film being rewound, mother and daughter move from separation to recognition, from caution and politeness to walking in step, from talking to a merging of voices, until the daughter could no longer see "where she left off and I began" (60).

The eighth section returns to the image of the house as the idealized space where mother and daughter can live in perfect harmony, merging and separating as creatures about to enter "the final stage of our evolution" (60). Here, in order to set the mood of continuity and permanence for the section, Kincaid relies on elements drawn from her own mother's autobiography (which she will develop more fully in The Autobiography of My Mother), in particular that of the young woman crippled in a bicycle accident, an episode linked to the experiences of Kincaid's maternal aunt. The idealized home in which mother and daughter can live in perfect unison--the mother's house--contains within it the past, encapsulated in the memories it holds of things and events that have passed in and through it. The rooms open into each other, in an image familiar to moviegoers (see, e.g., the dream sequences designed by Salvador Dalí for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound) to signal the opening of doors to the past or the deeper recesses of the unconscious. Mother and daughter are represented as walking through the rooms as if one, an image preceded by that of the daughter lying in the hollow of the mother's stomach, as if she had returned to the womb.

In the ninth and final section, the daughter is depicted as having fully embraced her submission to the mother and is rewarded by being allowed to merge with her. In the last of her mother's many transformations, she becomes Yemaya, Afro-Caribbean deity of the seas, who sees to it that the fishermen return to land with a bountiful catch. Drawing from one of the salient images of the previous section, the daughter appears ensconced in the mother's "enormous lap." Images of paradise abound as the story comes to its close, underscoring the notion of the daughter's perfect happiness now that she and the mother are one: a bower made from flowers, a hummingbird that nests on the daughter's stomach ("a sign of my fertileness," 61), warm rain, and lambs (which she uses in the story as a symbol of childlike innocence and vulnerability).

"At the Bottom of the River,"

"At the Bottom of the River," the story that gives the book its title, is the longest of the volume. The six sections that compose the narrative revisit the central themes of the collection, from the allure of the void and nothingness of "Blackness," through the evocation of the dignity and integrity of the father in "In the Night," to the lost idyllic relationship with the mother of "Girl," "The Mother," and "Wingless."

"At the Bottom of the River" opens with a meditation on man's responsibility to interpret and give meaning to nature. The opening paragraph is but a description of a wondrous natural landscape of steep mountains, powerful streams, plains and ridges, gorges and glittering pools, all awaiting "the eye, the hand, the foot that shall then give all this a meaning" (63). There is a faint trace of mockery in this description of man as the measure of all things, a note of slight derision, as if to indicate that the narrator is not quite sure that man is up to the task of interpreting a nature more powerful and lasting than he is. The second paragraph of the segment underscores this notion, as it depicts a man living in a small room, existing in a world "bereft of its very nature," unaware that there is a task of great magnitude open to him if he could stir and embrace it. Kincaid builds this section on repetitions of the phrase "he cannot conceive," underscoring his poverty of spirit and imagination, his very incapacity to take stock of his world. Unlike the many young female narrators struggling between darkness and light and the search for knowledge and identity in At the Bottom of the River, this man "sits in nothing" (64) and cannot be the measure of anything.

