Literary essay on Kate Chopin’s “Ripe Figs” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”

One could classify both Kate Chopin’s “Ripe Figs” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” as coming of age stories. Both have two characters, a young woman and an older woman who is guiding, teaching, and monitoring the young woman in an apparent attempt to keep them safe from the ways of the world, especially those of men. The young women in the stories do not come of age in the stories, but they learn what that entails for them. Both stories involve references to the natural world and to sexuality, although the time setting in which they were written allowed for more direct comment in “Girl,” which was written several decades after “Ripe Figs.” The two stories represent some of the same themes and concepts about the coming of age of young women; however, they approach the topic in very different ways.

Chopin’s short story is set in the late nineteenth century in Louisiana. Because people were more guarded about their language at the time, Chopin could not be as direct as Kincaid was in her story. This means that the “advice” given in Chopin’s short story is much more subtle than that which is expressed in Kincaid’s. “Ripe Figs” is full of allusion that the reader must try to analyze and understand with little explanation or guidance from the author, while the advice offered in “Girl” is direct and unfiltered.

In “Ripe Figs” Maman-Nainaine, Babette’s godmother, promises her she can go to visit her cousins in Bayou-Boeuf when the figs ripen. However, neither the readers nor Babette knows exactly when this is going to occur. Babette spends her summer watching the figs to get the first glimpse of the ripening because she is clearly anxious to go to visit her cousins where the sugar cane grows in Bayou-Boeuf (Chopin). While there is no explanation given for why Babette is so anxious to visit her cousins, readers can speculate that Maman-Nainaine is elderly and probably somewhat dowdy. She may not have the energy and capacity for activity that Babette surely has at her young age. Surely, the cousins are more suited to the interests of a young person. Or, there could be another reason for Babette’s anxiousness about visiting her cousins.

When Babette goes to visit her cousins, the unspoken context is that she will get to go out in society with her cousins, which means she will be courted by men. This excites her to no end as it would many young women with raging hormones, as one assumes that Babette must have, or she may not be as excited about going to visit her cousins as she is. Maman-Nainaine connects the trip to Bayou-Boeuf with a natural process, the ripening of the figs, but that is not the only natural process mentioned. The sugar cane and the chrysanthemums blooming are also references that Maman-Nainaine mentions, but it is the figs ripening that are most important to Babette. Ioana-Maria Cistelecan of Confluente says that Maman-Nainaine “frequently used strange references to nature as a method of counting time. In fact, the ripening of figs was not the only instance of this tendency, as the godmother mentions also meeting her relative ‘when the chrysanthemums are in bloom’” (Cistelecan 60). The point may be counting time, but with time comes change.

One could compare the ripening of figs to Babette’s “ripening” or coming of age. Since the story does not mention Babette’s age, readers can speculate that she is somewhere around twelve or thirteen years old—just the time young women “become women,” and start noticing boys. In the context of the late nineteenth century in Louisiana, this may have meant that Babette was now ready for marriage. Her going to where the sugar cane grows could be a reference to going to where there are young men (or older men) looking for wives. Babette may have already felt the hormones raging through her and she may be interested in her own sexuality, so meeting men with whom she can feel that thrill of physical lust may be very exciting to her.

Another illusion to the natural world is the one that describes Maman-Nainaine “as patient as the statue of la Madone, and Babette as restless as a humming-bird” (Chopin). Babette is that busy, eager hummingbird looking to suck the nectar from life as quickly as possible. Readers know little about Maman-Nainaine except that she is Babette’s godmother, she feels a connection to nature, and uses it to determine the time for life’s events. She may be elderly, which may explain the allusion to chrysanthemums, which are associated with death. Teresa Gilbert of the Journal of the Short Story in English says “Ripe Figs” is “an extremely straightforward sketch about youth and age, [but] has also been elucidated in the light of its symbolic overtones, linking the figs in the story with sexuality and its chrysanthemums with death. Chopin’s use of contrasts and natural imagery in “Ripe Figs,” together with the cyclical plotting pattern of the piece” (Gilbert 3). Perhaps the reason that Babette is going to visit her cousins is that when Maman-Nainaine dies, she will no longer have a place to live except with her cousins. Perhaps that is the reason that Maman-Nainaine thinks the figs ripen very fast because she is facing the end of her life. Babette thinks they ripen very slowly because hers is just beginning.

