Depiction of Female Protagonists in Joan Rileý A Kindness to the Children

Seminar Paper, 2000

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)

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1. Introduction

This paper will analyse how the three female protagonists of Joan Riley´s Novel A Kindness To The Children, Jean, Sylvia and Pearl, are depicted in the story. It will show their role in society and how they cope with the patriarchal power structures of their environment. It will also show their attitudes towards each other and how they change within the story. I will first give a short portrait of the three women and the situation they are in and then focus on the depiction of the characters by Joan Riley. Their own opinion of themselves will be regarded as well as the assessment by their environment. I will lay special emphasis on their feelings concerning marriage, raising children and fulfilling the duties that were imposed on them by male authorities, like husbands, fathers or churchmen. As all these women are characterised by the feeling of guilt (Riley 45, 51, 59, 91, 101, 134, 139, 159, 200, 201) and not being appropriate, I will point out what this means to them and how they try to cope with their inadequacy. Furthermore I will show that all these women, due to their special role in society, envy each other, either for their education, their children or their ability to treat these children as they consider it appropriate. None of them is satisfied with her role, but their ways of breaking out of it are different, due to their individual social backgrounds, histories and situations. Each woman has to find an appropriate way of coming to terms with her past. As A Kindness to the Children was not only intended to present the Caribbean women as victims of their society, but also to ask for solutions (Gorisch 180), I will show how the protagonists try to break out of the depressing situations they see themselves captured in, and how they fail or succeed with their attempts.

2. Short Portrait, Situation and Relations of the Characters

The novel deals with two families, the Dyers and the Mackenzies, who are related to each other by intermarriage. Sylvia Dyer is the cousin of Jean and George Mackenzie. George is married to Pearl. Pearl and George have four children: Lutie, Dionne, Kaona and Jalini. Jean has a relationship with Jimmy Dyer. They have two children: Aleesa and Davian, who cannot speak although he is already three years old. Sylvia is the widow of Jimmy´s elder brother Winston, who has died two years ago. Sylvia and Winston never had any children.

Sylvia is a social worker from England with Caribbean origins. She went to Jamaica for a holiday to cope with Winston´s death as this is the place where he wanted to be buried. She feels guilty as "all she had to offer was a stark, grey headstone" (Riley 2) in England. She is in the Caribbean for the first time. Although she has come there to solve her own problems, she is very busy with helping other people. So she always steps in to separate her cousin George and his wife Pearl when they quarrel or to care for the children of her cousins when their parents are not able, or willing, to do so. She is also occupied with her cousin Jean from the time she realises that the latter is in a severe state of mental illness. Sylvia searches for her and her children after Jean disappeared and took Davian and Aleesa with her. Nevertheless Sylvia does "not want to be dragged ... into" (Riley 5) the problems of her relatives. So her taking some time off after a fight with Jean, asking Pearl if she did mind "keeping an eye on Aleesa and Davian" (Riley 173), leads to the above mentioned kidnapping. She leaves her sister-in-law alone with six children although Sylvia already witnessed that Pearl is not able to cope with Jean's aggression (Riley 47-48).

Jean was born in the Caribbean, grew up there and went to England were she had access to higher education. In England she met Jimmy, who is a popular writer from the Caribbean. They live in England with their children, but decided to send their daughter Aleesa to Jamaica. Later Jean and Davian go there too, but Jimmy stays at home as some distance might help their problematic relationship (Riley 35, 102-104 ). Jean feels "unworthy of Jimmy" (Riley 20) and is "scared by motherhood" (Riley 21). Due to this and an alcohol problem which contributes to her feelings of guilt, she is not able to care for her children as she is expected to do. She also suffers from very hard childhood experiences as she was abused and raped by a priest when she was a little girl (Riley 113- 116) and accuses herself for the death of her eldest brother who was struck by lightning after she wished him dead (Riley 31-33, 117-119). There is also the feeling of inadequacy tormenting her, which originates from her father telling her she was "worthless" and a "disappointment" (Riley 30). She calls these words "her own special labels" (Riley 30). All this causes a neurosis which, together with drug abuse, results in mental deterioration and finally leads to her death.

