Lucy Study Guide

In addition to brilliant explorations of the mother-daughter relationship and its relationship with themes of colonialism, Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy (1990) offers sharp, perceptive commentary on American culture. The author, an Antiguan who came to America as an au pair, uses her life to inspire much of her fiction. Annie John (1985) is a coming-of-age tale of a young girl growing up in Antigua, while Lucy is the story of an au pair who comes to America from a small West Indian island. Although the protagonists have different names, interpreters commonly infer that Lucy picks up where Annie John left off. Yet when we encounter Lucy--unlike young Annie--we find a tenacious determination to sever attachments and achieve independence.

Readers might therefore be tempted to place Lucy within the bounds of the Caribbean's postcolonial literary movement. Many authors in this movement reject what they see as white colonial values in favor of African or West Indian values and modes of expression. They expose the debilitating aftermath of colonial rule and describe how imperialism transformed local societies. Yet Lucy pushes beyond the boundaries of this genre. The protagonist accepts neither British nor West Indian modes of expression. Instead, Lucy forges her own way as a defiant, self-reliant woman. Lucy thus can be explored fruitfully through feminist, postmodern, psychoanalytic, and other theories of literature.

To fully understand Lucy's hostile defiance, one needs to know more than Kincaid's biography; knowing the historical context of the novel is critical. In 1632, England colonized Antigua. After overcoming significant resistance from the native Caribs, the English settlers soon began to grow cash crops such as tobacco, indigo, and sugar. The success of the sugar plantation brought an influx of cheap slave labor. After the abolition of slavery in 1834, Antigua remained under British rule, and life under colonial rule was similar to that of many of Britain's West Indian colonies. The British education system, for instance, was a major disseminator of British cultural values and ideals. Jamaica Kincaid's early literary influences under this system were mostly British. These influences included, for instance, Milton, Dickens, Shakespeare, and the Bronte sisters, as well as the Bible. During the 1960s, Antigua began to push for independence. The island was progressively given control of internal affairs, foreign affairs, and defense but did not gain full independence until 1981. Unfortunately, along with independence came corruption and exploitation. The same native politicians who had blamed colonialism for political and economic upheavals now allowed tourism to exploit the island.

After twenty years Jamaica Kincaid returned to Antigua and was enraged at the condition of the island. The essay A Small Place(1988) is Kincaid's answer to her experience, and it has not been received well among critics because of its rage and open assault on tourism. But this essay perhaps opens the door for the candid antagonism toward oppressive power that Kincaid expresses in Lucy.

Lucy thus is far from an idyllic memoir of a young immigrant's first year in America, nor is it an account of how a girl's dreams come true. Instead, the novel treats the dissolution of dreams as Lucy comes to terms with reality. Lucy's narrative voice resonates strongly throughout the piece. The author gives her the authority of the keen, often satiric observer of her new world, where she is free to sever ties to her past and to face determinedly the blank canvas of her future.