The second segment of the story returns to the image of the father figure Kincaid had developed in "In the Night," a figure that owes much to that of her own stepfather. This portrait of the father, like the previous one, underscores an ordinary man's delight in the habitual and commonplace. He is a man who, unlike the solitary man of the first segment of the story, has embraced his life of work and domesticity and glories in his routine. His work as a carpenter offers meaning and pleasure; the placidity of his domestic arrangements is a source of joy. He is contented and satisfied, and just a bit vain. This portrait, however, differs from the one Kincaid offers in "In the Night" in significant ways. In "At the Bottom of the River," the father figure is shaken out of his complacency when one day, seemingly out of the blue, he glimpses the immensity of the Earth's magnitude--represented here by fossils, layers of geological strata, veins of gold in stone, mountains covered with hot lava--and realizes his own paltriness and insignificance. The realization destroys his self-satisfaction and contentment, as now he finds himself confronting death and nothingness, imagining that "in one hand he holds emptiness and yearning and in the other desire fulfilled" (67). The loss of innocence embodied in this man's confrontation with the potential meaninglessness of life is poignantly counterpoised against the theme of the young woman's loss of innocence that runs through the stories of At the Bottom of the River. Unlike the naive, unquestioning father figure she has created in her stories, only occasionally dreaming of things beyond his limited horizons, Kincaid's young women narrators are without illusions. Their struggle against their mothers, their refusal to yield to the many transformations that would have made them like their mothers, has left them without that capacity for wonder the father possesses; but it has also left them with a shield of protection against the naiveté that blights the father's life after his realization of his own inconsequence in the large scale of things. They are keenly aware of the futility of many human struggles and, unlike the father, know that before them there is "a silence so dreadful, a vastness, its length and breadth and depth immeasurable. Nothing" (68).

The third part of "At the Bottom of the River" further develops the theme of death and nothingness of the previous section. In this segment, however, there is the narrator's own voice, a narrative "I," confronting the void. The meditation on death with which the section opens underscores the narrator's existentialist perspective: the inevitability of death can strip life of all meaning and she struggles to hold on to some significance through the contemplation of her own place in the cycle of life. She wishes she could reach out with her hand to make the earth stand still, but is forced to accept "the death in life" (73). If in the previous segment Kincaid juxtaposed the father's efforts to find meaning in life against the magnitude of the geological cycles the Earth has undergone, here the cycles of plant and animal life are presented as the unstoppable force making a mockery of the narrator's attempts to defy death and oblivion. "Death is natural," someone says to her, and she feels mocked.

In part four of the narrative Kincaid returns to a theme that readers have come to associate with her fiction--that of the estrangement that develops between mother and daughter when the latter enters puberty and must begin to separate from the mother and establish her own independent identity. This theme, as revisited in "At the Bottom of the River," opens with an invocation to the light, Kincaid's favorite metaphor for the quest for maturity and self-knowledge. In a direct reference to the figure of the daughter in "Blackness," the narrator of "At the Bottom of the River" struggles to exist "between the day and the night" (73), between light and darkness. She sees herself as a child, when she lived in perfect harmony with her mother and regarded her face as one of "wondrous beauty." In a rare reference to the colonial background of her childhood in At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid links the unqualified love and harmony she felt for her mother then to her period of blindness to the realities of Antigua's colonial situation. (The theme will become one of increasing importance in her writing after the publication of this collection.) Here, Kincaid offers an image of false concord in her description of the rows of dark-skinned colonial girls mindlessly singing an English hymn. The narrator's process of maturation involves shedding both her illusion of blissful unity with her mother and her delusion about glorious moments of contentment and joy being possible with "wanton hues of red and gold and blue" (an allusion to the Union Jack) swaying in the breeze.

The fifth section of "At the Bottom of the River" accounts for the title of the story; here, the narrator stands by the mouth of the river, staring through the clear and still water at the world that unfolds at the bottom. What she sees are pictures of idealized domesticity: a house of rough heavy planks surrounded by a wide stretch of perfectly mowed green grass, a flower garden, everything imbued with a supernatural light that fills everything and holds some profound but as yet unknown meaning. A naked woman appears (yet another rendition of the mother figure) who directs the narrator's gaze toward a world stripped down to the bare essentials, where all the familiar elements of the landscape--sun, moon, mountains, seas--are distilled to their very essence.

