Jamaica Kincaid and the Canon: In Dialogue With “Paradise Lost” and “Jane Eyre.”

Jamaica Kincaid and the Canon: In Dialogue With “Paradise Lost” and “Jane Eyre.” – West Indian writer; British novels

Diane Simmons

As a child schooled in the British colonial system, West Indian writer Jamaica Kincaid was nourished on a diet of English classics, reading from Shakespeare and Milton by the age of five (Cudjoe 398). Sometimes the canonical works of English literature were administered as punishment; for her schoolgirl crimes Kincaid was forced to copy large chunks of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Other works, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, were Kincaid’s best friends and she read them over and over (Garis 42).

In her relation to the English language and the English literature with which colonial children were so assiduously inculcated, Kincaid presents a paradox. The emphasis on England, Kincaid has, said, the constant inference that England was the center of the universe, robbed colonial children of a sense of their own worth. Further, the rigorous study of English only enhanced the power of what Kincaid has called “the language of the criminal.” This language, she writes in her long essay, A Small Place, is inherently biased in favor of those who enslaved and continue to dominate her people:

For the language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the

criminal’s deed. The language of the criminal can explain and express the

deed only from the criminal’s point of view. It cannot contain the horror

of the deed, the injustice of the deed, the agony, the humiliation

inflicted on me. (32)

It is no accident that Kincaid’s reading in English literature served to diminish, even to “erase” her while it enhanced the beauty and power of everything British. English studies emerged as a discipline out of the “same historical moment” which “produced the nineteenth century colonial form of imperialism,” writes Bill Ashcroft et. al. Both English studies and colonialism

proceeded from a single ideological clime and … the development of the

one is intrinsically bound up with the development of the other, both at

the level of simple utility (as propaganda for instance) and at the

unconscious level, where it leads to the naturalizing of constructed values

(e.g. civilization, humanity, etc.) which conversely, established

“savagery,” “native,” “primitive,” as their antitheses and as the object of

a reforming zeal. (3)

One result of making literature “central to the cultural enterprise of Empire” was to cause “those from the periphery to immerse themselves in the imported culture, denying their origins in an attempt to become `more English than the English'” (3-4).

For Kincaid, immersed in the English classics, in a world where, she has said, “everything seemed divine and good only if it was English” (Cudjoe 398), the requirement was to be as English as possible: “… my whole upbringing was something I was not; it was English. It was sort of a middle-class English upbringing–I mean, I had the best table manners you ever saw” (Cudjoe 400). But table manners would prove not to be enough: “Of course there was the final hurdle that you could never pass, you could never be English. You could never be a real person” (Simmons Interview).

Kincaid has shown how the English classics invited her to “erase” herself. This was accomplished not only by a focus on the geography of England, her wars, and her kings and queens, but also through depictions of English life as if it were the only real life: The “softer views,” Kincaid says:

were the ones that made the most lasting impression on me, the ones that

made me really feel like nothing. `When morning touched the sky’ was one

phrase, for no morning touched the sky where I lived. The morning where I

lived came on abruptly with a shock of heat and loud noise. (“On Seeing

England” 14)

But while Kincaid has explored the negative impact of colonial education, she has also made positive use of the English classics. Milton’s Paradise Lost, she says, taught her that questions of justice and injustice could be considered and articulated, inspiring her to express her own sense of wrong. Though this was undoubtedly not the intention of the colonial educators, the young Kincaid found a hero with whom she could identify in Paradise Lost, the defiant outcast Lucifer. Given several books of Paradise Lost to copy out as punishment, Kincaid was especially sensitive to Milton’s study of Satan’s crime and punishment:

My feeling of how wrong my own punishment was, was very much in my small

mind as I was [copying out pages of Paradise Lost]. So … this story about

the powerless and the powerful is very much connected with my feelings of

powerlessness. And I think it is very connected to justice and injustice,

whatever Milton intended…. My version [of Paradise Lost] had a painting

of Lucifer. His hair was snakes, all striking. Oh it was fabulous! I was

the wrong person to give it to. Milton’s work, Kincaid says, “left me with

this feeling of articulating your own pain, as Lucifer did, that it seemed

too that if you couldn’t say what was wrong with you then you couldn’t

act…. I felt quite aggrieved as a child…. I did feel that I was cast

out of only own paradise. (Simmons interview)

Not only is Kincaid able to identify with Milton’s great anti-hero, and to use Paradise Lost in her own examination of domination, but she also sees her education in the English classics as an undeniable part of who she is:

I’m very much against people denying their history. There was an attempt,

successful, by English colonization to make a certain kind of person out of

me and it was a success, it worked, it really worked. My history of

domination culturally in all the ways it had existed is true … I do not

spend my present time trying to undo it. I do not for instance spend my

life now attempting to have some true African heritage. My history is that

I came from African people who were enslaved and dominated by European

British people and that is it. And there is no attempt to erase it.

(Simmons Interview)

In her decision to make use of, rather than repress, her colonial education, Kincaid is part of a new wave of post-colonial writers. In the past, writes Francoise Lionnet, (herself a native of the former British crown colony, Mauritius), writers have tried to ignore the colonial language and literary traditions in their efforts to get at their own authentic story and language. But often they have been paralyzed by their inability to find an alternative method of communication. Lionnet dramatizes this point by retelling Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s anecdote about a little known Haitian writer, Edmond Laforest, who, trapped between official French and his mother tongue of Haitian Creole, tied a fat Larousse dictionary around his neck and jumped to his death from atop a high bridge. More recently, Lionnet says, writers “have succeed[ed] in giving voice to their repressed traditions” through a “dialogue with the dominant discourses they hope to transform” (4). To refuse to use the dominant language and to be thereby silenced, she argues, is to continue to grant the power structure its own terms. Rather Lionnet calls for a mixing, allowing those who were subjected to the rule of a culture very different from their own–and she includes herself in this group–to

nurture our differences without encouraging us to withdraw into new dead

ends, without enclosing us within facile oppositional practices or sterile

denunciations and disavowals…. On a textual level, we can choose authors

across time and space and read them together for new insights. (5, 7)

Kincaid, in her reinscription of the paradise lost theme found in Milton, as well as in her rewriting of the story of a young woman’s struggle for autonomy in Jane Eyre, seems to do precisely this: to take these great works of English literature, to read them in her own terms, and to turn them to her own use.

