Chapter One: Figures in the Distance
The narrator, Annie John, is currently ten years old. She is spending her summer holiday outside of town since her father, who is a carpenter, is putting a new roof on their house in the city. In the country, the narrator has little to do except play with their pig and watch their ducks, since she likes to eat their eggs. She can also see a nearby cemetery, but at first does not know what it is. One day her mother explains that the bunch of people are there because someone died and based upon their behavior, it may have been a child. Annie is surprised. She has never known that children died. She is afraid of the dead because they come back and haunt you. But after her discussion with her mother, she is also fascinated and often stands on the road each day waiting for a funeral procession to pass.
When she moves back to town, Annie remains obsessed with death. A girl that she knows, Nalda, gets a fever and dies suddenly in the car on the way to the doctor. Nalda's mother is too distressed to deal with the body, so Annie's mother cleans up the child and dresses her for the coffin. Annie views her mother's hands suspiciously for a while after the Nalda incident, because she knows that her mother's hands touched a dead person. Annie brags about Nalda's death to the other kids at school and they all start telling stories about people they heard of who had died
One girl at school, Sonia, is slowwitted but Annie likes her, therefore pesters her daily. One day Annie learns, however, that Sonia's mother, who was with child, died. Because Annie views Sonia as too shameful, being now without a mother, she stops talking to her. Their neighbor from across the street, Miss Charlotte, just up and died one day as well. She collapsed suddenly in the street and then was dead. Annie tries to picture Miss Charlotte dead, but cannot. She is fascinated with death and spirits as are the other kids at school. The mother of one girl stopped sucking her thumb after her mother told her she washed the girl's thumb in water that had touched a dead person. Annie thought that the mother had lied, but it worked anyhow because the dead were scary.
Annie's obsession with death drives her to swing by funerals even though she does not know who has died. Usually, she just stands outside the church and watch the grieving family members. One day a hunchbacked girl, who was Annie's age, dies and Annie decides to attend the wake. As soon as school is over, she bolts to the funeral home. Once inside, Annie walks over to the hunchbacked girl in the open coffin and stares at her for a long time-so long that a line forms behind her. The adults are nice to Annie however since they assume that she knew the girl from school. When Annie gets home, Annie realizes that in her excitement, she forgot to pick up the fish as her mother instructed her to. She lies and says that the fisherman did not go out on the sea that day. Her mother knows she is lying. The fisherman got so tired of waiting for Annie that he dropped off the fish himself. As her punishment, her mother makes her eat her dinner outside. Her mother kisses her goodnight before sleep anyhow.
The opening chapter of the novel introduces its protagonist, Annie John, as well as the novel's narrative style. The chapter is told through Annie's voice, which although it will mature as she ages, remains consistent for the next seven chapters. Here the narrator is only ten and her imagery is colorful and descriptive. Kincaid's prose style reveals her heavy use of specific details that conjure colors and textures of her native island. For example, it is not just three fish that Annie forgot to bring home, but three specific fish: an angelfish,; a kanya fish, and a lady doctorfish. Names of foods and flowers are also mentioned in detail, a specificity that will continue throughout the novel and contribute to its visual richness.
The episodic nature of the novel becomes apparent in this opening chapter. The chapter opens the novel, but could stand on its own as well with no further conclusion. Each of the chapters from Annie John were originally published as separate stories in the New Yorker, although in a slightly different form. Their placement together makes sense because the powerful narrative voice of Annie John connects them. They also proceed roughly in chronological order as she describes her early life. The specific plot of this chapter is not deeply connected with the overall plot of the book. However, the chapter does serve to develop the main characters that will be further explored in the pages to come and for that reason provides an important introductory role.
Specifically in this episode, the ten-year-old Annie becomes obsessed with death. On the one hand, her obsession arises from the fear of death, on the other hands it is simple curiosity. In the first section of the chapter, Annie learns that children can die. In the second section, she describes in detail the death of Nalda, whom Annie knew. Annie's description of her fear of death suggests the powerful spiritual beliefs of people on her island, thinking that death or death people could hurt you- as seen with the girl who stops sucking her thumb because it may have touched water that touched a dead person. While Annie may be afraid of death, her curiosity about it leads her to describe morbid details in a humorous tone. Upon learning that the hunchback died, for example, Annie laments the fact that she never touched the hunch on the girl's back to see it if was hollow. Likewise, when Annie sees the dead hunchback girl at the funeral parlor, she compares looking at her to looking through a View Master. Annie's not entirely gentle thoughts about a dead person are typical of the voice of a ten year old, which simultaneously adds a comic touch.
The relationship between Annie and her mother starts to be developed in this chapter. Annie's mother is a powerful woman who teaches Annie about death and who even has the powers necessary to prepare a dead girl for the grave. Annie's fear of her mother's hands touching her after that preparation foreshadows Annie's later dread of her mother's touch as their relationship falls apart. Similarly, Annie's failure to bring home the fish as she was supposed to foreshadows her future disobedience and conflict with her mother. At the end of this chapter, Annie and her mother still feel tightly connected, however, and despite her promises to do otherwise her mother sends Annie to bed with a kiss.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!