There are a lot of ways of reading this novel. It could be read, somewhat conventionally, with focus on Lucy, people and places. But if we look into the deep, we’ll see well-marked psychological picture of the young woman, her everyday struggle with herself.
In “Lucy”, Jamaica Kincaid challenges the idea of passive/pathological sexuality in women. Lucy’s deepest conflicts and her greatest anger arise from her relationships with her mother and then with her substitute mother, Mariah. Her own family seems fragmented, and in some sense her island community does, as well. The novel itself, however, does seem to connect mother and motherland–the island. That may explain somewhat the intensity of her anger and feeling of suffocation. Her rage against her mother is not simply psychological, an especially strong version of the usual parent-child conflict.
Lucy’s relationship to her mother is highly complex; she has very ambivalent feelings about her. She is cruel to her, but also loves her deeply; she hates her and admires her at the same time. Although Lucy constantly discusses her anger toward her mother and Annie’s inadequacy and failure as a mother, she also peppers the novel with tender stories of their interactions. “I reminded her that my whole upbringing had been devoted to preventing me from becoming a slut.”
Until she was nineteen years old, Lucy Potter had not ventured from her own little world on the small island where she was born. Now she is living with a family and learning a culture that is very different from her own. Lewis and Mariah and their four daughters want Lucy to feel like she is part of the family but at first she finds it difficult to fit in. She just wants to do her duty and in her off-hours discovers a new world through her friend Peggy and sexuality through young men, Hugh and Paul.
Lucy often reflects on her life back on the island; the conflicts between she and her mother, and the British influence on the islanders. She remembers the time her mother showed her how to mix herbs that supposedly would cleanse a woman’s womb but what they both knew was an abortion remedy. Lucy knows what is expected of her, to study for a respectable job like a nurse and to honour her family. She finds out that the tidy, neat world of the family she has come to love is not all it purports to be and how silence is a universal language.
Lucy comes to North America to work as an au pair for Lewis and Mariah and their four children. Lewis and Mariah are a thrice-blessed couple–handsome, rich, and seemingly happy. Yet, almost at once, Lucy begins to notice cracks in their beautiful facade. With mingled anger and compassion, Lucy scrutinizes the assumptions and verities of her employers’ world and compares them with the vivid realities of her native place.
Lucy has no illusions about her own past, but neither is she prepared to be deceived about where she presently is. At the same time that Lucy is coming to terms with Lewis’s and Mariah’s lives, she is also unravelling the mysteries of her own sexuality. Gradually a new person unfolds: passionate, forthright, and disarmingly honest.
Lucy leaves the novel crying with shame over her wish to “love someone so much that I would die from it.” Lucy does love someone that much, but she has thrown that love away because she could not adequately create a space for herself within it. When her mother tells her “You can run away, but you cannot escape the fact that I am your mother, my blood runs in you, I carried you for nine months inside me,”
Lucy interprets that as a prison sentence. “To myself I then began calling her Mrs. Judas, and I began to plan a separation from her that even then I suspected would never be complete.” Yet this is a prison sentence that all human beings must face, and Lucy’s way of dealing with it leaves her empty and ashamed at the end of the novel. Indeed, she states, “I was now living a life I had always wanted to live. I was living apart from my family… The feeling of bliss, the feeling of happiness, the feeling of longing fulfilled that I had thought would come with this situation was nowhere to be found inside me.”