CARTRRFAN CITARTFR Y
VoL. 16. No. 4
Copyright reserved, and reproduction without permission strictly forbidden.
5. WEST INDIAN PROSE FICTION IN THE SIXTIES: A SURVEY
18. YUSMAN ALI, CHARCOAL SELLER
19. EDGAR MITTELHOLZER'S TRAGIC VISION
Wm. J. Howard
29. ISLANDS: A REVIEW
36. DEREK WALCOTT: THE LITERARY HUMANIST IN THE
43. THE RETURN OF JEAN RHYS
47. MAIS OF JAMAICA
48. ENGLISH STUDIES IN THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES:
RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT
61. COMMENTARY ON V. S. NAIPAUL'S "A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS"
1. A West Indian Epic
70. 2. Cultural Confrontation, Disintegration and Syncretism in "A
House for Mr Biswas"
80. The West Indian Novel and its Background Kenneth Ramchand
83. Savacou A Journal of the Caribbean Artists Movement
Slavery Vol. 1 No. 1.
87. The Year in San Fernando Michael Anthony
92. Publications of the Department
Notes on Contributors
EDWARD BRATHWAITE, Lecturer in History at U.W.I. (Mona) and
West Indian Poet.
EDWARD BAUGH, Head of English Department, U.W.I. (Mona).
GORDON ROHLEHR, Lecturer in English Dept., U.W.I. St. Augustine.
LLOYD KING, Lecturer in Spanish at U.W.I. (St. Augustine).
ELSA GOVEIA, Professor of West Indian History, U.W.I. (Mona).
ERIC KING, Lecturer in Use of English (Mona)
W J. HOWARD, Lecturer at St. Michael's College, Toronto University.
IAN McDONALD, Guyanese poet and International tennis player.
NEVILLE BRAYBROOKE, English literary critic and editor of writings
by Ackerley, Teilhard de Chardin and T.S. Eliot.
BARRY ARGYLE, English author and literary critic, now associate
Professor at York University, Canada. He has also written for
Commonwealth Journal of Literature and is currently writing
on Narayan's 'The Sweet Vendor'
MAUREEN WARNER, Assistant lecturer in Use of English, U.W.I. (Mona).
PATRICIA WILLIAMS, Graduate in English, U.C.W.I.
UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES
R. M. Nettleford, Director of Extra-Mural Studies (Acting).
Lloyd Brathwaite, Pro-Vice Chancellor, U.W.I., St. Augustine,
Sidney Martin, Pro-Vice Chancellor, U.W.I., Cave Hill, Barbados.
J. J. Figueroa, Professor, Faculty of Education, U.W.I., Mona,
L. S. Grant, Professor, Faculty of Medicine, U.W.I., Mona,
Roy Augier, Dean of Faculty of General Degree Studies, U.W.I.,
Patricia Wiliams, Department of Extra-Mural Studies, U.W.I.,
Mona, Jamaica. (Assoc. Editor)
All correspondence should be addressed to:
Department of Extra-Mural Studies,
University of the West Indies.
Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica.
We invite readers to submit manuscripts or recommended
subjects which they wou!d like to see discussed in CARIBBEAN
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West Indian Prose Fiction
in the Sixties: A Survey
IN THE fifties (which saw the first steady publication of work on the
international market), one got the impression that West Indian writ-
ing, though largely and quite naturally concerned with the islands, was
somehow orientated towards metropolitan Britain-a kind of migra-
tion complex corresponding to the actual migration of a crucial propor-
tion of West Indian 'surplus' labour. Lamming, Selvon, Mittelholzer,
Carew, Salkey, John Hearne, E. R. Braithwaite, Mais and Naipaul were
all living in Britain and books like The Emigrants (1954), The Lonely
Londoners (1956) To Sir, With Love (1959), and most of Voices under
the Window (1955), reflected West Indian life abroad. Many of the short
stories, too, reflected an impatience with what the West Indies had to
offer; and Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair in Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur
(1957) translated himself on arrival in London into G. Ramsay Muir,
Esq., M.B.E. (The decoration was valid). In the sixties, most West In-
dian writers were still living abroad and many of their books were under-
standably still very much about this situation: Lamming's The Pleasures
of Exile (1960), Salkey's Escape to an Autumn Pavement (1960), The
Adventures of Catullus Kelly 11969), parts of Dawes' The Last Enchant-
ment (1960). Carew's The Last Barbarian (1961), Denis Williams' Other
Leopards (1963), The Third Temptation (1968), Dathorne's Dumplings
in the Soup (1963) and The Scholar Man (1964), Braithwaite's A Choice
of Straws (1965), Selvon's The Housing Lark (1965), Clarke's The Meet-
ing Point (1967), Wilson Harris' The Waiting Room (1967), parts of
Naipaul's The Mimic Men (1967), the end of Orlando Pa 'erson's An
Absence of Ruins (1967). But West Indian writing had to a large extent
returned to its base in the islands.
It was the publication and artistic success of V. S. Naipaul's A
House for Mr. Biswas (1961), along with the poetry of Derek Walcott:
In a Green Night (1962), The Castaway (1965), The Gulf (1969) and a
renewed interest in folk and dialect work seen in Louise Bennett's
verse, Jamaica Labrish (1966), the appearance of several dialect
language studies and a recognition of the art of the calypso, which
has mainly been responsible for, and is a reflection of, this reassertion
of roots. How does one come to terms with the almost intolerable
burden of poverty that the islands have to bear; with the simple,
statistical, personal poverty for which the only official solution seems
to be emigration and the frantic cultivation of tourism; the apparent
cultural poverty which prompted the calypsonian in Sam Selvon's
story of that name to declare that 'they does think calypso is no song
at all, and that what is song is numbers like I've Got You Under My
Skin and Sentimental Journey, what real American composers write'?
The West Indian novel, as a matter of fact, has been coming to
grips, if not to terms, with this problem ever since the publication of
C. L. R. James' Minty Alley in 1935. James' novel, indeed, contains
most of the virtues and one of the significant fissures found in most
West Indian writing. As a description of a 'backyard' situation, record-
ing the life, expressed, through rich dialect, of the under-privileged
West Indian, Minty Alley earns its enduring place. It shows how
people can live and go on living in the midst of poverty and frustra-
tion. But it also shows up a frightening gap between the writer and
the society he describes so well.
The central character of Minty Alley is a middle class young man
who has known better days and who, for economic reasons of con-
venience, is forced to move from his middle class home to No. 2 Minty
Alley, a lower class tenement yard significantly not too far away But
to James' hero, this is a strange new world; and because of his
'superior' education, his 'good manners', etc., he comes, during his stay
in his new environment, to dominate it. The crack begins to appear
when the most attractive, most intelligent and only rebellious girl on
the compound falls in love with him. The relationship flowers; is
consummated; sleeping arrangements are easily worked out; but there
is no suggestion of anything more permanent. The girl quarrels with
her aunt and patron, the lady of the house, and moves out and away
- to America; while our hero, now thoroughly disgusted with life at
No. 2, is soon able to return to a more respectable part of the town
from where, at the end of the novel, he regards Minty Alley as a
waking dream; experience.
James of course was writing in the thirties and in the convention of
the thirties. His more than cricket book. Beyond a Boundary (1963)
suggests that if he wrote another Minty Alley now, it would be a very
different kind of book. And if one compares his work even then with
that, say, of his fellow Trinidadian Alfred Mendes (Pitch Lake, 1934;
Black Fauns, 1935), one can appreciate the advances James had made
on the then current West Indian attitudes. The 'Portuguese' ladies
of Pitch Lake shudder at the thought of associating with coloured
people. The white young leading man desperately murders the brown
servant girl he's involved with when it is discovered that she's too far
gone pregnant to have a medical abortion. But the point is that
both James and Mendes indicate in their work a positive, almost in-
voluntary, separation between themselves and the society they write
about; and this separation, in many various forms, has persisted
through the forty years of native West Indian writing (for we must
include Claude McKay in the twenties in this), and appears most recently
in Naipaul's The Mimic Men and Orlando Patterson's An Absence of
Ruins. Out of this 'alienation', this sense of separation from the
people in the books, grew the migration complex already referred to.