Kincaid’s relation to the paradise lost theme and Milton’s work in particular is complex. In her short story collection At the Bottom of the River, and in her autobiographical novels Annie John and Lucy, she both uses and subverts the European creation story to explore her own predicament, identifying her protagonists with both the hapless Eve and the bold, raging Satan, then countering Milton’s story by creating her own, different version of paradise.

The paradise which Kincaid’s young protagonists lose is, first, their mother’s love. The preoccupation with this loss, which is seen as the withdrawal of love by a once adoring mother, is a theme running throughout Kincaid’s fiction. This loss is spelled out most clearly in Annie John. Here and in the other works, this paradise becomes a hell as the mother’s love turns to obsessive control and mocking contempt.

But Kincaid’s protagonists have lost another heaven, knowing themselves to be the descendants of slaves in a still racist colonial society, people who have been cast out from a place where their existence was right and natural, compatible with the beauty of creation, to a place where they would “never be a real person,” where they would be eternally criminalized though the crime can never be fully explained. These, like Lucifer, find themselves in a place of eternal loss, very much “unlike the place from whence they fell!” (Milton 1.75).

The two forms of loss–the lost mother love, the lost home and freedom–are clearly linked for Kincaid: There is, she says,

an ease with which people abandon their children … I trace that to

slavery … even affection in [West Indian] societies is shown through

cruelty. The legacy of these people, my people, is that everything is

expressed through cruelty and pain…. Society is like that, the cruelty

gets passed on to the weak, the weaker you are the more you suffer.

(Simmons Interview)

Finally there is a third paradise for Kincaid’s protagonists to lose, the beautiful English “fairy tale of how we met you, your right to do the things you did, how beautiful you were, are and always will be” (Small Place 42). Kincaid has written in “On Seeing England for the First Time,” of how she felt when the “fairy tale” of England that she had been taught was finally killed by the reality of England:

The space between the idea of something and its reality is always wide and

deep and dark…. This space starts out empty, there is nothing in it, but

it rapidly becomes filled up with obsession or desire or hatred or

love–sometimes all of these things, sometimes some of these things. [I

finally saw] England, the real England, not a picture, not a painting, not

through a story in a book, but England, for the first time. In me the space

between the idea of it and its reality had become filled with hatred, and

so when at last I saw it I wanted to take it into my hands and tear it into

little pieces and then crumble it up as if it were clay, child’s clay.


Thus Lucy, taught at the age of ten to memorize a long poem in tribute to the daffodil, an English flower she will not see until she is nineteen, must refuse the flower’s beauty when she finally encounters it, knowing how it has been used to betray her, seducing her away from love of her own flora, her own land. Like Eve she must turn her back on the garden; it is beautiful but it is not really hers. Where Lucy’s employer, Mariah sees “beautiful flowers” which she wants Lucy to love as much as she does, Lucy sees “sorrow and bitterness” (Lucy 30). (The poem, not identified by Kincaid, is probably Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” in which the speaker sees “A host, of golden daffodils; / Beside the lake, beneath the trees / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze”.)

Thus paradise, for Kincaid’s protagonists, as for Lucifer and Eve, is shown to be a cruel trick, a sadistic lure. In whatever form it presents itself–mother love, the lost Africa, the English fairy tale–it seems designed to make one love it with all one’s heart before one is cast out forever. In Milton’s story a cold, power-mad God does the casting out; in Kincaid’s work this role is assigned to the betraying mother, and also to imperial British authority, past and present.

Kincaid appears to subvert Milton’s attempt to justify God’s actions by identifying her protagonists with Satan. But in doing so, Kincaid points up the seeds of subversion planted by Milton himself. While Milton saw his work as upholding the legitimacy of divine power, as “justifying the ways of God to men” (1.26), Paradise Lost at the same time offers an unavoidably subversive reading of that power. With his yearning, bravely striving Lucifer and his insensitive God, Milton tells a story of cold establishment rectitude and the criminalization of anyone who would do other than reflect that establishment glory back to itself. As Kincaid says, Lucifer is fabulous; “the images of dynamism and magnitude heaped upon Satan carry far more conviction than those applied to any other character” (Carey 90). And surely we cannot help admiring him for his stubborn refusal to “repent or change” though he fully understands the overwhelming power of his adversary (1.96). Milton’s Satan, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, as

a moral being is as far superior to his God, as One who perseveres in some

purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and

torture, is to One who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts

the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of

inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged

design of exasperating him to deserve new torments. (qtd. in McElderry 24)

Kincaid then not only uses Milton for her purposes, but also holds a mirror up to Milton. The injustice and suffering Kincaid experiences at the hands of the British in the West Indies can be seen as a continuation of the injustice found at the very heart of British culture which, as Milton paints it, worships cold omnipotence.

