Study Guide

Annie John in Annie John

By Jamaica Kincaid

Annie John

Let's compare our titular character Annie John to another Annie—the feisty little orphan who sings about tomorrow being only a day away. Sure, they're both young girls, and they both have more than enough spunk and intelligence to more than fill a storyline.

But that's where their characters diverge. Orphan Annie is desperate to find a family, and she leaves her gaggle of orphan buddies in order to find a safe home. Annie John becomes desperate to leave her family behind and starts forging fast friendships with other girls. The beloved parental figure for our orphan Annie is a Daddy (Warbucks), and for Annie John it's all Mommy, all the time. Orphan Annie just knows that the sun will come out tomorrow. Not only does Annie John not want more sun (another sunny day in Antigua is like another drop of water in the ocean) but she's pretty sure that everything is going to end in doom n' gloom.

There we have it folks: Annie John's character is equal parts hyper-morbidity, Mama issues, and a fierce independent streak. It's a hard knock life indeed.

Mama's Girl

We'll play Freud with Annie John right off the bat, because this book has more mother issues than Psycho, Hamlet and Oedipus rolled into one. Luckily for us all, Annie John is way more uplifting and warm-hearted than any of those texts. Phew.

When we meet Annie John she's ten years old and her mama is her sun, her moon, and her stars:

When my eyes rested on my father, I didn't think very much of the way he looked. But when my eyes rested on my mother, I found her beautiful. Her head looked as if it should be on a sixpence. What a beautiful long neck, and long plaited hair, which she pinned up around the crown of her head because when her hair hung down it made her too hot. Her mouth, moving up and down as she ate and talked at the same time, was such a beautiful mouth I could have looked at it forever if I had to and not mind. (2.8)

They do everything together. Her mom takes her on outing and asks her opinions about how food tastes. They wear matching outfits. They bathe together. They're inseparable and Annie loves her mother with an all-consuming passion. And her mother loves her back with equal ferocity.

Then puberty starts to happen. Annie John goes through a growth spurt and starts to sprout body hair and her mom backs away… fast.

One day, my mother and I had gone to get some material for new dresses to celebrate her birthday (the usual gift from my father), when I came upon a piece of cloth […] I immediately said how much I loved this piece of cloth and how nice I thought it would look on both of us, but my mother replied, "Oh, no. You are getting too old for that. It's time you had your own clothes. You just cannot go around the rest of your life looking like a little me." To say that I felt the earth swept away form under me would not be going too far. (2.14)

Whether this is her mom becoming too icy too fast, or Annie feeling a little twinge of Peter Pan-like desire to never grow up, it hurts. Her mom deciding that they can't wear twinsie outfits any more totally floors young Annie.

This paves the way for Annie's adolescent ambivalence towards her mother. And when we say "ambivalence" we're not talking about a gentle like/not like dichotomy. We're talking about love and hate, in blazing Technicolor. No shades of grey in this relationship—although Annie's attitude sometimes does seem a tad sadistic:

As my heels bumped up against the trunk, my heart just broke, and I cried and cried. At that moment, I missed my mother more than I had ever imagined possible and wanted only to live somewhere quiet and beautiful with her alone, but also at that moment I wanted only to see her lying dead, all withered and in a coffin at my feet. (6.27)

There are a zillion and a half quotes like this, exemplifies deep love and deep revulsion towards her Mommy dearest, but we chose this one because it bridges two side of Annie's character: her mama issues and her morbidity.

Goth Girl

Annie's dark side had always been well developed. Let's just say that she would have been right at home in the 1990s… or on the streets of Shibuya, Tokyo. Death is on her mind from well before her mother decides that they have to cool it on the mother/daughter bonding time.

She remarks, with classic Annie John brusqueness and understatement, that "I was afraid of the dead, as was everyone I knew" (1.2). This is putting it mildly: Annie wants desperately to see a corpse and she spends time gazing at the cemetery. The idea that children can die totally upsets Annie, and she spends quite a few of her childhood hours ruminating on death, and life, and more death.

