When Annie is on holiday from school, she is allowed to sleep in until long after her father goes to work. Her father always wakes at seven with the church bell, eats the breakfast, jumps in a cold bath, and shaves. Because Annie John is a girl, her mother adds hot water to the bath when it is Annie's turn. Sometimes Annie and her mother take a bath together. Mrs. John often puts special herbs and flowers in the bath for healing purposes, and fully washes Annie. After their baths, Annie and her mother eat and then head to town. Annie feels proud and important to go shopping with her mother. Mrs. John uses good shopping sense and always instructs Annie on how to buy the best products and clothes. On their way home from town, an angry woman occasionally approaches them and curses. Annie's mother always hides her in her skirt at these moments, but despite her efforts, Annie knows that this woman is one of several who hate her mother because they had children with her father but are not married to him.
Mrs. John usually cooks a sumptuous lunch after they get home and Annie's father returns to eat. As they eat, Annie admires her mother's beauty and notices that her father finds her mother's commentary incredibly funny and always laughs when she talks. Annie loves her mother very much and believes their life together to be a virtual paradise.
Mrs. John grew up on the island of Dominica but fled home at the age of sixteen for Antigua. She came to Antigua with only a trunk painted yellow and green. Sometimes Annie and her mother look through this trunk and her mother tells stories of the objects within it. Annie knows all these stories, but finds no greater joy than to sit on her mother's lap hearing them all again. Sometimes Annie starts to worry about people who have no one to love them. Her father, for example, lost both of his parents at a young age because they simply moved away to South America. After they left, he lived with his grandmother until one morning he woke up and found her dead. Upon her death, he left home. When Annie's father tells her this story, they both cry. Annie feels bad that her father was left all alone and she fears that her own parents will go away like her father's did. She is afraid to be left alone because she loves everything as it is.
When she gets to be around twelve, Annie's body starts to mature physically and her mother starts suggesting that Annie might not always live with them. One day, her mother shows her how to fold sheets, but mentions that Annie may want to fold them in a different way when she gets her own home. Another time while shopping, Annie wants to get fabric with men playing pianos on it, but her mother tells Annie that she is too old to go around looking a younger version of her. Eventually Annie gets the fabric, but whenever she wears the dress she feels resentful. Her mother also starts stressing that Annie needs to grow into a lady. She sends Annie to a woman who will teach her manners and to a piano teacher, but Annie gets kicked out of both classes for misbehaving. Annie lies about getting kicked out of the manners class, but her mother hears about Annie eating a plum from the piano and turns her back angrily on her daughter. Annie feels distressed at her mother's anger, but even more at their growing separation.
Despite her growing distress at her mother's behavior, Annie remembers that she soon will be attending a new school. She spends considerable time in town getting her books and new uniforms. One day she returns from Sunday school to find her parents making love in bed, with her mother's hand circling on her father's back She feels angry that her parents are not paying attention to her. When she sees her mother at dinner, she sees her in a totally new way. They have changed. Annie John feels disgusted when she looks at her mother's hands. She makes a cruel insolent remark to her mother because she is angry. Her mother looks sad and turns away. Annie decides that her relationship with her mother has totally changed, but consoles herself with the knowledge that she will attend school the following Monday and meet Gwen, so all shall be fine.
This chapter cuts to the heart of the relationship between Annie and her mother. In its opening segments, Annie's depicts her early life as a small paradise in which she and her mother share most moments of her summer vacation. As they bathe together, Annie's body almost becomes that of her mother. The water plays an important symbolic role of purification and revitalization that will continue throughout the novel. They eat breakfast together and shop together in town. Annie believes that her mother is the smartest and best mother, who also is extraordinarily beautiful. Annie's mother always knows where to buy the best bread, crabs, and fish. She knows how to wash the laundry and dry it on the large rocks in the yard. She cooks delicious meals at lunch for all three of them. Annie finds her mother to be without fault and assumes that they will always live in total peace with one another.
Annie starts to develop fears of separation in the beginning of this chapter. These fears foreshadow the chapter's later events as well as the subsequent plot of the novel. The story of Annie's father is a story of separation from all loving family members and Annie cries when she hears it because she imagines living alone to be the worst thing in the world. Annie's father is a kind figure, but it is his absence during the day that makes her special relationship with her mother possible. Annie does not feel a similarly unique unity with her father, although she loves him. Her mother's trunk, like the baths, serves as a symbolic unification of mother and daughter. Annie loves to hear the stories from the trunk again and again because these stories serve as the foundation of her personal sense of self. Just as she feels at one with her mother's body as the bathe together, so does she feel one with her mother's stories, because at this juncture she lacks a separate self with its own tales so she simply assumes those of her mother.
By the end of the novel, Annie will be forced to see her mother's separateness, as a result of seeing her mother's sexuality. This sexuality first is apparent when her mother and father seem entranced by each other as they eat lunch. When Annie sees her parents making love, however, she realizes the seriousness of the situation. She has run home to show her mother an award that she won at Sunday school, but no one pays attention to her. The special unit between her mother and her self has been broken. Her mother is paying more attention to her father than to her, and Annie is jealous. The title of the chapter, "The Circling Hand," references the motion of Mrs. John's hand during this sex scene. For the second time in the novel, Annie decides that her mother's hands can never touch her again, since they have been so polluted by sex. Annie's anger at being left out of the parental unit leads her to be insolent later that evening in a way that she has never been before. Her mother looks hurt, but Annie decides that war lines have been drawn. Annie soon will attend school and befriend Gwen and keep their friendship a secret as to get back at her mother.
While the sex scene brings final clarity to why Annie resents her mother, Annie's distress at being a separate person has grown throughout the chapter. First Annie's mother has wanted Annie to dress in a way different from her and next she sends her to special courses that will help her develop as her own person. Annie rebels in these classes because she wants to stop the process of separation, but her rebellion has little effect except taking her mother further away from her by making her angry. The opening sections of the chapter use simple, clear, and childish language that show how much the narrator adores her mother. It is this adoration and her belief in the paradise of her early childhood that will lead to Annie's inability to accept the need to separate from her mother as she grows. This inability in turn will lead to the rising action in the novel and its ultimate conflict.