Lucy, age nineteen, comes from Antigua to be an au pair for an upper middle class white family living in an unnamed city much like New York. Upon arrival, she is disappointed because all the landmarks were not as vivid as they were in her daydreams. In reality, these landmarks are worn down and dirty. Lucy goes through a variety of experiences for the first time: riding an elevator, being in an apartment, using a refrigerator. That night Lucy, exhausted from all the change, sleeps soundly.
On her second day, Lucy experiences the difference between the sun in Antigua and the one in America. By mistake, Lucy puts on a thin dress, assuming that in this new place a sunny day in January means warm weather, as it does in Antigua. She is surprised when she steps outside and the air is cold. She notes that "I was no longer in a tropical zone and I felt cold inside and out, the first time such a sensation had come over me" (6). Now Lucy understands why the people she reads about in books are homesick. She expects to leave behind her discontentment and sad thoughts, but her feelings remain.
Lucy often takes comfort in recalling memories from home. She dreams of her grandmother's meals of pink mullet and green figs cooked in coconut milk. As she settles in her small room off the kitchen, she looks at her Bible sitting on the dresser. The Bible was given to her by her cousin just before she left home. Lucy remembers that as young children, she and her cousin would sit under her house and read the book of Revelations to terrify one another. At that time, she never would have imagined a day would come "when these people I left behind, my own family, would not appear before me in one way or the other" (8).
While dealing with her feelings of homesickness, Lucy adjusts to her daily duties. As the au par, Lucy walks the four girls to school, feeds them lunch, and plays with them in the afternoons. Lucy does not have to fulfill household cleaning duties; the family has a maid. The maid feels Lucy is overly pious, speaking and walking like a nun. One day in particular, the maid challenges Lucy to dance. After seeing the maid dance beautifully, Lucy knows she cannot compete. She defends herself by asserting that the maid's music is shallow and meaningless, unsuitable for dancing. The maid's response is repugnance. Lucy says, "From her face, I could see she had only one feeling about me: how sick to the stomach I made her" (12).
Lucy enjoys eating dinner with the family. She observes how pleasant the family is to one another, that the children are free to eat in whatever manner they please, and even that they make up naughty rhymes at the table. It is during mealtime that Lucy earns the name "Visitor" from the family, because Lucy never seems part of things but stares at them strangely as they eat. Lewis, the father, looks at Lucy sympathetically and says "Poor Visitor."
The father then tells a story about an uncle who moves to Canada to raise monkeys and eventually enjoys being around the monkeys more than humans. Lucy takes this opportunity to tell the family a story about a dream she has had. In the dream, Lewis is chasing Lucy around the house naked while his wife Mariah is yelling for Lewis to catch her. Eventually, Lucy falls into the bottom of a hole with silver and blue snakes. An awkward silence follows her story. Lucy's intent is to show the family that they are important enough to her to appear in her dreams. Lewis and Mariah, however, are aware of the Freudian implications of Lucy's dream. Lucy does not know who Freud is.
Lucy is distinct from other narratives about immigrants coming to America. In this novel, Kincaid writes in the pattern of the traditionally white, male, European or American bildungsroman, but she reinvents the form through a black, female, Caribbean protagonist. Thus, how Lucy processes what happens to her is just as important as what actually happens. Lucy goes through a series of physical adjustments: the novelty of a refrigerator, riding in an elevator, and living in an apartment. These things in themselves are neutral, but they are new to Lucy and represent the cultural shift she is experiencing. In America, Lucy is now bombarded with new ideas, forcing her to adjust the way she thinks about the world. Throughout her first unhappy days Lucy is consistently reminded "how uncomfortable the new can make you feel" (4).
Every day, Lucy encounters things in this new world that disappoint, go outside her expectations, or challenge her fundamental understanding of the world. Going outside in a summer dress in January is a key example of Lucy's difficult adjustment. When Lucy discovers it is cold, her sense of reality is shaken. She says that "something I took completely for granted, 'the sun is shining, the air is warm,' was not so" (5). Sadly, Lucy has to learn that her expectations will not always reconcile with reality. Likewise, Lucy expects the landmarks to be as lucid as they are in her daydreams. In reality, they are crowded, dull, and dirty.
When describing her disappointment, Lucy notes:
In a daydream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my drowning soul...Now that I saw these places, they looked ordinary, dirty, worn down by so many people entering and leaving them in real life, and it occurred to me that I could not be the only person in the world for whom they were a fixture of fantasy. It was not my first bout with the disappointment of reality and it would not be my last. (3-4)
At the core of Lucy's survival is the dexterity with which Lucy handles disappointment and continues to forge her identity despite it. Although she is disillusioned, Lucy does not forsake dreaming; Lucy's dreams remain her lifeboat during her first days. Even so, she dreams not about the future but of "pink mullet and green figs cooked in coconut milk" (7). Lucy dreams of home. These memories are the threads that knit together her innermost being but which will continue to haunt her as she attempts to sever all ties to her past.
Lucy's description of her living quarters is a continuation of her quest for independence, a push past the boundaries of race and class that she perceives. Lucy's description of her room demonstrates her alienated state and how she is unable to fit within the categories that society seems to have made for her. She says:
The room in which I lay was a small room just off the kitchen--the maid's room. I was used to a small room, but this was a different sort of small room. The ceiling was very high and the walls went all the way up to the ceiling, enclosing the room like a box--a box which cargo traveling a long way should be shipped. But I was not cargo. I was only an unhappy young woman living in a maid's room, and I was not even the maid. I was the young girl who watches over the children and goes to school at night. (7)
This passage is critical for understanding how Lucy perceives herself. First, she is not cargo. She is not a commodity, not a mere source of labor whose sole value might be crudely linked with her ability to work. Second, she is not a maid. Lucy rejects that job title, which would mark her socio-economic position. In fact, she is not even an au pair. Lucy chooses to describe her duties (watching children and going to night school) rather than allowing a job description, au pair, to define her. Lucy also includes her "unhappy" emotional state as a further testament to her alienation in this new environment.
The title of this chapter, "Poor Visitor," underscores these feelings. Everything is new to Lucy, from the food to the running water. To name herself too soon would be to limit herself unfairly. She has entered bravely into a new world, but now she feels alone in it. She searches for some slice of similarity to home, yet she only finds difference. The family's maid looks familiar, but in reality she is antagonistic and very different.
Although Lucy is also trying to push past boundaries of race, Kincaid does not address the subject directly in this chapter. The novel does not introduce a black-white split but a schism between African-Americans and West Indians. Lucy's encounter with the African-American maid is perceived as an intra-racial incident. Although they may appear similar to outsiders, they know they are different. The antagonistic manner in which the maid challenges Lucy to dance is the maid's attempt to assert power over Lucy. The maid derides the way Lucy walks and talks. Yet Lucy thwarts the maid's attempt, because she does not seek approval from the maid, certainly not on the maid's terms. Instead she asserts pride in her own culture and "burst[s] into a calypso about a girl who ran away to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and had a good time, with no regrets" (12). Lucy demonstrates that she can transcend the boundaries of race without denying or being ashamed of her own heritage.