Failing to Gain Respect: The Mothers of Lucy, Soledad, and Sophie
Lucy Josephine Potter, the nineteen year old in Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, is a girl from West Indies who has entered North America in order to work as a nanny. She had hated her old home, a British colony; and yet memories of her mother continue to haunt her, taking her back to West Indies despite Lucy’s hatred for her old home. Soledad is close to Lucy’s age. In Angie Cruz’s Soledad, the twenty year old art student, having grown up in the Dominican community of Washington Heights, enters Manhattan, ashamed of her beginnings in the ghetto.
Nevertheless, Soledad’s mother would not leave her alone. As a matter of fact, when the mother, Olivia, falls mentally sick, Soledad’s aunt and grandmother inform her that Olivia may only be brought back to health if her daughter would visit her. Soledad is disgusted with her mother, and yet she goes back to visit her. Similarly, Sophie, from Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, would like to be separated from her mother. Sophie is a Haitian woman who has come of age. At the time of her adolescence, she must leave for New York in order to be with her mother whom she does not know. However, when she discovers that her mother is too painful to bear, mostly because of the mother’s past in which she was raped, Sophie decides to elope with a musician, Joseph. In all three cases, the mothers have failed to gain the respect of their daughters. Indeed, Lucy, Soledad, and Sophie have negative feelings about their mothers. All the same, there are positive feelings for the reader to infer.
Sophie has been separated from her mother before she enters the United States to stay with her. The young girl overcomes her initial apprehensions, and gets closer to her mother emotionally. As she does so, however, the mother reveals her own emotional problems to the daughter. These problems are difficult for Sophie to bear. After all, she is a young woman who has spent most of her life in the rural Haiti where the countryside was beautiful and life was uncomplicated. Moreover, Sophie has come of age and must explore her new beginning in glitzy New York City on her own. At her age, she would not want to wait on her mother because the latter has emotional issues to deal with. Rather, Sophie would like to get on with her own life. Thus, she leaves her mother to live with a musician. In music, perhaps, she would forget her mother’s emotional issues. After all, Sophie is not responsible for her mother’s rape as a teenager in Haiti. Neither does she have to deal with the emotional issues connected with the rape. For Sophie, youth and the newness of North America are of greater significance. What is more, the girl had developed a better relationship with Tante Atie in Haiti as compared to her relationship with her mother in New York. In other words, Sophie has Tante Atie as a benchmark to compare her mother with. She realizes thus that her mother is not the kind of individual to be lived with for long. Her mother has failed to earn her respect, despite the mother’s emotional problems that Sophie is instinctively expected to deal with.
Soledad does not have much patience with respect to her mother either. She is happy with her new beginning in Manhattan at the time that she is disturbed by her mother’s mental illness. Her aunt and grandmother make her return to the ghetto in order for her mother to get well. It is Soledad’s decision, of course, to get back and help her mother recover from the mental illness. And yet, she feels overburdened. Angie Cruz writes, in the voice of the twenty year old Soledad:
The way I’m figuring it, my time in Washington Heights is like a prison sentence. Once I do the time, I won’t have the guilt trip anymore about moving out. I’m twenty years old.
Twenty years old is old enough to live away from home. Apparently not old enough for my aunt Gorda, who’s almost forty and still lives with my grandmother, and Victor, who is about to hit thirty and won’t leave my grandmother’s pampering ways unless someone marries him and takes her place. But anyways, I promised Gorda I’ll give my mother two, maybe three months. If my mother can’t get her shit together in that time then that’s it. I’ve already sacrificed a once-in-a-lifetime apprenticeship with a professor in Spain this summer. Finally I was offered the opportunity to travel far away to Europe, where I could taste grilled champiñones and tortillas españolas, leisurely sit at a café during siesta and drink strong espresso in front of an ancient church. Me and Caramel had it all planned. We were supposed to meet up in Barcelona, where her gypsy tía lives and then escape on a train to Paris following James Baldwin’s footsteps.
