Study Guide

Lucy: A Novel Analysis

By Jamaica Kincaid

  • Tone

    Frank; Melancholic


    Lucy isn't one bit shy in telling us exactly what she thinks. When it comes to offering her impressions of other characters, Lucy tends to believe honesty is the best policy.

    She's equally truthful when it comes to laying bare her own thoughts and experiences without hesitation. Much of the novel, in fact, reads like a diary full of open, frank admissions.

    Not only does Lucy readily offer up descriptions of her most intimate sexual encounters, she never spares a single awkward detail. Recounting a scene of her first kiss, for instance, she notes:

    Someone should have told me that there were other things to seek out in a tongue than the flavor of it, for then I would not have been standing there sucking on poor Tanner's tongue as if it were an old Frozen Joy with all its flavor run out and nothing left but the ice. (3.1)

    Luckily, tales like this aren't just candid and awkward; they're pretty funny, too.

    Perhaps even more remarkable than her honest rendering of her experiences is her openness in expressing her feelings to us readers. Recall the moment in which she confesses how jealous she was of Myrna for being "chosen" to be sexually abused by Mr. Thomas:

    I was almost overcome with jealousy. Why had such an extraordinary thing happened to her and not to me? Why had Mr. Thomas chosen Myrna as the girl he would meet in secret and place his middle finger up inside her and not me? (4.23)

    We're willing to bet even the most jaded reader would be pretty dumbfounded upon reading this passage. Regardless of how we feel about the sensitive information Lucy discloses, the important thing to note is that she makes no apologies for her feelings. She simply lays it all out there and hands over to us readers the power to judge and draw our own conclusions (but don't let all that power go to your heads, okay?).


    If this novel included emoticons, ":(" would probably appear pretty frequently. Lucy's attitude for almost the duration of the novel is, shall we say, less than cheery. And since we see all of the characters and events in the novel from her point of view, that makes for a pretty gloomy or melancholic tone overall. Good times.

    Even Lucy herself seems well aware of her state of mind:

    I had just lived through a bleak and cold time, and it is not to the weather outside that I refer. I had lived through this time, and as the weather changed from cold to warm, it did not bring me along with it. (2.10)

    Once we get to know Lucy, it's not very difficult to figure out why her attitude isn't sunnier. After all, she's dealing with the letdown of realizing that life in the U.S. is far from the dream she'd imagined it would be back when she was still living in the Caribbean.

    And because Lucy's quest for freedom and autonomy throughout the novel has left her deliberately avoiding any true attachments to others (see Lucy's "Character Analysis" for more on that), this bleak tone holds strong right up until the end, when Lucy remarks:

    As I sat on that bed, the despair of a Sunday in full bloom, I thought: I am alone in the world, and I shall always be this way—all alone in the world. (4.10)

    Hmm, we're not sure if a frowny emoticon can do justice to that.

  • Genre

    Family Drama; Coming of Age

    Family Drama

    It's usually not all that fun to live through family drama, but it can be enjoyable to read about others enduring such misery (hey, we're just being honest).

    Something that makes Lucy a bit different from other stories or novels in this category is that it's not the main character's family drama or series of family conflicts we're watching unfold before our very eyes. Instead, the drama presented is mostly centered around the family Lucy works for, particularly the crumbling marriage of Mariah and Lewis.

    We know from Lucy's recollections of her own family that she's no stranger to drama—her father had thirty kids with different women and one of those baby mamas tried to kill Lucy, for Pete's sake. This experience may help explain why the drama of the family she's staying with becomes such a huge focus of the book.

    But this actually ends up working out really well in terms of presenting the conflicts in the story. In many ways, Lucy's perspective as an outsider (hop on over to our "Point of View" discussion for more on this feature of the novel) helps to intensify the drama since she notices details that other characters, who are too busy living through the wretchedness, may not.