Even Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin (1953) and Selvon's A
Brighter Sun (1953), both of which promisingly gave indications of
coming to terms with their society, ended in farewells and disillusion:
it seemed to him as if he was always saying the same things,
asking the same questions There was too much of the same-
ness all over, in the gardens, in the shops, in the village streets
(Brighter Sun, p. 235).
So it was not until A House for Mr. Biswas that a demonstration
was made in West Indian prose fiction that a complete novel, centred
in the West Indies, and employing the techniques of 'The Great Tradi-
tion' of the English novel, could in fact be written. Whether this tradi-
tion is of central concern to the West Indies is another matter. But
Biswas illustrates the importance, for the novelist, of having a con-
scious, well articulated cultural tradition to work from. Biswas is a
novel that has come out of the structure and cultural awareness of a
specific community the urban East Indian community of Trinidad.
Without this community (leaving aside, of course, Naipaul's own con-
siderable talent), a novel of this nature and magnitude would have
been almost impossible. Without a specific and self-conscious social
framework to move within, Biswas could hardly even have been con-
ceived. Having now been done, of course, the task for Naipaul's
successors is that much easier; but without that first East Indian
community, the house that Naipaul/Biswas built is unlikely to have
achieved symbolic structure:
Though Hanuman House had at first seemed chaotic, it was not
long before Mr. Biswas had seen that in reality it was ordered,
with degrees of precedence all the way down, with Chinta below
Padma, Shama below Chinta, Savi below Shama, and himself
far below. With no child of his own, he had wondered how the
children survived. Now he saw 'hat in this communal organiza-
tion children were regarded as assets a source of future wealth
and influence [But] it was not for this reason alone that his
attitude to Hanuman House changed. The House was a world,
more real than The Chase, and less exposed: everything beyond
its gates was foreign and unimportant and could be ignored.
He needed such a sanctuary (p. 169)
Before Biswas, the only West Indian novels that had been centred
on houses and the social and cultural implications that houses carry,
had been Edgar Mittelholzer's The Life and Death of Sylvia (1953),
John Hearne's Stranger at the Gate (1956), Phyllis Shand Allfrey's
The Orchid House (1954), and Geoffrey Drayton Christopher (1959).
More recently there has been Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (1967).
Sylvia was an attempt to sort out the social and cultural values of a
coloured middle class girl in Guyana, torn between loyalty to her white
father and black mother (she had other problems also); Hearne was
Interested in the confidence of the 'new' white Jamaican planters;
while Allfrey and Rhys, both Dominicans, writing about the post-slavery
white plantocracy in their Island, saw houses as symbols of a dying
But the sadness I felt looking at the shabby white house I
wasn't prepared for that. More than ever before it strained
away from the black snake-like forest. Louder and more
desperately It called: Save me from destruction, ruin and desola-
tion. Save me from the slow death by ants Don't you know
that this is a dangerous place? And that the dark forest always
wins? (Rhys, p. 167).
And Drayton's Christopher, about a white Barbadian boy growing
up in Barbados and the bond between him and his black nurse, Gip,
has this significant 'separating' passage:
she found him busied with his paint-box, painting a picture
of Surrey-house for Miss May, the art teacher. She knew at
once, by his dry eyes and the self-conscious way in which he
pretended she was not there she knew that Christopher was
no longer a little boy and knew it sadly, because it meant that
from now on he would rely on her less and less. (p. 71).
But what about the writers who are concerned mainly with the
Gips of the islands and their children; that apparently deprived
section by far the majority still shocked from slavery and in-
dentured labour; the people without cultural houses whose lives, in
Derek Walcott's phrase, 'revolve round prison, graveyard, church.' The
line stretches from McKay, through Minty Alley, Mittelholzer's
Corentyne Thunder (1941), through the novels of Selvon, Mais, Carew,
Salkey, in the fifties; and for the sixties may for convenience be divided
into three main categories. There have been novels, mainly of a
descriptive/narrative character that have attempted to accept the
situation, seeing both its frustrations and its consolations. There have
been novels, also of a descriptive but sometimes of a more polemic
kind, whose message has implied dissatisfaction with the situation.
And there has been the work of George Lamming and Wilson Harris,
more 'experimental' in nature, suggesting outlines of an alternative
In the first category, one might include the work of Lauchmonen
(Guiana Boy, 1960), Fitzroy Frazer (Wounds in the Flesh, 1962), Alvin
Bennett (God the Stonebreaker, 1964); Earl Lovelace's The School-
master, (1968), Ian McDonald The Humming-Bird Tree (1969). Hearne
(Land of the Living, 1961) Merrill Fergusson (The Village of Love,
1960), Earl Lovelace (While Gods Were Falling, 1965), and Sylvia Wynter
(The Hills of Hebron, 1962), with their politico-religious rebels, bring a
measure of dignity, in their different ways, into their world. Michael
Anthony, on the other hand, refuses to see the situation as a 'problem'
at all. His three novels to date (The Games Were Coming, 1963; The
Year in San Fernando, 1965; Green Days by the River, 1967) display
very little surface fuss; but Anthony in The Games Were Coming, for
example, illustrates that a skill (competitive cycling), and the dis-
ciplined desire to excell at that skill (win the Championship), can pro-
vide a viable replacement for dispossession's worries and its race of
pain. What happens after the race, Anthony has not yet tackled; but
the delicately observed relationship between father and son in Games,
both working together towards the attainment of their ambition, is
typical of his work:
His eyes stared straight in front of him and in his mind
there was violent thoughts. Too many cyclists got knocked
down by stupid drivers. Every day somebody got knocked down
There were more mad people on the roads than in all the
mad-houses put together.
He was still heated with this thought when brakes screeched
before him and his father rode the old Humber cycle into the
'Oh, God, I nearly jump,' Leon said.
'Jump? Big man like you?'
'I was just thinking of accidents and the brakes went.'
'This old bike won't make no accidents.' the old man said.
He was not very old. In fact he looked young and sprightly
in his movements. He leaned up the old Humber against a post
underneath the house and then came back again where the
boy was sitting.
'Well?' he said. His eyes ran over the boy's body, making
sure he looked all right, then he made a quick glance under
the house to see where the Wasp was. Not that he feared any-
thing about it. Just that these things were on his mind all
day, and seeing the boy and the bike together was some sort
of relief for him.
'You made it quick,' the boy said. Four o'clock had only
just gone and his father was already home
'Well,' the father said. 'Well, you know.'
'I mean to say, you is an old ironman.'
The father liked to hear things like that. These little things
kept him going (pp. 13-4).
The novels of frustration, on the other hand and these include
Neville Dawes' The Last Enchantment (1960), Austin Clarke's Survivors
of the Crossing (1964), Among Thistles and Thorns (1965)
Lauchmonen's Old Thom's Harvest (1965), J. B. Emtage's Brown Sugar
11966), Andrew Salkey's The Late Emancipation of Jerry Stover (1968),
Garth St. Omer's A Room on the Hill and Shades of Grey (both 1968)
though they often contain valuable analysis of the social ills of their
times, find no or little connection between individuals and see in various
forms of violence a way of resolution to the tensions they describe.
The most vertiginous of these novels so far has been Orlando Patterson's
The Children of Sisyphus (1964). By making the height of poverty
itself the central 'character' of his book, he has succeeded in giving it
The three garbage-men sat upon the wooden seats of their
carts, quietly grunting the fears of their thoughts over the
boisterous black faces of the teeming, blazing city. Their wide
black faces, the bars of their brows, a dreary portrait of restrain-
ed anxiety. They sat up there, necks droopily outstretched, eyes
half awake. mouths permanently half open in some strange,
prolonged astonishment like condemned men being hauled
by asses to a fate unknown.
They were like men possessed, up there above the city
Abandoned to a fate which seemed to terrify them Just them,
the garbagemen, them and the empty terror of the uneventful,
everlasting now (p. 17).
Garth St. Omer's work, on the other hand, though consolidating
the tradition of frustration, has also introduced certain significant
variations: though it is still too early to say whether these will result
in an alternative way of seeing. Like Patterson, St. Omer is one of the
few West Indian novelists who have, for some time at least, returned
to the islands. But since Syrop (1964), written before he first left the
region, St. Omer has so far eschewed the 'peasant' for a more 'middle
class' persona. 'Each generation has its angst, but we has none,' his
friend and fellow St. Lucian, Derek Walcott, had written in In a Green
Night. With St. Omer and his generation, this is no longer the case.
