Intersections: Jamaica Kincaid and the Literature of Defiance

'Jane Eyre,' 'Paradise Lost' Helped Shape Writer's Voice

Listen: <b>Web Extra</b>: Kincaid on How Reading Empowered Her

Listen: <b>Web Extra</b>: Kincaid on Becoming a Writer

Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid Jeremy Bembaron/CORBIS hide caption

itoggle caption Jeremy Bembaron/CORBIS
An engraving of Lucifer emerging from the chasm in 'Paradise Lost'

An engraving of Lucifer emerging from the chasm in Paradise Lost. Kincaid says that as a child, she admired Lucifer's defiance as depicted in John Milton's epic poem. Chris Hellier/CORBIS hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Hellier/CORBIS

In books such as Lucy and My Mother, Jamaica Kincaid offers unflinching, often angry observations about life that challenge perceptions of ordinary habits or beloved objects. For Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their inspirations, NPR's Lynn Neary talks to Kincaid about lessons in subversion she learned from the classics of British literature.

Born on the island of Antigua when it was still a British colony, Kincaid was raised by an overprotective mother who spent most of her free time in the library. A reader by age 3, Kincaid spent much of her childhood alone, immersed in books. At school, where she often got into trouble, books were used to punish her. Once, a teacher who lost patience silenced her by handing her Jane Eyre.

Kincaid soon became captivated by the novel's heroine, an orphan girl who becomes a governess at the estate of the wealthy, brooding, mysterious Mr. Rochester.

"It was her rebelliousness, her sense of self… of never giving in if you think you are right," Kincaid says. "I identified with that completely."

Because of her own rebellious nature, Kincaid admired characters who stood up for themselves and defied authority. Not surprisingly, the powerful figure of Lucifer in John Milton's Paradise Lost exerted a strong pull on her imagination. Kincaid encountered the epic poem at age 7 — as a punishment, she was assigned to copy by hand books one and two. Even at that young age, Kincaid admired Lucifer's defiance and took comfort in it.

"It had the perverse effect on me of making me feel that what I had done wrong was right," she says. "Because I was reading about someone who had done something wrong and who gloried in it."

Echoes of both books appear in Kincaid's novel Lucy. Like Jane Eyre, Lucy is a young woman — self-possessed, alone in the world — who cares for the children of a wealthy family. But the character's name, says Kincaid, derives from Milton's Lucifer: "In fact… a lot of the book is about Paradise Lost, and being thrown out into this cold, bleak world as a very young person, to serve."

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