    Check out, for example, the scene at dinner when Lewis totally loses it. Lucy tells us,

    Lewis said, "Jesus Christ! The goddam rabbits!" and he made his hands into two fists, lifted them up in the air, and brought them down on the table with such force that everything on the table—eating utensils, plates, cups in saucers, the empty pie dish—rattled and shook as if in an earthquake, and one glass actually tipped over, rolled off the table, and shattered. (3.29)

    Lucy gives us details right down to the rattling of plates and cups. Now that's drama for you.

    Coming of Age

    Growing up: it's not always pretty.

    We watch Lucy go through a lot of brand new and sometimes painful experiences, as we would in many typical coming-of-age stories: being far away from home for the first time and feeling homesick, struggling to adjust to a job and a weird new living situation, having a bunch of sexual experiences with a string of boy toys (okay, she doesn't seem to mind that last part so much).

    If one of the features of your classic coming of age story is growth, change, and maturity in a central character (we hope you're taking notes here and not checking your text messages, ahem), the question is, does Lucy achieve these things? We vote yes (and you can head to Lucy's "Character Analysis" to see why). But what do you think?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title Lucy really delivers. After all, this novel indeed focuses primarily on the experiences, changes, and perspective of a girl named Lucy. It's not like there's any bait and switch going on in which halfway through the novel, the story ends up being all about a guy named Fred.

    Besides giving us a heads up on what we're in store for, the title ends up having a ton of significance thanks to Lucy's discussion of her name towards the end of novel (another reason why it's a good idea to read The Whole Book).

    Specifically, Lucy recalls asking her mother why she was named Lucy:

    I asked again, and this time under her breath she said, "I named you after Satan himself. Lucy, short for Lucifer. What a botheration from the moment you were conceived." (5.24)

    Wow, what a heartwarming story.

    But Lucy has a rather surprising reaction upon learning the origin of her name. She tells us:

    I went from feeling burdened and old and tired to feeling light, new, clean. I was transformed from failure to triumph. It was the moment I knew who I was. (5.24)

    Huh? She's actually happy about being likened to and named after Satan, that red guy with horns who's synonymous with evil? Even for Lucy, with all of her unconventional views, this seems a little weird.

    But Lucy's reaction makes perfect sense once she mentions a little further on that her impression of Lucifer or Satan comes from having read John Milton's Paradise Lost, a long poem in part about Satan's banishment to hell after trying to overthrow God. As readers have frequently pointed out, Milton's Satan just happens to be one of the coolest and most interesting characters in all of literature.

    It's not hard to imagine that Lucifer's attempt to resist the almighty and powerful rule of God is something with which Lucy would totally identify. Think about, for instance, Lucy's struggles against her domineering mother.

    Similarly, Lucy's vociferous objection to her British education as a colonial subject (check out Lucy's "Character Analysis" for specifics on this one) is a prime example of her resistance against an oppressive power (although, ironically enough, her hero Milton is one of those dead English white guys she was forced to study).

    Lucy's struggles against powerful forces in her life are given a ton of emphasis in the novel, making the title's reference to Lucifer especially apt.

    Don't you just love it when one little title does so much?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    It's usually a bummer when the main character dies at the end of a book, right? Well, it's not much better when we have to leave our protagonist bawling her eyes out on the novel's last page.

    At the very end of the novel, Lucy opens her journal and tells us:

    At the top of the page I wrote my full name: Lucy Josephine Potter. At the sight of it, many thoughts rushed through me, but I could write down only this: "I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it." (5.36)

    Cue the waterworks.

    Yet this all may not be as bad as it at first seems. In fact, this bittersweet image makes us think that maybe Lucy is on the brink of yet another big, possibly more positive change in her life.

    Sure, her statement is a little dark and morbid (does she really have to die from love?), but at least it's a step in the direction of recognizing that she needs love and attachments to others (one of the signals that this character has truly undergone a transformation, as we discuss in her "Character Analysis").

    And that makes for a colossal change in the lone wolf character we met on page one.