It is in Kincaid’s first novel, Annie John, the story of a West Indian childhood, that paradise is most clearly seen as a cruel trick, as the joy and security of enveloping mother’s love is abruptly withdrawn. When Annie is very young she feels herself to be the beloved center of her mother’s world: “Sometimes when I gave her [something she had asked me to fetch] she might stoop down and kiss me on my lips and then on my neck. It was in such a paradise that I lived” (Annie John 25). But as Annie approaches maturity, her mother changes. When Annie asks her mother if they can look through a trunk of keepsakes, one of their former shared pleasures, “A person I did not recognize answered in a voice I did not recognize, `Absolutely not! You and I don’t have time for that anymore'” (27). The mother’s love is apparently withdrawn because Annie has begun, however inadvertently, to mature. Annie’s sin is similar to Eve’s; the first, slight, near-unconscious step toward a mature sensibility is cause for violent expulsion by a power which will brook nothing but utter childlike innocence and ignorance. Annie’s response, though, is similar to Lucifer’s. She has lost a paradise but does not submit; rather she retains, like Lucifer, “the unconquerable will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield” (1.106-8). Thus Annie teaches herself to scorn her once-adored mother, to steal and lie, and to do anything she knows her mother would ]late. She takes up with the dirty, and uncivilized Red Girl and like Lucifer, who declares that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can made a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven” (1.254-5), Annie now tries to make a heaven out of her outcast state. The “paradise” of the mother’s world lost, she now declares the Red Girl’s wild, dirty life a paradise: the Red Girl

didn’t like to go to Sunday school, and her mother didn’t force her. She

didn’t like to brush her teeth, but occasionally her mother said it was

necessary. She loved to play marbles, and was so good that only Skerritt

boys now played against her. Oh, what an angel she was, and what a heaven

she lived in! (Annie John 58)

But Annie’s claim to make a heaven of her hell is mostly bravado; she finds she cannot sustain herself on revenge, and the joy goes out of her rebellions.

As Annie reaches her fifteenth birthday, the awkwardness and confusion of adolescence is so like a punishment that it seems to bear out the mother’s attitude that Annie’s new maturity is a kind of sin or perversion. In part, she is Eve, suddenly ashamed of her body:

My whole head was so big, and my eyes, which were big too, sat in my big

head wide open, as if I had just had a sudden fright. My skin was black in

a way I had not noticed before, … On my forehead, on my cheeks were

little bumps, each with a perfect, round white point. My plaits stuck out

in every direction from under my hat; my long, thin neck stuck out from the

blouse of my uniform. (94)

Like Eve, Annie is, in part, still the innocent child, mysteriously taken over by evil. Annie is also still Lucifer but no longer the proud, rebellious Lucifer. Rather she has become the degraded Lucifer of Milton’s later books for whom “Revenge, at first though sweet, / Bitter ere long back on itself recoils” (9.171-72). Now Annie sees herself as

old and miserable. Not long before, I had seen a picture of a painting

entitled The Young Lucifer. It showed Satan just recently cast out of

heaven for all his bad deeds, and he was standing on a black, rock all

alone and naked. Everything around him was charred and black, as if a great

fire had just roared through. His skin was coarse, and so were all his

features. His hair was made up of live snakes, and they were in a position

to strike. Satan was wearing a smile, but it was one of those smiles that

you could see through, one of those smiles that makes you know the person

is just putting up a good front. At heart, you could see, he was really

lonely and miserable at the way things had turned out. (Annie John 95)

At the book’s conclusion Annie, identified with Eve once again, sadly departs the failed paradise of her mother’s love for a new world, one that is unknown but which, she knows, can never replace the lost dream.

In Kincaid’s second autobiographical novel, Lucy, her protagonist is clearly identified with Lucifer. Indeed, she has been named for Lucifer by her mother. Pestered by the girl as to the origin of the name, the mother finally replies, “‘I named you after Satan himself. Lucy, short for Lucifer. What a botheration from the moment you were conceived.'” Upon hearing this, the girl is delighted, going 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.

When I was quite young and just being taught to read, the books I was

taught to read from were the Bible, Paradise Lost, and some plays by

William Shakespeare, I knew well the Book of Genesis, and from time to time

I had been made to memorize parts of Paradise Lost. The stories of the

fallen were well known to me, but I had not known that my own situation

could even distantly be related to them. Lucy, a girl’s name for Lucifer.

That my mother would have found me devil-like did not surprise me, for I

often thought of her as god-like, and are not the children of gods devils?


If Lucy is Lucifer, her mother remains god, and, in a sense the daughter, a young West Indian au pair recently arrived in a North American city, repeats Lucifer’s defiant gesture. She has set up her own new world far from her mother’s domain. This is not paradise regained; the harsh northeastern winter contrasted to Caribbean warmth and lushness shows how much Lucy has lost. Still she is granted more success than Milton’s Lucifer, for in the new world she seems to have some hope of successfully challenging the creator’s power, gaining the kind of vision and control her mother had at home. Lucy seems to stand outside and above, able to see into other lives without being seen herself. At the close of the book Lucy has, to a certain extent, managed to escape the sway of her god-like mother, to come into her own powers. Her Lucy, unlike Milton’s Lucifer, remains human and hopeful, if still waiting to find a life to go with her new freedom and power. But though Lucy no longer seems to be obsessed by guilt or to agonize over her fall from grace, she cannot forget the lost glory, or the all-powerful mother, “large, like a god … not an ordinary human being but something from an ancient book” (150).

