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Lucy Summary and Analysis

by Jamaica Kincaid

"Lucy"

A full year has passed since Lucy arrived in the United States. She reflects on the changes that have occurred since then. She sees herself then and now as two separate people. Before, Lucy was a simple girl who wanted to conform to convention, become a nurse, and obey her parents and the law. Now, Lucy is in the process of inventing herself, still becoming aware of who that self is.

Lucy then begins to sort out what she does and does not know about herself through a series of recollections. During an embarrassing conversation with a woman who had visited her homeland, Lucy realizes that even though her family has lived on the small island for generations, she has never really seen more than a quarter of it. Upon further contemplation, she recognizes that the only history of the island she knew was that of its colonization by the British. Lucy contrasts this present awareness of colonization with her experience as a child. As a young schoolgirl, Lucy disliked the British for superficial reasons like their looks, clothes, and choice of music. At the time, she wished to be ruled instead by the French.

At this point, Lucy defines the past as "the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in." She summarizes some of the main changes that have occurred within the past year. Mariah, once perpetually happy, is now sad, since Lewis has left her for Dinah, Mariah's best friend. Lucy no longer lives with the family. She decided to leave after the news of her father's death. Lucy now has new feelings of guilt, recalling that she actually wished her father dead. Yet, Lucy's guilt is self-proclaimed, and she feels "like Lucifer, doomed to build wrong upon wrong."

Lucy notes that she did not regret not opening her mother's letters until after she had learned of her father's death. With that thought, she sends her mother a last letter telling them she is moving and provides a fake address. When Lucy informs Mariah of her decision to move, Mariah feels betrayed, realizing she is truly alone.

The holidays that year are miserable. Lewis gives Mariah a fur coat that she hates but pretends to like, and Lucy receives an African necklace from Mariah. The new year arrives, and Lucy moves into her new apartment with her best friend Peggy. The apartment is middle class: it has a kitchen, sitting room, two bedrooms, and a bath.

It is a Sunday, and Lucy is glad she does not have to go to church. Sitting at the desk Mariah has given her, Lucy begins to ponder her name: Lucy Josephine Potter. Josephine comes from her mother's uncle, Mr. Joseph. Supposedly, he was rich from the money he made from sugar in Cuba. After his death, however, the family discovered he had lost his fortune and was living in a tomb. Potter is probably from the English slaveholder who owned her family. Lucy recalls that as a young child, she called herself by different names: Emily, Charlotte, and Jane. One day she announced to her mother that she wanted to change her name to Enid. Lucy's mother became very enraged. Not until later did Lucy discover that an obeah named Enid was hired by her father's lover to kill Lucy's mother and her unborn child. Lucy recalls another time when Lucy's mother was pregnant, malnourished and cranky, and Lucy asked why she had been given her name. Lucy's mother responded under her breath that she was named after the devil himself, Lucifer--a character Lucy had read about in Milton's Paradise Lost.

Later that day, Paul brings flowers as a housewarming gift and takes Peggy and Lucy out for dinner. That night Paul sleeps over in Lucy's bed.

On Monday, Lucy starts her job for Timothy Simon, a photographer who takes pictures of still life but really wants to travel the world. Lucy types, answers the phone, and is allowed to develop film in his darkroom when he is not using it. Life in the apartment with Peggy becomes mundane as they grow apart. Lucy feels increasingly alone and isolated. She suspects Paul is cheating with Peggy, but she does not care.

The book closes as Lucy opens a blank book and writes her name on a page in blue ink: Lucy Josephine Potter. The sight of her name on the page causes her to cry she writes: "I wish I could love someone so much I would die from it."

Analysis

"Lucy" is an highly reflective chapter as Lucy looks back on her year and tries to sort out who she has become and who she is becoming. The physical changes are minor. For example, she now wears her hair closely cut. Yet Lucy knows that a world of change has occurred within, and she tries to process these changes consciously.