  • Setting

    Big U.S. City; Apartment; Second Half of the Twentieth Century

    Lucy's all secretive about exactly where her adventure in the U.S. takes place. From her initial descriptions, we get the impression that she's definitely in a big city. Some readers and critics have even taken the liberty of assuming that it's New York City, but we'll play it super safe and stick to Big U.S. City.

    What's way more important than figuring out the exact city that the story is set in is recognizing just how much of a contrast this location is with Lucy's home in the Caribbean. Right in the beginning of the novel, she hints at how different this place is from what she's used to:

    As I sat in the car, twisting this way and that to get a good view of the sights before me, I was reminded of how uncomfortable the new can make you feel. (1.1)

    We get the sense that the characteristics of a big city leave Lucy feeling pretty displaced or lost. She observes the unfriendliness and anonymity that are part and parcel of city life:

    When people walked on the streets they did it quickly, as if they were doing something behind someone's back, as if they didn't want to draw attention to themselves, as if the cold would cause them to dissolve. (1.9)

    Man, these people are as chilly as the weather.

    All of this is much different than the type of more intimate, homey place Lucy is used to. She remarks:

    How I longed to see someone lingering on a corner, trying to draw my attention to him, trying to engage me in conversation, someone complaining to himself in a voice I could overhear about a God whose love and mercy fell on the just and the unjust. (1.9)

    We can't help but get the sense that it took going all the way to this big city in the U.S. for Lucy to realize just how much she appreciates this crazy dude proselytizing on her street corner back at home.

    Speaking of contrasts, it's pretty apparent just how different Mariah and Lewis's apartment is from Lucy's former living situation. Describing her arrival at their pad, she notes:

    I got into an elevator, something I had never done before, and then I was in an apartment and seated at a table, eating food just taken from a refrigerator. In the place I had just come from, I always lived in a house, and my house did not have a refrigerator in it. (1.2)

    A refrigerator might not seem like the lap of luxury, but for Lucy it totally is. These details not only help to set the scene, but they give us a heads up on how Lucy's economic background will influence what she notices while she's in the U.S.

    As for the time period of the novel, our friend Lucy doesn't give us much help on this one either. She does mention the small detail that her parents went to see the movie White Christmas starring Bing Crosby, which debuted in 1954. And since characters in the novel are still using landlines rather than cell phones, it's probably a safe bet that the story takes place sometime in the second half of the twentieth century.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5-6) Tree Line

    As far as the plot goes, Lucy couldn't get much simpler: a Caribbean girl comes to the U.S. and has some new life experiences. The End. Okay, okay, there's a little more to it than that, but following what happens in this novel shouldn't be any problem.

    What does require more brainpower on the part of us readers is the fact that Lucy spends a lot of time ruminating about the events that take place in the novel as well as some incidents in her past. In these meditations, there's a pretty good chance she's saying something thoughtful or profound. So it may be a good idea to slow down your reading of these passages so you won't miss any pearls of wisdom.

    On a similar note, Kincaid's long, winding sentences can be a little tricky to follow and some of them may even require a second read (we hear you groaning in pain). It's worth doing the little bit of extra work, trust us.

  • Writing Style


    It's probably best to be sitting down when reading Lucy. Like, don't try to read this standing up on the bus or something, because many of the sentences in this novel are so complex and intricate that they can leave you feeling a little dizzy.

    Kincaid's writing is chock full of details, which results in sentences that are brimming with both dependent and independent clauses (for a quick grammar refresher on these thing-a-ma-jigs, check out this handy video).

    On top of that, our author is head over heels in love with punctuation marks like colons, semicolons, and dashes—all of which allow her to make her sentences even longer. (See what we did there?)

    Take this one, for example:

    I could see that Dinah was attached to her beauty: she stroked her hair from the crown of her head all the way down, constantly; she would put her hands to her mouth, not in modesty but as a gesture to draw attention to her lips, which were perfectly shaped, the sort of lips used in advertisements for lipstick. (3.14)

    See what we mean about all the clauses and punctuation marks? While some critics (and even some stuffy old English teachers) might take Kincaid to task for being so wordy, other readers might be way impressed with her ability to paint such a detailed picture in a single sentence.

