‘Girl’ by Jamaica Kincaid, seems to be written in a mother’s voice talking to her daughter, with interjections from the daughter’s voice in italics. The short story has a sense of rising tension – the mother goes from addressing more mundane, domestic activities to addressing more moral precepts like abortion, the physical act of loving a man, and abusive relationships. The increased pace at which the mother switches from new lesson to new lesson, and the fact that her instructions are never stopped by a full stop, only semi-colons, show how obsessive and thorough the mother persona is about ensuring her daughter doesn’t make the same mistakes she has. This obsessive tone is also implied by the use of command verbs and imperative verbs throughout the story - words like ‘don’t’ ‘wash’ ‘always’ and ‘mustn’t’, make the mother’s warnings seem forceful, and non-negotiable; the passion with which she speaks to her daughter is tangible. The repetition of the phrases ‘this is how you’ and ‘smile’ and ‘set a table’ also show a thorough element of the mother that verges on the pedantic; the lessons she teaches her daughter are not vague, they are specific instructions for specific situations.
When read from a Marxist angle, it’s clear that the mother persona is class-conscious. The reader can tell that she is a fairly working-class woman, from the way that she washes her clothes, and from some of the language she uses - she calls her daughter a ‘slut’, she ‘spits up in the air’ on a whim, she doesn’t use softeners like ‘please’ and ‘maybe’ in her language, instead using harsh, imperative verbs which make her sound blunt. She is also proved to be superstitious when she tells her daughter that ‘something bad won’t fall on her’ - superstition is commonly seen as a working class trait. However, she seems obsessed with the way that her daughter is seen in society, and wants her to be seen as more middle-to-upper-class – the attitude that she tries to instil into her daughter is one of social aspiration. She wants her to stay away from ‘wharf-rat boys’ (a derogatory term for men the mother deems to be of lower societal class than her daughter) and to learn a specific way to ‘set a table for dinner with an important guest’. The contrast between how the mother refers to the the lower-class and the upper-class shows that she perceives the upper-class as better people. It is suggested that ‘the important guest’ is someone who is higher status than the daughter, and that impressing them is very important. Setting the table for the ‘important guest’ is also apparently different to just ‘setting the table for dinner’ – this shows that the mother perceives herself and the upper class as ‘us and them’; she sees them as a completely different branch of society, with different rules and values than her own – values that she tries to instil into her daughter to make her one of ‘them’. It could be possible that the mother has made the mistakes she warns her daughter against, and it is these mistakes that she blamed for her working class status - she is now someone who can’t ‘touch the bread’, and is perceived as a ‘slut’, and this is perhaps why she is so insistent on instructing her daughter; she doesn’t want her life to end up the same way.
‘Girl’ can also be read from a feminist angle. The whole piece could be seen as a long list of expectations and pressures on women, with the mother persona representing a bigger, societal voice as opposed to one specific to her own situation with her daughter. The rhythm created by the semi-colons and repetition make the instructions sound like they have been passed down from the mother persona’s mother to her, and that she is passing them on – this shows that, culturally, women have certain roles to fulfil in society, and that this doesn’t change over time; women are still seen as the domesticated sex, and the softer sex. The fact that there are no full stops, and that the instructions just run into each other make the reader empathise with the daughter in that they feel overwhelmed by the text in the way that the daughter would feel overwhelmed by the expectations her mother has of her. This idea of the daughter being overwhelmed can be seen in the difference between the first first-person italic interjection and the second; the first time the girl interrupts her mother, she seems to be defending herself, using words like ‘but’ and ‘never. However, the second time she interjects she questions herself – this shows how her mother’s overwhelming warnings and instructions have made her doubt herself, and have lowered her status.
Inherent cultural sexism and heavy enforcement of gender roles can be seen throughout ‘Girl’. There is a focus on domesticity – a lot of the mother’s advice is about ‘washing’ and ‘ironing’ ‘sewing’ ‘ironing’ and other home-keeping activities. This enforces the idea that the daughter’s most important role, as she is a woman, is in the house. There is also reference to a patriarchal society – the daughter is taught how to ‘iron (her) father’s khaki shirt’.
There are lots of references to the daughter becoming a ‘slut’, and how this is a bad thing. However, one of the things that make the girl a ‘slut’ is ‘squatting down to play marbles’ because she is ‘not a boy, you know’. This shows the double standards the mother sets regarding genders, because the daughter is not allowed to do what the boys are, solely because she is a girl. It also seems odd that the girl’s mother teaches her how to ‘throw away a child’, to ‘love a man in other ways’ and to ‘bully a man’ – this all seems like ‘sluttish’ behaviour, but it could be argued that the mother doesn’t actually care whether her daughter is a slut or not – she just doesn’t want society to perceive her as one. The mother is, seemingly, more worried about how people will see her daughter than the actual actions her daughter takes.