Traditional womanhood and gender norms In Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John
In Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, Kincaid tackles the colonial representation of traditional womanhood and gender norms. The protagonist Annie John goes against the British colonial stance of what a girl in Antigua should be. Annie challenges this stance even more as the novel progresses by rejecting colonial womanhood. Annie, in resisting the law, shows her trying to live her life instead of having to live by the standards of colonial rule. This puts Annie against her mother, who, as the law, represents the traditional stance of a woman in colonial Antigua.
Annie John’s importance of not giving in to her mother’s demands evidences her challenging of colonial Antigua's gender norms. Annie and her mother represent two different world views. Her mother’s idea of a "proper" woman is one who maintains a home and does not go against cultural norms of what a woman should be, while Annie’s viewpoint is of a child who wants nothing more than to live her life freely. For instance, Annie meets and befriends "The Red Girl", a girl who bathes once a week and puts on a dress in the same fashion. Annie's mother says that the “Red Girl’s mother is, "such a nice woman to keep that girl so dirty” (Kincaid 57). Annie’s mother saying this about "The Red Girl" coincides with the narrative of colonial womanhood. The reason is that for a girl not to bathe is not ladylike and unsanitary. Annie, however, likes how "The Red Girl" smells, therefore resists the law associating women with cleanliness.
Annie further rejects the law by negatively comparing herself to "The Red Girl". Annie makes this statement saying, “Oh, what an angel she was, and what a heaven she lived in! I, on the other hand, took a full bath every morning and a sponge bath every night. I could hardly go out on my doorstep without putting my shoes on. I was not allowed to play in the sun without a hat on my head” (Kincaid 58). Annie, in this phrase, makes the case that "The Red Girl" has a life that is better than hers. Annie seems to indicate that if the roles were reversed and she had the life of “The Red Girl”, she would be more able to have a life that is carefree. Having not to bathe and play in the sun without a hat on further cement Annie's desire to resist the law in order to meet her life of living.
Annie further challenges the law by going to play at the lighthouse with “The Red Girl” against her mother's demands. She courageously goes to the lighthouse. Annie states, "Whenever I did go to the lighthouse behind my mother's back, I would have to gather up all my courage to go the top, the height made me so dizzy. But now I marched up boldly behind the Red Girl as if at the top were my own room, with all my familiar comforts waiting for me” (Kincaid 58-59). Annie when being with “The Red Girl” has found confidence in herself to defy her mother’s actions as well as challenge her own limits. Annie then makes the conscious decision to not let her mother know that she wanted to meet with “The Red Girl” every day and stay friends with her. Annie uses this defiance of her mother’s wishes to create her own identity outside of her mother. This identity difference then sets up the next stage of conflict with Annie and her mother over the marbles which represents the world Annie does not want for herself.
Annie John’s rebellion with the marbles ties into Annie now realizing that she and her mother are two different people. The playing of marbles, a masculine game, further implies that her doing what boys do leads to more conflict with her mother. The marbles represent the changing of worlds that Annie wants for herself in not wanting to be a traditional woman. Annie states, "I played a game and I won. I played another game and I won…. I devoted my spare time to playing and winning marbles" (Kincaid 60). Annie John, in her representation with the marbles, is finding herself a new life outside of her mother’s watchful eye. Her mother then takes this as defiance of her law of being a woman that is normal in the context of doing “womanly” or gender role practices.
The marbles that Annie John’s mother had given to her were predominantly all white. Taking a closer look into this, the color white represents purity which a girl as young as Annie could be deemed as a normal girl. The color of the marbles could also represent the worldview of European white women who act ladylike in society. This could reinforce the social status of what Annie's mother is trying to gain for her daughter in their colonial home of Antigua. In another context, Annie says, "the white marble represents the seas" (Kincaid 55) which in Annie's mind is just beauty. Annie now has come to the realization that her mother’s vision for her does not resonate with what she wants. Annie's mother does not want her daughter to stir the societal norms that are within the Antiguan society they live in. The main reason Annie's mother goes into conflict with her is due to the new world that these marbles have opened for her daughter. This world is one that defies the common social program, and her mother does not want her to have it.
The fact that Annie's mother would give her these marbles indicate the colonial rule and traditional womanhood her mother represents. For Annie to be a little girl growing up in this environment, this represents her mother just giving her another gift. In analyzing Annie’s mother, Mrs. John said to Annie, "I am so glad you are not one of those girls who like to play with marbles" (Kincaid 61). Her mother uses the word those in a very peculiar manner. She makes it look like if Annie does have a fascination with playing with marbles, she is not what a "normal girl" should be. Womanhood in Annie John's mother's mind is that she stays away from anything that would make her different from the vision her mother wants for her. The freedom of expression that Annie John would have in playing with marbles speaks to the colonial rule as well as the societal role which her mother represents. The same mother who left Dominica after having an argument with her father over her life now has the daughter who is fighting for her own life which her mother wants to control.
Annie John resisting the law represents the life that she wants for herself instead of having to follow the colonial rule. She does this by defying her mother, defying gender roles/traditional womanhood and playing with marbles. These three points make it clear that Annie has chosen a path that represents her world view instead of her mother’s. Annie's resistance to the law of colonial womanhood as well as the law of her own life makes the case that the law of freedom far surpasses the law of colonial womanhood and gender role conditions. Annie’s truth is that for her living on the island of Antigua, her upbringing in the colonial world does not match her feeling for change of the social and colonial mindset. This in no way represents the world that her mother comes from which wants to remain in the remnants of the past. Annie John showed that the best way to challenge authority is to become the master of your own life and do not adhere to the ways of old. This stark contrast of ideals ends up being the source of her inspiration to be different from the world which colonizes her to think of herself as one person instead of another. In the end, the book Annie John challenges the narrative of traditional womanhood, and the colonial mindset to enhance the new wave of thinking amongst those who want to challenge the status quo.