Study Guide

Annie John Coming-of-Age

By Jamaica Kincaid

Coming-of-Age

The summer of the year I turned twelve, I could see I had grown taller; most of my clothes no longer fit. When I could get a dress over my head, the waist then came up to just below my chest. My legs had become more spindlelike, the hair on my head even more unruly than usual, small tufts of hair had appeared under my arms, and when I perspired the smell was strange, as if I had turned into a strange animal. (2.14)

There are several moments in the texts when Annie gives herself the "once over." She is shocked and appalled by the changes she sees. Her Peter Pan dreams slowly die.

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)

This is a major blow for Annie. When her mother refuses to allow them to dress alike again, Annie feels rejected and crushed.

As if that were not enough, my mother informed me that I was on the verge of becoming a young lady, so there were quite a few things I would have to do differently. Behind a closed door, I stood naked in front of a mirror and looked at myself from head to toe. I was long and bony […] I could see the small tufts of hair under my arms […] my nose […] had suddenly spread across my face […] if I didn't know I was me standing there I would have wondered about that strange girl. (2.15)

When Annie's mother informs her of her changing body, Annie realizes that her peaceful, joyful world is now changing forever. All of a sudden her own body is this strange foreign object.

Because of this young-lady business, instead of days spent in perfect harmony with my mother, I trailing in her footsteps, she showering down on me her kisses and affection and attention, I was now sent off to learn one thing and another. (2.16)

Part of the transformation requires Annie to learn new things. She realizes that there are societal expectations that go along with her new body.

My so recently much-hated body was now a plus: I excelled at games and was named captain of a volleyball team. (3.20)

Eventually, Annie finds a redeeming quality to her body. Now she is a great athlete and feels stronger and more empowered at school.

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)

Along with the whole "Eek, what's happening to my body?" aspect of puberty comes the "C'mon, body—be finished growing already." This impatience leads to exploration. Check out the nifty juxtaposition of girls trying to egg on puberty amid a graveyard full of dead people.

On the morning of the first day I started to menstruate, I felt strange in a new way—hot and cold at the same time, with horrible pains running up and down my legs. My mother, knowing what was the matter, brushed aside my complaints and said that it was all to be expected and I would soon get used to everything. Seeing my gloomy face, she told me in a half-joking way all about her own experience with the first step in coming of age, as she called it, which had happened when she was as old as I was. (3.23)

We had to include this quotation. It actually has the phrase "coming of age" in it. Again, we see the word "strange" here. Adolescence is a minefield of strange new sensations, and not all of them are pleasant.

I, during a break for recess, walk over from our schoolyard into the neighboring churchyard to sit on tombstones and gather important information from the other girls on what exactly it was I should do to make my breasts begin growing. Our breasts were, to us treasured shrubs, needing only the proper combination of water and sunlight to make them flourish. (4.11)

The breasts come back again. In this passage, Annie uses a natural metaphor to describe how she and her friends wish their breasts would grow, pointing out the connection between women and nature in this text.

What I was really looking at was my own reflection in the glass, though it was a while before I knew that. I saw myself just hanging there among bolts of cloth, among Sunday hats and shoes […] I saw myself among all these things, but I didn't know that it was I, for I had got so strange. My whole head was so big, my eyes, which were big, too, sat in my big head wide open, as if I had just had a sudden fright. My skin was black in a way I had not noticed before […] on my cheeks were little bumps […] my plaits stuck out in every direction […] I looked old and miserable. (6.12)

Always pay attention to the mirror or looking-glass scenes in books—they're usually pretty important. When Annie catches a sight of her reflection in the store window, she's frightened by what she sees. She's not just having a bad hair day; she's having a bad face day. When she says, "I had got so strange," she is really expressing a sense of estrangement with her own changing body.

During my sickness, I had grown to a considerable height—almost equal to my grandmother's. In bed now, I had to double myself up to fit properly. (7.26).

Just as Ma Chess seems to be the most spiritually significant character in the book, she is also the tallest. When she grows to almost the same height as Ma Chess, Annie seems to be reaching some clarity in her life.

I was on the verge of feeling that it had all been a mistake, but I remembered that I wasn't a child anymore, and that now when I made up my mind about something I had to see it through. At that moment, we came to the ship, and that was that. (8.18)

At the end of the book, Annie is voicing her mother's own thoughts about her. She isn't afraid to say that she "isn't a child anymore," unlike the twelve-year-old version of herself who was frightened of change.

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