Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Unhappiness: Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy (1990) and Counter-Narratives of Happiness in the Neoliberal Present
Shane A. McCoy
Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy (1990) disrupts the normative narrative of happiness in the neoliberal present; Lucy’s character is juxtaposed against Mariah, her employer, who might be described as the “happy housewife” archetype (Ahmed, 2010, p.2). From this standpoint, the article analyses emotional and psychic states in order to demonstrate a critique of the ‘happiness’ industry (Ahmed, 2010, pp.3-4). The article highlights counter-narratives; free enterprise and education do not necessarily lead to happiness and well-being, but can also lead to disempowerment and unhappiness, so the novel allows its readers to learn, and re-imagine unhappiness and negative affect as possible world-making projects.
Affect; Happiness; Neoliberalism; Pedagogy; Jamaica Kincaid
“I was no longer in a tropical zone, and this realization now entered my life like a flower of water dividing formerly dry and solid ground, creating two banks, one of which was my past—so familiar and predictable that even my unhappiness then made me happy now just to think of it—the other my future, a grey blank, an overcast seascape on which rain was falling and no boats were in sight” (5-6, emphasis added).
—Lucy, Lucy (1990)
“The civilizing mission can be redescribed as a happiness mission. For happiness to become a mission, the colonized other must first be deemed unhappy. The imperial archive can be considered as an archive of unhappiness. Colonial knowledges constitute the other as not only an object of knowledge, a truth to be discovered, but as being unhappy, as lacking the qualities or attributes required for a happiness state of existence” (125, emphasis added).
—Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (2010)
In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed interrogates the intellectual genealogy of happiness in cultural production and charts an alternative history of happiness by focusing on feminist killjoys, melancholic migrants, and “unhappy queers,” those characters who are thought to exist outside late capitalism. She examines how the sociality of happiness often takes the form of narratives that privilege the nuclear family, reject the figure of the ‘stranger,’ and embrace heterosexual domesticity—the “everyday habits of happiness … that shape how the world coheres” (Ahmed, p.15). As she argues, happiness is too often “shape[d]” as a coveted disposition that should be actively pursued, a “responsibility” (Ahmed, p.9) shared by all: “Happiness is consistently described as the object of human desire, as being what we aim for, as being what gives purpose, meaning and order to human life” (Ahmed, p.1). In effect, “[h]appiness shapes what coheres as a world” (Ahmed, p.2, emphasis added). Happiness is therefore “a form of world making” (p.2), one where happiness is presented as a choice and a possibility for all who seek its rewards. Indeed, happiness involves “an acquisition of capital that allows us to be or to do this or that, or even to get this or that” (Ahmed, p.10).
The emphasis on happiness and positive affect in the era of neoliberalism coincides with the “science of happiness,” which promotes happiness as a product to be bought and sold; this involves ‘investment’ in “developing a certain kind of disposition” (Ahmed, p.8) based on the assumption that the “good life” can only be achieved by becoming “a certain kind of being”, one that “would certainly be recognizable as bourgeois” (Ahmed, p.12). Since at least the 1970s, neoliberalism has re-shaped how nation-states craft economic policies that purposefully manipulate the free-market in favour of wealthy elites. Neoliberalism has thus “become hegemonic as a mode of discourse. It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world” (Harvey, 2005, p.3; emphasis added). Neoliberalism’s emphasis on competitive hyper-individualism, entrepreneurship, capital accumulation, and privatisation impact the ‘pursuit of happiness’; to not seek happiness is to be deemed an ‘outsider’ to such worlds and to join the ranks of the “troublemakers, dissenters, killers of joy” (Ahmed, p.17) who are framed as wanting to dismantle others’ happiness. But, as Ahmed reminds us, “[t]o kill joy … is to open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance” (p.20). To pursue unhappiness is to go against the grain of the domestic bourgeois narrative that positions happiness as something to be desired and actively sought.
To pursue unhappiness as an intellectual inquiry is to suggest that alternative world-making projects can be produced, despite (rather than because of) whether one is emotionally happy and psychically well. As I intend to demonstrate throughout this essay, Lucy disrupts the normative narrative of happiness. Throughout my close-reading, I hone in on the ways in which the novel situates the protagonist as a melancholic “stranger,” one who finds herself aligned with the ‘wrong’ “associations” (Ahmed, p.2). My focus on the emotional and psychic state of the characters in the novel in general, and the novel’s protagonist, Lucy, demonstrates a critique of the ‘happiness’ industry (e.g., the emphasis on positive psychology and the rhetoric of well-being), which is defined in relation to the social, cultural, economic, and political hegemony of the Global North (Ahmed, 3-4). The intellectual and emotional discomfort that readers experience due to the protagonist’s unhappiness affects how readers are confronted with a transnational narrative that is shaped by the protagonist’s estrangement and alienation in the U.S. In this way, Lucy as a “novel of education” (Shlensky, 2012, pp.44) narrates processes of learning for both Lucy and the reader (note 1).
My reading of Lucy intends to highlight counter-narratives of happiness that also function as teachable moments for disrupting neoliberalism’s pedagogical mission of producing “good [happy] subjects” (Nichols, 2007, pp.198) (note 2). I demonstrate how Kincaid’s novel demystifies for readers that free enterprise and education do not necessarily lead to happiness and well-being; instead, as a counter-narrative, Lucy suggests an alternative interpretation—that free enterprise and education can also lead to disempowerment and unhappiness. The dispositional aspects of Lucy’s character, especially her “strategic resistance” (Flynn, 2001, p.22) to the pedagogies of bourgeois domesticity and positive well-being, instantiate how the novel allows its readers to re-imagine unhappiness and negative affect as possible world-making projects (note 3). My discussion of Lucy will thus focus on the rhetoric of well-being and happiness in the neoliberal present, and seeks to capture neoliberalism as a disciplining force.
