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Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid
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Oct 04, 2011

really liked it

Placing a Man Under Investigation

Jamaica Kincaid
Mr. Potter
Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2002

Mr. Potter tells the life story of the eponymous character as narrated by his daughter, Elaine. Set in a quiet community on the island of Antigua, the story delves into Mr. Potter's formative experiences, and later on, his adult life, discussing his relationships, or lack thereof, with other people, and how he became who he is. The use of the prose, the construction of the timeline, and the way that the imagery is laid out gives the entire story a somewhat timeless, ethereal feel—not in the sense that the story could take place at any time, but that there is little in the way of separating the concrete from the abstract.

Kincaid's prose is the cornerstone of the experience. The narrative relies in part on long, descriptive sentences, often creating sentences that span between a quarter and half of a page. Physical character description is somewhat minimal, but when done tends to concentrate on specific attributes of the character being described. Much more detail and imagery is spared for the environment and to the characters' thoughts. There are no formal chapter titles, either; divisions in the narrative are marked by the beginning of a new page, much like a chapter in a regular book without a title.

Oftentimes, repetition is used to emphasize some details of symbolism, such as the “line” that runs through Mr. Potter and through his father (referring to the line on Mr. Potter's birth certificate where his father's name would have been, as well as the fact that same line runs through Elaine's birth certificate in the same spot and the same way). In many ways, these repetitions tend to emphasize the similarities between Mr. Potter and his own father as well as the differences between Mr. Potter and Elaine (namely that while Mr. Potter and his father were both illiterate, Elaine is not).

The timeline is established solely from the content of the chapter and context, beginning with the day that Mr. Potter, who works as a chauffeur, meets Dr. Weizenger and his wife, his boss' latest customers, before moving backward to briefly discuss Mr. Potter's parents, Nathaniel and Elfrida, then returning to Mr. Potter and examining how he grows up as an orphan. The tone throughout the story is slightly melancholic, yet introspective, as Elaine examines her father's life, and in some ways, her own—mostly, how it was shaped through his absence.

One of the story's most memorable traits could also be called its weakest one. As mentioned earlier, the narrative is continuous, and so it tends to discuss the characters' thoughts and motivations with the same long sentences as it mixes in imagery. Accordingly, getting a clear fix on what the characters are thinking, or the reasoning behind their actions, is immensely difficult because something may be directly stated and yet carry the feel or weight of imagery, and not prose.

Because of this, it can take a while to really understand the motivation of Mr. Potter or of Dr. Weizenger, and the purpose of some lines that may seem little more than filler. However, considering the tone of the story and the way that it's told, this may have been Kincaid's point—to tell the story of a man without motivation, that lived a joyless, unfruitful life because that was all he knew. Regardless of whether this was her intent, Mr. Potter remains a unique experience for those that enjoy more cerebral analysis of what makes a person who they are.
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