“This is why adolescence is such a difficult and decisive moment for a woman. Until then, she was an autonomous individual: now she has to renounce her sovereignty. Not only is she torn like her brothers, and more acutely, between past and future, but in addition a conflict breaks out between her originary claim to be subject, activity, and freedom, on the one hand, and on the other, her erotic tendencies and the social pressure to assume herself a passive object.” — Simone de Beauvoir, “The Girl”
Whenever I hear someone complain about how the second-person point of view just doesn’t work for them, I often think they should give Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl a solid (re)read. This short story, which Kincaid says she wrote in a single sitting, is a brilliant example of how to use the second-person to great effect.
I often hear in poetry workshops that the title of a poem can actually (or at least often) be read as the first line of the poem itself, and I actually think that applies successfully to Kincaid’s Girl. The single, incredibly long sentence that forms the entire short story works even better when you think that “girl” could be a kind of beginning punctuation to each part, an affectionate-yet-hostile address for all the rules and limits and behaviours prescribed throughout. Each segment of the sentence-story are all about the gender, racial, religious, cultural, and class policing required to be an acceptable and respectable member of the society the girl is born to.
Among the other various forms of body and gender policing, it’s through the repeated use of the word “slut” that literal slut shaming is shown as a tool weaponized against the girl — building upon a subtle threat of violence that runs through the entire sentence. Kincaid is well-aware that girlhood is an inherently suspect, dangerous state in the community the narrator is brought up in because of the possibilities inherent to sexual awakening and freedom that occurs in adolescence — see also the de Beauvoir quote above.
“And that story is a distillation of my entire childhood, how I came to be a woman. What was expected of me.” — Jamaica Kincaid
What I find especially successful in Kincaid’s Girl is not only how the story works as a recipe for Kincaid’s girlhood (as she specifies in the quote above: “how I came to be a woman”) but also in the flexibility of its narrator. The person addressed by “you” is clear — “you” is the titular Girl being addressed again and again throughout — but in fiction the use of the second-person can often be interpreted as a dissociated, inverted form of the first person. In this case, I think it makes sense to wonder if the narrator might not be an older “Girl”, aiming the words and expressions heard throughout her childhood back at herself to keep herself in line and connect herself to her past. I do think the nature of the narrator in Girl lends itself to this sort of flexible reading, especially as it’s useful to the story’s narrative, demonstrating the cyclical manner in which our parent’s restrictions outline or shape our very own limits.
I've often been told that the second person is often the most complex and difficult point of view to get just right, and I definitely heard more than a few complaints in my undergrad creative writing classes about how off-putting it can be to read. That’s because there is something inherently accusatory (even combative) to the second person “you,” regardless if it represents an inverted form of the first person. “You” not only addresses whoever is being designated by the story (the titular Girl in this case) but also the reader at the same time. This doubles the impact of Kincaid’s “you” because reading a breathless single run-on sentence of rules and limits and reproaches and slut shaming, we are also being indirectly subjected to a distilled form of the girl’s reprimands, and briefly sharing in a drop of what the experience felt like.
- Margaret-Love Denman and Barbara Shoup. Story Matters. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p. 56, 277.
- Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex. Vintage Editions, May 2011. p. 348.