While Kincaid stays within the framework of Milton’s story in her identifications with Eve and Lucifer, and her connection of the mother and colonial authority with Milton’s God, she takes a step outside that frame in her collection of surrealistic short stories, At the Bottom of the River. Milton never challenges God’s role as creator or imagines his characters outside God’s creation; he is content to leave paradise a site of punishment. But Kincaid’s narrator sees that her only hope lies in imaginatively creating a new paradise, one that no longer revolves around cold, narcissistic power. Here the protagonist, like Satan, finds herself in a “pit.” She emerges by retelling the story of paradise, searching again for a garden, but one that is not the creation of a narcissistic power which demands that one yearn for that which one can never have. In the collection’s last story, Kincaid explores a dreamscape which seems to represent both the lost childhood and the lost Africa. Kincaid’s paradise is not Milton’s Eden, a place that is already the site of a power struggle. Rather she creates a landscape where things exist for their own sakes, not yet having come to the attention of any power interests, not yet worked into any system of values which can then be used in a scheme of domination:

And in this world were many things blessed with unquestionable truth and

purpose and beauty. There were steep mountains, there were valleys, there

were seas, there were plains of grass, there were deserts, there were

rivers, there were forests, there were vertebrates and invertebrates, there

were mammals, there were reptiles, there were creatures of the dry land and

the water, and there were birds. And they lived in this world not yet

divided, not yet examined, not yet numbered, and not yet dead. I looked at

this world as it revealed itself to me–how new, how new–and I longed to

go there. (At the Bottom of the River 77)

In Kincaid’s new story, creation is innocent, impartial, “[u]nmindful of any of the individual needs of existence and without knowledge of future or past.” This vision allows the speaker to finally “emerge” from her “pit” (81), for if creation is impartial, there can be no mysterious guilt or original sin. In the new story, one need not see oneself as Lucifer, eternally criminalized by creation, but as an innocent part of the innocent miracle of creation; one is able to join with creation, to see one’s own existence as an appropriately “perishable and transient” part of “all that is human endeavor … all that is past and all that shall be, to all that shall be lost and leave no trace” (82).

But if the protagonist of At the Bottom of the River is able to imagine a new paradise, she is not able to escape the vision of demonic power, and in the “My Mother” section paints the mother figure as serpent. In Milton’s work, Satan is, at the end, transformed into a snake, and Milton suggests that Satan and his fellow rebels are annually forced to undergo this “humbling … / To dash their pride and joy for man seduced” (10.575-76). In At the Bottom of the River the figure who is thus transformed is the mother. But there is a difference between Milton’s Satan and Kincaid’s mother figure. For Satan the transformation is involuntary and miserable.

His visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare, His arms clung to his ribs,

his legs entwining Each other, till, supplanted, down he fell A monstrous

serpent on his belly prone (10.511-14)

Satan, continually humiliated, pays the price of his rebellion. But in At the Bottom of the River, the mother’s transformation to serpent is quite different. For her the change is not a divine humiliation. On the contrary, it seems to be another demonstration of her power, something she accomplishes herself, carrying out the transformation with the nonchalance of a woman preparing for bed:

She uncoiled her hair from her head and then removed her head altogether.

Taking her head into her large palms, she flattened it so that her eyes,

which were by now ablaze, sat on top of her head and spun like two

revolving balls…. Silently she had instructed me to follow her example,

and now I too traveled along on my white underbelly, my tongue darting and

flickering in the hot air. (BR 55)

Here the link Kincaid makes between the betraying mother and the oppression of slavery and colonialism can be seen. The mother is most frequently cast as God, the narcissistic authority. But she is also oppressed by racist and colonial authority herself, and can be seen as the later, degraded Satan, deformed and twisted by her relationship with power. She is both oppressed and oppressor, deformed and deforming. Like the Satan of Milton’s last books, she embodies both demonic power and endless torment.

By putting the mother in charge of her own deformation, however, Kincaid takes another step out of Milton’s framework. In Milton’s world the rebel accepts humiliation, sees himself as “monstrous.” But in Kincaid’s world that transformation becomes a self-empowering act, as if it is understood that this is the only form of power that will ever be available. While the mother echoes Satan, she also takes on the coloration of the obeah woman, one of the voodoo priestesses whose chief weapon is transformative power and whose secret spells are a thread running through Kincaid’s work. With this characterization Kincaid takes a step away from Milton and toward Bronte, for the triumphant serpent-mother–in refusing the humiliation intended for her, in turning her very deforming oppression into a flamboyant, magical power–bears a striking resemblance to Bertha, the mad, imprisoned West Indian wife who haunts Jane Eyre.

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Kincaid finds another useful study of domination and defiance which she both uses and subverts. Like Paradise Lost, Jane Eyre was central to Kincaid’s early education, and Kincaid frequently mentions it in interviews, adding it to the list that includes Milton and Shakespeare: “When I was a child … I loved Jane Eyre especially, and I read it over and over” (Garis 42). About her character Lucy, she has remarked: “The great influences on that young woman’s life are Genesis and Revelation and, strangely enough, Jane Eyre” (Vorda 22). In a chapter of Annie John entitled, “Somewhere, Belgium,” the protagonist begins to escape her increasingly oppressive surroundings by imagining herself living alone in Belgium, “a place I had picked when I read in one of my books that Charlotte Bronte, the author of my favorite novel, Jane Eyre, had spent a year or so there.” In this daydream Annie is far from her mother, who could only communicate by sending letters to “Somewhere, Belgium.” Here Annie would be alone, adult, and wise, “walking down a street in Belgium, wearing a skirt that came down to my ankles and carrying a bag filled with books that at last I could understand” (Annie John 92).

Like Milton, Bronte seems to have offered a way of thinking about the questions of power and powerlessness, justice and injustice that concerned Kincaid from an early age. By nine she was re]fusing to stand up at the refrain, “God Save Our King,” and hated “Rule, Britannia,” with its refrain, “Britons never ever shall be slaves,” reasoning that “we weren’t Britons and that we were slaves” (Cudjoe 397). For the young Kincaid, as for others, Bronte’s work was “an epic of self-determination, the painful acquisition of identity, of independence” (Boumelha 60); indeed, Bronte’s heroine views herself as a “rebel slave” (Jane Eyre 44) as she struggles against the class system that oppresses an orphaned and penniless female. Even in its own day Bronte’s work was seen as rebellious; when Jane Eyre was published in 1847 reviewers found it shockingly radical, and Bronte was described as “soured, coarse and grumbling; an alien from society and amenable to none of its laws.” Her heroine was seen as “proud and ungrateful,” and Victorian critics were horrified by her anger (Gilbert 337-38).