Pearl has lived in Jamaica all of her life and has never been anywhere else. After her marriage with George she had four children and thus stayed at home to care for them and manage the household. Her "boundaries" (Riley 42) are marked by the slope of the provision ground behind her house, as she is afraid of climbing up the steep hill to fetch some fruits for herself, which would symbolise some independence from George. She is very aware of her social status and that, although their property was devastated by Hurricane Gilbert, they are still able to afford someone helping her in the house (Riley 41- 42) and a water tank which supplies them with water during the drought (Riley 7). After the birth of her youngest child, the baby boy Kaona, Pearl suffers from a depression that makes it hard for her to stand his crying. Her husband does not respect her needs and is not even willing to look after their baby if she is longing for a rest. She knows the power structures of Jamaica and the traditional role of women but strives for independence for herself (Riley 191, 195, 264, 217-219, 223) as she does not want to limit her ambition to motherhood (Riley 17). So Pearl and George are fighting very often, which scares their children and urges Sylvia to step in for the children's sake. (Riley 4-5) When it comes to searching for Jean's children Pearl is very helpful, as she knows the people and has a natural "talent for getting people trusting" (Riley 230) her, as Sylvia puts it.

3. Self-portrait

In the beginning we learn that Sylvia is very weakened because of her husband's death. She feels "an immediate pain" (Riley 2) as she thinks of him and feels that she betrayed him, not being able to let him be buried in native soil. It also grieves her that she and Winston never had children and that "they were all so fond of reminding her of her childless state" (Riley 59). So she enjoys having her niece Aleesa around or caring for Pearl's baby boy Kaona. With Aleesa on her side she had even "grown used to the pretence of having a daughter of her own" (Riley 12). When she thinks about returning to England, leaving Davian and Aleesa alone with their mother, this brings up "a sense of guilt" (Riley 51).

She believes to be responsible for Jimmy's children (Riley 59, ) and feels "loyal" (Riley 3) to the her brother-in-law. So she does not have much time to pity herself, but gets very active when Jean disappears with her children. She blames herself for their disappearance and what might have happened to them, accusing herself for not having realised Jean's severe illness. When Sylvia comes home from her walk and finds out that Jean had gone and taken her children with her "fresh wails of distress from the twins accompanied a sense of guilt Sylvia couldn't cope with" (Riley 180-181). We see that also for Sylvia "guilt" is a very dominant emotion (Riley 51, 59, 181, 200, 201). When she talks to Jimmy at the end of the story the anger about her spoiled holiday suddenly breaks out as she says: "How could anything work out for me when I was running around sorting out everybody else's problems?" Then she returns to her normal behaviour, puts "back the polite mask of distance" (Riley 279) and tells him that she could "not imagine what came over" (Riley 279) her. Most of the time she feels strong and active, but after all she has to remind herself that she needs to be comforted, too. She thinks herself sophisticated and believes to know what is going on around her.

Jean's thoughts show that she perceives herself in two different ways. On the one hand she pities herself for the bad luck she had all of her life. She still suffers from her traumatic childhood experiences, which includes the death of her mother, being raped by a priest, the tragic death of her eldest brother, being neglected by her father and finally being "dumped" at a charity home (Riley 151). Furthermore she has the impression that Jimmy does not understand her and likes her cousin Sylvia better than her (Riley 21). On the other hand Jean cultivates the impression of being sinful and guilty, which has been planted first by the priest who raped her in her childhood (Riley 113 - 114) and was then enforced by Pastor Simmonds who tried to rape her, too (Riley 109 - 110). In her opinion she is thus "unworthy of Jimmy" (Riley 20). As a parent she sees herself inferior to Jimmy and as a women she feels inadequate when comparing herself to Sylvia. This becomes obvious, when Sylvia and Jean talk about the relationship of the latter and Jean says: "You don't understand, Sylvie, it's more than just Jimmy preferring the children, or even ... well ... liking your company more than mine." (Riley 102). Jean notes that even her children like Sylvia better than her (Riley 101). To Jean these statements are the hard facts. As she was brought up with and formed by rigid religious beliefs, she interprets every misfortune that happens to her or her children as God's punishment for her sinful life and her guilt (Riley 103, 117 - 119, 242) and perceives herself as a sinner (Gorisch 186). Jean feels guilty because she is not married to Jimmy, because she is no good mother, because of her drinking problem, her promiscuity and her failures in childhood (Riley 91, 101, 109, 111, 114, 116, 119).