Through recollections of past events, Lucy articulates the effects of colonialism on her life. She realizes her ignorance about her homeland when a white tourist describes to her some places on her small island where she has never stepped foot. Lucy resentfully describes what factual knowledge she does have: "I know this: it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493; Columbus never set foot there but only named it in passing, after a church in Spain" (135). Lucy recalls that even as a young child she resented the notion of imperialism, even though she has never been formally taught or made aware of the modern concept. Lucy remembers refusing to sing, "Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never, never shall be slaves," following her natural, logical observation that she was not British and that she "not too long ago would have been a slave" (135).

Lucy's departure from Mariah's apartment begins with the death of her father. She tries to imagine the details of the funeral: the coffin, his clothes. When Lucy goes to Mariah in order to sort out her mixed emotions, she arrives at the notion of guilt. Lucy sees that guilt has been a central emotion in her life, though she has not always understood it:

Guilty! I had always thought that was a judgment passed on you by others and so it was new to me that it could be a judgment you pass on yourself. Guilty! But I did not feel like a murderer; I felt like Lucifer doomed to build wrong upon wrong.

Guilt is not, however, what Lucy feels when she leaves the apartment. Mariah is angry when Lucy announces her decision. Mariah believes that her support and nurturing has merited loyalty from Lucy, especially now that Lewis has left. But Lucy has no sympathy, at least not for Mariah, and she only wants to say to Mariah, "Your situation is an everyday thing. Men behave this way all the time" (141). Once again, Lucy wants Mariah to confront the reality that Lucy and other women from her country have lived with. The guilt belongs to so many men, not to Mariah or to Lucy.

In this context, some of Lucy's statements involve misandry, perhaps a cultural misandry that either oppresses men or gives them license to act immorally: "Everybody knew that men have no morals, that they do not know how to behave, that they do not know how to treat other people" (142). After moving into her new apartment with Peggy, Lucy expresses this stereotype once again, suspecting that Peggy and Paul are having an affair. But Lucy does not care. She accepts the possibility not only because it is what she expects, but also because Lucy's primary concerns are not for other people, but for herself.

Naming is a powerful concept in this book. As a young girl, Lucy inquired into how she was named. All parts of her name represent important aspects of her identity. Lucy sees the influence of colonialism in her last name, Potter, which she infers is derived from an English slaveholder who owned her relatives prior to their emancipation. A huge part of Lucy's anger is also related to her name through is her mother's low expectations for Lucy. Her mother encouraged her three brothers to go to college while only expecting Lucy to be a nurse. Lucy's middle name, Josephine, indicates this low expectation, because with this name her mother chose to name her after a supposedly rich uncle who died broke and lived in a tomb. Lucy's mother deals another harsh blow to Lucy when she tells her daughter that she is named after the Devil himself, Lucifer.

The reference to Lucifer in Milton's Paradise Lost is apt. In the epic poem, the victory of good over evil is clear, but Milton makes Lucifer very sympathetic for his desire to be free from God's control. Lucy revels in being the anti-hero like Lucifer, rejecting normative morality and convention. While Milton makes clear that God's morals are good and therefore have no need of being challenged, merely human conventions are artifacts of human pride in setting one's own path. Lucy rejects many sets of cultural norms out of the pride that so many readers admire in Lucifer, although she cannot replace those norms with anything but another set of human norms. And it is not clear that she wants any new set of norms as she forges her new identity. Lucy articulates her anthem of radical freedom through self-invention:

I understood that I was inventing myself, and that I was doing this more in the way of a painter than of a scientist. I could not count on precision or calculation; I could only count on intuition. I did not have anything exactly in mind, but when the picture was complete I would know. (134)

Lucy remains stuck in a contradiction, wanting to be free to love with her whole being, which would mean that she is no longer free. At some point, radical freedom must resolve itself into real commitments, but Lucy is not quite ready for this idea. Lucy's false belief that the past is "the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in" (137) provides her with a great deal of difficulty as she symbolically and literally starts a new page in her journal. After having rid herself of all attachments, her first desire expresses her difficulty: "I wish I could love someone so much I would die from it" (164).

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