Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy – Book Review

Negating the Other by Becoming the Other: An Analysis of Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy

“Sometimes there is no escape, but often the effort of trying will do quite nicely for a while.” (Kincaid Lucy 37)

Karen Y. Silvestri

April 20, 2010

The novel Lucy represents a fictional version of Kincaid’s life when she immigrated to America from Antigua. While the novel is fictional, it is a semi-autobiographical account of Kincaid’s life at a time in her life when she is just beginning to discover her sense of self. As Lucy, the main character in this coming of age novel, reaches adulthood, she finds herself always on the fringes; she is always on the outside; she is always ‘the other’.  ‘Other’ has been defined as any person who does not belong in the mainstream, and the native people of a colonized nation can definitely be termed as ‘other’ by the colonizers. Lucy feels oppressed by a patriarchal society, by the British colonizers of Antigua, by her mother’s love, and finally, by her own anger. When Lucy attempts to escape being ‘the other’, she finds that there is no escape. She experiences the concept of otherness at every turn through colonization, through her gender, and through her immigrant status. Her angry race to erase her past negates her present, and she ultimately ends up using the very otherness that she despises as a means of shielding herself from the trauma of being labeled ‘other’. This essay proposes to examine the ways in which Lucy is defined as ‘other’ and also how her attempts to survive this ‘otherness’ actually involve her embracing herself as ‘other’.

Lucy’s first experiences as an ‘other’ occur in her childhood home of Antigua. She is required to attend a British school and learn to read and write in English. In addition, the students must read British novels and poetry that have no bearing whatsoever on their island lives. While the colonizers believe they are bringing culture to the natives, the children are baffled by references to things like ‘snow’ that they have no concept or experience of. The students are caught between what the colonizers say is correct history and what their parents and grandparents tell them is their native history. They become lost in a world of truths and fabrications that have no clear boundaries. This confusion carries over into adulthood, and Lucy feels forever haunted by centuries of history that have in effect been erased by colonization.

Throughout the novel, Lucy refuses to open letters from home, especially those from her mother. By not reading news from Antigua, Lucy hopes to finally be free of seeing the “hundreds of years (of her history) in every gesture, every word spoken, every face” (Lucy 31). She literally does not know who she is, and the only response she can have in the face of this erasure of her native culture is one that has become very common among the peoples of colonized nations – anger. Always treated as ‘other’ by the British colonizers, Lucy now attempts to become wholly ‘other’ by becoming the ‘other’ in America. She dreams of all the places in America that she believes will make her forget the anger she has learned in Antigua. “…all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul, for I would imagine myself entering and leaving them, and just that—entering and leaving over and over again—would see me through a bad feeling I did not have a name for” (Lucy 3). While still in Antigua, she sees the places in America as places where she will no longer be the ‘other’.

But after leaving Antigua and arriving as a nanny in America, she still cannot seem to separate herself from her country’s history. Lucy’s anger takes over when her boss, Mariah shows her yellow daffodils. “It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault. But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness” (Lucy 30). The daffodils have a tremendous impact on Lucy because they remind of her of being forced to memorize the poem “Daffodil” as a child in a British school. Since Lucy has never seen a daffodil in Antigua, the daffodil – and to some extent the color yellow – have come to symbolize the oppressor and the colonization of her country by the British. She says, “I was reminded of how uncomfortable the new can make you feel” (Lucy 4).

In America, Lucy feels stifled by Americans view of her as a curiosity. She finds that all of her dreams of escaping her past by going to America are falling away. She says, “In the past, the thought of being in my present situation had been a comfort, but now I did not even have this to look forward to…” (Lucy 7). While she detests where she came from, she says that at least she understands the past; “I understood it; I knew where I stood there” (Lucy 6). In America, she does not want to be who she was, she is uncomfortable with who she is, and she has no idea who she wants to become.

Another experience of ‘otherness’ occurs as Lucy approaches puberty in Antigua. As Lucy comes of age she is bombarded with what it means to be a woman. She says, “I was undergoing a change, and there was nothing I could do to stop it (Lucy 69). When she starts menstruating and discovers she has underarm hair, she is horrified that everyone can “look at me and know things about me” (Lucy 68). Her mother fills her with horror stories about women and men and constantly admonishes her to always “protect herself”. Kincaid says in Girl, “…my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me” (“Girl” 838). Previous to these developments, Lucy felt she was the center of her mother’s universe. This sense of belonging and love is destroyed as her brothers are born. Her mother and father’s attention is now centered on the boys and Lucy feels pushed aside and ignored because of her femaleness. The sons are doted on and their accomplishments are lauded by their parents, while Lucy sinks into the background because of her otherness – her gender.

It is here that Lucy begins to learn the lessons of a patriarchal society. It is here that her anger first surfaces and she begins to reconstruct herself as the ‘other’. As an adult in America, Lucy will wonder, “… if ever in my whole life a day would go by when these people I had left behind, my own family, would not appear before me in one way or another” (Lucy 9). To distance herself from the hurt her gender has caused her, Lucy sets out to do everything, to be everything, her mother told her a woman should not be. In short, she recreates herself as the ‘other’ in order to escape being the ‘other’. Kincaid says in one interview, “I could not have become myself while living among the people I knew best” (Wachman 44). Still, she finds she is unable to get close to the people who offer her love because her experience of otherness has taught her that she will be hurt by those who profess to love her. Diane Simmons remarks in an essay “Lucy: In the New World”, “In the world of Kincaid’s protagonists, the great danger is not in overt hostility and brutality but in being presented with something that you will love too much and, through that love, be lost to yourself” (Simmons 126). Lucy gravitates to this sense of otherness because it sets her apart from love that she feels can hurt her. So instead she chooses to push away anyone who tries to show her love.

