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Lucy: A Novel

Jamaica Kincaid

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. I wondered if ever in my whole life a day would go by when these people I had left behind, my own family, would not appear before me in one way or another.

This comment appears in “Poor Visitor” after Lucy remembers an unpleasant childhood acquaintance, and it illustrates Lucy’s ambivalence toward the community she has abandoned. Lucy’s words may simply express her attachment to her origins, but the context of the quote renders it more complex. This thought emerges during an intense bout of homesickness that surprises her, since she has long craved escape from her native land. Given Lucy’s bleak state of mind and her disdainful attitude toward the girl she has just remembered, the quote assumes a melancholy tone, suggesting that such constant appearances of those Lucy left behind would not be welcome. If Lucy will always mentally revisit her family and friends, then she has little chance of realizing her hope of achieving freedom from her past. Yet Lucy clearly misses her home, and the notion that she may never be without regular reveries about her community attests to the strength of her ties to it.

The quote’s internal structure sheds further light on the complexity of Lucy’s relationship with people back home. The phrase “these people I left behind, my own family,” has an ambiguous meaning that further complicates Lucy’s feelings. On one level, Lucy may simply consider her family a subgroup of those she left behind, as in “these people I left behind, including my own family.” However, the absence of a word defining the relationship of her family to those she left behind gives the impression of interchangeability between “these people I left behind” and “my own family.” Perhaps Lucy suggests here that everyone she left behind is like family to her, which, given Lucy’s reluctant filial ties, implies a close but not especially welcome bond with her community. Or, alternatively, despite her recent reference to her childhood acquaintance, Lucy implies that of those she left behind, her family, above all, concerns and haunts her, and that ultimately her greatest fears and hopes derive from leaving her family. The ambiguous construction makes Lucy’s final meaning difficult to pin down, but ambiguity seems fitting in light of the confused emotions about home that Lucy shows throughout the novel.

2. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault. But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness.

This remark occurs in “Mariah” after Mariah leads Lucy to a field of daffodils in hopes of changing Lucy’s hostility toward the flowers, and it encapsulates the vast differences in perception caused by Lucy and Mariah’s disparate backgrounds. While privileged Mariah can appreciate daffodils for their aesthetic qualities, Lucy, whose British-run school forced her to memorize a poem about this species of flower, which is alien to her island, can’t divorce daffodils from the injustices of colonialism, a system responsible for imposing foreign principles and interests on Lucy’s native land. Though Lucy has resented Mariah’s sheltered perspective of the world, she realizes that Mariah bears no more blame for loving daffodils than Lucy does for hating them, suggesting that perception derives not from choice but from circumstances beyond individual will. Yet by absolving herself and Mariah from holding their divisive views, Lucy also recognizes that she and Mariah can do nothing to bridge the perceptual gap between them, since they can’t change what they can’t control. This quote, by showing Lucy’s ability for forgiveness and insight, demonstrates Lucy’s conciliatory impulses while exposing just how much her colonial upbringing distances her from the white, affluent people in her midst.

3. The times that I loved Mariah it was because she reminded me of my mother. The times that I did not love Mariah it was because she reminded me of my mother.

These words appear in “The Tongue,” as Lucy observes Mariah standing among enormous flowers in the Great Lakes house. It illustrates the close link, in Lucy’s mind, between Mariah and her mother, and it also depicts Lucy’s ambivalence about both women. Here, Lucy judges Mariah’s behavior as a reflection of her mother’s, for her love for Mariah depends on whether Mariah mimics her mother’s good or bad traits, rather than on how Mariah performs on her own terms. The use of the plural, times, conveys that Lucy habitually identifies Mariah with her mother and possesses no feelings for Mariah outside the realm of that identification. Furthermore, rather than speaking of love as unconditional, Lucy reveals how frequently her love comes and goes, which demonstrates the wavering nature of her affections for both women. Though in other passages Lucy emphasizes ways in which Mariah and her mother differ, for much of the novel, Mariah serves as a mother figure to Lucy, through whom Lucy continues to play out the fierce, unresolved emotions she has for her real mother.

4. I used to think that just a change in venue would banish forever from my life the things I most despised. But that was not to be so. As each day unfolded before me, I could see the sameness in everything; I could see the present take a shape—the shape of my past.

This passage appears in “Cold Heart,” as Lucy waits alone on a bleak Sunday for Peggy to call, and it illustrates Lucy’s disillusion about making a new life for herself in North America. Despite her grand hopes of escaping her homeland, Lucy, in the months since her departure, has failed to realize her dreams. Though she has shed much of the homesickness that had previously besieged her, she experiences other forms of heartache, many of which parallel the bane of her island existence. At home, Sundays depressed her, and here, they depress her, too. She has fled her unhappy family only to witness the decline of Lewis and Mariah’s marriage, in which Lewis, with his philandering, behaves much like her father. Most important, as the paragraph immediately following this quotation indicates, Lucy still finds herself caught in a battle for freedom from her mother, whose mocking voice rings in her head and whose letters she can neither bear to read nor discard. Lucy also continues to mirror her ambivalence toward her mother in her relationship with Mariah. As her problems follow her across a great distance, Lucy comes to see that her difficulties transcend her environment.

5. I could write down only this: “I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it.” And then a great wave of shame came over me and I wept and wept so much that the tears fell on the page and caused all the words to become one great big blur.

These are the final lines of the novel, and they demonstrate the despair and isolation that Lucy continues to feel despite the progress she’s made. In many ways, Lucy has achieved the goals she set for herself upon leaving home. She lives in her own apartment, she has a decent job, and, by sending a letter with a false address, she has solidified the distance between herself and her mother. However, Lucy still lacks true intimacy with other people—though by the end of the novel she recognizes just how much she needs intense human connection. This acknowledgment reveals her maturation and suggests the possibility of future change. Lucy also admits that the dearth of love in her life results from her own shortcomings. By wishing she could deeply love someone, she implies that she can’t, and the shame she feels also suggests her strong sense of blame for her own loneliness. While Lucy’s assumption of responsibility for her own plight may mark a positive step for her, this quote ultimately casts a dark mood over the conclusion of Lucy’s journey toward independence, with Lucy in tears that obliterate her mournful expression of growth.

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