Lucy Summary and Analysis of "The Tongue"

At age fourteen, Lucy experienced her first kiss. She kissed her best friend's brother, Tanner. The kiss was not typical of a young child--she sucked Tanner's tongue as if trying to discover its flavor. Lucy now describes how she likes to eat cow's tongue, "served in a sauce of lemon juice, onions, cucumber, and pepper" (44).

Lucy remembers this experience while feeding the girls stewed plums and yogurt. She often tells the oldest girl, Miriam, various tall tales in order to get her to eat. Mariah, in contrast, prefers a straightforward and truthful approach with children: "Mariah thought fairytales were a bad idea, especially ones involving princesses who were awakened by long deep sleeps" (45). Mariah does not want her girls to have the wrong expectations growing up.

By now, Lewis has joined the family at the summerhouse. They will be there from mid-June to mid-September. Lewis often has very little to do there; he seems to come mainly in order to indulge Mariah. Lucy takes a moment to describe what she does know about Lewis. He is handsome. He is also a lawyer who loves to tell fantastic stories. Lucy likes him. But she is quick to clarify, "I was not in love with him nor did I have a crush on him. My sympathies were with Mariah. It was my mother who told me I should never takes a man's side over a woman's" (48).

After observing an intimate moment between Mariah and Lewis, Lucy recalls the sensation she felt when Tanner would place his hands on her breasts and suck them. Young Lucy soon learns that this sensation can be felt with other boys. She begins to meet a particular boy to kiss every Saturday . On a whim, she ends the rendezvous because she has found unpleasant the smell of his hair oil.

Since Lucy cannot drive, the girls walk through the forest on the way to the lake every day. Lucy's favorite charge is Miriam. She cares for Miriam as her own mother cared for her. She says, "I loved Miriam from the moment I met her. She was the first person I had loved in a very long while, and I did not know why. I loved the way she smelled" (53). When walking to the lake, Lucy does not mind carrying Miriam on her back when the young girl tires. During the walk, Lucy remembers that as a young girl her mother used to walk through the rainforest and throw rocks at a monkey. One day the monkey caught the rock and threw it back at Lucy's mother. The rock hit the young girl on the head and caused a huge scar that remains on Lucy's mother to this day.

When Lucy and the girls arrive at the lake, they meet Mariah's best friend Dinah. Instantly, Lucy does not like Dinah. She thinks that Dinah is conceited, the type of woman who envies other women and their lives. Naïve Mariah adores her best friend, though, loving the way Dinah embraces life.

Lucy has grown to love Mariah. More and more Mariah reminds Lucy of the things she likes about her mother. Mariah desires Lucy to have friends. But she disapproves of Lucy's best friend Peggy. Peggy wears shades, smokes, and hates children. She is precisely the type of influence Mariah does not want Lucy to have. Because she likes the cigar Peggy smokes, Lucy begins to smoke as well. Yet, since Mariah is not Lucy's mother, she only forbids Peggy to come around the house or the children. In the meantime, Mariah has a party for Lucy to meet young people her own age. Lucy does not connect with them. They are all wealthy and well traveled. Most of them have been where Lucy is from as tourist and only say, "I had fun when I was there" (65).

Lucy does find one person of interest at the party, Hugh, Dinah's brother. He is three years older and five inches shorter than Lucy. Hugh is different from the others because he traveled for a year in Africa and Asia. Hugh and Lucy become intimate--she has not been touched like that in a long time. Lying naked on the grass with Hugh, Lucy remembers the first time she got her period. Lucy's mother laughed when she found out and told her of a time she would wish for it to come. Not having used protection with Hugh, Lucy nevertheless is not panicked by the possibility of being pregnant, because her mother already showed Lucy what herbs to take to make her period come if it were missed. Instead, what Lucy dreads is having to write to her mother to ask for them. Fortunately, Lucy's period comes, so she does not have to write home. With Hugh, Lucy feels wonderful. She enjoys daydreaming about their physical relationship but does not feel in love or attached. When Hugh leaves on the fifteenth of September, Lucy is content to see him go.

Mariah and Dinah are socially engaged. The latest issue they are confronting is that houses are being built on the farmland where they grew up. Mariah writes and illustrates a book and donates the profits to the cause of saving the farmland as it was. One of Mariah's daughters sarcastically asks: what was on the land before their own house was built? Lucy too resents the notion of preserving this aspect of the past. Internally, she dislikes how people like Mariah and Dinah do not see the connections between their own sense of comfort and the decline of the world around them.

During this summer, the first signs of problems in Lewis's and Mariah's marriage surface. A seemingly innocent incident of a rabbit eating shoots from Lewis's vegetables escalates. Over dinner they discuss whom the culprit might be, and Lewis has such an angry outburst that it causes the children to cry. He screams, "Jesus Christ! The goddam rabbits!" (75). Later that summer, Lewis and Mariah take a drive in the marshlands, and Lewis runs over a rabbit. While Lewis is secretly triumphant, Mariah is hysterical. Lucy reveals that she is able to perceive Dinah as the culprit in an affair long before Lewis confesses to it.