St. Omer's (anti-) heroes are deeply worried men, expressing a worry-
ing sense of nothing. In The Gulf and Other Poems (1969), it is again
Derek Walcott who puts it neatly in a poem dedicated to St. Omer
('Homecoming: Anse La Raye')
You give them nothing.
Their curses melt in air.
The black cliffs scowl,
the ocean sucks its teeth,
like that dugout canoe
a drifting petal fallen in a cup,
with nothing but its image,
you sway, reflecting nothing.
(The Gulf, p. 51)
Or, as one of St. Omer's own characters puts it at the end of Nor Any
Country (1969) confessing his life of non-achievement:
It was easy. I discovered the absence of responsibility. I pre-
tended I did not exist. It was better to be nothing than to be
what I knew I could only become thinking always of what I
might have been. I became nothing. I am nothing. (p. 107)
This is the kind of pessimism that has been increasingly haunting the
conventional West Indian novel (it is present, too, in Walcott's verse)
since the end of Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners (1956). It is
a mood which reflects the continuing West Indian sense of political
and cultural rootlessness and failure. But in Nor Any Country, despite
the pessimism, we begin to discern (it is there even in the short passage
quoted above) the outlines of a new hope, of possibility. This is most
clearly expressed indeed realized within St. Omer's reticent prose,
in the long, sustained passage (pp. 86-102) where Peter (the anti-hero)
meets Father Thomas, a priest and countryman of his own age who,
unlike Peter (the Biblical connotations of the names are clearly
reversed) is consciously and emotionally committed to his island,
despite its apparent deprivations:
.I decided it must be better to go to France and become a
priest over several years than to remain as a teacher here. I
'And you've come back.'
'Yes. And have discovered how much easier it was for me to
take the decision to become a priest than to return as one to
'I suppose I could be dishonest, pretend that the church must
mean for me the same thing that it means for my French
colleagues, the older ones especially. And yet.
'Let us say that it is more complicated for me to be a priest
here than it can be for them. '
'[Yes] the Church demands loyalty that is absolute. It does
not allow loyalty to it to be shared with anything or anybody
else. One can only serve or leave her.
'I can't leave, of course.'
'I don't suppose you can.'
'Merely by wearing this cassock I'm doing something. The
people here saw me bathe naked on the beach. A lot of them
bathed with me. Their attitudes to priests can never be the
same again.' (pp. 96-98)
Father Thomas is here facing the problem of Faith and Authority with-
in the post-colonial West Indian context; a problem posed also by Earl
Lovelace in The Schoolmaster (1968). Lovelace in The Schoolmaster,
however, does not get beyond signalling the problem: his concern was
more specifically with the story he was telling. But St. Omer, with his
sense of nothing, is still, paradoxically perhaps, very much aware of the
dangers of the void; or at any rate appears to have grown to this
awareness after A Room on the Hill and Shades of Grey:
'Being a priest seems somehow abortive. I should have been a
bridge, like you, a link between our parents and the children you
alone will have.'
Peter said nothing.
'Now you alone, of the two of us, are that bridge. I am like one
side only. I project from one bank and I end over the chasm.
But you can go to the other side. You will join what you have
known to what you will never know. (p. 101)
In terms of the development of West Indian prose fiction, however,
this bridge of generation cannot be conceived simply as 'story', function
of biological parent; but as a linking of sensibilities, function of the
experimental artist. It is what, above all others, the work of George
Lamming and Wilson Harris has been trying for, and to a remarkable
degree, achieving, during the sixties. The physical creative causeway
to them from the conventional and the secular/Catholic existentialist
writers like Patterson, St. Omer and Lovelace, lies along and within
Lindsay Barrett's Song for Mumu (1967). In terms of the categories
being used in this study, this is a novel of frustration if ever there was
one: poverty, insanity, failure, murder, death. But out of it, Barrett
sings and swings. Folksong, folktale, blues shout, sankey, jazz,
pocomania hymn; Africa, black America, Jamaica, all come together
in splendid undisciplined harmony; celebration of the ex-slave's dreams
and oral tradition. Lamming, Harris, Mais, Reid, Selvon, Ellison (of
Invisible Man), Baldwin (of Go, Tell it on the Mountain) and Joyce,
all glitter and echo together with Barrett's own muse, out of these
Of an evening or an afternoon hanging grey around the hills,
above them, so the sun flings wide gold shafts of haze light
through the grey, hits the dust and stays there. Under dust
she will be. Thunder! It's getting late. Across the air from
mountain ledge to red scar line of track up through the green.
Oh please don't cry. Don't. Don't cry. Then they come. A
thin dark line they are behind the donkey whose back bears the
coffin, sagging, bouncing, the creak of new wood and the scent
of it mourning down the red track through the green. (p. 1)
Meela came in with a splinter of sun. On her tray the meal
steams. Hunger or desire! Scully saw her for the first time.
His gaze and gut seemed to ignore the steaming food. Only her
face and light movement and the hip-sway of her flesh he saw.
She came. Soft black with a shy stare beneath her lids and
lashes. Her bearing and beauty grasping with ease some of the
delicate abandon of wild lilies. Her eyes caress the empty path
she treads. (p. 10)
Or this variation on the thief scene in Selvon's 'Calypsonian', with
overtones of Ellison and Joyce:
Expert rider Sidnisweet dodging bodies and vehicles, cars, trucks
and carts, stray donkeys block his path, but he's the greatest
and he twists and turns so only a hair separates him in each
instance from doom or grave injury as he weaves his balanced
way through the crowds, his eyes all the time searching for the
likeliest coup until he sees a butcher's cart piled high with pork
sides, freshly killed and bled, running red and sweltering with
fat juices oozing in the sun. Pink clean hock bones and white
scraped bacon sides, dodging between a fat woman in a green
dress with a basket on her head and a weaving thin ragged
drunken old man, he heads for the butcher's delicious cart, he
rides up alongside and eyes the out-jutting end of a savoury
leg whose bulk is hidden deeper in the meat mountain of red
pink and white. (p. 120)
The problem here is that the headlong fantasy has, from time to time,
to be abruptly halted, unlike, say, with Joyce or Ellison, for the demands
of conventional narrative or explanation; and Barrett's techniques and
demon of language are not yet equal to the dislocations involved. There-
fore in the second quoted passage, for example, the brilliant 'splinter
of sun' is tarnished by 'Scully saw her for the first time.' In the third
passage, 'Pink clean hock bones' loses momentum as Sidnisweet 'eyes
the out-jutting end of [the] savoury leg.' But these failures of word
go deeper than language. They reflect a failure of vision. As in
Mais' Brother Man, destitution Is subsumed under the force and fire of
love, carnal and incarnate, and the conflict between the two. But
this conflict, as Song of Mumu progresses, is not directed into mean-
ing. It becomes an end in itself, like the language of the book: and
eros blindly defeats caritas:
Mumu gal, Chino is saying, you got to know I'll never let you
down. Without thinking Mumu smiles and holds him to her
breast to cut off the river flow of his words. He is a man isn't
he? Leave me alone old devil conscience. He is a man and he
wants me. He wants me, who am I to refuse him now. He
wants me. I don't know love. Love kills. I would have loved
my father. My brother. I used to love Joker. Where are they?
I may not want this gambling man, but he wants me and my
womb screams at night for fulfilment, a kind of pain, I have
him, I won't release him, not yet, not until I want to. no no
leave me alone with my native natural hunger, for I love what-
ever it is he does for me... come into me Chino come into
me take Oh father father Joker... oh take me take me
This kind of sentimental realism, repeated so often in the novel,
involves a sacrifice of metaphor which is the poet's only beacon; so that
in the end, the physical sacrifice that is evoked and sought by Meela,
does not become a rite, a social expiation, as In Salkey's A Quality of
Violence (1959); or a personal transfiguration as in Sylvia Wynter's
The Hills of Hebron or John Hearne's Land of the Living. Instead, it
becomes a private, wilful and erotic indulgence; an aesthetic escape
out of a hopeless landscape. ('Dream is reality/what seems is what
The Preacher's arm came up with the clean bladed knife
gleaming in the gloom blue light, and the other arm beckoned,
and she started forward now saying the words, all of them.
silently over and over in her head and her mother prayed
and did not look up.