Pearl pities herself as she feels overburdened and oppressed by George who expects her to fit the traditional role of a mother and wife. She is unsatisfied with her life, as she wonders why she cannot manage her household as she is expected to do (Riley 41) and feels limited to her "boundaries" (Riley 42). As a good Christian she longs for a "sacred experience" (Riley 77) as George and Jean had one, but she accepts that "wishing was futile when it only led to more disappointment and frustration" (Riley 78). So we learn that she leads a disillusioned life, trying to cope with her inadequacy. In chapter thirteen Joan Riley writes what Pearl thinks about herself:

"She wished she could be more like Sylvia. Sylvia was so direct, and she didn't care what men thought about her attitudes and opinions. But Pearl was so anxious, all the time She had spent most of her growing years afraid of one thing or another, ... because she was a girl." (Riley 211)

In the beginning Pearl feels inferior to nearly everyone else. She admires Sylvia because of her ability to stand for what she thinks. Pearl also fears that she annoys Sylvia and feels sorry for this. So she says:" ... a shouldn't so selfish and into talking about my small worries when you having so much crosses on your head" (Riley 173). George obviously dominates Pearl, as she is not able to impose her will on him. She even feels inferior to Jean as she cannot do anything against Jean insulting her and making her cry, even in her own house (Riley 47 - 48). Within the story Pearl gets more self-confidence with being able to help searching for the children.

4. Assessment by the other Characters and Relationship between the Women

By the local people Sylvia is seen as rich and educated lady from abroad, who is not part of the community. Although most of them are on friendly terms with her, some merchants ask Sylvia unpleasant questions. They want to know if she thought that the way the water was distributed during the drought was fair (Riley 7). When she steps out of Ras Peter's hut, where she found Jean after her first disappearance, she even hears "derisive shouts of 'English' and 'foreign lady'". (Riley 158) Her cousin George accepts that she talks freely about her thoughts and that she criticises him, but he nevertheless tells her that she is ignorant of how "everything go in Jamaica" (Riley 192). For Jimmy she is the person who is responsible for his children and their mother. He tells her that as far as he is concerned she was the one who "supposed to be in the caring profession" (Riley 59) and that he was "a writer, for God's sake, not a bloody social worker" (Riley 60). With this hint he indicates, that it is her duty to supervise them and thus excuses himself.

Jean envies her cousin Sylvia. "She saw Sylvia as everything she was not, confident, good with children ... desirable" (Riley 21). She suspects her and Jimmy to be conspiring against her. In a rage she tells Sylvia: "Don't you come the innocent with me! ... I know what you and Jimmy plotting behind my back". (Riley 56) As her mental decay has become obvious and her paranoia grows this finally escalates when Jean wakes up alone with her children in Ras Peter's hut. She believes that her cousin came at night and changed the children for two "demon vampire things" (Riley 237).

Pearl also envies Sylvia for her high living standard and her ability to stay calm and relaxed. Talking to her neighbour Miss Lisa, Pearl shows that she believes Sylvia to be superior to her. She tells her: "A know she feeling she better than me, but she have big job." Pearl wishes she had as much self- conscience as the other woman (Riley 211), and is very grateful for Sylvia's help. So she tells her: "Possible if is never for the help you always giving me with Kaona since you come, a could be the one like Jean now". (Riley 173).

When Jean arrives at the airport without Jimmy, she is welcomed by George, Sylvia and Aleesa. All of them are disappointed, that Jimmy, who is admired by everyone in the family and very popular in Post Juanero, is not on her side (Riley 39). George is very prejudiced concerning his sister. He still envies her for the attention she got from their father (Riley 169) and her access to higher education in England. The following statement shows his attitude very clearly. "She just get everything into her lap so. She go live foreign and even get education." (Riley 162) When he finds out about Jean´s unveiled promiscuity, he is ashamed. So he complains about her behaviour to Sylvia. "Now she fornicating with some dirty, tiefing rastaman right were everybody can see it." (Riley 163)

Even Aleesa is very suspicious concerning her mother. From the following talk between Aleesa and Sylvia we learn that the child is aware of her mothers alcohol problem and her inability to cope with her motherhood. "' Because she drinks too much That's why I had to come to Jamaica, because I was getting on her nerves And she said Davian was stupid 'cos he don't talk and he's three'"(Riley 13).