2 Rethinking Unhappiness
Kincaid’s Lucy teaches readers to rethink unhappiness in the context of late capitalism and the bourgeois family model. Throughout the narrative, Lucy’s emotions and psychic state are integral to Kincaid’s counter-narrative of transnational migration to the US. As a counter-narrative, Lucy is quintessentially anti-teleological in that it offers audiences no happy endings. Set in 1969, the first-person narrative begins with Lucy’s arrival to the United States during the middle of January. The novel’s first chapter, “Poor Visitor”, emphasises the “gray-black and cold” (Lucy 3) January day that greets Lucy. Kincaid’s protagonist experiences the cold despite the sun’s warmth, which was “something I took completely for granted, ‘the sun is shining, the air is warm,’ was not so” (5, emphasis added). Lucy’s attitude toward her new environment presupposes the normal winter weather of the north-eastern U.S. This juxtaposition of the “gray-black and cold” day on which the sun seems to be shining is indicative of Lucy’s “discontent with life in general” (p.6). These early pages set the stage for the novel’s tone—dark, foreboding, and, what some readers might find, melancholic.
Both the novel’s tone and Lucy’s disposition enable Kincaid to connect with her readership through an affective register, constructing what Jonathan Flatley (2008) calls an “affective mapping”. Flatley defines “affective mapping” as a “carefully prepared aesthetic experience, an experience that is narrated—and connected up to collective, historical processes and events—even as it is produced” (2008, pp.83-84). He argues that texts (in his case, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur)
have something to say about the very subjective experience from which a reader has been estranged. This allegorization of the experience that the aesthetic practice is itself promoting, the narration of the production of their own readers—is a moment in which the text functions as an affective map for its readers. (Flatley 2008, 83; emphasis added)
In other words, texts affect readers through an instructive methodology that I would call pedagogical in its process and in its aim. This pedagogy is embedded in every text—not just these select few. In Lucy’s case, the politics of Kincaid’s “affective mapping” lend themselves to how the author instructs readers to empathise and/or experience outrage with Lucy as well as feel alienated by a protagonist’s experience that is unfamiliar; what Ahmed (2000) might call “strange” or “alien” (p.13).
For instance, when the protagonist arrives at the home of her new employers Mariah and Lewis as the family’s au pair, she is given “a small room just off the kitchen—the maid’s room” (Lucy p.7). In this room, she notices the height of the ceiling and feels that the room is “like a box—a box in which cargo travelling a long way should be shipped. But I was not cargo. I was only an unhappy young woman living in a maid’s room, and I was not even the maid” (p.7). The protagonist evokes the slave trade and the proprietary relationship between the enslaved and slave owners. This gestures to the proprietary relationship in which Lucy is placed and her “strategic resistance” (Flynn, 2001, pp.22) to it. More so, it disrupts the common trope of the ‘happy slave’ narrative (Ahmed, 2010, p.2) and signals to readers that Lucy is unhappy with being confined to a life in a ‘box’. Despite her alleged access to the cultural and social capital associated with the white bourgeois family, Lucy experiences discontent in her new life abroad (note 4). Her unhappiness does not go unnoticed; at dinner the following night, Lewis notes her emotional distance: “They said I seemed not to be a part of things, as if I didn’t live in their house with them, as if they weren’t like a family to me, as if I were just passing through, just saying one long Hallo!, and soon would be saying a quick Goodbye! So long! It was very nice!” (Lucy, p.13). Lewis nicknames Lucy the “Visitor” for the way she stares at the family while they eat. An observer and “outsider within” their home (Hill Collins, 1986; Lenz, 2004), she is literally not part of the family. Lucy’s permanent status as the “Visitor” inside her host family’s home, however, is also indicative of her position in the United States—as a “[v]isitor.”
The novel’s opening sets the stage for how Lucy’s affective relationship to both the U.S. and her new host family functions as a counter-narrative to Mariah. As the “happy housewife” (Ahmed, 2010, p.2) archetype, Mariah embodies both positive affect and second wave liberal white feminism, and unlike Lucy’s “cold” affect (Lucy, p.127), Mariah’s disposition is ‘sunny’. Lucy’s new employer personifies the qualities and characteristics of ideal white bourgeois femininity (note 5). Moreover, the relationship between Mariah (the Global North/cosmopolitan housewife) and Lucy (the Global South/transnational female migrant who serves as an au pair) invites an alternative reading of the international division of labour. As her employer, Mariah’s power over Lucy has transnational implications for the ways in which gender and domestic space in the US context converge. Ahmed (2000) argues that the international division of labour “produces, not simply ‘people’ and ‘spaces,’ but gendered subjects and gendered spaces” (p.168). This “gendering of the international division of labour involves an encounter between women as they are differentially constituted in and around ‘the globe’” (p.168). Global North consumption (Mariah) is juxtaposed to Global South production (Lucy). The transnational movement of commodities “including knowledges and technologies mediates an encounter between Western women as ‘consumer-citizens’ and third world women as workers” (p.168, emphasis added). As Ahmed makes clear, we need to attend to how texts, such as Kincaid’s Lucy, affect a politics of knowledge production. In this way, the novel’s pedagogical mission of juxtaposing Mariah with Lucy’s character intervenes with an insurrectionary knowledge production that I call a counter-narrative, a story that mobilises a subjugated knowledge (Foucault, 1980).