Yes, Mumu walked now, proud and silent up the aisle and
reached the altar and she lay across it and bared her firm young
breast-filled chest to The Preacher's gaze and his knife, and
he raised the shining thing and plunged it deep so it went red
even as she screamed and her mother moaned and chanted,
and he stabbed and stabbed and plunged cold steel forever into
her heart even as her screams and moans died with her breath
and flesh (p. 151)
Song for Mumu, fails, then, not in its details of energy, or in
intention, but on the question of the content of its narrative line. The
problem facing George Lamming's work (and this is the burden of all
true experiment and exploration) is one of form. His insights require
poetry, and Lamming has been remarkably successful in deploying this
within his novels' structure. But as he has moved from the childhood
world of In the Castle of My Skin (1953), he has become more and
more concerned with the political and psychological ramifications of
social living and consciousness (The Emigrants, 1954; Of Age and
Innocence, 1958; Season of Adventure 1960), and he has had to rely
more and more on 'prose' while still trying to retain the poetry. This
tug of war has affected the shape of his work; preventing it from
achieving a clear, coherent, over-all whole. Yet such is his power of
realization, that any given section of his work reveals a hard, unwink-
ing gleam that marks its authenticity:
[The cat's] calm resembled the patient cunning in Therese's
glance [She.] and the cat were the only two living creatures
in the kitchen. All insects died at birth. Flies were poisoned
on arrival. Only the cat had survived that spiteful vigilance
which ruled over her work. She wasn't likely to murder the cat,
but sometimes his presence seemed like a flaw in her achieve-
ment of corpses.
'Is how smart you is I know,' [she] was saying as though in
argument with a rival cook.
The cat's eyes had been transformed into a hard, immobile
blaze of light, burning the dead carcass of the rabbit in her
'Jus' test you with a day's starvation, Therese was saying as
she glanced at her audience on the rug. 'An' you show your
true colours like any ordinary criminal.'
The cat continued to stare like a blind man whose eyes had
never closed. (Season, pp. 96- 7)
But the 'shape' of Lamming's work is also conditioned by the kind
of tradition he is working towards. He seems to be moving away from
the European tradition of the 'house' towards a different and more
'Caribbean' form altogether. Season of Adventure opens with the
experience of a vodun ceremony and its effect, particularly, on a West
Indian girl who, until she is faced with the Gods of the tonelle, thinks
that her sophistication renders her immune from the language of the
drums. Within this alternative tradition, Lamming appears to be say-
ing, lie the hidden and half-forgotten forces through which Caribbean
society can be forged:
In the evenings he will assemble the children and teach them
how to play. It is the only way of proving what he argues He
cannot name tomorrow; but hoisting Liza as example on his knees
he begs simply to say. as a child treads softly in new school
shoes, and a man is nervous who knows his first night watch
may be among thieves; so the rhythms are not sure, but their
hands must be attentive: and so recent is the season of adven-
ture, so fresh from the miracle of their triumph, the drums are
guarding the day: the drums must guard the day (p. 367)
Like Lamming, Wilson Harris, is also a poet; in terms of his novels,
even more uncompromisingly so. He is not interested in the depiction
of 'social' man. He tunnels under this kind of consideration towards
the realization of a much more universal and immaterial vision. The
Arawak woman in his first novel, The Palace of the Peacock (1960), for
instance, is seen not as an individual victim of civilization and circum-
stance, but as memorial icon:
We had in our midst a new member sitting crumpled-looking,
like a curious ball, old and wrinkled. Her long black hair -
with the faintest glimmer of silvery grey hung in two plaits
down to her waist. She was still as a bowing statue, the still-
ness and surrender of the American Indian of Guiana in reflect-
ing pose It was an emotionless face. The stiff brooding
materiality and expression of youth had vanished, and now -
in old age there remained no sign of former feeling. There
was almost an air of crumpled pointlessness in her expression,
the air of wisdom that a millennium was past, a long timeless
journey was finished without appearing to have begun (p. 71)
And the boat crew with whom she travelled on the river of time;
each man paddling and sweating and straining 'toward the stone and
heaven in his heart,'
was one spiritual family living and dying together in a
common grave out of which they had sprung again from the
same soul and womb as it were. (p. 40)
How different in time, place and feeling this is from Mr. Biswas'
'in reality it was ordered, with degrees of precedence all the way down.
with Chinta below Padma, Shama below Chinta, Savi below Shama,
and himself far below.
They were all knotted and bound together in the enormous
bruised head of Cameron's ancestry and nature as in the white
unshaven head of Schomburgh's age and presence Cameron's
great-grandfather had been a dour Scot, and his great-grand-
mother an African slave and mistress. Cameron was related to
Schomburgh (whom he addressed as Uncle. .) and it was well-
known that Schomburgh's great-grandfather had come from
Germany, and his great-grandmother was an Arawak American
Indian. (p. 40)
All Harris' characters interpenetrate thus with each other, and in
all of them we can discern the lineaments of mythological personae:
Perseus/Ulysses/Jason and the journeying crews in Palace of the
Peacock; blind and all-seeing Tiresias in Palace, The Eye of the Scare-
crow (1965) and The Waiting Room (1967); Poseidon, Jordan (Gorgon's
Head) in The Secret Ladder (1965); Magda and Cristo in The Whole
Armour (1962); the king/priest Cameron (Palace), Kaiser (Heartland,
1964), Oudin and Ram in The Far Journey of Oudin (1961). These
masks and archetypes of memory (metaphors of The Horse, The Hanged
Man, the Mother/Prostitute occur in all the work) move through a
natural/supernatural world of Guyanese forest, savannah and river
(except in The Waiting Room which is set in Europe), where every
object, every grain of perception has its twin and paradox:
The shot had pulled me up and stifled my own heart in
heaven. I started walking suddenly and approached the man on
the ground. His hair lay on his forehead. Someone was watch-
ing us from the trees and bushes that clustered the side of the
road. Watching me as I bent down and looked at the man whose
open eyes stared at the sky through his long hanging hair. The
sun blinded and ruled my living sight but the dead man's eye
remained open and obstinate and clear. (Palace, p. 40)
'Herein,' Harris said in a recent lecture, 'lies the essential humility
of a certain kind of self-consciousness within which occurs the partial
erasure, if nothing more, of the habitual boundaries of prejudice.' In
such a world the structured 'houses' of Nalpaul, Hearne and Allfrey
can have little place. For Harris, indeed, houses are 'caves', 'traps',
'artifices of humanity'; a room is a vessel moving ship and stationary
container or well of consciousness. For him the rehabilitation of the
Caribbean and of the whole structured conventional world lies in
its rehabilitation and reconstitution into new 'capacities of unique
But this, after all, is implied in the intention of all artists. Naipaul's
house for Biswas, Lamming's experience in the tonelle, Harris' unique
vision, all come out of, and will return for the final test of their validity,
to the musing Caribbean. It is the recognition of this that has been
perhaps the significant achievement of West Indian prose fiction in the
YUSMAN ALI, CHARCOAL SELLER
Some men have lives of sweet and seamless gold.
No dent of dark or harshness mars those men.
Not Yusman All though, not that old charcoal man
Whose heart I think has learned to break a hundred times a day.
He rides his cart of embered wood in a long agony.
He grew rice and golden apples years ago
He made an ordinary living by the long mud shore,
Laughed and drank rum like any other men and planned his four sons'
His young eyes watched the white herons rise like flags
And the sun brightening on the morning water in his fields.
His life fell and broke like a brown jug on a stone.
In middle age his four sons drowned in one boat up a pleasant river,
The wife's heart cracked and Yusman Ali was alone, alone, alone.
Madness howled in his head. His green fields died.
He burns the wild wood in his barren yard alone,
Sells the charcoal on the village coast and feasts on stars at night.
Thinness makes a thousand bones around his scorched heart.
His Moon-scarred skin is sick with boils and warts.
His grey beard stinks with goat-shit, sweat, and coal.
