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Lucy: A Novel

Jamaica Kincaid


Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The Cyclical Nature of Existence

Upon arriving in America, Lucy follows a cyclical path, wherein her apparent progress leads her to the very condition she’s tried to reject. Lucy abandons her native land with the expectation that her life will instantly become different and better. However, she exchanges her dissatisfaction with her country for the discontents of immigration, yearning for her island with the same intensity with which she once ached for escape. The isolation and longing she initially experiences parallel her condition at the novel’s conclusion, when, alone in her new apartment, she laments her incapacity for true love. The novel’s structure reinforces Lucy’s cyclical journey, both starting and ending in January. Amid the larger cycle of Lucy’s first year in America, Lucy experiences smaller cycles, vacillating between hope and despair in her aspirations and between closeness and distance in her relationships. This cyclical perspective contrasts with Western industrial society’s linear notions of progress, in which individuals supposedly move increasingly beyond adversity through the systematic application of hard work and reason. Lucy, who lacks no determination or intelligence, shows a more complex reality.

The Difficulty of Mother-Daughter Relationships

Despite her physical absence from Lucy’s life, Lucy’s mother continually occupies Lucy’s thoughts, inspiring anger, contempt, longing, and regret. Lucy relates an enormous amount of her experiences to some memory or observation about her mother, which demonstrates the power of the mother-daughter bond. Yet that power has the ability to do as much harm as good. Lucy once saw her mother as an extension of herself and considered her the great love of her life. Because of the strength of their relationship, Lucy became devastated when the arrival of her brothers diverted her mother’s attention and support. Adolescence furthered tensions between Lucy and her mother, as Lucy resented her mother’s attempts to shape her in her own image. The very separation that Lucy hopes to complete with her journey to America, however, causes her sorrow, for she believes she’ll never again experience the kind of love she shared with her mother. Though Lucy determines that she must break with her mother to achieve adulthood, she suffers intense feelings of loss in the process.

The Power of Circumstance on Perception

Having grown up under colonial rule, Lucy views the world differently from those with backgrounds unlike hers. While Mariah’s affluent North American upbringing prompts her to extol the beauty of daffodils and plowed fields, Lucy sees a symbol of colonial injustice and the labor of those who worked the soil. Lucy notices the racial breakdown of the train’s dining car, but Mariah appears oblivious to the division between the white passengers and the black help. When the weather turns bad, Mariah laments the obstacle to her desires, whereas Lucy never expects that the conditions outside should accommodate her wants. To Mariah’s wealthy friends, Lucy’s Caribbean homeland, the origin of Lucy’s disappointments and dreams, serves as little more than a site for their relaxation and recreation. As Paul, a white male artist, sings praises of the human quest for freedom, Lucy can think only of the cost that the disadvantaged members of society pay for that quest. Though Lucy relates to some people of circumstances vastly different from hers, she constantly encounters reminders that varied experiences lead to disparate perceptions.


The Seasons

As Lucy experiences her first year abroad, she shows a keen awareness of the changing seasons, which often parallel her emotional states. Beginning and ending with Lucy’s lonely winters, Kincaid shows Lucy moving from renewal in springtime to contentment in summer and disillusionment in the fall. The link between Lucy’s journey and the seasons promotes the notion that human existence follows a cyclical, rather than linear, path. The seasons also highlight differences between Lucy’s old equatorial surroundings and her new northern climate. Lucy has an attitude toward the seasons that mirrors her mixed feelings about her native country. Though she appreciates the variety of weather and finds the summers less oppressive than at home, in the colder months, she misses the warm sun and vibrant colors of the island. The seasons, then, highlight both Lucy’s inner and outer conditions and grant them larger meaning by connecting them to a natural phenomenon experienced by many.