Kincaid returns in this segment of the story to her use of the light as a metaphor for clarity of vision. The light that fell on everything made all things transparent, "so that nothing could be hidden" (77). The narrator (the daughter), as most of Kincaid's narrators in the tales collected in At the Bottom of the River, takes advantage of the light to look at herself and within herself. The description of the physical characteristics she sees--as if for the first time--culminate in her description of her skin as red--"the red of flames when a fire is properly fed" (79)--a characteristic Kincaid often evokes to represent female beauty and fulfillment. Above all, the narrator uses the light to recognize her complete dominion over her will--her having attained maturity and independence. She is now ready to enter the water and allow her physical body to dissolve into it, to penetrate that supernatural space created by the light at the bottom of the river. As she fuses with the light she becomes like a prism, "refracting and reflecting light," and finally attains beauty.

In the sixth and final segment of the story the narrator emerges from the light in which she had plunged in the preceding section to ponder the power of a small glowing thing surrounded by darkness to help her emerge from her pit and lure her toward life. Here, Kincaid responds to the despair she had described as belonging to the two men of the first and second parts by underscoring her narrator's desire to struggle against the blackness and nothingness that lead to such despair. She then moves her character toward the light, reentering the everyday domestic sphere, reencountering commonplace objects. She asserts the strength of her connections to "all that is human endeavor," and feels herself growing "solid and complete," her name "filling up [her] mount" (82). Kincaid closes the story--and the book--with an affirmation of the daughter's identity and her determination to embrace life, thus bringing the process of maturation and separation from the mother--the thematic focus of the book--to its logical and most satisfying conclusion.

A Feminist Reading of At the Bottom of the River

The work of Nancy Chodorow, author of The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), is notable among American feminists for its emphasis on the importance of mothering in the formation of gendered identities and its pioneering consideration of class and race issues as crucial elements in children's acquisition of notions of appropriate gender behavior. Mothering. Chodorow has argued, is a process geared to producing female children who will fit comfortably in the private, domestic world, leaving male children to the public, social world (Chodorow, 174). It is Chodorow's contention that growing into womanhood means coming to terms with "the ideology, meanings, and expectations that go into being a gendered member of our society" (98). Girls, Chodorow points out, are expected to be "more like and continuous with" the mother than boys, making the process of separation from the mother a more distressing process for girls, who are not expected to "individuate themselves, to see themselves as distinct from their mothers" (166). In her analysis of Chodorow's work, Elizabeth V. Spellman takes her theories one step further, arguing that "what one learns when one learns one's gender identity is the gender identity appropriate to one's ethnic, class, national, and racial identity" (88).

Chodorow's theories can be extremely useful in helping us understand Kincaid's depiction of the tensions between mother and daughter as stemming from the clash between the mother's desire to mold the daughter into a copy of herself and the daughter's determination to develop her own independent personality and ideas. In At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid uses the figure of the mother as the main conduit for the myriad limitations that a patriarchal society imposes on young women. The mother's efforts to channel the daughter's activities, interests, and behavior into patterns that the mother perceives as socially acceptable lead to the daughter's perceiving her as a jablesse calling on the daughter to transform herself into disgusting things--lizards, snakes, monsters.

The tensions between mother and daughter are aggravated in At the Bottom of the River by Kincaid's insistence on establishing links between the mother and colonial culture and mores. As complicated as the stresses between mother and daughter are in her fiction, they are further problematized by the mother having formed her notions of the proper ideas and behavior for her daughter from British colonial models. The mother's admonitions stem from her perceived need to form the daughter into a proper colonial subject, one who does not give in to local or native ways but must imitate colonial patterns of behavior. In "Girl," for example, we see the mother functioning as such an agent of colonial assimilation, teaching her daughter what she perceives as behavior necessary to "whiten" herself. In that story, as in many others in the collection, the daughter's resistance stresses her preference for native ways as an affirmation of the native culture. The strains between mother and daughter thus acquire symbolic meaning, as they are made to stand in representation of the struggles for supremacy between colonial empire and the colonized. The mother's efforts to adapt and embrace colonial culture must be seen as representative of her acceptance of the status quo, of her own colonized mentality; the daughter's efforts to establish her own separate identity, in turn, stand as representative of Antigua's attempts to nurture its own political and cultural independence.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058873