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UNIVERSITY OF INDIANAPOLIS – ATHENS CAMPUS
SEMESTER II 2009
Topic: Discuss fully Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Annie John
A. Chapters 1-8 Overview and Critical Analysis (with exclusive personal contribution):
In the first chapter of the novel we are introduced to its main character Annie John
a ten-year old girl which in this incident becomes obsessed with the issue of death.
At first, her obsession is intrigued from the fear she feels towards death, while
on the other hand its simple curiosity. At the same time, Annie’s description
of her fear of death is an indication of the powerful spiritual beliefs that exist
among the native population concerning the fact that death or dead people
generally could harm the living.
Even though Annie is afraid of death simultaneously she also feels attracted
to it and her curiosity on this subject leads her to participate in humorous
conversations at school that include morbid details about this subject.
Meanwhile, her relationship with her mother starts slowly to develop in this
chapter and she’s portrayed as a strong courageous woman who holds enough
strength even to prepare a dead girl for the grave. Annie’s attraction
to the concept of death shows her unconscious, yet still undeveloped need
for freedom and individuality, whereas her mother’s preparation of the dead girl
could be interpreted as a symbolic “ burial “ of Annie’s childhood and the beginning
of her adolescence.
Also, Annie’s failure to bring home the fish as she was supposed to clearly depicts
her future disobedience and conflict with her mother. In the process, Annie pictures
her early life as a small scale paradise in which she and her mother share special
moments during her summer vacation. The element of water here is used as a symbol
of purification as well as revitalization and signifies Annie’s inseparable bond with
her mother which can be noticed on their common baths together, in which Annie’s
body almost becomes identical with that of her mother’s. In addition, her mother’s
trunk also serves as a symbolic unification between mother and daughter and
in this case Annie enjoys to hear stories about the trunk over and over again mostly
because she’s able to define herself through them. At this point, in the same way
she feels connected with her mother’s body as they bathe together so does the same
with her mother’s stories because she lacks a separate identity with its own stories
therefore she adopts those of her mother’s who constitutes her primary role model.
Initially, Annie will be able to realize her mother’s separateness after coming
face to face with her sexuality something that will make her realize that the
special relationship that both once shared is no longer there.
The second chapter’s title “ The Circling Hand “ is a direct reference to Mrs. John’s
hand which was involved in the sex scene and something that eventually forces
Annie to reject her mother’s hands for a second time. In this case, the author
deliberately uses the maternal hands in two acts which are not connected to the
role of the mother but to that of the adult-woman in order to signify the beginning
of the process of Annie’s adulthood which is a process entirely connected and
implemented by the mother. This can be clearly seen on Mrs. John’s behavior
who doesn’t bother to hide her actions from Annie but actually wants her to
to have a realistic view of how things stand in the society of adults. Mrs. John is
treating her daughter as an adult with the purpose of transforming her into a mature
responsible individual. The mother’s hands which stereotypically are connected
with protection are here rejected because they failed to perform that task, to protect.
Thus, we are dealing with a redefinition of standardized beliefs concerning the
maternal protection. On the other hand, another important factor to be considered
is Annie’s attendance at school, which represents the social order been constructed
by the British Colonial Power that still governs Antigua. The protagonist is highly
critical towards this particular English reality by making sharp remarks on the
appearance of the British people something that reveals her disapproval and lack
of respect to it as well as her independent native spirit which although it remains
hided underneath it cannot be placed into boundaries.
Moreover, Annie’s fear of separation from her mother can be also traced on her
autobiographical essay on the first day at school. For one more time water holds
a symbolic role and it can be viewed both as a transformer and a purifier, and this
joint swimming movement with Annie’s mother holding her shows Annie’s tendency
to cling on her mother, to imitate her because as it was mentioned before she’s her
role model in this early stage of her life. Simultaneously, the salty water of the
ocean resembles the amniotic fluid of the womb, while Annie’s movement coming
up and down is a clear suggestion of a pre-birth state. And then, when Annie’s mother
separates herself into a rock the same salty water will now divide them, just as the
dropping of the amniotic fluid that brought Annie to life.
