Study Guide

Lucy: A Novel Women and Femininity

By Jamaica Kincaid

Women and Femininity

[Mariah] had washed her hair that morning and from where I stood I could smell the residue of the perfume from the shampoo in her hair. Then underneath that I could smell Mariah herself. The smell of Mariah was pleasant [. . .] By then I already knew that I wanted to have a powerful odor and would not care if it gave offense (2.14).

You go, (stinky) girl! Lucy's defiant refusal to mask her own funky smell is a small but significant sign that she's not about to bow down to conventional expectations about how a woman should present herself.

[Mariah] thought fairy tales were a bad idea [. . .]; apparently stories like that would give the children, all girls, the wrong idea about what to expect in the world when they grew up. Her speech on fairy tales always amused me, because I had in my head a long list of things that contributed to wrong expectations in the world, and somehow fairy tales did not make an appearance on it (3.2).

So if fairy tales don't make the cut, what do you think would be on Lucy's list of things that give girls wrong expectations?

I did not like the kind of women Dinah reminded me of. She was very beautiful and it mattered a great deal to her. Among the beliefs I held about the world was that being beautiful should not matter to a woman, because it was one of those things that would go away [. . .] (3.14).

Yeah, it's probably not a good idea for a woman to base her self-worth on a face that's bound to get all wrinkly.

Without telling me exactly how I might miss a menstrual cycle, my mother had shown me which herbs to pick and boil, and what time of day to drink the potion they produced, to bring on a reluctant period. She had presented the whole idea to me as a way to strengthen the womb, but underneath we both knew that a weak womb was not the cause of a missed period. She knew that I knew, but we presented to each other a face of innocence and politeness and even went so far as to curtsy to each other at the end (3.24).

There seems to be some weird telepathy going on here. It's kind of sad to think that traditional feminine norms like innocence and politeness can stand in the way of useful honest communication between women.

My past was my mother; I could hear her voice, and she spoke to me not in English or the French patois that she sometimes spoke, or in any language that needed help from the tongue; she spoke to me in language anyone female could understand. And I was undeniably that—female (4.7).

At other times in the novel, Lucy blatantly rejects expectations that go hand-in-hand with being female, but here she's directly claiming the title. What's going on with that?

They were artists. I had heard of people in this position. I had never seen an example in the place where I came from. I noticed that mostly they were men. It seemed to be a position that allowed for irresponsibility, so perhaps it was much better suited to men—like the man whose paintings hung in the museum I liked to visit (4.16).

Burn. Why do you think Lucy claims that the "irresponsible" position of painter is better suited for a man than for a woman?

I laughed a laugh that I could not believe came out of me; it was a gurgly laugh, a laugh shot full of pleasure and insincerity; it was the laugh of a woman on whom not long ago I would have heaped scorn (4.18).

Aha. So it looks like Lucy can turn on some feminine charm when she wants to, much to her shock. Does this moment make Lucy any less of a rebel against gender norms?

[. . .] 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, for there was no accompanying scenario in which she saw me, her only identical offspring, in a remotely similar situation (4.51).

Ouch. Lucy's mother has wildly different aspirations for her sons than she ever had for Lucy. Why is it so profoundly hurtful to Lucy that her mother, in particular, sees her as having less potential than her brothers?

[Mariah] wanted to rescue me. She spoke of women in society, women in history, women in culture, so I couldn't tell her that my mother was my mother and that society and history and culture and other women in general were something else altogether (4.53).

Blah, blah, blah. Do you think Lucy is too quick to dismiss Mariah's attempt to help her recognize a relationship between her own experience and the age-old, global problem of misogyny and discrimination against women?

[Mariah] gave [the book] to me. I read the first sentence. "Woman? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas, she is a womb, an ovary; she is female—this word is sufficient to define her." I had to stop. Mariah had completely misinterpreted my situation. My life could not really be explained by this thick book [. . .] (4.54).

Hey, maybe Lucy could use the book to kill bugs. Lucy hints that grand theories about women's oppression in the abstract might sometimes just not be all that useful when it comes to understanding the complexities of an individual's situation.

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