Another counter-narrative that builds upon this juxtaposition between Mariah and Lucy is the way in which Mariah suffers from wilful ignorance, narcissism, and holds taken-for-granted assumptions of Lucy and her personal history. For example, Mariah assumes that Lucy will naturally love what she loves—an assumption that underpins Mariah’s disinterest in Lucy’s history. As the embodiment of the “happy housewife” archetype, Mariah has an abiding affection for springtime. One morning in early March, Mariah asks Lucy, “You have never seen spring, have you?” (Lucy, p.17). Rather than wait for Lucy to answer, Mariah assumes that she has indeed not “seen spring.” In this instance, Lucy notes how affectionately Mariah describes spring, “as if spring were a close friend, a friend who had dared to go away for a long time and soon would reappear for their passionate reunion” (p.17). Lucy’s employer especially has a fondness for the daffodil. She queries Lucy again: “Have you ever seen daffodils pushing their way up out of the ground? And when they’re in bloom and all massed together, a breeze comes along and makes them do a curtsy to the lawn stretching out in front of them. Have you ever seen that? When I see that, I feel so glad to be alive” (Lucy, p.17). The protagonist, however, does not embody the same affection for the daffodil. To readers, Lucy explains that when she was ten years old, she was made to memorise William Wordsworth’s iconic poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” while attending Queen Victoria Girls’ School in the West Indies (note 6). Wordsworth’s poem is about daffodils, a flower Lucy would not see in person until she was nineteen years of age at Mariah’s home. Remembering her colonial education, the protagonist angrily explains to us: “I had been made to memorize it, verse after verse, and then had recited the whole poem to an auditorium full of parents, teachers, and my fellow pupils” (18, emphasis added). After her recitation, the audience stood and
applauded with an enthusiasm that surprised me, and later they told me how nicely I had pronounced every word, how I had placed just the right amount of special emphasis in places where that was needed, and how proud the poet, now long dead, would have been to hear his words ringing out of my mouth. (18)
Lucy could perform for her peers, parents, and teachers because she was “at the height of [her] two-facedness: that is, outside [she] seemed one way, inside [the protagonist] was another; outside false, inside true” (p.18). Provoked by her employer’s fondness for the daffodil, Lucy, in a fit of rage, divulges her history with the flower to Mariah: “I told it to her with such an amount of anger I surprised both of us” (pp.18-19). Mariah’s adoration of the daffodil thus triggers the protagonist’s latent anger: “[To her] it felt as if something that [she] had not been aware of had been checked” (p.19). In response, Mariah reaches out to her employee and, “rubbing her hand against my cheek, said, ‘What a history you have.’ I thought there was a little bit of envy in her voice, and so I said, ‘You are welcome to it if you like’” (p.19).
When spring finally arrives later in the novel, Lucy’s hostess blindfolds her and guides her by the hand to the garden, “a place [Mariah] described as among her favorites in the world” (Lucy, p.28). When the two women enter the garden and Mariah removes the blindfold, Lucy sees “many, many yellow flowers the size and shape of play teacups, or fairy skirts. They looked like something to eat and something to wear at the same time; they looked beautiful; they looked simple, as if made to erase a complicated and unnecessary idea” (p.29). Although the protagonist does not immediately recognise the flowers as daffodils, she wishes “to kill them. I wished that I had an enormous scythe; I would just walk down the path, dragging it alongside me, and I would cut these flowers down at the place where they emerged from the ground” (p.29). Mariah then proceeds to introduce Lucy to her favourite flower: “These are daffodils. I’m sorry about the poem, but I’m hoping you’ll find them lovely all the same” (p.29). Mariah cannot comprehend how Lucy’s memory of the daffodil is filled with such anger and outrage rather than “joy” and affection. Presumably to help her employer understand (and despite having already divulged this history to Mariah), Lucy details more of her memory of the daffodil in order to emphasise her frustration: “‘Mariah, do you realize that at ten years of age I had to learn by heart a long poem about some flowers I would not see in real life until I was nineteen?’” (p.30). The protagonist realises that Mariah “wanted me to love this thing—a grove brimming over with daffodils in bloom—that she loved also.” Lucy does not blame Mariah, but “nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness. The same thing could cause us to shed tears, but those tears would not taste the same” (30). Mariah’s narcissism and disinterest compel Lucy to ask repeatedly throughout the text, “How does a person get to be that way?” (p.17). This motif emphasises Mariah’s presumptuousness and wilful ignorance of Lucy’s plight and personal history. Both Lucy’s memory of memorising Wordsworth’s poem and the daffodil scene exemplify how Mariah’s narcissism fails to register Lucy’s cultural difference. As the quintessential white liberal feminist, Mariah’s universal standpoint invalidates Lucy’s historical experience of being forced to memorise a poem about a flower she will never see until much later in her life. The incidence signals how postcolonialism and colonial education include both material exploitation and psychical trauma. The affective outcome of colonial education is embodied in Lucy’s disaffection for the daffodil. Her experience at Queen Victoria Girls’ School is, in part, responsible for her state of what Ogaga Ifowodo (2013) calls “postcolonial trauma” (note 7). In Lucy’s case, the memory remains latent and unconscious until triggered by Mariah. Lucy’s repeated question, “[h]ow does a person get to be that way?” (Lucy, p.17), interpolates the reader to share in the protagonist’s insistent rhetorical questioning of Mariah’s narcissism. The rhetorical impact aims to mobilise audiences to side with Lucy and empathise with her discontent and psychic state.