When Jean arrives in Jamaica, Aleesa asks her straight ahead where her dad was (Riley 39). Later she says: "You never let me and Davian do anything! You're horrible and I wish Daddy was here instead!" (Riley 55) This shows the children's fixation on their father very clearly.

The community of Port Juanero seems to remember Jean´s and George's fate and feels sorry for them. So Sylvia is able to obtain some information about Jean´s past from the merchant Miss Berta (Riley 177). But with the progress of Jean´s mental decay, which contributes to her careless promiscuity, these understanding feelings towards her turn to disapproval. From George we learn that there is a lot of gossip spread about her." Last evening a was down by the market, and Dorrie telling me everybody say Jean living down near seaside and fornicating with some tiefing rastaman." (Riley 162) The talk between Miss Lisa and Pearl, which has already been mentioned above, shows that even at a more early state, the community has realised that "Miss Jean under pressure" (Riley 85) as she talks out to herself loudly. Because of her "living in sin" (Riley 109) with Jimmy and her promiscuity, the pastor, from whom she expected help, believes her to be a loose woman and an easy victim.

In the beginning Sylvia thinks to herself that "as far as she was concerned, Jean´s claims to hearing voices were just ploys to get herself attention" (Riley 3). This shows that although there are signs for Jean´s mental illness, Sylvia does not notice them. She seems to be prejudiced concerning Jean and feels "stirrings of impatience" (Riley 3) when she thinks of Jean and her relationship to Jimmy. Sylvia does not accept that Jean is such an unfit mother who can only help herself by hitting the children venting her aggressions on them (Riley 55, 102, 104, 132-134). Although she also feels sorry for her, as she cannot deny any longer that Jean has serious mental problems, she tells her that she had not come to Jamaica to nurse her (Riley 138-139). Sylvia seems to know that Jimmy's and her failure have contributed to the escalated situation, as she often accuses herself and Jean's husband, but finally her anger dominates. "Anger, and all the pent-up hostility from years of being understanding, burned inside and she cursed Jean all the way to New Kingston." (Riley 302)

As Jean shows very openly that she dislikes Pearl, the latter is not on friendly terms with her either. Nevertheless Pearl tries to be accepted by her and apologises to her for the inconvenience she might have caused her (Riley 47 - 48). Also Pearl is prejudiced concerning Jean. She does not accept Jean´s "sacred experience" (Riley 77), but believes that Jean stages a "sordid theatre". She expects an apology from her as "continuing with her hostility would only prove her Christianity a sham" (Riley 79). Nevertheless Pearl is impressed to see that Jean has the courage to "admit to sin in such an open and public way" (Riley 79). Another sign of her prejudices is that "Pearl was convinced it was Jimmy who had saved them, even though Jean's hand wrote the cheques." (Riley 43).

Pearl is accepted by her neighbours and the community of Port Juanero. They know that Pearl is overburdened with her household and the four children. They are also aware of the fact that Pearl and George are often quarrelling. When Pearl leaves the house after being abused by Jean, her neighbour Miss Lisa seems very compassionate expecting that she was in an argument with her husband again. (Riley 84) But she also criticises Pearl. Miss Lisa tells her that she should not allow Jean and Sylvia to rule her and indicates that Pearl is naive if she believes that Sylvia likes her although she does not accept her as equal. "You too foolish sometime, from the woman make you feel say she better than you, how can you say she nice?" (Riley 84) For George Pearl seems to be a nuisance. He does not understand why she complains about her status and tries to reach more independence. In his opinion it is her duty to care for the children and the house as he says: "In a marriage man have him job and woman have hers. What you think people going say?" (Riley 222) He fears that an independent and self-conscious woman might give him the image of man who is not able to care for his family. On the other hand he defends his wife when he witnesses that Jean is abusing her (Riley 82). This shows that he nevertheless feels responsible for her. After all it can be said that George is very uneasy about the new independence and self-confidence his wife gains, but he resigns to it, although he does not believe she would succeed with her plans.(Riley 221 - 224) He does not even try to hide his surprise about the fact that Sylvia asked his wife to help her, as he says: "But you know you not really able, Pearl." (Riley 224)

