“Girl” consists of a single sentence of advice a mother imparts to her daughter, only twice interrupted by the girl to ask a question or defend herself. She intends the advice to both help her daughter and scold her at the same time. Kincaid uses semicolons to separate the admonishments and words of wisdom but often repeats herself, especially to warn her daughter against becoming a “slut.” Besides these repetitions, “Girl” doesn’t move forward chronologically: there is no beginning, middle, or end to the stream.
The mother dispenses much practical and helpful advice that will help her daughter keep a house of her own some day. She tells her daughter how to do such household chores as laundry, sewing, ironing, cooking, setting the table, sweeping, and washing. The mother also tells the girl how to do other things she’ll need to know about, including how to make herbal medicines and catch a fish. These words of wisdom suggest that the women live in a poor, rural setting, where passing on such advice is essential for daily living.
Alongside practical advice, the mother also instructs her daughter on how to live a fulfilling life. She offers sympathy, such as when she talks about the relationships her daughter will one day have with men, warning that men and women sometimes “bully” each other. She also says that there are many kinds of relationships and some never work out. The mother also tells the girl how to behave in different situations, including how to talk with people she doesn’t like.
Often, however, the mother’s advice seems caustic and castigating, out of fear that her daughter is already well on her way to becoming a “slut.” She tells the girl, for example, not to squat while playing marbles, not to sing any Antiguan folk songs in Sunday school, and to always walk like a lady. The girl periodically interjects to protest her innocence.
Like Kincaid’s other short stories, “Girl” is extremely brief and can hardly be said to have a plot, although the reader can easily imagine a dramatic context in which this monologue might be spoken. The central voice is that of the unnamed mother; the reader must assume that the “girl” of the title is her daughter, although the relationship is never stated. Twice the daughter’s voice (indicated by italics) interrupts the mother to protest the implications of her instructions, but the mother continues her directions.
The mother is directing her daughter about how to live as an adult woman, and many of her comments comprise practical advice. From the first clause, when the mother tells her daughter to put freshly washed white clothes on a stone heap and to wash the “color clothes” on Tuesday, the reader recognizes that the story’s setting is not the United States. The speaker tells the daughter how to soak salt fish, how to cook pumpkin fritters, how to iron her father’s shirt and pants properly, how to grow okra and dasheen, how to sweep the house and yard.
Also early in the story, the reader senses that the daughter is at the edge of sexual maturity. The mother’s direction to her daughter to “soak your little cloths” as soon as she takes them off—a reference to menstruation—establishes that fact. Throughout the story, many of the mother’s directions are aimed at preventing the girl from becoming the “slut” her mother obviously thinks she longs to be. She directs her not to sing popular music in Sunday school, not to talk to wharf-rat boys for any reason, and not to eat fruit on the street, because it will make flies follow her. This sort of advice is intermingled with commentary about practical matters of cooking and cleaning, but the speaker’s primary motivation is to prevent her daughter from becoming a “slut”—or at least from being perceived as one. She also tells her daughter about a medicine for abortion and makes the observation that if her directions about how to love a man do not work, the girl should not regret giving up.
The mother’s sexual advice is intermingled with social advice. She tells the girl how to smile at someone she does not like, as well as how to smile at someone she likes very much, and tells her how to avoid evil spirits (what looks like a blackbird, the mother says, may be something else entirely).
The two-and-a-half-page monologue does not actually include the instructions for all these activities; instead, the parallel clauses introduced with “this is how . . .” suggest the ways that adults model behavior for children. Presumably, the daughter is watching and learning. At the same time, the mother’s negative tone indicates that she has little hope of her daughter’s growing into decent adulthood, so that the daughter’s two protests create the story’s tension. Nevertheless, the mother has the last word. When the girl asks what to do if the baker will not let her test the bread’s freshness by squeezing it, the mother wonders if her daughter will become the “kind of woman the baker won’t let near the bread.”