In Kincaid’s short story, the similarities to the characters in “Ripe Figs” is not great; however, the notion that nature plays a big part in a person’s life is included. The mother has a different approach to offering advice to her daughter than Maman-Nainaine does, but the advice can be seen as generally the same although much more direct and more clearly elucidated. The mother offers several pieces of advice that range from how to cook different ethnic dishes to when and how to do the laundry. Much of the advice alludes to sexuality in a way that is much more expository than the way Maman-Nainaine relies on nature to teach the lesson of life to Babette. The mother in “Girl” does not allude or suggest; she says exactly what is on her mind. What is on her mind is the worry that her daughter might make the wrong choices in life and then not have a happy life because of those choices.

One could say that the mother is presumptuous because she thinks the girl is going to be promiscuous, or, perhaps she already is promiscuous. This may be because the mother, when she was a girl, was also promiscuous. She may assume that her daughter will be because she was. “Girl” is set in Antigua in the mid-twentieth century, so some of the reason the mother is so presumptuous and direct may be cultural. Reem Ahmad Rabea and Nusaiba Adel Almahameed of Advances in Language and Literary Studies say, “The mother’s direct speech to her daughter and her commanding voice indicate how much difficult to be and grow as a girl in the Antiguan culture, which remained under the British control until 1967. Moreover, the portrayed tensions between the conforming mother and the resisting daughter represent tensions between coloniser and the colonised” (Rabea and Almahameed 158). The language and advice, then is that of the mother who is accustomed to oppression in her life from the government and from men.

“Girl,” like “Ripe Figs” contains references to nature and how to harness nature in the plants one grows to the best effect. “This is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it” (Kincaid). However, the story is much more explicit when it comes the advice the mother gives aimed at protecting her daughter’s emotional and emotional health, as well as her reputation. “This is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming” (Kincaid). Dermot of The Sitting Bee says, “There is a sense that the narrator’s daughter is powerless when it comes to the instructions given to her. She is not allowed to have an opinion on how she should do things” (Dermot). The mother sounds bossy and controlling, but maybe the tone of the mother’s advice can be interpreted differently.

Perhaps, the direct way of speaking is culturally appropriate for Antigua. Since it is colonized, it is possible that the women are oppressed by men without much in the way of recourse too. The mother may worry that if the girl gives in to the men who oppress her, she will gain a bad reputation which will ruin her chances in life. Along with the practical advice about how to sew buttons on and how to grow okra, the real lessons the mother wants the daughter to learn is to not follow her example. Maybe the mother feels if she reveals the harsh realities of life to the girl, she will be better able to cope with them when they arise.

Both “Ripe Figs” and “Girl” are stories about adolescent girls who are in the early days of discovering what it is like to be an adult. The godmother and mother in each of the stories teaches the young woman about life, and about death—as Kincaid mentions knowing how to “throw away a child before it even becomes a child”—using nature (Kincaid). However, there are some differences in the two stories too such as time, setting and culture. Nevertheless, the two stories are quite similar and realistic.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. "Ripe Figs." Vogue. New York: Vogue, 19 August 1893. Print. 11 October 2019.

Cistelecan, Ioana-Maria. "Kate Chopin. The Southern Feminine Touch…." CONFLUEN E." Confluente (2010/2011): 17-23. Google Scholar. 11 October 2019.

Dermot. "Girl by Jamaica Kincaid." 23 April 2018. Sitting Bee. Web. 11 October 2019.

Gilbert, Teresa. "“The Role of Implicatures in Kate Chopin’s Louisiana Short Stories”." Journal of the Short Story in English 40 (2003): 1-13. Google Scholar. 11 October 2019. http://journals.openedition.or....

Kincaid, Jamaica. "Girl." New Yorker. New York: New Yorker, 26 June 1978. Print. 11 October 2019.

Rabea, Reem Ahmad and Nusaiba Adel Almahameed. "Genre Crossing in Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’: From Short Fiction to Poetry." Advances in Language and Literary Studies 9.3 (2019): 157-165. ERIC. 11 October 2019.