Sylvia's attitude towards Pearl changes when she realises how helpful the other woman is (Riley 198). First she makes a derogatory remark concerning Pearl's restricted life and that she could not put up with such restrictions (Riley 220). Later on she wishes she had someone sophisticated to talk about Jean's problems, not accepting any of the women from the neighbourhood as equal due to their poor education (Gorisch 203). She longs for someone who "shared her views and concerns" and was not just "motivated by gut instinct" (Riley 254). She does not think that these women have "moral responsibility" (Riley 254). But finally Sylvia has to admit that Pearl has achieved a lot of things within a very short time. She climbed up the steep hill behind her house (Riley 221), stood up against George for the first time (Riley 272), was able to get important information about the whereabouts of the children (Riley 230), and got herself a job (Riley 263). Sylvia even states that with her experience in co-ordinating Pearl should be qualified to get a manager's job (Riley 264).

Jean does not like Pearl right from the start. She thinks that Pearl had tricked George to marry her, and that he should have been able to get a better wife. She criticises her for the manners of her children and her lack of cleanliness. After her escape into Christian belief she thinks to herself that "Christian forgiveness was one thing, but Pearl was a joke" (Riley 81). Jean often vents her aggression on Pearl as she does not believe her to be worthy of George (Riley 47, 66, 81, 168).

5. Development within the novel

At the end Sylvia cries "for the destruction of her Utopian vision of Jamaica" (Riley 278). She had to realise, that the picture she had made herself was romanticised and illusive. Besides that she has not learned much. Her holiday, which turned into a nightmare, is over now. So she goes home again and Jean's problems, are not her concern any more (Riley 312). Although she is shocked to see that corruption and discrimination are indeed dominant in Jamaica she has not learned from that either. She does not accept the complexity of these problems. So she accuses George for supporting these power structures without reflecting about it and asking herself what other possibilities he has (Riley 192). Despite her constant feelings of guilt concerning Jean's disappearance and the fact that she was not able to help her, she has not even learned from that. She tells herself that it was not possible to help Jean as long as she refused any help (Riley 302). She did not realise, that there is more than one point of view to each fact. This she could have learned for the incident with Miss Maddy. From the point of view she shares with the sophisticated European middle class, Miss Maddy was treated hideously (Gorisch 201). Sylvia could not accept this, so she finally made a move to help her. But Sylvia's action did not offer a solution to the woman, who already arranged herself with her situation and the possibilities she had (Riley 257-260). Concerning Jean's disease she was convinced to do the best, but actually her intervention made the situation taking a turn to the worse (Gorisch 200). Sylvia has learned that there are more values than education. Pearl showed her that intuitive action can be more effective than moral responsibility. This gave her the impression of a community of women helping each other, when the representative of the patriarchal society refuse to help (Riley 254). But she did not recognise that in Jean's case this community has failed. The women were busy to find the children and bring them back to Sylvia and their father, but nobody was really interested in Jean herself. As an outcast of society she is not of interest.

After coming back to the Caribbean Jean's drinking problem gets worse. The voices she hears torment her even more as before. All her attempts to cure herself fail. In one church she does not feel accepted (Riley 64 - 65), in the other one she is nearly raped (Riley 110) and Ras Peter rejects her, too, as she finally wanders through the streets, lost beyond redemption (Riley 294 - 295). The stability her new belief offers her is soon lost, as old feelings are stirred up again. Instead of reappraising her childhood experiences, she drowns her feelings of guilt with ganja and again with alcohol. (Gorisch 191) Keeping her children becomes more and more important to her. As long as she still has custody of the

