The Two Grandmothers by Olive Senior


Olive Senior, author of ‘The Two Grandmothers’, was born in Trelawney, Jamaica. She attended Montego Bay High School, then went on to study journalism in Cardiff, Wales. She then studied at Carlton University in Ottowa. She currently lives in Canada, but visits Jamaica regularly.

The story opens with a little girl telling her mother about her experiences with her two grandmothers; grandma Dell and grandma Elaine a.k.a Towser. Grandma Dell is her ‘country’ grandmother who lives in rural Jamaica, raises lifestock, caters to her community,  takes her grand daughter to church and is enamored by her grand daughter’s ‘pretty’ skin and hair. Grandma Elaine, on the other hand, is her ‘town’ grandmother. She has had multiple marriages, is a socialite who dates wealthy men, travels, and is very concerned about her physical appearance. The grand daughter, initially, prefers her country grandmother, who is very attentive to her needs and loved to ‘show her off’ to her friends and neighbours. However, as the story progresses, and the narrator ages and matures, she begins to prefer her town grandmother, who is more cosmopolitan and appreciative of material things. With her change in attitude to grandma Dell, however, also comes a change in attitude to her country friends. They are no longer figures who inspire awe, but girls to look down on as ‘less than’. The story closes with the teenage narrator proposing that her family should spend a day with her country grandmother – then she would be taken care of until next year – ensuring that they have more time to spend with Towser (Grandma Elaine) as well as pursue more interesting exploits.


• The story occurs in three places; rural Jamaica, Kingston and Clearwater in the USA.
• The story occurs in the 1980’s.

Grandma Dell

• Traditional/ old fashion
• Christian minded and simple in her approach to life
• Altruistic
• Never married
• Never dates
• Prejudiced
• Hypocrite

Grandma Elaine (Towser)

• Non-traditional/ Socialite
• Materialistic
• Narcississtic
• Married multiple times
• Goes on dates
• Prejudiced
• Blunt and speaks her mind

Narrator (1st person)

• The readers first meets her when she is a little girl.
• She grows and matures as the story progresses, by the end of the story she appears to be a teenager.
• She initially prefers the company of Grandma Del, but as she grows up, she begins to show a preference for Touser.
• She reports a lot of sensitive information, for example – the ‘fall’ of grandma Del, Pearlie’s home situation, Eulalie and Ermandine’s pregnancies – but does not appear to understand the gravity of the various situations.
• As she grows up, she appears to become more materialistic in her desires, she wants to be like every-one else.
• She appears, by the end of the story, to be confused about how to feel about her physical appearance.
• She cannot be bothered with her country grandmother, grandma Dell, by the end of the story.
• She begins to appreciate her hip socialite grandma Elaine, aka Touser, by the end of the story.

Racial Prejudice
This theme is highlighted by Grandma Elaine/ Towser and the Clearwater relatives. Grandma Elaine highlights this theme by her reference to the narrator’s hair; ‘your mother had better start to do something about your hair from now it’s almost as tough as your father’s …. If you were my child I would cut it off to get some of the kinks out.’ (Senior, 119) and skin tone; ‘Joyce says Grandma is sorry I came out dark because she is almost a white lady and I am really dark.’ (Senior, 120). The grandmother’s preoccupation with the fact that her grand daughter has predominantly black features highlights the theme of racial discrimination. She sees these features as flaws and passes this sentiment on to her grandchild. We see the child questioning if being dark is a bad thing ‘Is dark really bad, Mummy?’ (Senior, 120).

This is in contrast to the country grandmother, Grandma Del, who re-enforces the very opposite view of Grandma Elaine. She believes that her grandchild’s hair is beautiful ‘Grandma loves to comb my hair she says it’s so long and thick and she rubs it with castor oil every night.’ (Senior, 117) and her skin is beautiful as well ‘Grandma Del says my skin is beautiful like honey’ (Senior, 117). Despite this positive re-enforcement by Grandma Del, it still comes from a place of prejudice. She too, like Grandma Elaine, believes that being too dark and having too much ‘kink’ in one’s hair is a bad thing. The two grandmothers only differ in terms of their idea of what is ‘too dark’, or ‘too kinky’.

