Symbolism in the short story girl by Jamaica Kincaid

Posted: September 3rd, 2013





Symbolism in the short story girl by Jamaica Kincaid

            Symbolism is one of the stylistic devices incorporated in literary works. This involves the use of real objects to represent abstract ideas. Symbols in literary works materialize in a variety of ways and can be interpreted into ideas universal in nature than the physical aspect of the object used. In the short story, ‘Girl’, Jamaica Kincaid utilizes the use of symbolism by incorporating tangible items such as the trunk, marbles and Benna, which is effective, in my opinion as it serves the purpose of evoking the reader to consider their significance and creating comprehension of the prevailing human conditions.

One of the stylistic devices used in the short story “girl”, by Jamaica Kincaid, is symbolism. The short story depicts various objects that have been given deeper meaning. One is the trunk belonging to Annie’s mother (Schilb, 55). This object is used by the author to represent the self. When Annie was a young girl, one of her most interesting activities involved perusing through the mother’s trunk. Later on, we find her defining her own self by using the various objects that she found in the trunk. At a tender age, Annie would share the mother’s trunk without limits since the trunk and her very own self were the same (Schilb, 56). The narrative details the mother’s trunk to having come from Dominica. This meant that the trunk seemed to contain the entire family’s history. Later on, when Annie decides to have her personal trunk, this trunk will take the resemblance of her self just like the one that belonged to her mother. This new trunk now symbolizes her new realization of self as it goes to the extent of bearing a label that reads, “My name is Annie John. The use of trunk to symbolize personality is highly thoughtful. In daily lives, trunks are normally used to putting old personal effects. With this regard, going through a person’s trunk leads to one revealing a lot of history, and hence reveals one’s personality.

Another form of symbolism is identified in the Marbles. The initial marbles given to Annie are from her mother after she recovers them from a package of oats. The two marbles are different in color with one being white with blue while the other being white with yellowish brown. Annie takes the blue marble to be symbolic of the ocean and the brown marble to be representative of the landmasses of the earth. Later on, Annie obtains some new marble that symbolize the new world that Annie is attempting to fashion for herself (Kincaid, 56).

After receiving the new set of marbles, Annie decides to devote herself to marbles. By this, she gets to win marbles from all the people and collects a sizeable stash. The development of Annie’s marble career goes in hand with shifting in her world as she now spends quality time with the red girl. The red girl is symbolic to the non-socialized order. As Annie plays with the marbles, she gets to see beyond what both her mother and teachers have been teaching her. She now gets to see the original restrictive worldview. There is an instance where we see Annie’s mother furiously searching for her marbles. The real item she is seeking is not the physical marbles but the new world that these marbles have opened up Annie to. The mother is opposed to this new world, as it tends to defy the new social program. Marbles take the shape of crystal balls used by seers in foretelling hidden details. The author is therefore in place when he uses marbles to illustrate how the “girl” has attained a new worldview.

Milton’s paradise lost is a narrative that “girl is compelled to take notes as punishment for allegedly blaspheming Christopher Columbus in her history book. The title of the book “Paradise Lost” is apt. The story narrated in the book is about the fall of Lucifer. The book narrates how Lucifer was plunged into darkness and exile as punishment for challenging God. The problems facing Annie could be identical to the predicament Lucifer was in at the time. Annie is facing a predicament for challenging the authority of her mother and by association of the colonial order although she fears the punishment of being thrown into exile. The title of the book is also symbolic of the predicament that could befall Annie for apparently challenging the colonial authority that deemed it fit in terming Columbus a hero. The idea of exile is representative of Annie’s fear of being left all alone. The title, “A Lost Paradise”, is apt for Antigua. It is an island with the scenery resembling that of a paradise. It was however transformed into a virtual hell through the settling of the Europeans who introduced slavery in the land.

In the short story, the author uses the word Benna to symbolize sexuality. Benna are Antiguan folk songs that are used to symbolize sexuality. Annie’s mother fears that Annie has come across too much knowledge on sexuality for her age. In the native Antiguan culture, the natives used to sing Bennas as a means of passing on scandalous rumors and gossips surreptitiously without the knowledge of the colonialists. Her naivety led her to singing the Benna in church, “don’t sing Benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat”. The act of singing Benna during Sunday school classes was an act of utter sin and disobedience (Saxton, 45).

The Benna contained outlawed information that could not be uttered in public. Making such utterances in a church setting was both disobedience and sinful. Annie was too young to comprehend the relationship between Benna and sexuality as the older people like her mother did, however, the manner in which she protested indicates that she was aware of the seductive meaning behind the Benna, its mystique and its forbidden aspects. The fact that Annie is too adamant and near desperate denials raise the idea that she could have already sung the Benna and worst still, during Sunday school classes with some of her friends. This is an indication that Annie has developed an interest in the opposite sex in addition to a mounting exasperation with the mother’s guidance and incursion into her personal life (Saxton, 45).

Food is another object used the short story to symbolize the mother’s belief on the importance of domesticity. There are numerous occasions where the mother emphasizes on food. The knowledge of preparing pumpkin fritters, tea, bread pudding, doukona, and pepper are highly essential as they form a link between the womenfolk and the families. The skills and art behind food preparation act as great legacies of mothers passed down to new generations through their daughters. Some of the foods such as doukona and pepper pot act as objects of placing the story Antigua and the Caribbean. These foods are mentioned by the author to indicate the setting of the story to the reader, instead of using unnecessary descriptions.

Clothing in the story is used to indicate the level of respectability. Clothes are closely associated with proper housekeeping in indicating a woman’s character. Annie’s mother emphasizes on the clothing aspects since proper clothing reflects an individual’s character and personality, whereas shabbiness reflected the level of laziness and poverty present in an individual. The activities involved in clothing preparation that include Washing, sewing, and ironing are used as forms of protecting the status held by women in addition to defending the women’s productivity and self-worth (Milne, 45).

The neatness and appearance of a woman’s cloth is a reflection of her sexual respectability and morality. The use of clothing in displaying good organization skills and well grooming in women were indications of her competence and control. In addition, these women could never be suspected of having outlawed relationships with other men. Annie’s mother therefore puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of dressing and appearance since she does not want the daughter to fall victim of ridicule and disrespect. Her fears are constantly reflected by the many times she cautions her child from being a “slut” (Milne, 45).

In conclusion, we find that the author has utilized symbolism in the short story, girl. Symbolism in the story takes the form of concrete objects, actions, characters and figures of speech to take on abstract ideas. Concrete objects such as Annie’s trunk are used by the author to represent universal meanings such as Annie’s self. The act of clothing oneself is taken to represent the moral standards of a person especially for the womenfolk in the narrative. The most challenging symbol used in the narrative is the Benna. This is because one requires background knowledge to be acquainted with why the Benna was highly constrained from being used in the church.


Works Cited

Kincaid, Jamaica. Girl. San Francisco: San Francisco Examiner, 1991. Print.

Milne, Ira M. Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Print.

Saxton, Ruth. The Girl: Constructions of the Girl in Contemporary Fiction by Women. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Print.

Schilb, John. Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. S. l.: Bedford St Martins, 2011. Print.





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