The symbolism of the daffodil encapsulates more than just the (inter)personal relationship between Mariah and Lucy; the daffodil also serves as a symbol of the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised (Welberry, 1997; Francois, 2001; Braziel, 2003). Jennifer Nichols (2007) explains how Lucy’s school experience at Queen Victoria Girls’ School was “an event that epitomises for her the relationship of coloniser to colonised, since, in lieu of learning her own history and culture, her education centered on training her to be a good subject of the British Crown” (p.198). Specifically, the “colonial education system [educates students to believe] that Lucy does not have a (national) history, at least not one she learns about in school; Antigua’s history is subordinated to England’s, much as Mariah subordinates Lucy’s concerns to her own” (2007, p.198). Similarly, Alison Donnell (1992) claims,
‘Daffodils’ was promoted pedagogically as an apolitical text and yet becomes highly politicized when analyzed within the colonial context in which Kincaid places it. The poetic subject (daffodils) signifies the forced adoption of the motherland and the attendant suppression of difference. (p.50)
Both Nichols’ and Donnell’s claims speak to how Mariah as a bourgeois subject experiences the daffodil quite differently from Lucy, who comes from a colonial background. More significantly, this episode illuminates the trauma of colonial education and how Lucy experiences colonial education as a pedagogy of disempowerment.
As such, the novel’s pedagogy aims to teach readers how colonialism affects the colonised materially, emotionally, and psychically. Kincaid’s counter-narrative to Empire’s pedagogical mission of disempowering the colonised might be best framed by Ahmed’s (2010) examination of how Empire’s pedagogical mission “becomes a moral and pedagogic project of improving manners, a project of cultivation, described in familiar terms of the emergence of women from a state of ‘abject slavery’” (p.127). This mission required colonised students such as Lucy to develop a refined literary appetite for things like Wordsworth’s daffodils, which were central to the cultivation of colonised subjects’ “good habits” (Ahmed, 2010, p.127). Mariah’s pedagogy of “improving manners,” however, is met with Lucy’s “strategic resistance” (Flynn, 2001, p.22), especially when Lucy begins “to feel like a dog on a leash, a long leash but a leash all the same” (Lucy, p.110). She rejects “taking orders from anyone” and refuses to wait “on other people” (p.92). Lucy detects how Mariah’s teaching is imbued with a narcissistic investment, which galvanises Lucy’s resistance.
Lucy’s situated refusal represents Patricia Hill Collins’ (1986) idea that black women’s cultural production functions as a form of “activism” (S23). In this case, Kincaid’s novel and the protagonist’s resistance both disrupt the hegemonic narratives that Mariah and others like her perpetuate as a normalised and naturalised cultural discourse. For instance, the juxtaposition of Mariah as the “happy housewife” and Lucy as the “melancholic migrant” produces what bell hooks (1992) calls an “oppositional gaze”, which affects readers emotionally and cognitively. Nichols (2007) contends that this is an “instructive methodology for repositioning the reader’s gaze—disrupting its authority—in order to challenge the cultural colonising implicit in the US ideal of immigrant assimilation” (p.193). Christine Prentice (2000) agrees that Lucy “effects a return of the colonial gaze, a reversal of its pedagogical project, exposing the ambivalence of colonial authority” (p.221). If the promotion of Wordsworth’s daffodil was instrumental in the dissemination of a colonial ideology that privileged the British literary canon (Donnell, p.50) for the promotion of Empire (Slemon, 1992, p.153), then Kincaid’s counter-narrative disrupts the dissemination of that project. This is illustrated most notably by Mariah’s affection for the daffodils, which “function[s] as a symbol of white US feminism (and femininity) that Lucy rejects” (Nichols, p.199). From this perspective, the daffodil functions as both a symbol of the colonial pedagogical project and a symbol of white liberal US feminism, which positions Mariah as continuing the legacy of the colonial project.
Another counter-narrative to Mariah’s commitment to “domestic bliss” (Ahmed, 2010, 2) is Lucy’s friendship with Peggy, an au pair from Ireland. Peggy “hated children and had nothing but hatred and scorn to heap on her own childhood” (Lucy, p.61). Mariah considers Lucy’s new friend to be a bad influence on the protagonist because Peggy “smoked cigarettes, used slang, wore very tight jeans, did not comb her hair properly or often, wore shiny fake-snakeskin boots, and generally had such an air of mystery that it made people who did not know her well nervous” (Lucy, p.60). Peggy embodies an unfettered queer woman’s sexuality, which Mariah determines to be not the “right association” (Ahmed, 2010, p.2) that Lucy needs in order to live a life of happiness and positive well-being. J. Brooks Bouson (2005) argues that Peggy represents “Lucy’s defiant selfhood” and “gives verbal expression to Lucy’s contempt for her family” (p.85). Peggy is also “representative of [a] ‘bad’ girl who breaks the rules governing proper femininity” (p.85). Mariah’s emotional reaction toward Peggy also affects a racist logic, one that casts Peggy as a racialized Other, the “stranger” (Ahmed, 2000), one who poses a threat—the “‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘bogus asylum seeks’ are those who are ‘not us,’ and who in not being us, endanger what is ours” (Ahmed, 2004, p.1). Mariah’s sentiments toward Peggy thus represent the history of Ireland’s colonial oppression and the hostility to Irish immigrants in the US. Peggy’s non-heteronormative sexuality intersects with her racialized position as the ‘Other’ (Lloyd, 1987, xiii)(note 8). In this way, Peggy’s gender, queer sexuality, racialization, class, citizenship status, and ‘bad’ health choices (e.g., smoking) all converge as a counter-narrative to Mariah’s heteronormative femininity and bourgeois domesticity, that is, the “happy housewife” who enjoys “domestic bliss” (Ahmed, 2010, p.2). And despite their varied origins and lack of cross-cultural knowledge, Peggy and Lucy embody a cross-cultural alliance, cross-racial politics, and community formation. Their friendship allows readers to imagine alternative life trajectories and world-views that disrupt heteronormative ideals propagated by bourgeois domesticity.
