Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid
Annie John is a novel which has autobiographical overtones by Jamaica Kincaid. It is about a young girl who is very close to her mother. But as she grows up, distance grows between them. At seventeen, the young woman leaves home to travel to England where she plans to study nursing. Jamaica Kincaid too was very close to her mother as a little child but the arrival of three brothers in a short span upsets the balance at home. Jamaica, like Annie, leaves home when her mother sends her away to America to work as an au pair.
Relevance of the Title
The story centers on Annie John, the protagonist. It is therefore apt for the novel to be named after her. The story covers her up to her seventeenth year. Annie is surprisingly mature for her age; she knows what she wants from her life. She desires independence and to move away from the shadows of her mother.
The story is driven by the mother daughter relationship which was perfect when Annie was a child but as she grows up and begins school, tensions creep in. Annie is always scared of losing her mother’s attention and love and when threatened with it, begins viewing her mother with active dislike. The relationship between her mother and her step-father reduces the space for her in her mother’s life though she genuinely loves her step-father. In school, many girls are caught in a similar flux and seek love and friendship to make up for the absence of mothers in school.
Annie excels at school but at the same time she realizes that they are caught in a warp as the students learn only British history and British literature. There is loss of identity as the girls are permitted to think of themselves as British albeit dark skinned British. Being acutely conscious of the colonizers’ superior attitude, Annie is delighted when she looks on the picture of Columbus imprisoned by the natives. Here is a white man who is rendered immobile by native people.
The thrust of the story is the effort of Annie to carve out an identity for herself. Once her brothers arrive on the scene, her importance in the family dwindles. Her mother pulls her out from school though Annie is an outstanding student. She carries with her a sense of injured pride and slight which makes her want to discover an identity for herself. She wants to be independent financially and emotionally.
She is a strong and practical woman. It is important for Annie to realize that her mother behaves in accordance with her times and cultural practices. In most patriarchal cultures, boys and men are given more importance. Annie’s dislike for her mother stems from this. She also resents her mother’s sexual relationship with her husband. Annie wants to be a part of all that her mother does. When she realizes that her mother has her own life, she begins disliking her.
Annie shares a close relationship with her mother, following her everywhere all day long. Her mother wishes Annie to get an education so enrolls her in school. Annie does not appreciate that she has to spend time away from her mother. It takes her time to forge friendships in school. However, she makes friends first with Gwen and then the Red Girl. The Red girl becomes to her a symbol of being free – she seems to enjoy considerable freedom. Annie’s intelligence impresses her teachers who have her moved to a higher class. Annie misses her friends and becomes depressed. At home too she does not bond with her family. Her mother seeks the advice of the native doctor. When she becomes better, Annie decides that she needs to put physical distance between her and her family. She sails to England to pursue nursing.
Annie is fascinated by her mother‘s trunk which her mother brought with her from Dominica. Annie loves looking through and listening to stories about its contents. In her early years Annie shares her mother’s trunk as she does not have her own distinct identity. But as she develops a sense of self, she looks for her own trunk which she will not share with anyone.
- "My mother and I often took a bath together. Sometimes it was just a plain bath, which did not take very long. Other times it was a special bath in which the barks and flowers of many different trees, together with all sorts of oils, were boiled in the same large cauldron."
These lines give the reader the close relationship which existed between mother and daughter at the beginning of the story. They did not have distinct separate identities with Annie following her mother around all the time. Even intimate personal things like baths were taken together. These baths were sometimes ceremonial ones, sometimes they were just a quick wash.
- "I was sure I could never let those hands touch me again; I was sure I could never let her kiss me again. All that was finished."
Annie’s relationship disintegrates when one day she sees her parents making love. Annie had rushed home to share with her mother the exciting news about a prize she had won at school. When she bursts into the house, the sight she sees upsets her greatly. She considers her mother’s physical relationship as a betrayal of sorts. Annie wants to make a clean break now; she does not want her mother to ever touch her again. Annie’s reaction is that of a grownup who witnesses a disloyal sexual act.
- "Gwen and I were soon inseparable. If you saw one, you saw the other. For me, each day began as I waited for Gwen to come by and fetch me for school"
Annie uses her friendship with Gwen to fill the empty spaces that exist in her relationship with her mother. Annie constantly needs someone she can love. It used to be her mother but when she sees her mother with her father in what Annie considers an act of betrayal, she tries to forge a special friendship with Gwen. She keeps her friendship with Gwen a secret from her mother. It is almost as if she wants to get even with her mother.
- "What just deserts, I thought, for I did not like Columbus. How I loved this picture—to see the usually triumphant Columbus, brought so low, seated by the bottom of the boat watching things go by."
Annie has strange dislikes. She hates her mother for having a physical relationship with her husband and she dislikes Columbus for having brought the Europeans to the Caribbean. She takes pleasure in seeing his suffering. She does not know the history behind the imprisonment of Columbus. For her it is enough that he is in chains.