But, also like Milton, Bronte has been seen as subverting her own apparent intent. Milton’s project of “justifying the ways of God to man” is undercut by the identification which both contemporary and modern readers have felt with the courageous, doomed Satan. Similarly, Bronte’s “epic of self determination” for a young Victorian Englishwoman is undercut by the figure of Bertha, who introduces another story of domination into the text.

Bertha is Rochester’s first wife, the dark, West Indian woman whom he, the impoverished younger son of English gentry, married for her money. Once the advantageous match is made, Rochester finds his wife to be guilty of unspecified crimes that show her to be “intemperate and unchaste.” She is pronounced insane and shipped to England to be imprisoned forever in his attic. Here she will be the secret cause of Rochester’s dissipations, his self-loathing and his inability to find true happiness. Further, it is Bertha who botches Rochester’s romance with his young governess, Jane. Even stripped, vilified, and imprisoned, Bertha is still a critical force, the “`dark’ secret, maddening burden of imperialism concealed in the heart of every English gentleman’s house of the time” (Boumelha 18).

The presence of Bertha also undermines our belief in Jane’s devotion to the principles of equality which she espouses so urgently for herself. Events in the novel turn, as Boumelha points out, on questions of wealth and inheritance, and all of the wealth comes from the fruits of imperialism, reaped in the West Indies. Rochester’s fortune is really Bertha’s. Jane’s eventual inheritance, which frees her to marry Rochester as an equal, comes from a long lost uncle with business interests in the West Indies. Jane’s view of herself as a “rebel slave,” therefore, and her devotion to the principle of self-determination is severely compromised by her acceptance of–indeed her profound desire to be accepted by–a society whose wealth and sense of superiority rests almost entirely on the backs of slaves and other subjugated people. Further, Jane herself profits richly and direction from the oppression of others. Finally, Judith Weissman argues, Jane’s rage is not that of a “radical who wants justice, but the rage of the outsider who wants to get in” (84).

Like Satan, Bertha loses in the end, but like Satan she is not without her moment of glorious defiance. Bertha starts the fire that will destroy Rochester’s manor house and that will maim and blind her husband. Then Bertha climbs to the roof of the house where she stands “waving her arms above the battlements, and shouting out till they could hear her a mile off…. She was a big woman, and had long black hair … streaming against the flames as she stood.” Rochester tries to reach her but as he nears she “yelled and gave a spring and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement” (453). Jane, who once desired freedom and broad horizons, will become wife and nurse to a diminished Rochester; Bertha, it might be said, is the one who flies free.

Bronte then, like Milton, offers Kincaid the paradoxical opportunity to both identify with and to subvert the classic texts of English literature and by extension the English world view which they represent. If we look at Kincaid’s novels Annie John and Lucy as a two-part bildungsroman, we may see many similarities in the predicament and progress of Bronte’s heroine, Jane, and of Kincaid’s protagonists, Annie and Lucy. Foremost among these is the sense of being constantly and unfairly put in the wrong by those whose interest is power not justice. At the same time, an examination of these three works together, points up the difference, at least as seen by these two writers, between class oppression, and oppression that stems from the ruptures of slavery and from colonialism. At the end of Jane Eyre, Jane not only triumphs utterly over her former oppressors, the Reeds, but also regains her lost birthright so that she can re-enter the class which once persecuted her. Jane’s loss of her birthright is a mistake that can be repaired; once this is done there is a comfortable place for her within the social organization. For Annie and Lucy, by contrast, the wrong can never be completely righted. Their birthright was not mistakenly mislaid, as was Jane’s, but purposely obliterated; their rightful place can never be found.

Jane’s struggle with an oppressive class system in nineteenth century England has many parallels to the struggle of Annie and Lucy with an oppressive system based on class and race in twentieth century Antigua and America. In both cases the social and political structure is echoed in the home lives of the young girls. In Annie’s case, the mother’s refusal to accept the girl’s impending maturity mirrors the colonial society’s refusal to recognize the mature humanity of those descended from slaves. In Jane’s case, her persecution by the Reed family, rich relatives with whom the orphaned and impoverished girl lives, reflects nineteenth-century English society’s castigation of those who cannot be placed within a rigid class system, and who therefore, however inadvertently, are seen as challenging the system. Jane, as one of the maids points out, does not even have the status of a servant who would, at least, have a secure place in the social organization:

“For shame, for shame!’ cried the lady’s maid. `What shocking conduct, Miss

Eyre, to strike a young gentleman, your benefactress’ son! Your young

master.” “Master! How is he my master? Am I a servant?” “No; you are less

than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep. There, sit down, and

think over your wickedness.” (44)

While both Jane Eyre and Annie John are portrayed as virtually blameless, both are criminalized, Annie for her impending maturity in a racist society, Jane for her very existence outside clear class boundaries. In both works, the theme of rebellion is linked to that of enslavement. Kincaid gives Annie an awareness of her slave heritage, an awareness that is in itself something of a rebellion, since the colonial school system seeks to bury the horror of slavery under a glossy historical pageant. And Bronte, writing in 1847, likens Jane to a desperate slave who has dared to fight back against her master. Jane muses, “I was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths” (44). To both Jane and Annie, it is clear that the system in which they live is committed to their continued, psychic “enslavement.”