This morbidity doesn't go away when she becomes a teenager. It blossoms. She starts idly considering whether or not to kill her mother, and pulls out the second most famous angsty teen epithet in the Angsty Teen Epithet Phrasebook behind "I didn't ask to be born":

When I had bought those shoes and showed them to my mother, she said that they were not fit for a young lady and not fit for wearing on being received into church. We had an enormous fight over the shoes, and I may have said unspeakable things to her, though I have forgotten everything except that at the end I turned and said, "I wish you were dead." (7.14)

Yowch. Of course she doesn't really want her mother dead. She loves her mom. But she has a death-obsession that would put a young Tim Burton to shame and needs to just get it all out.

But what's at the bottom of this obsession with death? Well, in typical literary fashion it's kind of tricky. If you've ever flipped through a Tarot deck you'll be familiar with one really upsetting card called "The Hanged Man." That's just about the worst card you can draw, right? Actually, no: it's a pretty hopeful prediction. It signals an end and a beginning: death and rebirth.

That's what's going on with Annie John. Her morbidity reaches new heights (or depths, depending on how you view it) when her life reaches a turning point. As she's about to enter a new phase in her life her mind turns towards death:

On our minds every day were our breasts and their refusal to budge out of our chests. On hearing somewhere that if a boy rubbed your breasts they would quickly swell up, I passed along this news. Since in the world we occupied and hoped forever to occupy boys were banished, we had to make do with ourselves. What perfection we found in each other, sitting on these tombstones of longdead people who had been the masters of our ancestors! (3.21)

That's Annie John, folks. Sitting in a tombstone, trying to get her breasts to grow as fast as possible and usher her into her adulthood. New beginnings and death go hand in skeleton-hand in this novel.

Gone Girl

In between the fits of goth-girl morbidity and mother issues, Annie John becomes one independent lady. How independent? Ultimately, after falling ill and almost dying she decides to upend her entire life, sail off to England, and become a nurse. Check that out: after coming face to face with the Grim Reaper himself, Annie decides not only to start a new chapter of her life, but to dedicate her professional to nursing people back to health.

But before that happens, a lot of minor rebellious dust-ups occur.

The first rebellion of Annie's is to trade in her mother for a couple of newer models: Gwen and the Red Girl.

I told her that when I was younger I had been afraid of my mother's dying, but that since I had met Gwen this didn't matter so much. (3.22)

Bye-bye, Mom: Gwen's in town. Annie falls head over heels in love with her new bestie and almost totally forgets that her mother even existed. Then, Annie leaves the memory of Gwen behind and falls for the weird, half-feral Red Girl. The Red Girl introduces her to the world of small-time gambling:

Just before we parted, she gave me three marbles; they were an ordinary kind, the kind you could buy three for a penny—glass orbs with a tear shaped drop suspended in the center. Another secret to keep from my mother! (4.9)

Oops, guess Mommy doesn't just exist in memory after all. Every action Annie commits is motivated in some way by her desire to move further away from her mother… even in her friendships with other girls, she's either trying to replace her mom or anger her mom. Even her last action—deciding to move to England—is tinged with maternal oversight:

I don't know why seeing that [barge] struck me so, but suddenly a wave of strong feeling came over me, and my heart swelled with a great gladness as the words "I shall never see this again" spilled out inside me. But then, just as quickly, my heart shriveled up and the words "I shall never see this again" stabbed at me. I don't know what stopped me from falling in a heap at my parents' feet. (8.17)

Because Annie's dad is mentioned so little in this novel, we know that "parents' feet" really refers to "mother's feet." Her departure for England is marred with the same intense love ("the words "I shall never see this again" stabbed at me.") and hate ("my heart swelled with a great gladness as the words "I shall never see this again" spilled out inside me") that she's been feeling toward her mother since her adolescence.

But at least the goth-girl dourness leaves Annie as Annie leaves Antigua.

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