Fire and heated dust have rawed his eyes to redness;
They hit like iron bullets in my guts.
No kindness in him: the long whip smashes on the donkey like an iron.
The block and brittle coal has clogged his chest with dirt,
The black fragrance of the coal is killing him.
He is useful still. I shake with pain to see him pass.
He has not lost his hating yet, there's that sweet thing to say.
He farts at the beauty of the raindipped moon.
The smooth men in their livery of success
He curses in his killing heart
And yearns for thorns to tear their ease.
His spit blazes in the sun. An emperor's bracelet shines.
Edgar Mittelholzer's Tragic Vision
IN THE light of Edgar Mittelholzer's career, A Morning at the Office
(London 1952, 1964) is important because the two themes which are
introduced and woven through this novel, are the two major melodies
which counterpointed his entire career; they finally led to The Jilking-
ton Drama (London, 1965) and his own dance macabre. The first theme,
which is also the structural principle of the book, is introduced by the
Indian Nancy story of the Jen. The Jen tale is quite simply a consola-
tion for Miss Bisnauth; it was written by her author friend, a hu-
manitarian attempting to eradicate hypocrisies and the evils that
hypocrisies bred. Briefly the story is this: one day a small girl and her
nurse were talking about the imaginary animal that existed in and
about the Canje Creek. During the discussion one reads this bit of
"No it's not an animal.
"Then, what is it?"
"It's a Thing.'
"What sort of Thing" asked Mooney very curious now.
"A bad Thing," Beatrice answered.
"You mean it has teeth and can bite?"
"It's worse than that."
"Has it long claws and can scratch and tear people's eyes out?"
"If that were all it wouldn't be so bad," Beatrice told her, looking
"You mean it can spout fire from its mouth like the dragon you
told me about yesterday?"
"Worse than that, even a dragon can't be as bad as a Jen."
Little by little the Jen is described as being able to kill anybody and
soon it might do so. Mooney, the main character of the tale, is in her
room one afternoon when she hears the sound of the Jen. It enters her
room; she makes its acquaintance and, at first, it seems a very lonely
and sad thing. Mooney says that she is very glad to meet the Jen and
the Jen replies:
"You won't be after you get to know me well."
"Are you really so bad as Beatrice says you are?"
"Have you a head, Mr. Jen?"
"No, but I have a chain."
"What sort of chain?"
"A chain that's always in action."
After this brief exchange, Mooney offers the Jen a raisin; he picks up
the dialogue with a very bad pun:
"I prefer reasons-because I am one myself. For many things."
As the conversation between Mooney and the Jen progresses, further
characteristics of the Jen are enumerated:
"I'm lonely. A great lonely, lonely, dreadful Jen."
"Too great and lonely, and dreadfully dreadful for anyone to let you
hurt them? Is that what you mean?"
"That's exactly what I mean."
Previously the Jen had described a friend of his, another monster who
was worse than himself but without effect because people bought
masques to hide from him. In the context of the fairy story this second
monster was obviously the monster of fear.
A Morning at the Office is a delicate analysis within a period of
four and a half hours of the complex motivations in Trinidad's multi-
racial society dependent on the Jen and resulting in racial prejudices;
it is a study of the situations that create prejudices, not a study of
sexual urges frustrated by racial prejudices. In a word, the Jen be-
comes the functional structure for interpreting A Morning at the
Office because the Jen is a situation in which a longing encounters frus-
tration. The longings and complexities created by the sexual urge
and hampered by the subtle class structure are laid bare by means of
a gentle satire comparable in tone to the Jen tale itself; in this analy-
sis, the tale of the Jen structures each and every relationship in the
In the context of the fable, the child makes friends with the Jen
and gradually grows to realize its evil nature, that it is responsible for
loneliness. In the context of the novel, virtually every character is
fascinated by or has previously come to terms with an attraction which
developed slowly and then was frustrated by a situation beyond his or
her control. This repeated pattern followed by the frustration and
loneliness which results from it is Mittelholzer's tragic vision. In this
early work, not only the normal relationships which exist between men
and women are frustrated by difference, distinction, economy or the
crisis of war but one also finds the deviation from normal longings in
the case of Mr. Reynolds-his recollection of the youth he met on the
train and the green beret. Abnormal longings would later occupy a
larger part of Mittelholzer's fictional analysis. Perhaps it was because
the sexual longing was most dramatically and pathetically worked out
through Horace Zavier, Nanette Hinkson and Patrick Lorrie that sex
seems to be the most important Jen; but structurally, A Morning at the
Office is a contemporary Jen story having a many sided complexity.
The second major theme introduced in this novel and further de-
veloped in his later works is the importance of psychic phenomena; it
is most dramatically embodied in Miss Henery's day dream, her vaca-
tion in Barbados with Herard Beaton, but it is present in other situa-
tions in varying degrees. Early in the book the history of the desk leg
is narrated; in the course of the story Aubrey, a young love-sick and
sexually disturbed lad kills himself. Then he reappears to finish the
desk leg. Only later does his boss, O'Brien realize the full impact of
his presence but he never relates the story to anyone. Mittelholzer
would have us believe that when Miss Henery day-dreams, she psycho-
logically harmonizes with Aubrey and feels his hand moving up her
leg. This may be the most dramatic example of psychic phenomena but
it is by no means the only example. The relationship between objects
and characters ranges widely; Horace's relationship to the key is one
of pride; Mr. Murrian's scar engenders fear; Mr. Reynolds remembers
the green beret whenever he comes into close contact with young men.
The relationship between things and people manifests itself in
other ways in the book; it is the basis for the reflections about supersti-
tion made by Miss Henery and Mr. Lopez as well as the foundation for
the theory of creative writing presented by Mortimer Barnett which he
describes as telescopic objectivity. That it is the theory of psychic phenom-
ena which is important to Mittelholzer and not the theory of art which
is presented, is fairly easy to establish; his interest in psychic phenoment
continues to develop while the technique of telescopic objectivity dis-
appeared in his next work.
A Morning at the Office, then, presents the two major themes
which preoccupied so much of his later considerations; they are both
the result of his West Indian background. As he interpreted it, the
frustrations of the Jen caused racial prejudices and unhappiness and
the imaginative beliefs of the islands enriched his own belief in more
than the physical, tactile, materialistic aspects of experience. The
results of these forces acting in society were for Mittelholzer of a
tragic nature and Horace, Nanette, all the characters in A Morning at
the Office are aspects of the tragedy
Mittelholzer's subsequent career a record of these two themes and
their orchestration; the variations are both positive and negative. Ulti-
mately, however, it was the negative tragic vision that triumphed; and
ironic as it may seem, that it would triumph is strongly foreshadowed in
the positive vision which he tried to construct from this beginning.
Several novels created a positive world in which human capability
overcomes the destructive power of the Jen and the darker forces of
the world by cooperation among people. Understanding and mutual self
help with the aid of psychic phenomena in the more extraordinary cases
are the tools. The three novels which best exemplify this attempt are
Shadows Move Among Then (London, 1951), My Bones and My Flute
(London 1955), and The Wounded and the Worried (London, 1962).
After finishing A Morning at the Office, Mittelholzer began creat-
ing a society in the heart of the Canje jungle to cure the sickness that
existed in the outside world. This is the world of Shadows Move Among
Them. Gregory, afflicted with a mental illness and recuperating from
a breakdown, comes to the Harmston plantation. As Mittelholzer con-
structed it, the society which has been created at this plantation is
very much a Utopia. While with the Harmstons, Gregory is subject to
lapses of memory and periods of very erratic behaviour during which
he verges on homicidal acts; nevertheless, because of the society which
the Harmstons have created, and because all the members of the
family are interested in helping to cure him, slowly he regains his
It is the society, however, that is of most interest; the plantation
has been created to diminish effectively all the artificial Jens which
the outside world has developed. Sex is easy and natural; it is sur-
rounded with no taboos nor is it particularly sacred. It is much more
the natural expression of the joy of love. Because Mr. Harmston is a
rather unusual type of clergyman, the religion of the plantation is an
emotional and cultural experience, a positive aesthetic support for the
people of the colony. Yet within the context of this society, and in
spite of the cure that this society produces in Gregory, there are ele-
ments of foreboding. One evening Gregory and Mabel, the Harmston's
oldest daughter, discover Sigmund, a native, in the act of stealing.