In Jane Eyre and Annie John, the young girls are criminalized and scapegoated by those who are clearly inferior to them. In both books the girls’s tormentors are painted in distinctly unflattering terms; those who would dehumanize are seen as less than human. In Jane Eyre, Bronte does not allow us to imagine any innate aristocracy in the Reeds. They are dishonest, bullying, self-pitying, utterly unable to grasp that Jane, too, is a human being. Fourteen year-old John Reed, Jane’s chief tormentor, is, moreover, ugly:

large and stout for his age, with a dingy and unwholesome skin; thick

lineaments in a spacious visage, heavy limbs and large extremities. He

gorged himself habitually at table, which made him bilious, and gave him a

dim and bleared eye with flabby cheeks. (41)

Similarly, Annie’s teachers, the representatives of colonial power, are painted as petty and ridiculous. Like the Reeds they have no redeeming features; they appear to be as soulless as they are physically unattractive. Annie’s headmistress,

looked like a prune left out of its jar a long time and she sounded as if

she had borrowed her voice from an owl. The way she said, “Now girls….”

When she was just standing still there, listening to some of the other

activities, her gray eyes going all around the room hoping to see something

wrong, her throat would beat up and down as if a fish fresh out of water

were caught inside. (36)

Both Jane and Annie are aware that they are being treated with injustice and hypocrisy, and both have a sense of self that does not allow them to submit, even though they understand that they will never, in their present circumstances, have the power to prevail. For both, the attempt to rebel brings on a crisis, as they are overwhelmed by the enormity of the forces allied against them. Jane defends herself against John Reed’s unprovoked attack, and when she refuses to apologize, she is locked into the majestically ghostly Red Room where she goes into a fit of terror and falls unconscious. Similarly Annie, struggling to rebel against forces both at home and at school which would deny her true identity, is finally crushed by the weight of her opposition and falls into a long illness.

For both Jane and Annie it is this collapse that opens the way for escape. After Jane is revived, a kindly chemist is called, and hearing how she has been treated, suggests that she be sent away to school, to which the cold and bitter Mrs. Reed agrees. Though Jane is not yet freed of class oppression, she has made a step; her rebellion has, at least, freed her of the Reeds’s intimate brand of subjugation. When Annie falls ill, it is her maternal grandmother, Ma Chess, who arrives and who, like the chemist in Jane Eyre, recognizes that the illness is one of the spirit. Though the chemist’s intercession is mild compared to Ma Chess’s act of rebirthing, the two healers bring about similar results. In both cases a kindly, healing presence, which acknowledges the girl’s pain, provides just enough help to allow the girl to survive and escape. Both young women, it seems, have threatened the forces aligned against them through the only means available to them; they are prepared to die of their ill-treatment, and under this threat relief has been provided.

Jane goes away to school, Lowood, and nurtured there by the kind, noble and intellectual Miss Temple, finds serenity. Miss Temple, like Ma Chess, re-mothers Jane, whose only previous experience with maternal nurture has been the harsh and grudging care of her aunt, Mrs. Reed, and the flippant attentions of the maid, Bessie. But eventually Miss Temple marries and goes away and in the absence of her calming presence Jane grows restless as some inner self demands definition. She begins to yearn for experience of the “wide” world and a “varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitement” which awaited those who sought “real knowledge of life amidst its perils” (116). Jane then goes to the great estate, Thornwood Hall, where she becomes governess for Mr. Rochester’s charge, Adele, and where she is soon loved for her own virtuous and original self by the jaded Edward Rochester.

In Annie John, Kincaid’s young protagonist also leaves for school. When next seen in Lucy, however, she has skipped school and gone directly to a position in a well-to-do family, taking care of the children. Here, like Jane at Thornwood Hall, Lucy is appreciated for her own deep and interesting self by her wealthy employer, Mariah, and the two, like Jane and Rochester, come to resemble loving companions more than master and servant.

Although both Jane and Lucy are treated kindly, and to a great extent as equals by their employers, they are still seen as mere servants by their employers’s friends, and as such not quite fully human. At a party, Mr. Rochester’s guests do not hesitate to denigrate the entire governess class in tones loud enough for Jane to hear, and when one of the group warns that Jane can hear the conversation, the woman speaking replies, “‘I hope it may do her good!’ Then, in a lower tone, but still loud enough for [Jane] to hear, `I noticed her; I am a judge of physiognomy, and in hers I see all the faults of her class'” (206).

Similarly, Lucy sees that to someone like Mariah’s friend Dinah, “someone in my position is `the girl’–as in `the girl who takes care of the children.’ It would never have occurred to her that I had sized her up immediately, that I viewed her as a cliche, a something not to be, a something to rise above …” (58).

To both young women the perfectly turned out rich people appear to be empty and posturing. Of Blanche Ingrim, the most brilliant of the aristocratic ladies to attend Mr. Rochester’s house party, Jane says,

She was very showy, but she was not genuine; she had a fine person, many

brilliant attainments, but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature;

nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit

delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original: she

used to repeat sounding phrases from books: she never offered, nor had, an

opinion of her own. (215)

Similarly, the wealthy friends of Lucy’s employers remind the young woman of the mannequins in catalogs she used to study as a child:

In the catalogue were pictures of mannequins, but the mannequins had no

head or limbs, only torsos. I used to wonder what face would fit on the

torso I was looking at, how such a face would look as it broke out in a

smile, how it would look back at me if suddenly we were introduced. Now I

knew, for these people, all standing there, holding drinks in their hands,

reminded me of the catalogue; their clothes, their features, the manner in

which they carried themselves were examples all the world should copy. (64)

Though both Bronte and Kincaid portray genuine affection between their young protagonists and the wealthy employers, both writers also cause the perfect exterior of the employers’s lives to crumble, revealing a tangle of perfidy and pain. In Bronte, Jane is the unwitting agent of these revelations. It is Jane’s capture of Rochester’s heart and his desire to marry her that brings the fact of his disastrous previous marriage to the light. Further, it is apparently Jane’s presence that causes Bertha, Rochester’s mad first wife who is kept imprisoned in the attic, to set the fire which destroys Rochester’s estate and costs him the use of his arm and his eyes. Fiction allows Bronte the luxury of allowing Jane to retain her innocence and at the same time to take revenge against the class which has oppressed her.