As a result, the element of water perceives a multiple ability of being a messenger
of life, isolation, exile, and death as it can also be seen in the previous case of the
child which stopped sucking his finger in water being touched by a dead person.
Furthermore, the imagery depicts Annie’s future decisions as well for as a youth
Annie feels pain being separated by water from her mother while as she grows
older she will be the one who will separate herself from her by this time placing
the Atlantic Ocean between them and going to England. Finally, Annie will
completely embrace the idea of separation that she initially feared so much
thus her essay serves both as a commentary for the upcoming separation with
her mother as well as a prediction of her future choices.
After that, Annie’s new friendship with Gwen serves as a substitute to replace
the lost love and attention of her mother and as Jamaica Kincaid characteristically
points out most of the girls in Annie’s age at school were engaged in this kind
of behavior which suggests that probably she wasn’t the only girl with problematic
communication with her mother but this was rather a natural evolution of reaching
to a mature state of being. Also, her resistance over her menstruation process
clearly reflects her desire not to be separated from her mother because menstruation
is an indication of adulthood hence a separate self.
Although she tries everything she can not to be pushed into adulthood she eventually
realizes that it’s a process impossible to escape exactly like the separation with her
mother that so desperately is trying to avoid, and for that reason she feels bitterness.
Yet, when Annie meets the Red Girl her rebellion against her mother reaches its
peak. She admires and adores this girl because she possesses abilities that she
doesn’t have. The Red Girl is a symbol of freedom therefore her name is mentioned
with capital letters, she’s free from every obligation towards the society as well as
herself, she doesn’t have to wash herself everyday or to comb her hair, or finally
attend school or church. The Red Girl is used here by the author not necessarily
as a person although she physically exists but more as a mythical creature or a fairy
because even her sudden departure later indicates something like that, so her presence
is used as a tool to help Annie to understand her inner self and find her way towards
freedom and independence. In addition, Annie’s decision to start spending time
with her ultimately cancels all the rules that she’s supposed to follow primarily
implemented by her mother. She becomes a thief and a liar as well as an expert
in playing marbles, a game that her mother forbids and despises.
These acts serve as an extension of Annie’s anger towards her mother and ultimately
as a revenge to a person who without any further notice stopped showing her
attention and love to her ( according to Annie’s perspective).
It’s also worth mentioning that Annie’s decision on befriending the Red Girl
acts as a demonstration of her desire to denounce the colonial authority, it’s influence
as well as their expectations and at his point her rebellion expresses extensively
the desire of the Antiguan population for freedom and self expression inside
a dominant colonial reality. In contrast, while Annie’s mother is representing
the dominant colonial order, her story with the fig and the snake clearly depicts
the magical effect of the Antiguan folklore and serves as a reminder to Annie
of her native connection to her mother and instantly reinforces her desire to
permanently stay united with her against enemies and danger.
Nevertheless, the story also leaves hints of complaint from the mother’s side
towards Annie that imply ungratefulness from her part but is also used as
an example from the mother as well in order to demonstrate to her daughter
her ability to manipulate the obeah witchcraft and as a result intrigue Annie’s
respect and awe for her again. But when Annie hears the warning in her mother’s
voice she starts being defensive again and she refuses to reveal the truth about
the marbles because she instantly recalls that both she her mother are fighting
an undeclared war which she’s determined to win.
Next, the story moves on dealing with issues of colonialism and post-colonial culture
and Annie starts a conversation about Ruth, a newcomer from England that recently
moved there. Annie thinks that Ruth probably feels ashamed that once her ancestors
enslaved the island’s black population and she feels bad for her because Ruth obviously
knows less about West Indies than the other kids in class.
And then Annie discovers a picture of Columbus in chains which gives her enough
satisfaction to dare writing under the picture the words: “ The great Man Can No
Longer Just Get Up and Go”, an action which is interpreted as blasphemy by her
teacher Miss Edwards because Annie not only criticized Columbus but the entire
dominant colonial order through him, therefore she has to be punished.
As a consequence, in order to re-inscribe English values to Annie the principal
orders her to copy books one and two of Milton’s Paradise Lost a book
deliberately used by Jamaica Kincaid that holds direct connection both
to the colonization of Antigua as well as to Annie’s personal life.