Because Sigmund has exhibited this weakness the required number of
times in the past, Mabel is afraid to inform her father that he has done
it again. Mr. Harmston, it seems, had set up a very strict code of judg-
ment for the colony; if a person exhibited the characteristic of an
habitual criminal, the punishment was death. Mabel, torn between her
natural fear of being the cause of another's death, and supported in this
position by the love and advice of Gregory, refuses to testify against
Sigmund: as a result he is released. But the concluding words of the
book indicate that reverend clergyman imposed his arbitrary and severe
justice for the good of the colonial society; he had a hand in Sigmund's
"Sigm:'nd, parson. He's Dead."
"UM," said the reverend gentleman.
"He was found on the track that goes to the coconut grove.
"Egbert of Labour Squad found him."
"H'm. Very sad.
"Yes, very sad.
'Snake-bite, I presume."
"Yes, parson, Snake-bite."
The reader is well aware that the "snake bite" referred to was not
so much a natural tragedy as a contrived act of justice prompted by
the leader of the colony, Mr. Harmston. Although this sinister note is
struck at the conclusion of Shadows Move Among Them, the society
presented is one which was beneficial to Gregory; its positive support
and its lack of artificial Jens was instrumental in effecting his return
to sanity. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the book, and the theories of
Mr. Harmston are a very definite foreshadowing of the solutions Mittel-
holzer would advocate in his later writings to deal with the problem of
social evil especially when the locale of his work was transferred to
Like Shadows Move Among Them, My Bones and My Flute also
presents Mittelholzer's positive vision, this time in the context of one of
the best "ghost" stories in the English language. The novel isolates
psychic phenomena for concentrated exploration and the phenomena
take on the colouring of diabolical possession. A family, father, mother,
and daughter, with the aid of a friend try to release themselves from
a curse contracted from a parchment by finding and burying in sacred
ground, a body of a long dead planter. During the course of the adven-
ture, however, the group meet much stronger and more terrifying forces
opposing them than the initial haunting encountered through the
parchment. Once again the theme is the solidarity of the human race
in its battle against darker forces, this time expanded from the in-
sanity caused by Jens to include hatred, ghosts and diabolical influen-
ces. But the courage and interest of one man, Mr. Nevenson, and the
support of his family and friend Milton save the planter and them-
selves. My Bones and My Flute presents a terrifying vision of the powers
of evil, a vivid and emotionally convincing experience, yet the scope of
the evil far exceeds anything present in A Morning at the Office.
Curiously enough, for all of its terrors, My Bones is the most positive
Mittelholzer novel with the exception of The Wounded and the Worried.
That salvation is based on the help of strong and interested people is
a theme that comes out clearly with none of the foreboding qualifica-
tions found in his other works.
Although it is not the first novel to link the themes of Jens and
psychic phenomena with the theme of death, The Wounded and the
Worried is the last positive one to do it; and it does so quite directly.
Each of the four characters has attempted suicide; each then makes
some effort to find a reason for living Once again the positive theme
presented is mutual human support, a support that is nee.i'd. In The
Wounded and the Worried Mittelho'.er more openly espouses eastern
philosophies and religious experience as well as a commitment to
psychic phenomena. Tom Dillow, a most unusual Anglican priest
begins the novel with a reflection written in his diary:
"We believe the men of science who tell us viruses exist (millions
of us have never seen one!), but we smile indulgently at the imbe-
cile who dares to divulge that he glimpsed, while sane and awake,
the spirit of a man that once inhabited a fleshy body on this earth.
I think it must be fear of upsetting their cosy materialistic illu-
sions that engenders a reluctance in people-even intelligent people
to take seriously anything that relates to the Real Being in us."
After this theme is recorded, the reader discovers that Tom is
cursed with the gift of fourth dimensional experience; social skepticism
caused his attempt to do away with his own life. However, as Mittel-
holzer unfolds the history of each character, it is Tom's understanding
and help that are primarily responsible for their accepting life with
renewed determination. Stella Burges, driven by the desire to have a
clean sexual experience instead of the sordid activities that were in-
flicted upon her by her husband, and Gwen Wellings, the retired school-
mistress who has devoted her life completely to her work and is now
retired and useless, both women are encouraged to accept life with
Tom's help. It is primarily in his relationship to Gwen that Tom mani-
fests his fourth dimensional pwoer, and at the climax of the book this
power is quite realistically revealed both to Stella and Gwen.
The Wounded and the Worried however, is of interest not for its
repetition of the theme of human support, but rather because
Mittelholzer has reached the position in which he closely links the
frustrations of the central characters with the death wish. Once again
he presents the various frustrations of each character and the Jens
which are destroying them. By himself each character has succumbed
and has attempted to take his own life. It is only through the positive
effort of all the characters that this temptation was overcome. The
Wounded and the Worried was the last novel in which the theme was
presented in a positive fashion. The tragic vision which was in evidence
from the beginning of his career, and had manifested itself in other
novels written long before The Wounded and the Worried, had begun
to triumph, and the cause of this triumph seems to have been the
decadent and complex state of British society.
The first of the novels in which he links the frustration of the Jen
with death, in the context of the racial conflict so much in evidence in
A Morning at the Office, is Sylvia or The Life and Death of Sylvia (1953)
as it was first called. Sylvia is the daughter of a mixed racial marriage;
the early sections of the book delicately explore her relationship with
her white father and the love and understanding that exists between
them. When her father dies, however, Sylvia is not prepared to face
the world as it reacts against her. For a while money is no problem;
her father had left the family a good inheritance. But Mr. Knight, a
friend of her father, has gradually reduced the inheritance for his own
advantage. Finally Sylvia is forced to work. Racial prejudices and her
own background oppose her; she is not trained to do the work for which
people are willing to hire her; she is forced to take what little work
there is for her to do. Mr. Knight, aware of the economic pressures
under which the family is suffering tries to force Sylvia to become his
mistress, but she is not a weak character. Rather than succumb to his
suggestion, she struggles with starvation, then pneumonia, until her
final tragic release.
Although Mittelholzer uses starvation and pneumonia as the ex-
planation for the untimely ending of Sylvia, toward the end of the
book Sylvia is strongly motivated by the death wish as a means of
escaping from Mr. Knight and the evil he represents. As her economic
condition deteriorates, this longing for death is more articulated. Death
is her own choice; it is the painless way for her to escape from the con-
ditions which society and her acquaintances have imposed upon her. In
the racial context of the Caribbean, Mittelholzer explored the first com-
plete cycle of what was to become his total tragic pattern. A happy life
complicated by longings that are frustrated gives birth to Jens of loneli-
nessness in which no mutual support exists; these factors create the
active causality of the death wish. The tragic pattern of Mittelholzer's
vision was completely shaped in the context of his Caribbean world
where he first learned it, but the theme was sharply and extremely
accentuated when he faced the decadence of a more developed and
sophisticated society. Probably the most terrifying example of its tragic
application is The Piling of Clouds (1961). In this novel he introduces
the last development of his pattern-the humane taking of life.
In The Piling of Clouds, Mittelholzer makes a very careful and
sympathetic study of the tragic longing of a sexual deviant, this time
in a new locale. England's suburbs is the background for the study and
two, what appear to be, rather respectable households are the object
of the analysis. Slowly and accurately the history of the two complete-
ly different sets of characters is set forth. Peter, Sally and Lilian seem to
embody the typical longings of suburbia in a rather commonplace
triangle situation. Peter has briefly strayed from his wife Sally because
Lilian appreciates his nature and motivation more fully. This temporary
lapse, however, arouses in Sally, first the curiosity about and then the
determination to sleep with Charles, the quiet, respectable neighbour
who is a good friend of the family. The success of Sally's determination
activates the dark forces within Charles to a degree beyond his control,
and these forces are more terrifying than anything in the Mittelholzer
canon. Charles has managed himself successfully by living alone and
avoiding any contact which would seriously disturb him. On occasion
he will sit with Jeanette, the daughter of Peter and Sally, but he has
tried to keep his involvement with the family to a minimum. After
Sally has succeeded in bedding down with Charles, he loses all chance
of success; the same evening when sitting with Jeanette he criminally
assaults and murders the child. Though the plot line is sensational, The
Piling of Clouds is important for two reasons: first, the strong reaction
it evidences against a different society, and second, the way that re-
action is verbalized through Peter.
