Text: Kincaid, Jamaica, Annie John, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985.
Summary of Chapter One: Figures in the Distance
The first person narrative begins without introduction, telling memories from age ten of the little girl who will later be identified as Annie John. It is not stated, but the little girl is a native of Antigua, an island in the Caribbean. She tells of the summer vacation she first became aware of death. Her family was living in an isolated place in the country where she had to feed the pigs and eat duck's eggs. She saw figures in the distance, and her mother explained that it was a funeral to bury a child.
Later, after they moved back to town, a little girl named Nalda died in Annie's mother's arms. Nalda had a fever and died suddenly. The narrator's own mother had to prepare the child's body for the funeral. She and her little friends tell stories about people they know who died. The narrator goes on with a list of people and how they died. She begins to go to funerals. She looks at the dead in their coffins. Finally, someone she knows who is her own age, dies. She spends all day at the funeral instead of going to the market for her mother to get the fish for dinner. Then she lies to her mother, saying the fishermen did not go to sea that day. The mother shows her the fish that the market man brought, and she is punished by having to eat alone.
Commentary on Chapter One: Figures in the Distance
The narrator did not know that children died until this experience, but she, like everyone in Antigua, is afraid of the dead. The spirits of the dead wait for you under trees and try to go home with you, she points out. Sometimes they follow you until you give up and die. She refers to the belief in the wandering spirits of the dead who bring harm to the living. The whole narrative is permeated with the beliefs of obeah, a native form of voodoo or magic, derived from African religions. The narrator brings up obeah as a natural part of her everyday life in Antigua.
The narrative is from a child's point of view. She records the details she is interested in without a moral perspective. She tells about tormenting another girl at school until she cries but does not act sorry about it. The chapter conveys the child's obsession with death and what she knows about it. She knows the local obeah beliefs about spirits. She tries to see if the dead look the same as the living and can see they do not. An important detail at the end of the chapter concerns her lie to her mother. The mother punishes her with isolation and says she will not kiss her goodnight. The mother relents, however, and kisses the daughter. The changing mother-daughter relationship is a main theme of the story.