Lucy’s letters from home illuminate her difficult relationship with her mother. As Lucy takes to piling her mother’s unopened letters on her dresser, she shows a defiance that also betrays her daughterly attachment: she doesn’t discard them and fears the longing she’d feel if she glimpsed her mother’s words. When Lucy finally reads the letter detailing her father’s death and her mother’s misfortune, she comes to her mother’s financial aid but also releases her fury in a letter home, once again demonstrating her mixed feelings. After burning the letters she’s saved, Lucy finds herself able to move forward. She prepares to leave Lewis and Mariah’s apartment and sends a letter home, expressing compassion for her mother but also breaking with her by giving a false address. Throughout the novel, letters serve as markers of Lucy’s struggle to make a new life for herself by escaping her past.


Food appears in the novel as a source of comfort and, occasionally, dissension. Lucy’s best memories of home often involve detailed descriptions of dishes, such as the mullet and figs cooked by her grandmother, the cow’s tongue in lemon juice evoked by her thoughts of Tanner, or the exquisitely fried fish she pictures eating by a vibrantly blue sea. Lucy’s attention to the food of her homeland illustrates that despite her bitterness about her past, her country has sustained her physically and emotionally. But food also elicits painful emotions. The food she remembers in the throes of homesickness may provide comfort, but it also taunts her with its absence. Mariah’s baked fish reminds Lucy yet again of the distance between Mariah and herself and how far she is from home. And Lucy’s mother ridicules her when she inquires about the preparation of fish in a Bible story that Lucy wishes more accurately reflected her island surroundings. For Lucy, food represents the finest moments of her upbringing but also recalls all she’s lost.


“The Islands”

Mariah’s friends refer to the West Indies as “the islands,” a phrase that reveals their presumptuously familiar attitude toward Lucy’s homeland, a place they’ve vacationed but don’t truly know. Because, as Lucy observes, many ranges of islands exist in the world, the failure to identify which islands implies a shared understanding among Mariah’s white, affluent friends, which lies in their frequent jaunts to the Caribbean for rest and relaxation. By referring to “the islands” in Lucy’s presence, they reduce her homeland to a tourist attraction, denying the presence of the everyday reality of an island where impoverished, colonized people live. Mariah’s friends, though not the literal colonizers of Lucy’s birthplace, show a colonial mentality by imposing their own experiences on the West Indies instead of recognizing the region’s native characteristics. The short phrase “the islands” speaks volumes about the arrogance of those of wealth and privilege.


The photographs Lucy takes with her new camera suggest Lucy’s evolving sense of self. Initially, Lucy admires art and artists, but she believes that someone of her background is ill-equipped to pursue artistic endeavors. Eventually, however, a beloved book of photographs inspires her to take pictures herself. While the results don’t resemble the work in the book, Lucy still finds beauty in her prints, which she posts on her wall as a validation of her personal vision. Lucy’s journey toward selfhood has its drawbacks, and her photographs, too, illustrate her problems achieving self-fulfillment. Though she regularly develops photographs in her employer’s darkroom, they fail to meet her expectations, just as Lucy’s dreams fall short when they become realities. The photographs also represent Lucy’s difficulty in achieving intimacy, for she produces them by hiding behind the camera, indulging in her view of others without turning the lens on herself.


Daffodils suggest Lucy and Mariah’s disparate perceptions of the world. For Mariah, daffodils, her favorite flower, mean beauty and the arrival of spring. Lucy, however, sees them as reminder of a colonial education that forced her to memorize a poem about a flower she’d never seen, while ignoring the features of her native land. As Mariah leads Lucy to a field of daffodils in an attempt to change Lucy’s feelings about the flower, Lucy’s animosity toward daffodils only increases. She wants to kill them: not only do they recall colonial injustice, but they also represent Mariah’s colonial-like determination to make Lucy see the world as she does. While daffodils point to Lucy and Mariah’s opposing perspectives, they also represent symbols themselves, by showing how the same object can have vastly divergent meanings for different people. Symbols, then, have no inherent import but derive their significance from the person who views them.

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