    You might also notice that the sentence above contains one of Kincaid's favorite structures; let's call it the "not this but that." So in the above sentence she says, "she would put her hands to her mouth, not in modesty but as a gesture to draw attention to her lips […]."

    Sure, this kind of structure makes the writing a bit verbose (a fancier word for wordy). But it also allows Kincaid to express with exact precision what this particular character is all about.

    Don't fret: with a little patience and practice, navigating the intricacies of Kincaid's writing gets easier—though you'll still probably want to remain seated.

  • Daffodils

    Ah, the daffodil—how could this innocuous little plant symbolize anything other than qualities of beauty and life that flowers generally represent?

    Welcome to Lucy's world. Here, daffodils are pretty much the devil.

    Of course, some of the novel's characters are all about daffodils and the traditional things they symbolize. Lucy relays Mariah's view of them to us:

    [Mariah] said, "Have you ever seen daffodils pushing their way up out of the ground? And when they're in bloom and all massed together, a breeze comes along and makes them do a curtsy to the lawn stretching out in front of them [. . .] When I see that, I feel so glad to be alive." (2.1)

    For Mariah, daffodils undoubtedly represent life; just look at how she personifies them as being alive and able to curtsy. Plus, as she goes ahead and tells us, they have so much life in them, it's practically contagious, since they make her feel so alive. The daffodil, in particular, is supposed to symbolize rebirth or new beginnings—you can't get much livelier than that.

    Of course, Lucy has a much different take on Mariah's beloved flowers. Upon first seeing the daffodils after Mariah plunks her down in the field, Lucy remarks:

    Along the paths and underneath the trees were many, many yellow flowers the size and shape of play teacups, or fairy skirts. They looked like something to eat and wear at the same time; they looked beautiful; they looked simple, as if made to erase a complicated and unnecessary idea. (2.16)

    Yeah, sure, they may look like lovely "play teacups and fairy skirts," Lucy admits. But she goes on to explain to Mariah how having to memorize a poem about daffodils as part of her colonial education (hop on over to Lucy's "Character Analysis" for more discussion of this) makes her see them in a totally different light. For Lucy, the daffodils conjure up "a scene of conquered and conquests; a scene of brutes masquerading as angels and angels portrayed as brutes" (2.20).

    As lots of literary critics have pointed out, for Lucy daffodils symbolize all of the pain and injustice of being forced to live under British colonial rule. As Linda Lang-Peralta puts it, "The daffodils had become for her a symbol of barbaric colonization." (Source). Not so pretty.

    The depiction of daffodils in Lucy suggests that symbols aren't necessarily universal and that even the most seemingly innocent object can mean vastly different things to different people.

  • Weather

    In the land of literary symbolism and imagery, weather seems pretty straightforward, right? Sunny equals happy while cold or stormy equals not so happy (with a whole spectrum of nice and nasty conditions in between). Well, in Lucy, that's not always the case. 

    It's true that sometimes images of the weather in this novel help to reinforce a particular mood or state of mind in a character in ways we would totally expect. For instance, upon first arriving in the U.S. Lucy tells us:

    I was no longer in a tropical zone and I felt cold inside and out, the first time such a sensation had come over me. (1.3)

    Brrr. Lucy suggests that the chill in the air is just like the one in her soul.

    In other places in the book, though, images of the weather provide a strong, sometimes unexpected contrast with Lucy's feelings or attitude. After surviving the harsh winter, for example, Lucy remarks:

    I had lived through this time, and as the weather changed from cold to warm it did not bring me along with it. Something settled inside me, something heavy and hard. (2.10)

    While warm weather may typically symbolize lightness or happiness, Lucy sure isn't feeling it. 

    Similarly, she later tells us:

    I was born and grew up in a place that did not seem to be influenced by the tilt of the earth at all; it had only one season—sunny, drought-ridden. And what was the effect on me of growing up in such a place? I did not have a sunny disposition, and as for actual happiness, I had been experiencing a long drought. (4.2)

    As critics have pointed out, images of the weather in Lucy help to reinforce an emphasis of the novel that Lucy often feels out of sync with her surroundings, whether as a foreigner in the U.S. or as a Caribbean inhabitant living under British rule (Source).

    Now whoever said it was boring to talk about the weather?

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. Everything we encounter in this novel—situations, characters, interior décor—we see from her perspective. Luckily for us, Lucy's opinionated style and unconventional way of looking at life keeps us entertained and turning the pages. How can we not be tickled by her declarations that she's going to make it a priority to teach her kids curse words when she becomes a parent and that she'd like to develop an offensive body odor?

    It's important to point out that Lucy is kind of a special type of narrator in that she brings an outsider's perspective to a lot of what she narrates in the book. That is, not only is she not a member of the family that she tells us so much about, she comes from a completely different country, culture, and economic background than they do.

    The cool thing about this outsider perspective is that Lucy's able to notice things that readers, especially some North American readers, might take for granted.

    For example, Lucy points out her amusement at Mariah's claim that getting rid of some of her stuff will make her happier:

    [Mariah] had too much of everything, and so she longed to have less; less, she was sure, would bring her happiness. To me it was a laugh and a relief to observe the unhappiness that too much can bring; I had been so used to observing the results of too little. (4.3)

    Lucy's background of growing up in a poor Caribbean nation clearly influences how she views Mariah's situation.

    As we talk about in more length in her "Character Analysis," Lucy isn't one to hold back in giving us the lowdown on what she really thinks. This makes her an interesting and fun narrator; in showing us the truth behind Mariah's façade of a marriage, for instance, she's like that friend you can count on to really dish the dirt.

    At same time, Lucy's judgmental tendencies mean that she can be a bit hard on others. The picture Lucy draws of her mother, in particular, is a little negative.

    Alright, we're understating it: Lucy likens her to one of the most notorious figures ever. She tells us:

    Whenever I saw [my mother's] eyes fill up with tears at the thought of how proud she would be at some deed her sons had accomplished, I felt a sword go through my heart [. . .] To myself I then began to call her Mrs. Judas, and I began to plan a separation from her that even then I suspected would never be complete. (4.51)

    Sure, Lucy's mother's behavior is hurtful. But we can't help wondering what her side of this story (and the many other stories Lucy tells us about her) might be. Of course, limited access to other characters' perspectives is definitely one of the pitfalls of a first person narrator. Sigh.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    The Call: 

    Lucy says goodbye to life as she knows it on a small Caribbean island in order to take a babysitting job for a family in the U.S. Although we don't see anything of her life back in the Caribbean at the beginning of the story, we later learn that she was dying to get away from her strict mother and become her own person.

    The Journey:

    We hate to disappoint you, but we may as well admit that this journey isn't one that's filled with slaying dragons or searching for buried treasure. Instead, Lucy's quest is all about a more modest goal of succeeding at her new job and creating a life for herself in the U.S. While her journey may not sound as tough or exciting as the ones with dragons and treasure, it turns out to be lively and challenging just the same due to Lucy's interactions with characters of vastly different cultural backgrounds than hers.

    Arrival and Frustration:

    Lucy succeeds in becoming a valuable part of the family she works for. The rugrats adore her and she becomes a confidante to their mother Mariah, who is basically a mess given that her marriage is falling apart. But Lucy's frustration rears its ugly head as she comes to realize that she wants to be more independent and she can't accomplish that while she's still living and working with this family.

    The Final Ordeals:

    After she goes through the tough experience of finding out that her father has died, Lucy bites the bullet and quits her babysitting job, much to Mariah's dismay.