As such, Kincaid depicts bourgeois marriage and “domestic bliss” as a prison that impedes one’s freedom (Ahmed 2010, 2). Thus, Lucy’s attraction to various male characters—Hugh, Paul, and Roland, to name a few—signals how the protagonist fashions her own sexual and gender identity outside of bourgeois domesticity (Holcomb, 2003, p.310). Lucy also fulfils a colonial fantasy for Paul and, as I argue, the average white American reader. For instance, Paul is described as an artist who created “paintings of people, some of them women without their clothes on, some of them just faces. None of the paintings was straightforward; instead, the people all looked like their reflections in a pool whose surface had just been disturbed” (Lucy 96-97). Paul’s character represents the early twentieth century artist Paul Gauguin, whom Kincaid admired due to “the way he embraced rejection and took satisfaction in violating his contemporaries’ conventional notions about painting” (Nichols, p.195). Gauguin specialised in Primitivism, an art movement that focused on providing the European bourgeoisie with renderings of non-European locales, especially African peoples. In the novel, Gauguin’s yellow paint “represents not just otherworldliness but an Other world” (Nichols, p.195, emphasis added). Paul’s character therefore represents
a critique of Americanisation as a process that necessarily positions US national identity as both beyond reproach and desirable (“no blemish or mark of any kind”). This imbrication is especially apparent in light of Gauguin’s presence in the text, which explicitly involves the reduction of difference to a monochromatic vision of sameness. (Nichols, p.199)
Kincaid’s critique of the European bourgeoisie’s affection for Gauguin’s artwork functions as a critique of how the average white American reader sexualizes and exoticizes transnational women of colour. In this way, the emergence of an alternative “sexual imagining” (Holcomb, 2003, p.310) portrayed in Lucy’s character allows Kincaid to construct Lucy’s life trajectory as a counter-narrative to heteropatriarchal oppression and female subservience through the ways in which Lucy expresses her transgressive sexuality as a form of Global South female empowerment (Mohanty, 1984).
In addition to the titular character’s non-bourgeois female sexuality, we learn about another source of Lucy’s discontent with life and her trauma—her mother’s affection for the male children and the privileging of her sons (Lucy, pp.127-130). For this, Lucy calls her mother “Mrs. Judas,” which signals the betrayal she feels by her mother and personifies her “feeling[s] of hatred” (p.20). Lucy’s discontent with her mother’s affection for her male siblings in a heteropatriarchal nation underscores how the protagonist’s unhappiness shapes her world-view and dispositional attributes. Despite the “moments of great happiness and a desire to imagine [her] own future,” Lucy’s emotional state reveals her “great disillusionment” with her current life and signals to readers that any moments of happiness the protagonist experiences are fleeting (p.91). While Lucy divulges her estrangement from her mother to her employer and to readers, she realises that “Mariah wanted to rescue me. She spoke of women in society, women in history, women in culture, women everywhere. But I couldn’t speak, so I couldn’t tell her that my mother and that society and history and culture and other women in general were something else altogether” (Lucy, pp.131-32). Mariah’s response to Lucy’s story is the gift of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). The protagonist opens the book and reads, “Woman? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female—this word is sufficient to define her” (p.132). Lucy stops reading, as she explains,
My life could not really be explained by this thick book that made my hands hurt as I tried to keep it open. My life was at once something more simple and more complicated than that: for ten of my twenty years, half of my life, I had been mourning the end of a love affair, perhaps the only true love in my whole life I would ever know. (p.132)
Rather than attempt to understand that Lucy’s relationship with her mother is one predicated upon Lucy’s insignificant place in her family, Mariah, instead, interprets the solution to the protagonist’s grief by offering Lucy a book written by a French philosopher who galvanised second wave feminism.
Lucy’s rejection of de Beauvoir signals her repudiation of hegemonic liberal white feminism, which asserts that women need only gain equal rights, political representation, and access to financial and educational institutions—the “right associations” (Ahmed, 2010, p.2)—in order to achieve happiness and thwart sexual and gender oppression. As Lenz (2004) argues, “[t]he universal oppression of women does not explain Lucy’s anguish and Lucy objects to the reduction of her complicated relationship with her mother … to a blanket statement about women’s burden” (p.106). The protagonist’s refusal of hegemonic liberal white feminism therefore “gives Lucy—a transnational, racialized, female domestic worker—agency, allowing her to define herself” (Nichols, p.204). Lucy’s agency and reclaiming of power counters the dominant narrative of ‘saving brown women from brown men’ that Western feminism perpetuates, which Ahmed (2000) argues to be a narrative invested in “narcissism” because it relies upon a wilful ignorance of multiple forms of agency and difference (p.165). From this perspective, Western feminism’s “narcissism” is analogous to Mariah’s narcissism, as both assume that women of colour, in general, and women in the Global South, in particular, are disempowered subjects who lack agency.
These episodes of Lucy’s personal history and cultural memory illustrate how the protagonist’s “postcolonial trauma” (Ifowodo, p.2) is largely imposed upon her due to vertical oppression under the heteropatriarchal values and norms of the colonial nation-state and the Anglican education received at Queen Victoria Girls’ School, as well as horizontal oppression exercised by her mother, Annie (Adams, Bell, and Griffin, 2007, p.36). These are the reasons why Lucy desired to leave her homeland and never return. In the conclusion, Lucy reflects on her first year in the US and notices how different she is from the girl who arrived from the West Indies. She has since moved out of the “box”—the literal room and subjugated space in which Mariah would have her dwell (Lucy, p.7). After Mariah’s divorce from Lewis, Lucy moves into a “new phase of [her] life”, which includes a new apartment with Peggy and a new position as a receptionist for Mr. Simon, a photographer for whom she “performed … chores” and “answered the phone” along with “drinking coffee all the time” (p.160). She also develops a fondness for developing film in the darkroom when her employer is absent. While home alone one night, Lucy decides to write in the journal that Mariah gives to her as a parting gift. Before falling asleep, she writes “[a]t the top of the page” her full name, “Lucy Josephine Potter.” After writing her name, she pens, “I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it.” As she looks at the sentence she has just written, “a great wave of shame came over me and I wept and wept so much that the tears fell on the page and caused all the words to become one great big blur” (p.164). Lucy bursts into tears as she experiences final catharsis: “I was alone in the world. It was not a small accomplishment. I thought I would die doing it, I was not happy, but that seemed too much to ask for” (p.161).