Lucy is a very sexual novel; Kincaid recounts Lucy’s numerous attempts to define herself through sexual exploration. She never imagines that she is in love with any of her partners though. Still struggling with her alienation from her family, Lucy even finds that she is upset when she learns that a classmate has been molested by an older man because she cannot figure out “Why had such an extraordinary thing happened to her and not to me?” (Lucy 105). Lucy careens through her young adult having sexual encounters indiscriminately with men and women, seemingly undaunted by the lack of emotion these encounters involve. In  a sense, Lucy has set herself up as that sort of woman her mother has warned her not to become – that ‘other’ woman who is sexual and therefore somehow ‘bad.’ By placing herself in this role of ‘other’, Lucy is able to create a perception of safety for herself – a safe barrier from the hurt of abandonment and love gone sour.

Lucy does meet one man who she accidently lets her guard down with. Hugh is the only man that Lucy meets who accepts her for who she is and does not treat her as a curiosity from the Caribbean. Lucy enjoys Hugh’s company and finds herself relaxing in her sexual encounter with him. Then she suddenly is struck by the thought that she “had forgotten to protect myself” (Lucy 67). She is talking about birth control, but this thought leads her to her past once again. Perhaps Lucy is also remembering that she has failed to protect herself in another way; she has let down her armor, the shield of ‘otherness’ that she uses to protect her heart.

While Lucy continues to try to align her present self in the U.S., her future is continually haunted by the past. She becomes fascinated with museums – things of the past – and with taking photographs – a way to capture the present. Kincaid writes, “…until I was quite grown up my past was sort of a museum to me” (“Girl” 838).  Lucy is torn between the musty museum of her past and the present taking shape around her. She is unable to reconcile the two because as she says, “I could see the present take a shape—the shape of my past” (Lucy 90). Lucy clearly immerses herself in the guise of ‘other’ in order to keep from sliding headlong into a past that baffles and hurts her.

At one point, Mariah’s child, Louisa, asks Mariah, “…what used to be here?” (Lucy 72) as they are speaking of the house they live in. This is a question that haunts both Mariah and Lucy. Mariah is deeply affected by the loss of physical things – “these vanishing things” – while Lucy is deeply affected by the vanishing things in her own life: her native history erased by the British, her childhood innocence, and most importantly, the vanishing of the love she had for her mother, “perhaps the only true love in my whole life I would ever know” (Lucy 132). Lucy tells us that she is “inventing herself” but all she has are memory, anger, and despair. “I had memory, I had anger, I had despair” (Lucy 134).

When her father dies, Lucy pours out all of her hurt and anger in a letter to her mother. When Lucy’s mother writes back to tell her that she will always love her, Lucy is left empty. She can no longer hate her father because he is dead, and she can no longer direct all of her anger at her mother because she has let it all out in the letter. She says, “It was as if we had been reading the last sentences of a very long paragraph and after that the page turned blank” (Lucy 128). Like Mariah, whose husband has left her, Lucy does not know what to do now; what is one to do when one’s oppressors are gone? What should one write on this blank page of the future?

It seems that humans are forever seeking seek freedom from one thing or another, but most can never find it because they are hindered, they are annihilated, by their past and by what their past brings to their present. Lucy tells one lover that “On their way to freedom, some people find riches, some people find death” (Lucy 129). Lucy seeks freedom from her otherness but she cannot escape it in her native home because she began with no history, because her childhood was fraught with the otherness of gender, and because in her present she finds only more otherness. As the past continually tumbles into the present, Lucy thinks, “I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line; you can draw it yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you: either way there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in” (Lucy 137). She is finally learning to recognize the ‘otherness’ as being in the past, or perhaps that the ‘otherness’ can be a good thing after all.

Works Cited

Simmons, Diane. Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994. Print.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Lucy. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990. Print.

Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston. New York:

Beford/St. Martins, 2003. 6th Edition.  838-839. Print.

Wachman, Gay. “Dying in Antigua”. The Nation. 3 Nov 1997. Print.

About Karen Y. Hamilton

Walt Whitman says about his autobiography, Specimen Days “…At any rate I obey my happy hour’s command, which seems curiously imperative. May-be, if don’t do anything else, I shall send out the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed.” This is what I feel at this juncture of my life, the need to gather together memories of my ancestors as well as my own memories into some semblance of order. Because all of those fragments, all of the fragments that make up any life, become stories. I am the mother of three sons, who affectionately (I hope!) call me 'gypsy mom' because I tend to wander around a bit soaking in the universe's wonders. I am currently working towards an MFA in Creative Writing at Florida Atlantic University. I have published essays with Heritage Press, Florida Living, and the St. Pauls Review. I am currently working on a book of poems about the Florida Everglades pioneers and a memoir about grief and the bonds of friendship. I live in my hometown, Jupiter, Florida and work as a freelance writer and curriculum specialist.
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