Peter introduces into the Mittelholzer canon a fully developed and
well articulated philosophy the beginning of which was seen in the
Reverend Mr. Harmston in Shadows Move Among Them. He is a char-
acter, who, in one form or another will appear in other of Mittelholzer's
later tragic works because he represents Mittelholzer's own reaction to
British Society. Being obsessed with "mould rot" and "vermin," Peter
has arbitrarily and outside the realm of social justice supplied himself
with a revolver and a hypodermic of poison so that he might protect
his own family against the evils around them. He often justifies, in
very long passages of exposition, the thinking and motivation
behind his action. Briefly his argument is this: an individual has the
right, even violently to protect himself and his family against the evils
which threaten him because of the decadent and permissive nature of
contemporary English society. Execution of the "vermin", like execution
of the habitual criminal in Shadows, should be done effectively, pain-
lessly, and swiftly, but there is no question about the fact that it should
be done. I feel it is more and more possible to associate this type of
character with Mittelholzer himself. When Charles does destroy Peter's
family, Peter understands and permits him to take his own life quite
privately rather than face the vindictive and destructive forces of
bitter social recrimination which Sally demands. The Piling of Clouds,
then, moves one step further toward that complete, and in the context
of Mittelholzer's thinking, that logical development that is the total
pattern of The Jilkington Drama. But before we reach that step, it is
necessary to glance at one final and very interesting work--The Alone-
ness of Mrs. Chatham (London, 1965).
Although not as well known as some of the other novels, The Alone-
ness of Mrs. Chatham is revealing because it introduces all the char-
acter types that we have met in the author's earlier works. Susan is
compelled by the pleasures of sex although frustrated by the fear of
having children; this tension has her in the throes of a tragically
insane state. Harpo is a next door neighbour and friend of the heroine
Sheila Chatham; he reminds one a great deal of Peter from The Piling
of Clouds but he possesses a more philosophical disposition. He writes
essays presenting clearly developed arguments for capital punishment,
one might almost say capital murder. Herbert is the Yogi who intro-
duces Sheila to the beginnings of those psychic experiences present in
other novels, and although he is a shadowy figure, he reminds one of
Tom Dillow in The Wounded and the Worried. The Aloneness is inter-
esting not only because it reintroduces many Mittelholzer's earlier
creations, but also because of the importance which the author him-
self attached to the book and the strength with which he resisted any
attempt to emasculate the work for the sake of publication. He felt
that the work was important. not because of its sensationalism, but
because of the total vision he achieved.
"The present work was turned away by fourteen publishers in
this country and by one of the leading agents in the U.S. Hence to
celebrate the occasion, I feel that the only fit and proper thing for
me to do is to dedicate the work to these fourteen publishers and
this literary agent, with special reference to the two publishers who
wanted to bring it out, provided I would agree to emasculate it.
I would not."
The key to the work is the character of Sheila herself and the
particular aspect under which she is most minutely described. Mittel-
holzer, marshalled all of his arguments, both for and against survival
in British society and he did it in a laboratory situation. Each social
theory which preoccupied him was explored and its result was recorded
on the character of Sheila. Sheila inhabits a quiet cottage removed from
the decadent social scene; one by one the forces of social deviation and
decay impinge on her life in a gradation of form from the sympathetic
homosexuals Archie and Finey to the sinister persentation of Susan.
Social "mould rot" and "vermin" are present in the activity of the local
farm children. And although these social influences are able to harm
Sheila, almost destroy her physically, they have little destructive effect
upon her psychic disposition. Harpo and Herbert represent the positive
social solutions: Harpo advocating controlled violence against the evils
o1 society and Herbert advocating transcending the social scene
through the self-control of Yoga and the experiences of the spirit. The
effects of these solutions on the life of Sheila are recorded in a not too
encouraging way. Sheila rejects every form of human commerce either
positively aiding society through nursing, or the social commerce of
friends; she consciously chooses aloneness as the answer to her life.
"Love is to do what you know you desire truly to do, what you
know gives you deep satisfaction and puts you in harmony with the
Cosmos. That is what Herbert meant by Love, and now I know
he was right. Now I know what Harpo meant when he warned me
to keep on trying to be myself. I nearly let myself be overcome by
weakness. Now I can see standing before me the truth about my-
self-a tower of rock, solid and irrefutable. Now I know I have it
in me to crash through to the Light straight as a rod."
Aloneness yoked with violence enables her to "crash" through to
the "Light," the exact words of Garvin in The Jilkington Drama when
he has completed his "pattern" and takes his own life. Phrases such as
these are the metaphorical description of the death wish which haunts
all of Mittelholzer's major characters and the death wish is the alterna-
tive to living in a world that one neither loves nor values because of
the evil it contains. The reasons for Garvin's suicide in The Jilkington
Drama, are explained far more accurately and far more completely in
The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham. The last of his novels is only the
dramatic resolution of aloneness, isolation, and death-an extreme re-
action for the extreme social scene that was Britain as Mittelholzer
Unlike Sheila Chatham who refuses to act, in The Jilkington Drama
Garvin does; but because of the complexities of longings created by
other characters, and the loss of his own wife, his activity points to the
uselessness of any activity and the aptness of his own pattern which
leads to his journey into "light" Through the interaction between four
characters, Mittelholzer began his last analysis of life. Katherine and
Harry are the strong, sexually healthy figures of the book, but their
strength is undermined by Harry's uncertainty about Katherine's
fidelity and his selfish longing to be left at peace rather than get in-
volved in the struggle to save his son. He is an attractive, unthinking
animal and he is meant to be nothing more. Lilli, because of her con-
fused longings and good intentions, becomes the example of a dis-
torted, one might say. a perverted religious motivation: she does more
harm than good and is too late in formulating positive resolutions, re-
luctant as these might be. Katherine and Garvin embody positive values
in the book, and they are tragically weak to counteract the twisted
forces created by the longings of others. Motivated by a love for Lilli,
Garvin attempts to work out a situation in which Katherine, Lilli's
mother, and Harry, Garvin's father, might marry; he realizes that the
marriage will relieve Lilli's religious worries about their common-law
arrangement. However, after involving Katherine in his efforts, his plan
is completely frustrated, and he takes his life. Very crudely this is the
movement of the plot but plot is merely the occasion for a study of
Garvin. During his activity, Garvin begins to articulate the pattern for
the completion of his life. Lilli, recognizing that he is articulating the
death wish, challenges Garvin with the accusation:
There's the journey of my spirit.' He smiled, suddenly beatific,
suddenly thoughtful. 'My spirit, Lilli, it still retains its wish to
soar, to plunge out of this gross body and leap into the clear space
of another dimension.'
'You wish to die, do you mean? Yes, I believe that is what
is truly the matter with you. You have the death-wish strongly
within you. It is an obsession.'
At the climax of the book Garvin is frustrated and hurt by the
knowledge that Lilli loves Herbert; he gives full exprsesion to "his
Pattern," articulating the relationship this pattern has to the forces
which have complicated his life.
'I really love you. I wasn't lying. I wanted to marry you. You
were a real part of the Pattern I'd built up. Oh, my God! I feel as if
I'm reeling away into realms outside my knowledge. Why couldn't
you have told me at the outset that you wanted him? I'd have
I could have adjusted myself to that. I could have withdrawn and
let you go on hoping to displace your mother. But you let me live
in my paper penthouse of hope. Christ! Now what am I fit for?
Only to soar away. To ignite a light to light my way into the dark.
The dark of Darkness where lies the true path to Reality.'
The death wish, an alternative to life's complexities and frustrations,
expressed through the imagery taken from occult experience, was
finally recognized and embraced by the author for what it was.
Mittelholzer realized that the Jen not only frustrated and destroyed
his weaker characters, but as the death wish vying for a perfect society it
had become the tragic source of strength for other characters. In
earlier novels it was never taken to its conscious conclusion-the ulti-
mate desire to escape from contemporary western society as he experi-
enced it. The author himself embraced the ultimate conclusion of this
his most tragic Jen on May 6, 1965. Said the Jen:
'I prefer reasons-because I am one myself, for many things.'
