"Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid (1978)

How is this a short story?

I do not ask this question out of criticism but rather curiosity. The story consists of only one sentence — a sentence rivaled only by the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities — which is a series of instructions given to a girl by her mother. The reader knows only of the girl from the two interjections, set off in italics, that the girl makes.

So where is the narrative? With this story, Kincaid seems to trump even the simplest of plots of novels such as Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, which basically involve the main characters walking around a city for a day. But somehow with one fabulous run-on sentence Kincaid does manage to create a narrative of sorts, one somewhat dependent upon the reader’s interpretation.

The mother’s speech begins with descriptions of what chores to do on Mondays and Tuesdays before the lecture becomes a tangential slew of instruction and scolding. The mention of Monday then Tuesday teases the reader with the suggestion of a sequence to the story, which Kincaid then quickly discards. A more traditional concept of narrative — as in, this event happened followed by this event and the characters reacted — does not exist within this story. The story consists entirely of dialogue with no descriptive sentences to service furthering the plot — there isn’t one — or describing the characters. Because Kincaid chooses to neither name nor describe the girl and mother, I am inclined to believe that the story intends to provide a picture of a particular culture or subculture, most likely Antiguan culture, rather than two specific people. The lack of descriptive sentences also suspends the story outside of a specific time period. These bits of “advice” could have been delivered at one time, over the span of several hours or even years. Thus, the lack of sentences outside of the dialogue gives the story more universality. The lack of usual punctuation also distinguishes this story from the average piece of fiction, and, again, suggests timelessness and an otherness of the culture in which this conversation occurs.

Though this story provides only a brief insight into the culture of Antigua, the insight manages to be rather complete in its illustration of women’s place within society. The mother’s instructions, in fact, provide an outline of female gender roles. The list describes the more public actions of being a woman — such as what to clean on Monday, what to wash on Tuesday, and how to act properly and not like a “slut” — and the more subversive knowledge, such as how to abort an unwanted fetus. The relationship between the mother and daughter is also revealed as somewhat complicated. While the mother does not seem to display much affection to her child, she does aim to arm her daughter with the knowledge that the girl needs to survive.