    The Goal:

    Yay: Lucy achieves her goal of independence, as she moves into her new apartment with Peggy and starts a brand new job. However, achieving this goal doesn't mean her life is rosy. She faces the fact that she's still not happy and starts looking toward her next quest (maybe that one will have dragons and buried treasure).

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Coming to (North) America

    Nineteen-year old Lucy comes to the U.S. from a Caribbean island and begins work as a live-in babysitter for Mariah and Lewis's four kids. As in any exposition worth its salt, we get to know our main characters a bit as we follow Lucy through her first few weeks on the job. 

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    Can you Say Culture Clash (five times fast)?

    Despite being good at the whole babysitting gig, Lucy has some trouble adjusting to life with the family. The characters' different cultural backgrounds and life experiences lead to some bigtime misunderstandings and conflicts.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    Movin' On

    After learning that her father has died, Lucy quits her job as Supernanny and moves into her own place with her buddy Peggy. The weird thing about this climax is that it's not presented in some big dramatic scene as your typical climax usually is. Yes, we do get to watch Lucy as she receives the news of her father's death. But it's not until later when she's living in her new pad that she tells us that this event was, in fact, the turning point that inspired her to make the really big move of leaving her job and her old digs in order to strike out on her own.

    Falling Action

    New Girl

    Lucy starts life in her new apartment and in her new secretarial job. We're not given anywhere near as much detail about the new job as we were with the nanny job. Likewise, her living situation with Peggy isn't as detailed as her time with the family was. So instead of creating new complications and pushing the story forward, this part of the novel signals to us that the story is definitely winding down.

    Resolution (Denouement)

    (Un)Happily Ever After

    This isn't the most uplifting way to wrap things up, but it's the only resolution we've got: even though she's completely independent now that she doesn't have to answer to Mariah and Lewis, Lucy realizes she still isn't satisfied with life. Bummer. She does, however, start writing in a journal in her very final act of the novel, so maybe, just maybe, she's on the road to figuring out what might bring her happiness.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    After arriving in the U.S., Caribbean native Lucy immediately starts working as a nanny to a well-off family with four kids with whom she'll also be living. Life in a foreign country takes some getting used to for sure. But Lucy does such a bang-up job babysitting that she becomes indispensable to the family and they take her along to their lake house for the summer.

    Act II

    Summertime, and the living is easy. The trip to the lake house starts off a little slow, but it turns out to be pretty exciting once Lucy begins a steamy fling with the charming Hugh. The good times keep rolling for Lucy even after she bids farewell to Hugh and returns from the lake house, when she gets involved with the sexually adventurous Paul. But it's not all fun and games, as Lucy watches up-close the disintegration of Mariah and Lewis's marriage. And she soon has to face family troubles of her own when she finds out that her father has died.

    Act III

    Reeling from the news of her father's death, Lucy decides to quit her babysitting job in an attempt to gain more independence. She moves into a new apartment and starts work as a secretary. All of these changes don't end up making her one bit happy though. At the story's close, we watch her open up a journal and begin to explore her feelings through writing. Not exactly your typical Hollywood ending! 

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Freud (1.15)-20th-century psychologist credited with developing psychoanalysis
    • Pandora (3.23)-first human woman created by Greek Gods; she was given a box full of evils which she inadvertently released into the world when she opened it out of curiosity
    • Judas (4.52)-one of Jesus Christ's twelve apostles who betrayed Jesus to the chief priests
    • Emily, Charlotte, and Jane Bronte (5.22)-19th-century British writers and sisters
    • Enid Blyton (5.22)-20th-century British writer of children's books
    • Lucifer (5.24)-fallen archangel also known as Satan
    • Paradise Lost by Milton (5.24)-epic poem by John Milton that tells the story of the Fall of Man
    • William Shakespeare (5.24)-16th and 17th-century English poet
    • Book of Genesis (5.24)-first book of the Old Testament

    Historical References

    • Christopher Columbus (5.5)-15th-century Italian explorer

    Pop Culture References

    • Bing Crosby (2.8)-20th-century American singer and actor