The Mother-Daughter Relationship
The mother-daughter relationship is a common topic throughout many of Jamaica Kincaid's novels. It is particularly prominent in Annie John, Lucy, and Autobiography of my Mother. Yet Lucy focuses intensely on severing these ties.
Lucy's mother is a foreboding presence who never physically appears in America but who still influences Lucy thoughts and actions. Lucy's relationship with her mother has multiple resonances. On one level, the author uses it to explore the complex tension between mothers and daughters more generally. On another level, it represents the often strained relationship between imperial nations and their colonies.
Kincaid further complicates this theme through the character of Mariah. Mariah serves as a maternal figure for Lucy while Lucy is in America. The novel establishes a clear dichotomy between Lucy's mother and Mariah. Whereas Lucy's mother is oppressively dependent and painfully neglectful of Lucy's needs, Mariah treats Lucy like one of her own. Mariah exposes Lucy to museums, gives her gifts, and looks out for her general well-being as she adjusts to her new environment. Even so, this surrogate relationship is not without complications; the unequal power dynamics between employer and employee always loom beneath the surface.
Colonialism repeatedly surfaces in Lucy's flashbacks of her homeland, a British colony. As a product of the British educational system, Lucy begins to realize the extent of its influence more powerfully once she has left her home culture. Lucy remembers as a child being forced to memorize British poems about daffodils, even though she would not see such a flower until becoming almost twenty years old. Even at a young age, Lucy was rebellious toward what she perceived as Britain's oppressive presence; she refused to sing "Rule, Britannia!" in her school choir. The educational system has been pivotal in discouraging rebellion and reinforcing colonial rule. Yet as a child Lucy intuitively understood such motives and chose to rebel anyway.
Nevertheless, the legacy of colonialism on notions of power and social structure remains deep throughout the novel. Its pervasive influence resurfaces in contemporary settings. In coming to America, Lucy attempts to leave colonialism behind, yet even in this new land, Lucy consistently encounters phenomena that she can trace back to colonialism--tourism and racism. Mariah introduces Lucy to many peers who have been to her home on vacation. Just as Columbus would pass an island by boat and name it, the tourists claim a certain authority to roam from island to island for leisure, without worrying about whether they might be exploiting native peoples and hurting rather than helping local economies. Lucy's experience also makes her a keen observer of social structure in America. While riding a train for the first time, she observes that all of the people who look like her relatives are performing jobs as servants.
Lucy is determined to shape herself in her own way, particularly in sharp contrast to the West Indian community she is trying to flee. She goes to great extremes to detach herself from the people, places, and notions that bind her. Lucy's long journey to America is her attempt to detach herself from the physical place of her home.
A particularly strong bond that Lucy cannot fully break is the one between herself and her mother. The presence of Lucy's mother in her mind haunts her while she is in America. In an effort to silence her mother's voice, Lucy refuses to open any of her mother's letters. Likewise, when the bonds and obligations towards her family in America become too strong, she severs those as well by moving into her own apartment. As Kincaid illustrates Lucy's attempts to detach herself and develop an independent identity, she questions whether or not complete detachment is possible or desirable. At the end of the book, Lucy expresses a desire for attachment: "I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it."
The plot and its flashbacks give the reader a nonlinear trajectory of Lucy's sexual awakening. At the beginning of "Tongue," Kincaid presents a jarring image of Lucy's first kiss at the age of fourteen. During that time as well, she discovers that she enjoys the sensation of touch when her young partner fondles her breast. Yet it is in her first year in America that Lucy's full sexual self emerges. She loses her virginity and has several subsequent sexual encounters with men and women. It is important to note that all of these sexual encounters occur without any binding emotional attachments. She emphasizes that having sex is not necessarily related to being in love. When she thinks her boyfriend Paul is cheating with her best friend, she claims not to care. In Lucy's journey to forge a new independent identity, she attempts to sever attachments rather than form new ones.
Storytelling is a common motif in identity formation across the diverse cultures of the Caribbean. Listening to stories of relatives and important life events plays a powerful role in forming one's identity. This oral tradition is a critical form of cultural preservation, largely untainted by colonialism. Kincaid uses Lucy's retelling of stories as a way for Lucy to keep up her connections despite her individualism; Lucy retells stories both to stay connected with her past and to claim that history as her own. The numerous flashbacks in Lucy are also a vehicle for Lucy to come to terms with her past and present selves. Kincaid's beautifully crafted prose allows these transitions from past to present to be fluid, just as these times remain connected in Lucy's mind.
Kincaid is known for portraying strong female protagonists. Men in most of her works have minor, ancillary roles. In Lucy, there are few male characters worthy of emulation. Mariah's husband, Lewis, at first seems honorable but shows his foibles. He wields a grotesque power as he ruthlessly runs over a young rabbit with his car, and by cheating on his wife with her best friend, he destroys his previously happy family and marriage. Lucy's father is also exposed as a womanizer who has had numerous illegitimate children. He dies leaving his children in poverty and without even enough money for his burial. Hugh's exonerating trait is that he is well traveled. Yet, Lucy focuses more on their sexual relationship than on his thoughts and perceptions about the world. Through Lucy's perspective, Kincaid has created a world where men are not the center.
In many ways Lucy shapes her new identity by rebelling against expectations. Lucy's mother expects her to attend nursing school, but Lucy studies photography. Mariah attempts to find Lucy suitable peers as friends, but Lucy befriends Peggy, who smokes and shares Lucy's rebellious spirit. Underneath Lucy's rebellion is a deep-seated anger. She is angry with her mother and at the injustice she perceives that she is born into. Therefore she seeks out a counterculture, and she finds one that involves sex, drugs, and art. This cultural break enables her to work through some of the debilitating issues of her past and possibly to start anew.
Lucy Essays and Related Content
- Lucy: Major Themes
- Lucy: Essays
- Lucy: Questions
- Lucy: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Jamaica Kincaid: Biography
- Lucy Summary
- About Lucy
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of "Poor Visitor"
- Summary and Analysis of "Mariah"
- Summary and Analysis of "The Tongue"
- Summary and Analysis of "Cold Heart"
- Summary and Analysis of "Lucy"
- Postcolonial Literary Theory
- Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
- Sigmund Freud (1856-1949)
- Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
- John Milton (1608-1674)
- William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
- Related Links on Lucy
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources