Study Guide

Annie John The Supernatural

By Jamaica Kincaid

The Supernatural

But sometimes they would show up standing under a tree just as you were passing by. Then they might follow you home, and even though they might not be able to come into your house, they might wait for you and follow you wherever you went; in that case, they would never give up until you joined them. My mother knew of many people who had died in such a way. (1.2)

Annie lives in a world in which the spirit of the dead can come back to haunt you until you join them. This is a scary prospect for a child… or really for anyone. Jeepers.

We took these baths after my mother had consulted with her obeah woman, and with her mother and a trusted friend, and all three of them had confirmed that from the look of things around house […] one of the many women my father had loved, had never married, but with whom he had had children was trying to harm my mother and me by setting bad spirits on us. (2.2)

Many women on Antigua practice obeah. We learn here that Annie's father was busy with women in his life before Annie's mother and that these women want revenge for him abandoning them. Believing in obeah also means that everything is a sign or symbol of something else in Annie's world.

Most likely, my mother agreed, but she also would have said that, just to be sure, she would call Ma Jolie, an obeah woman from Dominica who now lived not far from our house, and who was recommended to my mother by her mother, Ma Chess, who still lived in Dominica. To the Ma Jolie idea, my father would have said, "Very well, but count me out; have her come when I am not here." (7.3)

When Annie's father suggested that Annie made herself sick by studying too much, Annie's mother wanted to call Ma Jolie. Her parents' different response to her illness and who each thought they should call (either the Englishman, Dr. Stephens or Ma Jolie, the obeah woman) indicates how various beliefs exist in a Caribbean society. Antigua is a blend of many cultures and traditions.

One day, [my father] arranged to be somewhere else and Ma Jolie came. She made cross marks on the soles of my feet, on my knees, on my stomach, in my armpits, and on my forehead. She lit two special candles and placed one over the head of my bed and the other near the foot. She said that, with all the rain, it was impossible for anything meaning me harm to be living outside in the yard, so she would not even bother to look there now. (8.12)

Annie goes into great detail to describe Ma Jolie's obeah. In one of her signature lists, we learn of all of Ma Jolie's efforts to cure Annie of her illness. We also learn that Annie's father isn't buying it.

In the basin with the candles she had placed scraps of paper on which were written the names of people who had wanted to harm me, most of them women my father had loved a long time ago. She told my mother, after a careful look around, that there were no spirits in my room or in any other part of the house, and that all the things she did were just a precaution in case anyone should get ideas on hearing that I was in such a weakened condition. Before she left, she pinned a little back sachet, filled with something that smell abominable, to the inside of my nightie, and she gave my mother some little vials filled with fluids to rub on me at different times of the day. (8.12)

Again, Annie's father's former lovers come up. While Annie's father is never held responsible for his past actions or the women who he may have hurt, Annie's mother and the obeah women have to try to clean up his mess and prevent any bad spirits from attacking their household.

When my father came in to see me, he looked at all my medicines—Dr. Stephen's and Ma Jolie's—lined up side by side and screwed up his face, the way he did when he didn't like what he saw. He must have said something to my mother, for she arranged the shelf in a new way, with Dr. Stephen's prescriptions in the front and Ma Jolie's prescriptions in the back. (8.12)

Annie's father's reaction to seeing the medications from the Western medical doctor and Ma Jolie lined up next to each other disturbed him. In this world where everything is symbolic, he rejects this equation of Western medicine and obeah practice. He clearly has a hierarchy in his mind in which the Western medicine trumps the obeah medicine. What does this say about his regard for tradition?

I don't know how long it was after this that Ma Chess appeared. I heard my mother and father wonder to each other how she came to us, for she appeared on a day when the steamer was not due, and she they didn't go to meet her at the jetty. (7.22)

Ma Chess is shrouded in mystery. As the ultimate obeah woman, she is the epitome of the power of the supernatural in this text.

When Ma Chess leaned over me, she smelled of many different things, all of them even more abominable than the black sachet Ma Jolie had pinned to my nightie. Whatever Ma Jolie knew, my grandmother knew at least ten times more. How she regretted that my mother didn't show more of an interest in obeah things. (7.22)

Although Annie's mother calls on obeah women in times of crisis, she didn't learn to practice it herself. This is troubling to Annie's grandmother, who may be concerned with preservation of culture.

Sometimes at night, when I would feel that I was all locked up in the warm falling soot and could not find my way out, Ma Chess would come into my bed with me and stay until I was myself—whatever that had come to be by then—again. I would lie on my side, curled up like a little comma, and Ma Chess would lie next to me, curled up like a bigger comma, into which I fit. (7.24)

There is nothing like grandmother's presence. Here, Ma Chess uses her obeah to know exactly when her granddaughter is suffering. She has a connection with her granddaughter that is stronger than words.

Along with my earrings, my neck chain, and my bracelets, all made of gold from British Guiana, my underclothes had been sent to my mother's obeah woman, and whatever she had done to my jewelry and underclothes would help protect me from evil spirits and every kind of misfortune. The things I never wanted to see or hear or do again now made up at least three weeks' worth of grocery lists. I placed a mark against obeah women, jewelry, and white underclothes. (8.5)

Interestingly, even though Annie says she never wanted to hear or be involved with obeah again, she does still wear the items that have been protected by obeah against evil spirits.

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