by Jamaica Kincaid
The House and Clothing
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Girl gets a lot of directions about housekeeping. From tiny details ("this is how you sweep a corner" ) to major tasks ("this is how you sweep a yard" ), Mom has the whole house under control. She also gives Girl a lot of directions about clothing, like "soak your little cloths right after you take them off" and "when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn't have gum on it" (5, 6).
After a while we get the impression that the issue here isn’t just cleanliness. For example, Mom says, "this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming" (17). Yeah, yeah, taking care of clothes, boring, but this time Mom spells out why you have to take care of clothes: people are watching you and your reputation is at stake.
In the same way, Girl learns to arrange the house in different ways to give different impressions to different people. So, even though the commands Mom gives about cleaning the house and clothes seem simple, they really are about maintaining her daughter's reputation in society.
Social standing is a big deal in Girl’s environment. (Check out our "Society and Class" theme for more about that.) People seem to watch your every move, and they treat you the way they think you deserve to be treated.
Remember when Girl learns different smiles for different people, and how to set the table for dinner based on a guest’s status? We’ll remind you: “this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest" (25-30).
Not only that, but there are even people that basically get kicked out of society: wharf-rat boys and sluts. No one talks to them. (Well, probably they talk to each other. Although we get the sense that there's not much talking going on, if you know what we mean.) They don’t even get to touch bread!
With severe penalties for a bad reputation, it makes sense that Mom wants to make sure that Girl has a good one. Even Girl agrees that reputation is a big deal. She says, “but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school" (14)—so she obviously knows that singing benna would hurt her reputation, and she doesn't want to do it.
So, the way you take care of your clothes and your home is a huge symbol: it symbolizes your internal virtue. Dirty clothes? You're a dirty old slut. But one last thing: dirty clothes only mean you're a slut in the eyes of Mom and the other Antiguans. Kincaid herself doesn't seem to think that at all. We know that, because Mom drops little hints about how to seem like you're pure, even if you're not (like that abortion-medicine). Pretty tricky.