Notably, the novel ends with Lucy maintaining her position as a permanent cultural “outsider within” (Hills Collins, 1984; Lenz, 2004). Kincaid’s ending therefore rejects the progress narrative that casts the US as a symbol of hope and fortune for the immigrant. Brooks Bouson (2005) argues, “as Lucy attempts to invent—and indeed write—a new identity … she remains a prisoner of her unhappy past” (p.87). Lucy’s final act of writing represents “a painful process of recovering the past and confronting her own abiding feelings of vulnerability and shame” (p.88). This interpretation, however, does not acknowledge Lucy’s resistance and how she reclaims power, as Lucy’s final act of writing represents a pedagogy of empowerment, one where the protagonist gives voice to her discontent. This allows Lucy to break free from the “box” she has been confined to for much of her life (Lucy, p.7). While I agree that Lucy’s final act represents a process of recovery, I also argue that Lucy is no longer “a prisoner of her unhappy past” (Brooks Bouson, p.87). Instead, she has forged a counter-narrative that allows her to create an alternative future to “domestic bliss” (Ahmed, 2010, p.2) and bourgeois femininity, one that she alone defines and controls.
3 Disrupting Neoliberalism’s Pedagogy
The framing of free enterprise as the pathway to humanity’s well-being and happiness is indeed the kind of “right associations” (Ahmed, 2010, p.2) that Mariah embodies as the “happy housewife”. As I have argued throughout this essay, Mariah’s character serves as a vehicle for ideal white bourgeois femininity. And, as Nichols (2007) rightfully argues, Mariah represents “a symbol of white US feminism (and femininity) that Lucy rejects” (p.199). Her character functions as an integral mechanism for neoliberalism’s pedagogy of teaching us that free enterprise and capitalism are the only pathways to happiness and well-being. Mariah’s pedagogy therefore mimics the curriculum disseminated by colonial education, as they are both invested in orienting their pupils towards cultivating the world-view that the “good life” (Ahmed, 2010, p.12) can only be achieved by fostering an entrepreneurial spirit associated with the free market. In the contexts of neoliberalism and colonial education, the academy serves as a vehicle for promoting and disseminating the “good life”.
While I and other scholars have argued that Mariah and Lucy’s tense relationship hinges upon racial differences and the competing world-views that emerge from varying life experiences, some have suggested that the complications in Mariah and Lucy’s relationship are not rooted in racial resentment. Irline Francois (2001) argues that the relationship between Mariah and Lucy
is not based on racial antagonism between a white mistress and the black servant whom she intends to subjugate to her will, as in the trenchant portrayals of Euro-American female characters by African-American women writers. Uniquely, Jamaica Kincaid’s narrative is driven by the protagonist’s wilful impetus to tear herself away from a deeply personal, all-consuming mother/daughter relationship which is metonymic of the colonial condition as a paradigm of the struggle between the self and the other. (p.85)
Francois’ argument addresses how the mother-daughter bond is representative of the relationship between the West Indies and the mother country (in this case, Britain). This interpretation of the novel fails to consider a few things. First, Francois discounts how racial strife emerges from “the historical legacies of colonialism” (Braziel, p.117). Jana Evans Braziel (2003) contends that Mariah’s “privilege and power” (p.116) portrayed through her interpretation of the daffodils and as the sole “knower and bearer of knowledge” (p.117) illustrates that her character embodies white Western “cultural dominance” (p.117), and this dominance neglects Lucy’s position and her “alternative historical and cultural experiences” (Braziel, p.117). Second, Francois’ interpretation of Lucy’s fraught relationships with both her employer and her mother bolsters the problematic argument that race can be separated from gender and sexual dynamics (Burrows, p.3). From my standpoint, racial strife between Mariah as surrogate mother and Lucy as adopted daughter is symptomatic of the social and cultural positions that intersect with race, class, gender, and nationality. Burrows (2004), drawing upon Patricia Hill Collins (1994), supports this counter-position and argues that the continued emphasis of only gender and sexuality in feminist theorisation of motherhood “can only affirm white domination of theory, and obscure the racial domination that often accompanies white-skin privilege in material life” (3). Francois’ account of the mother-daughter bond does not consider the dynamics of race as they intersect with gender and sexuality, and this ‘gap’ warrants further consideration for how gender and sexuality impact racial oppression in the context of motherhood and transnational migration.