In Kincaid’s work, Lucy does not cause the disruption of her employers’ family, but she does see what the family tries to keep hidden. She sees that Mariah’s husband is not in love with her, that he is having an affair with Mariah’s best friend, and that the family is not happy, in spite of skilled manipulation of appearances. As the family leaves for a Sunday outing, Lucy remarks,

If I had not known I would have said, “What a happy family!” … As they

waited for the elevator to come, they were laughing. Lewis was in the role

of amusing and adorable father today, and so he had put on a lion’s mask

and then said and done things not expected of a lion. The children in

response shrieked and laughed and fell down on top of each other with

pleasure…. All of them … looked healthy, robust–everything about them

solid, authentic; but I was looking at ruins and I knew it right then.


While Jane is, inadvertently, the agent of Rochester’s loss of power and control, Lucy can not be seen as causing the perfect picture that is Mariah and Lewis’s family life to crumble. But Kincaid gives her protagonist another way of taking power from the powerful, and in this we begin to see that, while there are similarities between the worlds Bronte and Kincaid draw, there are also profound differences. For, in Bronte’s world, all the youthful heroine finally needs is her honesty and innocence, and when this is introduced into the corrupt world of Rochester and fashionable society, that world must fall, evil deeds must be revealed, houses burned and strong men maimed. Bronte sees social injustice realistically, but envisions a solution through the gauze of fairy tale magic. In Lucy, the reverse is true, for Kincaid sees the assumed superiority of Lewis and Mariah as a fairy tale which they tell about themselves, and she can combat this only by cutting through the gauze to the real picture below. For Bronte, a fairy tale is the solution; for Kincaid it is the problem. In Bronte’s world, the fairy tale is used to lift the powerless; it represents a leap of faith, the belief that the righteous downtrodden will be restored to their rightful positions. In Kincaid’s world, where the chief fairy tale, as she says in A Small Place, has been the story of British brilliance and superiority over its colonized peoples, the magical tale bedazzles the powerless and keeps them in paralyzed subjugation.

Thus, while Bronte empowers Jane by constructing a fairy tale, Kincaid empowers Lucy by deconstructing one. Lucy’s revenge is, first, to see behind the perfect facade of Mariah and Lewis’s life, and second, to show that she has seen. Lucy grasps that Lewis is unfaithful long before Mariah does, and when the rupture finally does come, Lucy is there to observe and record it. Arriving home one day after taking the children to the park, Lucy sees Mariah and Lewis talking. She sees that Mariah has been crying, though she is now trying to smile bravely, and Lucy knows the end has come. Lucy takes out her camera, which she now carries with her everywhere, and, “For a reason that will never be known to me, I said, `Say, “cheese”‘ and took a picture. Lewis said, `Jesus Christ,’ and left our company in anger” (118). While Kincaid does not cause the house to burn and the master to be maimed, she destroys the assumed moral superiority of the privileged, allowing Lucy to see and record the confusion behind the picture perfect facade they are able to construct.

As both books move toward their resolutions, the different world views of Bronte and Kincaid become even more apparent, though the actions of Jane and Lucy are, on the surface, similar. Both Jane and Lucy, though befriended and even beloved by their employers, must strike out on their own if they are ever to be independent. Both realize that in these relationships, however loving, they are still dependent, and that the terms of their lives are still set by someone else. In Jane Eyre this state of dependency is taken to extremes, when, as she prepares to marry Rochester, she finds that he already has a wife. If she joins with him she would only be his mistress, without any legal or moral place within the established order, entirely dependent upon his whim.

Over Rochester’s frenzied protests, Jane flees to a place where she knows no one. The coach she has hired lets her off in an unknown place and she says simply, “I am alone” (349). We realize that though we have seen Jane friendless, we have not before seen her alone. She wanders destitute on the heath, close to death from cold and starvation, consciously choosing this fate over a luxurious life of dependence. But, as if tested by this ordeal and found worthy, her fortunes are suddenly reversed. The door upon which she knocks as she is about to expire turns out, after much confusion, to be that of her lost family–an “ancient” and genteel lineage. Next, a timely inheritance makes her rich. Now with her own social and financial power, she is able to return to Rochester as an equal.

Lucy too decides to leave Mariah’s comfortable home over the employer’s protests, and at last finds herself alone, free of the relationships which have always been based, however subtly, on power. She, like Jane, is looking for something, but, also like Jane, she won’t know what it is until she finds it. Lucy is not literally starving to death in a wilderness as is Jane, but she has succeeded in cutting herself off from everything familiar. Having left her mother and her West Indian home, having left Mariah and the luxurious surroundings of wealth, Lucy moves into a small apartment, free as long as she can come up with the rent. Lucy’s solitude, like Jane’s, is heroic not euphoric: “I was alone in the world. It was not a small accomplishment. I thought I would die doing it” (161).