children, she can pretend to be "normal". As long as her family cannot take that away from her, she still fits the role that was given to her by society. (Riley 151-152) Due to her secretiveness concerning the incidents that caused her mental illness, her family does not take her seriously. They only know parts of her history that, in their eyes, do not justify this "bizarre" (Riley 3) behaviour. Concerning this Jana Gorisch wrote: "Die Charaktere bemühen sich entweder gar nicht oder nur halbherzig darum, Jeans Geschichte kennenzulernen, weil sie statt dessen auf der Basis ihrer äußerlichen Beobachtung agieren Ihre (Sylvia's) Bewertungsgrundlage sind die "objektiven" Gegebenheiten, nach denen es Jean gut gehen müßte" (Gorisch 181). Sylvia is too short tempered (Riley 138), George does not even try to understand (Riley 162) her and Jimmy is no longer interested in helping her (Riley 277). Without any real support she does not get a chance. (Gorisch 181). Finally she is a victim of society, the mad woman who is raped and killed (Riley 298, 311).

In the beginning Pearl is bound to Jamaican tradition and lifestyle. Sadly she thinks about her life before Hurricane Gilbert devastated the property and when she had a job before the twins were born (Riley 42, 264). With asking her for help Sylvia gave the impulse to Pearl changing her life. "She wasn't convinced that somebody like her would have any chance of succeeding where someone with Sylvia's education failed, but she couldn't spend all her life refusing to try" (Riley 213). She forces herself to climb up the hill behind her house and get active as she feels "a longing to break out and take a chance at something." (Riley 213). After her experience of being appreciated and reaching something important she gains self-confidence (Riley 230). By working out her fate Pearl has chosen the right way to change her life. To do this, she needed the impulse from Sylvia, but she would never have reached independence if she had not aimed at it. So Jimmy is right if he says that "nothing will change in Jamaica, unless the women cause it" (Riley 310).

6. Conclusion

The three protagonists of Joan Relies novel, all suffer from feelings of guilt and inadequacy, but these emotions are caused by different reasons. Sylvia, the sophisticated social worker grieves herself for her childless state. She sees herself as the perfect mother and pities herself for not having the opportunity to realise her dream of raising children. Instead of this she cares for Jimmy´s children as substitute for the motherhood she never experienced. (Riley 12, 39) Her attempts to come to terms with Winston´s death fail, as she does not have the time to consider her own situation, nursing Jean and being dragged into other people's relationships (Riley 138, 5). As she regards herself responsible for the well- being of Davian and Aleesa, their disappearance seems to be a personal failure. After all she resigns, telling herself that no one could have helped Jean and that Jean´s fate is not her concern any more (Riley 306 , 312).

Jean has not come to terms with her problems, either. Her alcoholism and the feelings of guilt tormented her even more than before, as old wounds opened up again. As no serious help was offered by her prejudiced family she had to work out her fate on her own. Her escapes into drugs and Christian belief let her come off even worse. She gives us the impression that one can never leave his past behind. "You carry who you are within you and Jean does that" (Gorisch 183)1. Jean has finally been broken by life and by the expectations of her environment she could not fulfil. Jean was no perfect mother and wife. She did not meet the expectations of her lover or the family. At the end Jimmy tells Sylvia:" I've spent years bailing your cousin out" (Riley 303). Now he is tired of this and leaves her on her own. The clash between the role she was meant to play and the character she really was finally ended with her death.

The only women who has indeed reached what she had aimed at is Pearl. She managed to cross the boundaries of her former life and gained new horizons. She is no longer dominated by George, but has dared to stand up against him. Encouraged by Sylvia she got herself a job and speaks more freely about her thoughts, now. Although her starting point was not promising, she succeeds. As "Everywoman" (Gorisch 199)2 Pearl is the one who has to effect the important changes in her life and so she does. She is on the right way, although I doubt that she will, as Jana Gorisch suggests (Gorisch 199), even break the barrier of racism one day. As we have seen, the power structures in Jamaica have not changed considerably, and Pearl is aware of this (Riley 264-265). So it is doubtful that Pearl is the one how will aim at such a change.


1 The original source ( Hussein, Aamer. Joan Riley talks with Aamer Hussein. in Wasafari, no. 17, 1993) was not available, so I am quoting Jana Gorisch.

2 This quotation is taken from the above mentioned source, too.

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Depiction of Female Protagonists in Joan Rileý A Kindness to the Children
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Nicole Hoppe (Author), 2000, Depiction of Female Protagonists in Joan Rileý A Kindness to the Children, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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