Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Danger of Female Sexuality
Even though the daughter doesn’t seem to have yet reached adolescence, the mother worries that her current behavior, if continued, will lead to a life of promiscuity. The mother believes that a woman’s reputation or respectability determines the quality of her life in the community. Sexuality, therefore, must be carefully guarded and even concealed to maintain a respectable front. Consequently, the mother links many tangential objects and tasks to the taboo topic of sexuality, such as squeezing bread before buying it, and much of her advice centers on how to uphold respectability. She scolds her daughter for the way she walks, the way she plays marbles, and how she relates to other people. The mother’s constant emphasis on this theme shows how much she wants her daughter to realize that she is “not a boy” and that she needs to act in a way that will win her respect from the community.
The Transformative Power of Domesticity
The mother believes that domestic knowledge will not only save her daughter from a life of promiscuity and ruin but will also empower her as the head of her household and a productive member of the community. She basically believes that there are only two types of women: the respectable kind and the “sluts.” Undoubtedly for many Antiguan women, domestic knowledge leads to productivity, which in turn wins respect from family and society. Household work therefore brings power and even prestige to women in addition to keeping them busy and away from temptation. Readers recognize the reverence the mother has for the power of domesticity because of the numerous specific instructions she gives her daughter, such as how to cook pumpkin fritters, sweep, grow okra, buy bread, and wash clothes. For her, domesticity brings respectability; sewing up a dress hem thus becomes more than an act of maintenance because it saves a woman’s sexual reputation within the community.
The mother repeatedly emphasizes food throughout her lecture to reinforce her belief that happiness comes from domesticity. The acts—and art—of making pumpkin fritters, tea, bread pudding, doukona, and pepper pot thus take on greater meaning as elements that link women to their families, their households, and the greater community. In many ways, food will also be the mother’s greatest legacy as she passes old family recipes and culinary traditions down to her daughter and future generations of women. Interestingly, foods such as doukona and pepper pot also act as anchors that squarely place the story in Antigua and the Caribbean. Mentioning these specific regional foods allows Kincaid to recreate a world that’s vivid and different from our own without ruining the story’s structure with unnecessary descriptions.
Cloth and its relationship to appearances and proper housekeeping reappear throughout the story to highlight the importance of respectability. The mother knows that a person’s clothing reveals much about character and personality and that shabbiness implies laziness and poverty. Washing, sewing, and ironing allow women not only to project their status but also their productivity and self-worth. Neatness in appearance also corresponds to the community’s perception of a woman’s sexual respectability and morality. Organized, productive, well-groomed women appear competent and in control and consequently have much less chance of falling under suspicion of having had illicit relationships with men. The mother therefore stresses the importance of dress and appearance to save the daughter from a life of disrespect.
Antiguan folksongs, or benna, symbolize sexuality, a subject the mother fears her daughter already knows too much about. Historically, native Antiguans sang benna to secretly spread scandalous rumors and gossip under the uncomprehending British people’s noses. Singing benna in Sunday school, therefore, represents not only disobedience but also sinful, forbidden knowledge that can’t be discussed openly in public, let alone in church. Even though the daughter may not consciously equate benna with sexuality as her mother does, her protestations nevertheless suggest she knows full well benna’s seductive power, mystique, and forbidden qualities. In fact, the girl’s adamant, almost desperate denials may even hint that she actually has sung benna in Sunday school with her friends, an indication of her blossoming interest in boys as well as a sign of an increasing exasperation with her mother’s advice and intrusions into her personal life.