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Annie is on her way to attend a new school and feels both excited and nervous at the transition. She visited the school the week before, so she knows her way around when she gets there. Once in homeroom, one of the other girls asks if she is Annie John and comments that they heard she is very smart, which Annie agrees with. The teacher, Miss Nelson, enters and takes the roll. She tells the girls that they will all be writing an original autobiographical essay that morning that they will read to each other in the afternoon. Annie works all morning until lunch and, in her excitement, dashes back to school right after eating with her parents.
The class sits outside under a tree while everyone reads their essays. Many of the essays deal with dreams of emigration, family members living abroad, or times when friends met members of the British aristocracy. Annie's story describes when she and her mother uses to swim at Rat Island when Annie was young to strengthen Annie's kidneys. Because Annie could not swim, her mother held her as they moved through the water. One day, Annie started watching some ships passing in the distance and when she turned back around she could not find her mother. Finally, Annie saw that her mother was lying on a rock not too far away. Annie started jumping and waving, but her mother did not see her and Annie could not swim to reach her. Her mother's separation made Annie weep because she feared that they might never be reunited. When Annie's mother finally reached the shore, she felt surprised at Annie's tears. When Annie explained her fear, her mother said that she would never leave Annie. After the episode, Annie occasionally dreamt of it and sometimes visualized the ocean separating both her mother and father from her. One morning after the dream, Annie told her mother of it and her mother explained again that she would never leave Annie.
Upon finishing the essay, Annie thinks that her classmates were almost touched to tears and that they loved it. Miss Nelson compliments Annie and asks her for a copy of the paper so it can be posted where everyone can read it. Annie reflects that part of the essay contained a slight lie, because when she told her mother about the dream her mother had simply told her not to eat fruit before bed because it was giving her bad dreams. As they walked back to the classroom, Annie feels proud. A girl named Gwen pinches her arm and gives Annie a black rock that came from the base of a volcano. This moment starts their deep friendship to come. Later the two girls walk home together.
Gwen and Annie soon become fully in love with one another and are inseparable. They share all their stories and secrets together. They walk to and from school together everyday. They become a tight pair, just as some of the other girls have become in their school.
Because Annie is the brightest student in the class, the teacher often leaves her in charge if she has to leave the room. Annie always stands up for everyone, though, and this tendency makes her popular. She also is gifted at sports and is slightly mischievous. The girls frequently sit behind the school in a cluster of tombstones during recess. They sing dirty songs and discuss their soon-to-be growing breasts. One day, Annie starts to menstruate, and is the first girl to do so. Her mother teaches her how to wrap cloth between her legs. As Annie walks to school, she thinks that everyone who looks at her knows that she is bleeding. During recess, she feels bound by decorum to show off to the other girls as they sit in the tombstone area, but Annie wishes that she were not the first girl to have started. Later in class, Annie starts visualizing her own blood and faints. The nurse lets Annie rest, but then decides to send her home to her mother. When Annie reaches home, her mother comes forward with concern, but Annie feels only bitterness and anger.
Annie's struggles with her self and her mother continue in this chapter, although another important factor appears: Annie's attendance in school. School represents the social order that has been constructed by the British colonial power that still governs Antigua. The teachers in Annie's school are named after English kings (Miss Edward and Miss George) an English fleet Admiral (Miss Nelson) and the famous London Prison (Miss Newgate). Annie subtly criticizes the English order by commenting on the personal body issues of British people. First she observes that that the headmistress of the school, Miss Moore, who moved to Antigua from England always looks like a dried prune who had been left out in the sun. Second, she notes that English people often smell like fish because they do not wash enough. Annie will excel in adhering to the standards required by her teachers, the representatives of the British educational order, but her rebelliousness, which is just barely visible in this chapter but will grow, shows the feisty Antiguan spirit that remains underneath.
Annie's essay for school articulates her fear of separation from her mother, which surfaced in the previous chapter. The general admiration of Annie's theme indicates that the other girls of her age group share her emotion. In Annie's story, water again plays an important symbolic role, as both a transformer and purifier. First, Annie and her mother swim at the beach in order to strength Annie's internal organs. Initially, they swim together with Annie's mother holding her. This joint movement through recalls the tendency for Annie to bathe with her mother. More importantly, the salty water of the ocean recalls the amniotic fluid of the womb and Annie's bobbing up and down in the water while clinging to her mother suggests a pre-birth state. After Annie's mother separates onto a rock, a stream of this same salty water will now divide them, just as the passing of the amniotic fluid that brought Annie to life rendered them asunder. In this way, Annie's story carries metaphoric undertones about Annie's pain at being separated from her mother with the act of birth. At the same time, the imagery also foreshadows Annie's future life movement. As a young girl, Annie feels pained when she sees water dividing her from her mother. As she grows however, Annie will purposely separate herself from her mother with similar water, by moving to England and placing the Atlantic Ocean between them. Annie will later come to embrace and even desire this separation that she now so bitterly fears. Thus her essay serves as both a commentary upon the inherent separation between mother and daughter, while simultaneously foreshadowing the future.
The title of this chapter, "Gwen," comes from Annie's new friendship with Gwen. But like the chapter before "the Circling Hand," the name does not so much invoke the importance of the object mentioned but rather what that object represents. Annie does profess to love Gwen, but there is little doubt that Annie uses her friendship with Gwen primarily to compensate for the neglect that she feels from her mother. Since it is becoming clear to Annie that she and her mother may not spend the rest of their lives together, Annie uses Gwen as a substitute. The two share their stories and secrets and plan a life together, but to a large extent the depth of their relationship comes from their psychological need to replace a distancing maternal relationship. Nor are Gwen and Annie the only ones to create such mollifying bonds. Kincaid points out that most of the other girls find a similar mate to cling to and in doing so, she suggests that Annie's troubles with her mother are not necessarily individual, but rather a natural development of a growing adolescent psyche. Annie's desire to be popular at school also helps her to satisfy the lack of love that she feels from her mother.
Annie's final dismay over her menstruation again highlights her desire not to separate from her mother. With menstruation, Annie has undeniably become a separate self. Her body has now reached female maturity and she is no longer a child. Annie feels almost morose at the development. Normally, the chance to show other girls something that they have not yet experienced would make her exuberant, but, although she does show them due to decorum, she wishes that she could be a spectator rather than being center stage. Annie is dragging her heels in every way possible as to not be pushed into adulthood, but, as her menstruation indicates, it is a process that she cannot stop. Perhaps in reaction to her internal stress about the unpreventable arrival of womanhood, she faints in her class. This faint manages to send her back to the comfort of her mother, but although her mother greets her with concern, Annie feels only bitterness. Annie longs for unification with her mother but seems to realize that it is now impossible, so she continues to view her only with anger.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Annie John!