On this occasion, before the arrival of the British forces Antigua was a paradise
but it turned out to be a lost paradise after the establishment of the colonial forces
while in terms of Annie’s personal life the plot of the book resembles her own life
which ended up being a lost paradise after her mother’s unexpected change of
behavior towards her. Annie herself just like Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise is
in a state of challenging the dominant authority (in Annie’s case her mother)
something that causes her fear of being cast out into exile. Thus, the use of
the certain book provides a commentary on both levels.
Finally, in chapter six Annie’s relationship with her mother has completely declined
and she now starts feeling the effects physically by fantasizing having a heavy
black ball inside her body which comes everywhere with her and make her miserable.
At the same time, Annie’s relationships at school have also diminished while even
her relationship with Gwen seems lifeless and boring and as a result her psychological
misery leads her to the world of fiction. At this point, just as in her favorite book
Jane Eyre the protagonist wants to go to Belgium she desires the same thing for
herself simply because her anger and frustration at her differences with her mother
drives her to completely hide in some unknown Belgian town.
She identifies herself with the heroine of the book mostly to be able to achieve
an inner consolation, to attach herself in someone even if it’s a fictional character
because she feels lost. In this case, Jane Eyre’s character was an orphan who always
felt separated and cast out from the world and Annie’s tendency to identify with the
specific character despite the fact that she was not an orphan demonstrates the degree
of isolation and alienation from her mother. Moreover, Annie’s later visit to the town
as well as her reflection at the window of a shop shows fully the extend of her
psychological turmoil and when she faces herself at the window she feels ugly and
rugged. Annie always completely identified herself with her mother and always
strived to be similar to her both in matters of appearance and behavior.
However, the fact that she no longer feels beautiful or well-dressed is an indication
that she already feels a separate human being, but this time a human being cast out
in the cold, in isolation and in exile and concurrently a creature with no structure
or form, an unidentified soul and for that reason she compares herself to Lucifer.
A comparison which is similar with last chapter’s reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost
in that it again marks her as a person.
Yet, Annie’s resentment at her physical appearance is an indication of her illness
that follows in chapter seven but most importantly is the denial of her old self
and personality which was entirely formed under the influence of a person who’s
no longer “present”. Furthermore, Annie’s interaction with the boys in the street
is another indication of her ongoing process of maturity which she’s not yet
aware of, obviously because she doesn’t even understand that the boys are flirting
with her and especially one of them Mineu who used to be her friend in the past.
The only thing she can recall though from the whole incident was that her mother
in the past defended her against that boy, a defense which is no longer there.
But when later her mother abruptly confronts her and calls her a slut, for one more
time Annie feels deeply hurt but at the same time socked because her mother
again like before treats her as an adult and obviously expects from her
to act back like one. Instead, Annie is totally caught by surprise from her mother’s
unexpected and unexplained behavior and the only thing she can do is to defend
herself by answering through a proverb which again reflects her hidden but failed
desire eventually, to be united with her again. In addition, Annie’s intention by
using the specific phrase is to insult her mother by answering back to her in an
equal way which slightly resembles an adult behavior because this kind of answer
would never be given by a child.
Annie feels sick after the confrontation but she notices that her mother is looking
stronger and vigorous than ever, a fact that makes her realize that initially she
and her are two separate identities, two different people, and also to understand
that all those years she was “borrowing” her mother’s personality with her consent
because she was little and not yet ready to have her own. Also, by feeling sick
and weak Annie is undergoing a serious transformation that is taking place
primarily inside of her, a state of re-birth which is ultimately going to reveal
a brand new Annie John.
On the other hand, the mother’s strength and vigor shows her autonomy and
her individuality, characteristics that her daughter only recently began to engage
herself to. Finally, another very important aspect of Annie’s interaction with her
mother is that every time a conflict emerges between them the mother always
walks away instead of giving her consolation, a fact that shows clearly her effort
on transforming her daughter’s personality from a girl to a woman.
According to Mrs. John’s point of view Annie should be capable enough to
effectively deal with difficulties without being constantly pampered by her
and to be self dependent in order to survive in her future life when she’s no
longer going to be around. On the whole, Annie’s ultimate consideration of having
her own trunk suggests the full rejection of her mother and simultaneously
points out her desire to willfully separate herself from her.