In the community where Soledad was raised, many people failed to become independent of their families. Yet, the young girl detests the ways of the ghetto community, and longs to return to her new life. She does not want to wait long for her mother to recover. Rather, her new experiences are more important to her. Additionally, it is obvious that Soledad would not respect her mother. She refers to her mother getting her “shit together” in ghetto language. To add to the disrespect that Soledad already feels for her mother, the novel reveals that Olivia was actually a prostitute, that Soledad was born out of wedlock, and that Olivia had killed the father of Soledad. Perhaps, therefore, Soledad may never be expected to truly respect her mother, even though her positive feelings for the mother are revealed through her visit to bring the mother back to health.
Lucy feels as emotionally unattached to her mother as does Soledad. Furthermore, Lucy sees a better motherly model in Mariah, who is similar to Sophie’s Tante Atie, seeing as Mariah replaces Lucy’s mother with respect to the kinds of feelings people are taught by nature or nurture to feel for their mothers. Jamaica Kincaid’s novel establishes a clear difference between Lucy’s mother and the character of Mariah. For example, Lucy’s mother was emotionally dependent on her daughter, to the point of becoming an emotional pain. Moreover, the mother was neglectful of the needs of her young daughter. Mariah, on the contrary, treats Lucy as a grownup. She exposes Lucy to the museums of America, and gives her presents. She also looks out for the well-being of the young Lucy during the time that she is adjusting to the new environment.
Just like Soledad does not want to associate herself with Washington Heights and the Dominicans, Lucy feels far away from her roots in West Indies. Lucy would not read her mother’s letters that arrive in the mail. She wants to avoid the emotional pain that her mother brought into her life, by being oppressively reliant on her daughter. Moreover, Lucy is trying to leave colonialism behind. She had shown rebellion in West Indies toward the oppressive invasion of the British. She had refused to sing in her school choir, “Rule, Britannia!” Just as her mother keeps on being brought to mind, colonialism surfaces in young Lucy’s flashbacks of West Indies. She wants to get away from it all. This is similar to Soledad’s attitude before she moves to West 164th Street. Soledad had been fighting memories of gaping hydrants, of leering males, and of slick-skinned teenage girls who had raunchy mouths that snapped gum. To add to the disgust that she feels for Washington Heights, Soledad’s memories of her Dominican community must include memories of her mother. Hence, both Soledad and Lucy would like to forget their mothers, whose memories bring back painful memories of communities that have been left for good by the girls.
In America and on their own, the three young girls would like to be individualists, able to make their own decisions, and forgetting all that was painful and negative about the past. The disrespect that Lucy and Soledad feel for their mothers is connected to the feeling of humiliation that they connect with their communities left behind. In Soledad’s case, it was a ghetto where her mother also thrived. In Lucy’s case, it was the humiliating presence of the British colonialists that mingled with the presence of her mother, thereby making the mother even more unappreciated. Sophie, on the other hand, would like to appreciate her Haitian Tante Atie more than she would like to appreciate her mother in New York, who was painful to be with.
The fact that the young girls are all repulsed by their mothers could perhaps be explained by the age at which they change the course of their lives. All of the girls are between the ages of nineteen and twenty one. At that point in life, most girls would like to be independent, even if they had been brought up in communities that did not appreciate the independence of women, and especially when they start on their own in America. The United States encourages independence, and does not differentiate between girls and boys with respect to individuality. Everybody has a voice, and the ability to start on his or her own. The three young girls are pushed by circumstances, and mostly by their age, to establish themselves in a new life in the United States. And, even though they are disgusted by the thought of their mothers, it may be assumed that they would return to visit their mothers occasionally once they have established themselves as independent, young women. To put it another way, the young girls are all feeling that their mothers are unbearable most probably because it is time for the young girls to be separated indefinitely from their mothers. Given the delicate emotional relations between most mothers and daughters, this separation could be painful. In order to avoid the pain, the girls would not only like to stay away from their mothers, but also do away with their memories of their mothers.
Once Lucy, Soledad, and Sophie have reached an age of maturity, perhaps in their late twenties or early thirties, they might want to remember their mothers fondly. Furthermore, the young women might want to spend time with their mothers, but only after the women have established themselves independently. The respect that the mothers have lost at this time is also expected to be regained at a later stage. Such is the process of human existence. In the case of mothers and daughters, distance is expected to make hearts grow fonder.
Cruz, Angie. Soledad. New York: Simon ; Schuster, 2001.
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Kincaid, Jamaica. Lucy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.