Introduction

At the Bottom of the River Jamaica Kincaid

(Born Elaine Potter Richardson) Antiguan-born American novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, editor, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Kincaid's short fiction collection At the Bottom of the River (1983) from 1984 through 1999.

INTRODUCTION

Kincaid's only short fiction collection, At the Bottom of the River (1983), is comprised of ten short stories, most of which had been published individually in various magazines from 1978 to 1982. Critics commend the semi-autobiographical pieces in the volume for their poignant exploration of familial relationships and the effects of colonialism on Kincaid's native Antigua. A critical success, the collection was awarded the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Plot and Major Characters

At the Bottom of the River contains a series of sketches, considered prose poems by some readers; most of these were originally published in the New Yorker. The stories explore everyday events, but with dreamlike, lyrical language and a combination of narrative forms. The first story of the collection, “Girl,” consists solely of a list of admonitions from mother to daughter, increasingly dichotomous and ultimately manipulative. “In the Night,” the second story, explores the mystery and danger of an Antiguan night from the perspective of an adolescent girl. During an evening walk, the young girl reflects on her relationships with her mother and stepfather as well as the world around her. “At Last” offers another dialogue between mother and daughter, focusing on their one-time intimacy and increasing alienation from one another. The next story in the collection, “Wingless,” chronicles the young woman's search for identity in relationship to her mother and her rising self-awareness. “Holidays” traces the young woman's growing sense of independence when she works as an au pair for an American couple. “The Letter from Home” is a brief, one-sentence story in the form of a letter that lists mundane daily chores. The next story, “What I Have Been Doing Lately,” follows the adventures of a young female narrator walking though an ever-changing and dreamlike landscape. In “Blackness,” the female narrator desires isolation, oblivion, and safety. “My Mother” once again explores the mother-daughter relationship, as the young female narrator strives to gain emotional independence from her mother. In the title story, Kincaid revisits the central themes of the collection, particularly the problematic mother-daughter relationship, as the young narrator comes to terms with her identity and resolves to embrace life and the world around her.

Major Themes

At the Bottom of the River is characterized by an exploration of mother-daughter relationships that serve as a metaphor for the relationship between colonial powers and the countries they rule—between the powerful and the powerless and the mature and the struggling to mature—all informed by betrayal. Some critics regard the collection as a meditation on the stages of mourning: denial, anger, depression, and acceptance. In the individual pieces of the collection, critics note that Kincaid strives to create a dreamlike state, which blurs the line between the reality and dreams, of adulthood and childhood. Several of the stories in At the Bottom of the River are concerned with power: the powerlessness of children in the adult world and the importance of adult power—sexual, physical, mental. As the young female narrator matures and gains independence from her mother, Kincaid highlights her search for identity and self-knowledge. Commentators maintain that the stories underscore the significance of Kincaid's heritage, particularly her West Indian culture, traditions, and folklore. Mortality is also a main thematic concern in At the Bottom of the River, as critics contend that the narrator's reluctance to physically and emotionally mature is a result of her fear of death.

Critical Reception

Kincaid's work is regarded as unique among the various schools of Caribbean writing—neither fully feminist nor Afrocentric—and she is one of the most respected of all women authors from the area. Some critics praise her lyrical, sometimes incantatory prose in the stories of At the Bottom of the River. Commentators note that her emphasis on dreams, an important part of Antiguan life, lends weight to the magical realism sometimes employed in the collection. Yet others perceive the stories as fragmented, too personal in nature, and difficult to read. Reviewers have debated the genre of the pieces in At the Bottom of the River—several consider the stories to be closer to prose poems. Critics view the mother-daughter relationship as a central theme in her stories; this recurring motif has provoked extensive psychoanalytic and feminist discussion of her work. They also note her frequent use of folk tales, Obeah, and West Indian rhythms, as well as elements from John Milton and the Bible. Critics have found numerous parallels between the unnamed narrator of At the Bottom of the River and the character of Annie in Kincaid's novel, Annie John (1985).

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