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Our gal Lucy is one critical thinker. She's constantly making judgments and assessments about everything going on around her. Not much is lost on this astute protagonist, that's for sure.
Now, when we say that Lucy is a critical thinker, we don't mean that in a bad way. It's not so much that she's the type of person who would insult your sneakers or your new mullet. Instead, Lucy is critical in the sense that she's really good at looking beyond the appearances that others present and figuring out what's really going on.
In other words, she has a special knack for telling when people are full of baloney.
Consider the scene where she stumbles upon Mariah and Lewis making out, for example. While others might just get totally grossed out and leave the room, Lucy takes a moment to analyze what she's seeing,
[Mariah] leaned her head backward and rested it on [Lewis's] shoulder [. . .], and she sighed and shuddered in pleasure. The whole thing had an air of untruth about it; they didn't mean to do what they were doing at all. It was a show—not for anyone else's benefit, but a show for each other. And how did I know this? I just could tell—that it was a show and not something to be trusted. (3.4)
Of course, at this point in the novel, we're not sure whether Lucy's assessment is accurate, however perceptive it may sound. But as soon as Mariah's and Lewis's marriage hits the skids, it becomes pretty clear that Lucy's judgments were right on.
Literary critics such as Justin Edwards credit Lucy's special powers of insight to her "outsider status." He explains, "Coming from a different cultural background, Lucy sees behind the happy façade of her privileged family that has employed her. She is able to compare this family with her own and make significant judgments based on her position as an 'outsider'" (Source).
But it's not just the family in whom Lucy can spot phoniness. Lucy shows that she's also on to Dinah, an attractive, rich lady who looks down upon Lucy for working in a service role:
It would never have occurred to [Dinah] that I had sized her up immediately, that I viewed her as a cliché, a something not to be, a something to rise above, a something I was very familiar with: a woman in love with another woman's life, not in a way that inspires imitation but in a way that inspires envy. (3.15)
Lucy's ability to "size up" Dinah turns out to be a really useful quality. Instead of allowing this perfect-looking, socially powerful woman to intimidate her and make her feel like garbage, Lucy probes beneath Dinah's shiny surface to uncover her darker side. Who knew critical thinking could help your self-esteem?
Perhaps even more importantly, Lucy's refusal to take things at face value emphasizes one of the novel's central concerns with suggesting that appearances of perfection and powerfulness may have something foul lurking beneath their surfaces. We'll have more to say about that in the next section, so stay tuned.
We probably spend just as much time learning about Lucy's past back in the West Indies in this novel as we do about her present experiences in the U.S. Indeed, Lucy's identity as an inhabitant of the Caribbean subject to British rule has played a huge role in shaping her outlook and is an essential key to figuring out what this character is all about.
Before we tackle that, though, a quick lesson on Caribbean history might be helpful (for all you history geeks, check out a lengthier, more detailed version here).
Lucy starts us off thinking about this history stuff relatively late in the novel when she remarks:
I had realized that the origin of my presence on the island—my ancestral history—was the result of a foul deed [. . .] (5.6)
So what exactly is she talking about?
Way back in the 15th and 16th centuries, European invaders, er, explorers (you know the ones, Christopher Columbus and his posse) arrive in a region of islands that we now call the West Indies. These dudes proceed to make themselves right at home, laying claim to the islands despite the fact that there were already people inhabiting the place.
By the 17th century, Spaniards are firmly in control of the biggest islands while the English and French take their piece of the pie by establishing settlements on the smaller ones. As Lucy hints, the really sinister part of all this is that the European powers import slaves from Africa to work in the mines and on the plantations of the islands. By the way, they have to import slaves because the early explorers/invaders pretty much wiped out the original inhabitants with their nasty diseases like smallpox and their own forms of enslavement and cruelty.
And even though the slavery is abolished in the Caribbean in the early 19th century, Europeans still rule the islands as colonies until well into the 20th century. The English, for instance, ruled Lucy's island and in turn imposed their culture on her.
Upon learning about this ancestral history, Lucy smells a rat. She explains how when she was fourteen she was moved to "stand up in school choir practice and say that I did not wish to sing 'Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never, never shall be slaves,' that I was not a Briton and that until not too long ago I would have been a slave" (5.6).
Lucy does point out that at age fourteen, her main reasons for hating the British so much had to do mostly with their bad food and ugly clothes. But the above passage itself suggests that at some point she realized that injustices suffered by her ancestors are what helped to make the mighty British empire.
Lucy's outrage over the history of Britain's colonization of her island reinforces the idea central to the novel: that we must be wary of things that appear great and powerful since evil may lie at their core.
Or, as Kincaid herself put it in a piece of her nonfiction writing, "'The thing we a call civilization can't be achieved without uprooting whole groups of people from everything they have ever known. . .and forcibly made subject to the will of others" (Source) Booya.