Finally, and more pertinent to my argument and this special issue on happiness, Francois’ reimagining of “the daffodil gap” privatizes the protagonist’s emotions and divorces them from the historical and cultural legacies from which they spring. Such an interpretative lens neglects to consider how the historical and cultural legacies of colonial education structure the affective dynamics of happiness found in the ethics of neoliberalism in our present moment. For instance, Francois reduces collective trauma to something “deeply personal” (p.85). This relegation of collective trauma to the “deeply personal” realm of the private sphere hinges upon “a Eurocentric reading solely indentured to a middle-class whiteness built on concepts of Western individualism” (Burrows, p.17). The “deeply personal” feelings that Francois ascribes to Lucy’s character also function as a key feature of neoliberalism’s disciplining pedagogy for it depoliticises the protagonist’s emotions that arise from “structural and historical trauma” (Burrows, p.19). By subjugating Lucy’s unhappiness to the “deeply personal,” Francois’ argument therefore signals an intellectual indebtedness to neoliberal thought and implies that emotions are private and separate from the public sphere. This is illustrated most notably by Francois’ sympathetic portrayal of Mariah: “the woman’s many acts of generosity and kindness” (p.84); her “disarming disposition, warmth, humanity and extraordinary good will towards” Lucy (p.85); and “her ethereal beauty and generosity” (p.85). Francois’ description of Mariah counters Kincaid’s “use of language,” which Kincaid deploys “as a powerful deconstructive tool for contesting the domains of nature and culture, the cultural constructions of nature, the naturalization of culture” (Braziel 127, emphasis added). As such, Francois’ forgiving analysis of Mariah divorces the character’s disposition from a historical and cultural context, one that is imperative for understanding how Mariah and Lucy’s contrasting dispositions function politically. Unlike Francois, my reading of Lucy attempts to politicise the protagonist’s emotions by shifting the framework towards addressing the ways in which the bourgeois production of positive affect and happiness, and its intersection with the ethics and values of neoliberalism, mandate happiness as something to be desired and achieved. As I have illustrated, happiness framed as being intrinsic to the “social [and cultural] rules of decorum” (Braziel, p.115) that have been uncritically naturalised and internalised allows us to reconsider why Lucy “scorns and resists” (Braziel, p.115) Mariah’s colonising tendencies. Reframing happiness allows us to imagine the possible implications that might exist for a robust critique of happiness and positive affect. As Ahmed (2004) argues, emotions include a social aspect; thus, emotions are socio-culturally conditioned for better or for worse (p.9). Emotions are not just psychological states but include “social and cultural practices,” what the author calls a model of “sociality of emotion” (p.9). Ahmed’s theoretical framework allows me to recuperate the “sociality of emotion” (p.9) in which the neoliberal ethics and the production of happiness become reified in the employer/employee dynamic animated in Mariah and Lucy’s association.
Moreover, my alternative reading of Lucy suggests that Kincaid relocates the colonial relationship to the space of the US. This relocation allows the author to position Lucy’s alienation in the US as being synonymous with feelings of disaffection experienced by other migrants to the Global North. Kincaid’s work forces a transnational consideration of the politics of affect and how feelings of unhappiness counter the production of bourgeois subjects (Ahmed, 2010). Throughout this essay, I have argued that the bourgeois production of positive affect and happiness comports to the ethics and values of neoliberalism, ones that privatize emotions from the cultural, social, and historical milieus from which they arise. And neoliberalism “has … become hegemonic as a mode of discourse. It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world” (Harvey, 2005, p.3, emphasis added). Neoliberalism’s ethics and values emphasise individualism and entrepreneurship, capital accumulation, and the role of privatization (Harvey, p.2). It is the latter quality and characteristic of neoliberalism that drives my understanding of Francois’ interpretation of Lucy’s emotional trauma. Instead, and in order to counter neoliberalism’s emphasis on simplistic dichotomies, we might apply Burrows’ metaphor and characterise Lucy’s emotional trauma as a daffodil knot, rather than a “daffodil gap” (note 9). A daffodil knot, as I advocate for here, would encompass the personal and cultural trauma of the protagonist as it pertains to gender, sexual, and racial oppression within a transnational context. As Burrows (2004) makes clear, Lucy’s narrative illustrates “500 years of cumulative cultural loss and grief, which has to be healed on both a personal and cultural level” (p.83). A daffodil knot would thus help to amplify the protagonist’s personal and collective trauma and their intersections with the bourgeois production of positive affect, in general, and happiness in particular. Such an interpretation of Lucy vis-à-vis the daffodil knot necessarily refuses the “binary oppositions” (Burrows, p.12) that Francois’ reading implies.
While I concede that Lucy’s relationship with her mother certainly contributes to the protagonist’s trauma in the novel, I affirm that Lucy’s disaffection for her mother is symptomatic of a more complex narrative (a daffodil knot, as it were) that includes uncovering the injustices done by colonial education’s production of “certain kind[s] of being[s]” (Ahmed, 2010, p.12). For my interests, it is this production of “being[s],” this “project of cultivation” (Ahmed, 2010, p.127) by colonial institutions, which becomes replicated in the era of late capitalism, that is at stake. Ahmed asks, “How are emotions bound up with stories of justice and injustice? How do emotions work through texts not only to ‘show’ the effects of injustice, in the form of wounds and injury, but also to open up the possibility of restoration, repair, healing and recovery?” (2004, p.191). Uncovering such narratives like Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy allows us to consider how emotions are “bound up with stories of justice and injustice” (Ahmed, 2004, p.191, emphasis added). If, as Braziel argues, “Kincaid reverses colonial ‘order’ and … denaturalizes the ‘natural’” (p.114), then, like the denaturalisation of the daffodils, Kincaid strategically denaturalises happiness by politicising its production. Simply put, my interpretation of Lucy attempts a close reading of happiness that is socially just, historically contextualised, and oriented towards elevating the protagonist’s personal and collective trauma; such personal and collective trauma is too often obfuscated by neoliberal institutions that are indebted to colonial thought.