The trunk which once defined her as a person turned out to be a source of pain
and oppression which the protagonist now wants to leave behind forever, whereas
her desire to possess a trunk of her own clearly portrays for one more time her desire
to stand as a separate personality. Meanwhile, water continues to play a symbolic
purifying role and in this chapter as the author associates it with Annie’s breakdown
through a three-month cataclysmic rain which completely transforms the island’s
view as well as the protagonist herself who will emerge as a different person after
that experience. She will physically grew larger and emotionally more secure
and prepared to accept her separation from her family and especially from her
mother. Moreover, water continues to be portrayed as a factor of unity as well
as of division with purifying and transforming abilities which can also be noticed
in Annie’s destruction of her family photographs.
But what is most interesting about this incident is that she chooses to wash over
the photos and not for example torn them or smudge them with a pen, a sign of
the importance of the element of water which is above all connected with the
identity of the island and operates as an extend of self for its citizens.
The island of Antigua is surrounded by water therefore it constitutes an element
that directly influences the islanders life in a daily basis and which can also be
characterized as an extension of themselves too, for they are born, live, and die
with it thus it implements and affects all their actions like an inner motivating
force. At the same time, the destruction of the photographs holds another
symbolic meaning also in which Annie takes revenge against the images of her
parents for faults owned to her.
In her parents photo for example the lower part of their bodies disappears which
metaphorically indicated that they will no longer be able to perform the sexual act
that excludes her, in the wedding photo only Annie’s face remains as a sign
of her identity’s prevalence and reality towards the others and finally in her
confirmation photo only the shoes that she forced her mother to buy her remain
as an act of defiance towards her who tried to limit Annie’s means of self expression.
The destruction of the images at the photos can be seen as an intense expression
of Annie’s subconscious fears and desires.
At last, Annie’s sense of new self has finally emerged. She’s completely healed
and changed after her illness, she’s taller and more self dependent than before.
The fact that Annie grew taller is a reference to Annie’s independence because
she’s no longer overshadowed by her parents presence while her sudden desire
for detachment from familiar surroundings shows the maturity she finally achieved.
In the final chapter of the book Annie is completely changed and has finally accepted
the idea of being a separate person. She considers her independence very important
for the further development of her character so she can’t to be far away from home
to explore new possibilities.
Everything inside her parents house characterizes them and not her and what she
needs is to find a new place of her own in order to be free to explore every aspect
of her personality. Nevertheless, Annie’s desire for separation is combined with
a feeling of nostalgia which can be clearly seen at the breakfast table when she
eats her final breakfast with her parents, as well as in her final walk before
departure into town. Everywhere she looks recognizes her past which she can’t
wait to leave behind her while her desire is to re-write her history but this time
according to her own terms, an emotion shared by many colonial people whose
identities and history were often defined by those who colonized them.
Initially, Annie leaves the island wearing jewelry and clothing blessed
by a local obeah woman although being a person trained under a colonial
education system a suggestion that tradition still holds a very important role
in the island society and people’s lives are unconsciously influenced by it.
At this point, the sea still continues to hold symbolic and purifying role
and for one more time water appears to be a transforming liquid that will
change Annie’s life forever since it will carry her to England.
The used imagery suggests the boat as another means of childbirth, for
in the same way Annie left the salty amniotic fluid of her mother’s womb
so too the salty water of the ocean will carry her far away to a new life
separate from her mother’s body. Through that voyage Annie will be re-born
and she will start leaving her own mark in this world.
Jera Barrier, Jennifer Washington. 2002. Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John: Interdisciplinary Approach.
2002. NCSU. < http://www.unc.edu/~dcderosa/studentpapers/childrenbattles/anniejohn.Jera&Jen .html>.
Zafian, Amanda. Spark note on Annie John. 19 May. 2009.< http://sparknotes.com/lit/anniejohn/>.
“ Annie John: Introduction. “ Literature of Developing Nations for Students.” Ed. Marie Rose
Napierkowski. Vol.3 Detroit : Gale, 1998. e Notes.com. January 2006. 19 May 2009.