Often we can say that key elements of a person's history have already been written before the person is born. As an inhabitant of a colonized island, the employee of Mariah Lewis, and a child of her mother, Lucy already has had much of her history guided by circumstances she could not control. She was born into a native culture influenced by a colonizing power, but now that she generally has escaped it, her experience is shaped powerfully by what her host family chooses to expose her to. in this context, storytelling is the method that Lucy uses to appropriate her own history. Through the medium of storytelling, Lucy grapples with issues of sexuality, making her narrative voice the one common thread that links the complex elemetns of her past and her present.

We encounter Lucy's sexuality when she remembers experiences of the past and delves into present experiences. Opening the chapter, Lucy tells the story of her first kiss. The opening scene describes fourteen-year-old Lucy:

I was sucking the tongue of a boy named Tanner ... because I liked the way his fingers looked on the keys of the piano as he played it, and I had liked the way he looked from the back as he walked across the pasture, and also, when I was close to him, I liked the way behind his ears smelled. Those three things had led to my standing in his sister's room (she was my best friend), my back pressed against the closed door, sucking his tongue. (43)

Kincaid draws a striking image in this scene. Her diction is jarring. The coarse verb "sucking" displaces the intimacy of "kiss." Lucy's attraction is neither emotional nor romantic; it is purely physical, including the smell behind the boy's ears and the shape of his behind. To the young Lucy, the boy is an object to be tried, tested, experienced: a novel delicacy. Lucy's narrative voice reveals that she is detached from the emotional aspects of the kiss. Instead, she compares the boy's tongue to boiled cow tongue served with sauce (44). Like all of Lucy's sexual encounters in this book, her sensations are physical rather than emotional.

In this vein, Hugh can be thought of as Tanner's American counterpart. He is the brother of Mariah's best friend, while Tanner is the brother of Lucy's best friend. Different from the rest of the young people at the party, Hugh has gone outside of his milieu, spending time in Africa and Asia. Many of the other people at the party have traveled, but they have been more like mere tourists, failing to leave behind the conveniences of home to immerse themselves in a new worldview. Lucy feels in a better mood when she is with Hugh (even Mariah notices it). Yet, Lucy knows the she still is not feeling love. Again she focuses on the physical. She explains, "If I enjoyed myself beyond anything I had known so far, it must have been because such a long time had passed since I had been touched in that way by anyone" (67). That is, for now it is enough for Lucy to feel good being touched in a sexual way. She says, "Just thinking about hands and his mouth could make me feel as if I were made up of an extravagant piece of silk" (71). Lucy makes a point to demonstrate that Hugh is not the only person who can produce pleasant sensations for her.

The chapter closes with a characteristic account of Lucy's kind of relationship. She and Peggy

were so disappointed that we went back to my room and smoked marijuana and kissed each other until we were exhausted and fell asleep. Her tongue was narrow and pointed and soft. And that was how I said goodbye to Hugh, my arms and legs wrapped tightly around him, my tongue in his mouth, thinking of all the people I had held in this way. (83)

This merely physical notion of love implies that there is something easily translatable about the person with whom one is intimate. That is, Lucy asserts that her friend Peggy can give her the same sensations that Hugh does. Lucy has set herself on not loving someone uniquely, because that sort of love would be a significant threat to her personal freedom, bringing the kind of attachments that she is trying hard to prevent or sever.

By choosing sex instead of love, pleasure instead of intimacy, Lucy not only demonstrates her independence but also creates a world where men are not part of the center of her world. Neither Tanner nor Hugh is in Lucy's center. Unlike Mariah, she does not romanticize men or her relationships with them.

Immediately upon meeting Mariah's best friend Dinah, Lucy suspects that she is having an affair with Lewis. She says, "A woman like Dinah was not unfamiliar to me, nor was a man like Lewis. Where I came from it was well known that some women and all men could not be trusted in certain areas" (80). Lucy's father is one of these men. he fathered over thirty children but married only Lucy's mother. This act has placed Lucy's mother at the center of much controversy in that jealous women have attempted to murder Lucy's mother. But given her father's experience, Lucy is not surprised when Lewis unmasks his true nature.

In a cruel exercise of his power, Lewis runs over a young rabbit that might be the one eating the vegetables in his garden, but it is a rabbit that Mariah and the children have grown to love. Although the aggressive and wandering aspects of man's nature are known to Lucy, Mariah remains unaware. Lucy notes, "Mariah did not know that Lewis was not in love with her anymore. It was not the sort of thing she could imagine. She could imagine the demise of the fowl of the air, fish in the sea, mankind itself, but not that the only man she had ever loved would no longer love her" (81). Mariah can face universal tragedy, social injustice, and the exploitation of natural resources, yet she is unwilling to face this calamity within her own life. Mariah's passion for trivial issues and apathy towards pivotal ones is puzzling to Lucy.

Lucy generalizes from Mariah's situation to point out idiosyncrasies in American culture. Mariah is upset about the development of the countryside in which she grew up, but Lucy believes that development is necessary for local progress and that not everything can be preserved. Lucy's propensity for lack of ties influences this point of view. But even Mariah's daughter, Louisa, does not fully understand Mariah's advocacy. Louisa asks, "Well, what used to be here before this house we are living in was built?" (73). Mariah does not grasp how her own consumption and participation in her society are part of the same trend of economic development that she now decries.