Lucy's resistance to colonial rule also helps us to better understand her memory of the daffodil poem, one of her most vivid recollections in the novel. You remember this one: Lucy tells Mariah that when she was ten, she was forced to memorize and recite a poem about daffodils for a school assembly. Lucy doesn't specify the title or author of the poem, but given that she attended school on an island ruled by the British, we can pretty safely assume that the author of the poem was English.
(Incidentally, this whole daffodil scene has really gotten the wheels turning in the minds of many literary critics, who have speculated that the poem is "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by English poet William Wordsworth.)
Even though Lucy is praised by her teachers for her perfect rendition of the poem, she ends up feeling like a big phony. She explains:
I was then at the height of my two-facedness; that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true. (2.2)
She doesn't seem to connect at all with this poem, in part because at the time she had no clue what a daffodil even looked like given that they don't grow on her island. So it's no wonder she resents having to pretend to be all excited about something that has nothing to do with her life just because the British fancy it.
But, wait, it gets worse.
Later that night, she has a nightmare about the evil flowers:
I dreamt, continuously it seemed, that I was being chased down a narrow cobbled street by bunches and bunches of those same daffodils that I had vowed to forget, and when finally I fell down from exhaustion they all piled on top of me, until I was buried deep underneath them and was never seen again. (2.2)
Buried alive by daffodils—eek, what a way to go.
As critic Linda Lang-Peralta has suggested, Lucy's dream indicates "the profoundly oppressive effect of the colonial education, which blanketed her with a false identity, language, and culture" (Source). While the daffodil experience may seem like one tiny event in Lucy's life, it's actually pretty key to understanding how growing up under an oppressive power shaped her critical mindset.
And after getting to know Lucy, we may never look at daffodils the same way again.
A main character that changes throughout the course of a novel is pretty much a reader's dream come true. It's always cool when we feel like we're going on a journey with a character that ends in a different place than it began. In this way, Lucy doesn't let us down.
When we first meet our protagonist, she hints that it's not simply a burning desire to see the Statue of Liberty or eat at McDonalds that motivated her to come to the U.S. Rather, she seems to have made the trek northward in order to run away from her problems back home:
Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act—leaving home and coming to this new place—I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me. (1.5)
In particular, Lucy's struggle to become independent from her overbearing mother has really given her reason to get out of Dodge:
I had come to feel that my mother's love for me was designed solely to make me into an echo of her; and I didn't know why, but I felt that I would rather be dead than become just an echo of someone. (2.27)
Pursuing her freedom while she's in the U.S. thus becomes Priority Number One for Lucy (according to all those patriotic songs, she's come to the right place). So it's not too much of a surprise that, although Lucy meets a lot of new people while she's in the U.S., she hesitates to really form emotional attachments to any of them. Being attached, after all, is pretty much the opposite of being free, right?
This totally helps to explain why Lucy seems to be so into no-strings-attached sex. It's not so much that she's some sex-crazed nymphomaniac, she just prefers to focus on physical pleasure rather than emotional connection at this juncture of her life—something she makes clear to us time and again.
In describing her encounter with Hugh, for example, she tells us:
If I enjoyed myself beyond anything I had known so far, it must have been because such a long time had passed since I had been touched in that way by anyone; it must have been because I was so far from home. I was not in love. (3.21)
And it's not just Hugh. We hear her singing this tune a few weeks later when she meets Paul. She explains:
[. . .] the question of being in love was not one I wanted to settle then; what I wanted was to be alone in a room with [Paul] and naked. (4.18)
Lucy's desire for independence eventually carries over into her nonromantic relationships as well when she decides at the end of the novel to ditch her babysitting job and move out of Mariah and Lewis's house and into her own place. Finally, she thinks, she'll be completely on her own and content.
Hip hip, hooray, right?
Um, not quite. After all these efforts to escape connection with others, Lucy ultimately finds that she's not very happy. She laments:
I was living apart from my family in a place where no one knew much about me; almost no one knew even my name, and I was free more or less to come and go as pleased me. The feeling of bliss, the feeling of happiness, the feeling of longing fulfilled that I had thought would come with this situation was nowhere to be found inside me. (5.31)
Alas, she learns, freedom doesn't necessarily equal happiness.
In a way, this is all rather bleak. We've followed Lucy all this way just to watch her be miserable again? Ugh.
However, we can take heart in Lucy's acknowledgment that freedom isn't all it's cracked up to be since it marks a significant change in Lucy's character: she seems to realize the value of attachments to others.
The ironic thing is that she may not have reached this insight had she not gone through the whole process of trying to become totally independent from everyone on the planet. Hey, we've all got to learn somehow.