Kincaid’s Lucy represents a counter-narrative to neoliberalism’s pedagogy by disrupting the ways in which free-market principles are tethered to the rhetoric of happiness. Pedagogically, the historical frame that Lucy features brings into focus for readers how black women’s counter-narratives can be self-reflexive and critical of both local and global contexts in general, and the rhetoric of happiness and well-being in particular. As a teaching tool, counter-narratives disrupt the hegemonic stories that participate in the erasure of colonised subjects’ agency through interrogations of the local socio-political contexts from which these stories emerge, especially as they brush up against interlocking oppressions, such as sexism, racism, and classism, the aftermath of colonialism and the ongoing enterprises of imperialism and globalisation. While I concede that many students find Lucy to be an unappealing narrative and the protagonist to be an unlikeable character, I argue that enabling students with the critical capacities to investigate the reasons why Lucy experiences great discontent is crucial for re-shaping students’ understanding of her circumstance (note 10). Moreover, contextualising the novel within neoliberalism’s emphasis on happiness and positive well-being vis-à-vis neoliberalism’s pedagogical mission to produce ‘happy’ productive citizens for the expansion of global capital might engender productive conversations about how we are conditioned to aspire to “domestic bliss” (Ahmed, 2010, p.2). Situating the novel within the dominant narrative of the ‘happy’ immigrant to the US. might spark a re-imagining of how the US nation-state is manufactured as a “shining city on a hill” (note 11).
Indeed, the “turn toward” (Ahmed, 2010, p.148) happiness and well-being found in the “right associations” (Ahmed, 2010, p.2) does not mitigate the violence of colonialism and globalisation. Lucy presents readers with a personal narrative of Lucy Potter, a racialized and gendered colonised subject who confronts her postcolonial trauma within the north-eastern US. As an “affective history of belonging” (Chakrabarty, 2007, p.253) Lucy affects readers emotionally and cognitively as they experience her coming-into-consciousness first as an au pair for Mariah and Lewis and later, as an independent character living on her own. Through her trials and tribulations, readers come to understand how Lucy’s life in both the US and her homeland are quite similar, as she experiences oppression in both nations. In this way, Kincaid crafts a narrative of ambivalence towards progress, happiness, transnational migration, and education. Lucy does not portray a progress narrative that casts the US as a site for freedom, liberation, happiness, and positive well-being. Instead, Kincaid’s novel portrays the U.S. as equally oppressive as a colonised nation. Because of the protagonist’s position as a transnational migrant, Lucy lacks the economic power to radically change her position as a subjugated character. However, this does not impede her ability to attain power and control over her life. Moreover, despite her great distance from her mother, she struggles with a “postcolonial trauma” (Ifowodo, 2013, p.2) that haunts Lucy in the US. Kincaid’s Lucy therefore calls in to question how freedom of movement is not necessarily freedom of mind. To that end, Lucy’s relative distance from her traumatic experiences does not free her from her emotional attachment and psychical imprisonment.
- I use “readers” to describe a general audience. Specifically, anyone who reads the novel (for leisure or academic purposes) might be considered a “reader.” I also use the term “audiences” and “readership” interchangeably. Although “readers,” “audiences,” and “readership” may be assumed to be mostly white readers in the Global North, this is open to interpretation and further investigation into this aspect lies beyond the scope of my present article.
- I draw my understanding of counter-narratives from Colin Peters and Michael Lankshear. In Counternarratives: Cultural Studies and Critical Pedagogies in Postmodern Spaces (1998), Peters and Lankshear argue that counter-narratives are “little stories” that unveil the subjugated histories often forgotten in official historical narratives (p.2).
- In “Strategic, Counter-Strategic, and Reactive Resistance in the Feminist Classroom” (2001), Elizabeth Flynn defines “strategic resistance” as “individual as well as collective; it can involve a minimum of planning or years of coordination, it can involve active opposition or silent protest; it can involve powerful leaders or powerless workers” (p.22). “Strategic resistance” always “involves opposition to injustice or unfairness in the form of action that is deliberate and conscious” (p.22).
- Victoria Burrows (2004) envisions the family to be “indicative of its symbolic status as representative of white American liberal humanism” (p.75).
- Also see Burrows (2004), pp.86-87.
- Some scholars have taken issue with this interpretation of the daffodil. See Karen Welberry’s “Colonial and Postcolonial Deployment of ‘Daffodils’” (1997).
- In History, Trauma, and Healing in Postcolonial Narratives: Reconstructing Identities (2013), Ifowodo reads postcolonial history “as a history of trauma—as not just the devastating record of imperialist conquest and domination…but also that of the arguable more catastrophic injury to the psyche of the colonized” (2).
- Other scholars, however, do not read Peggy as a racialized ‘Other.’ See, for instance, Burrows (2004), pp.100-104.
- Burrows (2004) describes the relationship between mother and daughter as a “densely threaded knot, one loosely entangled so that three-dimensional spaces are visible between the looped strands. Braziel (2003) also suggests that the conflicts that qualify Lucy’s character are multi-dimensional (p.127).
- My claim is largely drawn from my personal experience teaching this novel as well as conversations with other teachers who have taught Kincaid’s Lucy.
- This phrase was coined by John Winthrop in his “City Upon a Hill” sermon in 1630, which was cited by former President Ronald Reagan in his Farewell Address in 1989. For more, see Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Speech (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29650) and PBS’s coverage of John Winthrop (http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/people/john-winthrop.html). For a transcript of Winthrop’s sermon, see https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/winthrop.htm.
I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers of this article, one of whom recommended the excellent scholarship of Victoria Burrows, Irline Francois, Jana Evans Braziel, and Karen Welberry. This article is better because of these early critical reviews. I would also like to thank the editor of this special issue on happiness, Juliane Roemhild, and my former dissertation director, Kate Cummings, both of whom offered impeccable guidance and support in crafting this article. Any shortcomings are entirely my own. With gratitude, I thank all of you.
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