Text: Kincaid, Jamaica, Annie John, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985.
Summary of Chapter Three: Gwen
The narrator tells about the first day at her new school where she is embarrassed because all the other twelve-year-old girls know each other, and she is a stranger. The teachers are all English. She longs to sit near the teacher in her composition class, so she can be known as bright. Everyone already seems to know that she is smart. She reads her autobiographical essay aloud in Miss Nelson's class, about her mother teaching her to swim when she was a child, and how she was afraid when her mother swam out to a rock and did not come back for a long time. The essay tells of the girl's early fear of separation from the mother. Now, it is a recurring nightmare, for she feels her mother has turned her back on her. The essay is admired by all, and one student, Gweneth Joseph, makes friends with her. The narrator, who is named “Annie” in school,“falls in love” with Gwen, and they are inseparable. They tell each other their secrets, but Annie cannot bear to tell her greatest soul secret, that her mother does not like her, for she wants Gwen to love her. Annie becomes popular at school and is given responsibility by the teachers. In her group, Annie is the first to menstruate, and is upset by it. She faints in class.
Commentary on Chapter Three: Gwen
The chapter reveals more about the narrator's need for motherly female approval, first, her mother, then the teacher, Miss Nelson, and then, the girlfriend. The incident of feeling separated from the mother at the ocean, when her mother ceased to be aware of her existence for a long period, has now become a recurrent nightmare in her teen life, for she feels the mother disapproves of her. By contrast, she takes up the old idyllic love with Gwen, whom she finds perfect, describing every detail of her face and way of moving. The narrator seems to seek an unconditional love from someone, and when the parents fail, she seeks the someone around her. She puts that person on a pedestal, with an easy tendency to worship others.
On the other hand, the sarcastic remarks about Miss Moore, the headmistress, is a foreshadowing of another of Annie's moods—her dislike of English colonialism. She never mentions race directly, but from the description of the characters, they are obviously black in a white world. Yet Annie does not mind being teacher's pet. When she is put in charge of the class, she notices her own inconsistent behavior. Sometimes she is kind to other students and sometimes cruel. She is known and liked for doing forbidden things.
She is first in her group to “come of age” or to menstruate. She does not like the experience, but when her mother tries to sympathize, Annie's sense is that her mother is pretending to be close, but is really a “snake.” It is never clear why Annie's reaction of hatred to her mother is so strong and definitive. It is presented as something totally irrational and out of her hands, some primal and formative experience. She perceives that the once beloved nurturer has become her enemy.