The Clearwater relatives, particularly Maureen, highlights the theme of racial prejudice. She introduces the term ‘nigger’ to the story. The narrator questions her beauty based on what she observes as beautiful around her, and finds herself lacking; ‘how can I be beautiful? My skin is so dark, darker than yours and Maureen’s and Jason’s and Auntie Rita’s. And my hair is so course, not like yours or Maureen’s but then Maureen’s father is white. Is that why Maureen called me a nigger?’ (Senior, 124). The narrator declares that she hates Maureen, based on the before mentioned incident, but, ironically, she wants to be like Maureen and is even more ashamed of her hair. 
Social Prejudice
This theme is highlighted by Grandma Elaine, Grandma Dell, and the narrator. Grandma Elaine has a distinct disdain for Grandma Dell. She believes that ‘granny Del’ is a country bumpkin from the ‘deepest darkest country’ (Senior, 118). She sees her as irrelevant and believes that she is brainwashing her grandchild with information that is not only irrelevant, but embarrassing as well. This disdain comes from the fact that Elaine is a socialite who’s world is the direct opposite of the simplistic life that Grandma Del leads. Grandma Elaine dates rich white men, travels, and ensures that she maintains her beauty. She views Grandma Dell with scorn because she does not do the same.

The reader receives no inkling of Grandma Del’s feelings toward Grandma Elaine, but we are treated to the judgement that she quietly metes out to her neighbours in the country. She views Ermandine and Eulalie as ‘a disgraceful Jezebel-lot and dry-eye’ (Senior, 121) because they have disgraced their parents by getting pregnant. She views them as being beneath her, despite the fact that she also did the same, and was also shunned by the communityfor a period of time.

The narrator, in turn, adopts the prejudices of both grandmothers. She starts to dislike going to the country because ‘there’s nobody but black people’ (Senior, 123) there. She looks down on her friends – Ermandine, Eulalie and Pearlie – due to their multiple pregnancies and bedraggled state. She starts to literally avoid them because she does not want them to ask her for some of her clothes.  Everything about being in the country (rural area), from the people to her experiences, annoys her – in her teen years – because visiting the country is shameful in relation to going to Europe or America. It is not considered to be a socially relevant activity.

Love and Family Relationships
Both grandmothers love their grandchild, and she loves them in return. Grandma Del shows her love by combing her grand daughter’s hair, taking her to church, steering her away from negative influences, and educating her about appropriate behaviour. Initially, this education is appreciated and accepted by the narrator, but as she grows up and matures, she views this show of love as stifling and irrelevant. The narrator does not love her grandmother any less, it is just that their point of views no longer align.

Grandma Elaine, on the other hand, shows her love for her grandchild by highlighting her flaws and seeking to improve them. Therefore, she points out that the child’s hair is kinky and her skin is too dark. Undoubtadley, this is an inappropriate conversation to have with a small child, however, this is her flawed way of showing her love. She suggests activities for improving the child’s social prospects such as finishing school and visits off the island. The narrator returns this love by eventually placing Grandma Elaine as the favoured grandmother. She even adopts, eventually, her materialistic sensibility.

Women in Society
This is a story about women, the values that they pass on, and the way that they treat each other. There are women of different social status’ and financial backgrounds in the , and all of them contribute to this theme. Grandma Elaine is of a high social status and she treats grandma Del, who is of a lower social status, with disdain. Grandma Del, in turn, treats Eulalie, Ermandine and Pearlie with disdain for being poor, as well as victims of their financial, and social, circumstances. The narrator joins this cycle by discriminating against her ‘country’ friends by viewing herself as better than them. Ironically, she suffers the same treatment at the hands of her cousin, Maureen, who treats the narrator as ‘less than’ as well. The possible moral of this tale is that women should try to understand and accept each other.

Innocence vs. Loss of Innocence
As a child, the narrator reports the actions of others without understanding a lot of what is happening. This is the definition of innocence. She also accepts people for who they are and sees the good in them. This is seen in her awe at Eulalee’s skills in the kitchen, as well as her acceptance of Ermandine and Pearlie’s babies. She simply accepted without judgement. This changes as the child matures and she starts to view herself as better than her friends. This is because her circumstances happen to be better than theirs. This signifies a loss of innocence that comes with maturity

87 thoughts on “The Two Grandmothers by Olive Senior”

  1. Great!
    But I’m quite sure Pearlie was the one with great kitchen skills, not Eulalie.

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