But while both young women must leave their comfortable surroundings to undergo a solitary ordeal, the results of these two ordeals is profoundly different. For Jane Eyre’s flight into the unknown is the last step before what turns out to be a rather simple mistake is corrected. Her mislaid birthright is recovered, and Jane is allowed to recover her rightful place in society. Now she may return to Rochester as an equal, triumphant over the Blanch Ingrams of her world, presumably to live happily ever after as his wife. Lucy’s story, on the other hand, ends in solitary ordeal. And while Kincaid may not yet be finished with her bildungsroman, it seems unlikely that her protagonist will be able to recover so thoroughly what has been lost, and to place herself so firmly within a once hostile society as does Jane Eyre.

Finally Bronte’s “rebel slave” does not rebel against the class system which causes the innocent to be persecuted and criminalized, but against her own mistaken placement on a lower rung of that system. Indeed, as Jane’s condescending attitude toward servants and toward the rough country girls who are, at one point, her’ students shows, she herself believes in the innate superiority of the genteel. Once Jane has recovered family and fortune, once she can enter the gentility as an equal, she is content, and the problem of oppression is solved. Bronte’s heroine, it turns out, only seemed to be trapped between two worlds. In fact, she has always known that she belongs in the ruling class, and in the best fairy tale tradition Jane is, after certain ordeals are passed, transformed from “slave” to master, as all acknowledge that a mistake has been made.

But for Kincaid’s protagonists there can be no such simple resolution. Annie and Lucy could never, by a reversal of personal fortune, take their rightful place in society, for rightful society itself has been lost. Even if Kincaid’s protagonists could somehow be magically transformed from “rebel slave” to master, they would have to endorse the physical and psychological violence committed against them–not, as in Jane Eyre, against some mistaken apprehension of who they are. To achieve complete union with the dominant group they would be required to not only approve the theft of land, culture and language, but also to applaud its continued progress. The oppression of Annie and Lucy is not the result of temporarily misplaced information concerning important connections, but of connections irreversibly severed.

Kincaid’s interest in Jane Eyre, the similarity of themes in Bronte’s work and in Kincaid’s, then the sudden divergence as Bronte veers off into a happy ending unavailable to Kincaid, seems to demonstrate, among other things, the difference between class oppression and oppression that springs from abduction, slavery and imperial exploitation. In Bronte’s world wrongs can conceivably be righted; in Kincaid’s they cannot. As Lucy draws to a close, Kincaid’s protagonist comes less and less to resemble the Cinderella-like Jane Eyre, more and more to resemble Bertha Mason.

As Bertha is the secret that explains Jane and shows up who she really is, Lucy, exploder of fairy tales, can be read as the secret self of the early, yearning Annie, a girl who still hoped for magical solutions to her problems through a Bronte-esque escape to “Somewhere, Belgium.” Further, Kincaid presents Lucy, as, like Bertha, a “burden of imperialism” who cannot be gotten rid of. Lucy destroys Mariah’s pleasure in daffodils by demonstrating how the seemingly innocent flowers were used as a tool of colonial oppression. Further, Lucy grasps, even if the supposedly environmentally correct Mariah doesn’t, the connection between the comforts of privilege and “the decline of the world that lay before them” (72). And Lucy sees through the desire to rinse history in romance, to see ruin as exotic. She understands that her lover, Paul, is fascinated by her in part because, “He loved ruins; he loved the past but only if it ended on a sad note, from a lofty beginning to a gradual, rotten decline …” (156). She dashes Mariah by not being gratified when Mariah confides that she has some Indian blood, “as if she were announcing her possession of a trophy” (40). Rather than being pleased, Lucy sees that the privileged Mariah, whose Great Lakes summer home was probably once the home of those with rather more Indian blood, has so thoroughly internalized her right to have what she wants that she feels perfectly innocent, and so can easily afford the exotic luxury of identifying with those at whose expense her privilege has been bought. Like Bertha, who always manages to escape her attic prison just in time to upset Rochester’s plans to proceed as if she doesn’t exist, Lucy is always there, refusing to allow her history to be ignored or :romanticized.

Kincaid’s two autobiographical novels, in their very similarity to Bronte’s bildungsroman and to Milton’s creation myth, involve these canonical works in a dialogue on power and oppression. Rather than ignoring the part of her heritage that includes Charlotte Bronte and John Milton, rather than allowing her own story to be misshaped by literary traditions of a culture that was never her own, Kincaid has, to use Lionnet’s phrase, “interact[ed] on an equal footing with … the traditions that determine [her] present predicament” (7). If we read Annie John and Lucy as re-writings of Jane Eyre, we can see Kincaid setting out the difference between the kind of oppression Jane suffers and that experienced by Annie and Lucy. As Kincaid’s Lucy asks her friend Mariah, “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?” (41), we can imagine Kincaid asking Bronte: How can your imagination of justice, your vision of resistance, be at once so inflamed and so limited?

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literature’s. London: Routledge, 1989.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Broumelha, Penny. Charlotte Bronte. Indiana UP, 1990.

Carey, John. Milton. London: Evans, 1969

Cudjoe, Selwyn. “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview.” Callaloo 12.2 (Spring 1989): 396-411.

Garis, Leslie. “Through West Indian Eyes.” The New York Times Magazine. 7 October, 1990. 42-91.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Mad Woman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. New York: Plume, 1983.

–. At the Bottom of the River. New York: Plume, 1983.

–. A Small Place. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.

–. Lucy. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990.

–. “On Seeing England for the First Time.” Harpers Magazine Aug 1991, 13-17. Lionnet, Francoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

McElderry Bruce R. Jr. Shelley’s Critical Prose. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1967. Milton, John. Paradise Lost. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1, 5th edition. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1986.

Simmons, Diane. Interview with Jamaica Kincaid. June 12, 1993, Bennington, VT. Vorda, Allan. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Mississippi Review 20.12 (1991).

Diane Simmons Borough of Manhattan Community College – CUNY

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