WM. J. HOWARD
Islands: A Review
CONFRONTING the West Indian past has often proven as painful
as coming to terms with its painful present. Edward Brathwaite has
the distinction of being one of the few men who attempts to do both
things, not merely as historian and social commentator, but as poet
and literary critic. What is even more remarkable is that between the
years 1967 1969, Brathwaite has produced not only the poetic trilogy
Rights of Passage (1967) Masks (1968) and Islands (1969), but also an
immense doctoral thesis on the cultural forms of Black Jamaican society
in the nineteenth century, and an extended essay, "Jazz and the West
Indian Novel," in which he seeks to outline what he sees as a new and
more relevant aesthetic for the assessment of West Indian writing than
any of the traditional methods of English literary criticism still in vogue.
These things, the poetry, doctoral thesis and critical theory are
all linked together, and it is becoming clear that any really meaningful
study of Brathwaite's poetry will have to include some assessment, or
at least some knowledge of his research, and some judgement on the
applicability of his aesthetic theory to his own work. (Artists are
notorious for outlining standards of judgement which are generally
relevant only to their own particular work, but on whose universality
The reason why it is necessary to have some knowledge of
Brathwaite's research is that much of his poetry, especially in Islands,
and Masks, is an attempt to document in verse the historical experience
of tribal Africa and of the deracinated African in the New World.
When Brathwaite is successful, a peculiar thing happens; not only is
history compressed into poetry, but poetry finds its fulfilment in
history. By this I mean that the poetry is so much an abstract of
racial and historical experience, that significant events from con-
temporary history seem daily to reinforce and fulfil the poetry which
then derives extra value from the hard clear light which it casts not
only on the colonial past, but on our present historical moment.
To illustrate just what I mean from something that has happened
recently (26 February to beginning of April 1970) and is still going on
in Trinidad: thousands of unemployed youths have been marching for
sometimes more than eight hours at a time, to demonstrate their
desperate condition and the need for some fundamental improvement
in the lot of the Black man. The entire thing started in a small
demonstration which the government badly mishandled. But what
interests us here is the instinctive rejoinder of the youth they have
been marching desperately, and in a sense don't really want to stop
because the march itself has somehow become for them a thing of
deep psychic and dramatic significance. Now, an integral theme
running through Brathwaite's trilogy, is that even before the African
was brought as a slave to the West Indies he had already lived through
a long tradition of trekking, of exile, tribal disintegration and rebirth,
movement, dance, disaster and further journey. Indeed, a passage
from Masks which I had once found quite ordinary and even a bit thin.
began to make a grim sense, to fulfil itself.
My Lord, all this time since we left Walata. you have led these
people. Are you not tired?
Ever since our city was destroyed
by dust, by fire; ever since our empire
fell through weakened thoughts, through
quarelling, I have longed for
markets again, for parks
where my people may walk,
for homes where they may sleep
for lively arenas
where they may drum and dance
Here the land is dry, the bush
brown. No sweet water flows"
Can you expect us to establish houses here?
To build a nation here?
(Masks. pp. 20 & 21)
The words themselves are simple enough. What was uncanny is
how poetry hardened into the fact and bone of contemporary history:
and how for me the entire passage gained in dimension and stature
because I could see the poetry being lived in front of my face. I should
also mention that "Volta", the section of Masks from which this passage
comes, repeats the major theme of the first Prelude from Rights of
Drum skin whip
lash, master sun's
cutting edge of
surfaces of things
The rhythm of that first Prelude with its tired doom-like drum-
beat returns again and again to remind us that even when Brathwaite
focuses on life in the West Indies exile and journey are still his major
concern. Here in "Volta" it is as if the theme is now being played on
single instruments, lonely voices addressing each other in a barren void.
Three days we travelled, dreaming
heavy tongues dumb, soles and our ankles
numb, foreheads shocked with heat.
The land was empty and the
rainless arch of nothing stretching stretched
straight on. Three days we travelled.
(Masks p. 22)
Right now it is drought in Trinidad, and those young men with fixed
faces looking blankly into an unimaginable future and marching are
fulfilling a deep tribal dream, as they seek their green land to the
South. The point is that that land has already been sold out to
foreigners, local exploiters, or party men. That is the theme of Islands.
How are we to create in the face of such a history and this present
betrayal? This is what is most deeply asked in the section called
Rights of Passage deals with the several faces of the deracinated
African. He is Uncle Tom, but he is also the faceless dilettante who
who lives by acting out the role accorded him by the white world. He is
also the rebel; Brother Man the Rastafarian; the peasant in his remote
village speaking of the price of saltfish, the eruption of a volcano near-
by and the unexplained pestilence which blights the crops and sterilizes
the land. The themes of waste and sterility recur throughout the
trilogy, and in the third book become more and more associated with
contemporary Caribbean politics the grim politics of sterlity.
Masks returns to the African roots, and traces the process whereby
the mask which for the tribesman formed part of the ritual whereby
the gods possessed man, part of a process of personal incarnation and
self-discovery, becomes for the New World negro a shabby disguise to
hide the fact that he lacks a true face. The process of taking off the
disguise is a painful one, but it must be done. The journey back to
Africa reveals that there too history has been exile, reconstruction,
fresh disintegration the betrayal of brother by brother, tribe by tribe.
Brathwaite faces the fact that the African was partly responsible for
Knowing that humiliation he retraces his path home to the West
Indies with his "hacked face" unmasked, to have a hard clear look at
the ghetto. It should be pointed out, though, that in both Rights of
Passage and Masks, Brathwaite is concerned not merely with how the
tribe disintegrated, but how the Black people managed to survive at all.
In tribal Africa there was always the drum, religion, possession by the
gods after a process of chanting, drumming and dancing, and fully
communal ceremony and communion in which the whole tribe took
part. In the New World the same, or similar traditions are maintained.
The music which has grown out of suffering, work-song, blues, jazz,
ska, calypso, the entire folk and urban tradition, represents a
philosophy in itself, and is an index of the surviving self which even
history, the Church, Europe could not kill.
Criticism in the West Indies is as festered with cliche as anywhere
else. One of these cliches is that the West Indian is on a "quest for
identity." That is really a simple way of putting it. Brathwaite
illustrates that the Black West Indian like his American counterpart
does have an exceedingly rich, or at least a potentially rich identity,
but it is buried under centuries of slavery, colonialism and the self-
contempt which goes with these.
This is perhaps why Islands is saturated with the idea of death
and rebirth. Brathwaite sees us as celebrating these two things in our
every action. Death and rebirth are of course analagous to slavery
and rebellion, or slavery and the independence which comes only when
the slave consciously acts to free himself. Independence, like identity
cannot be given, it can only be asserted. So Brathwaite uses every-
thing, limbo, cricket, politics, pocomania, steelband, carnival, the
wake, to explore these related themes of death and rebirth, slavery and
rebellion. He seems to see us as perpetually wavering between the two
states, always in danger of being sucked back into the womb-grave of
the slave-ship's hold. It is worth noting that Naipaul's A House for
Mr. Biswas also illuminates this painful transitional stage in the West
Indian's journey back across the middle passage of consciousness.
Islands begins with a reassertion of the link between Africa and
the Black New World. Nairobi's male elephant horns become
Satchmo's cornet, Miles Davis's trumpet and Parker's saxophone. But
the image of the slave ship lingers even in the apparent freedom of
the music. The Black is high-up in the white man's sky-scraper of
steel, concrete and glass. He is trapped like a gold fish in a bowl,
mouth opening stupidly for the admiration or ridicule of tourists or
children. A fish in "a gold water world." The pun on Goldwater is
certainly intentional, for in this white inorganic concrete world with
Cdsaire so bitterly rejected in his Cahier, the white fascist businessmen
are god, are Javeh.
But, Brathwaite suggests the Blacks still have a faint sense of the
earth through their music, while Javeh has nothing at all except,
of course, money. After this introduction, which in rhythm is pure
'be-bop' jazz, or at least creates the up-tempo atmosphere of 'be-bop',
Brathwaite looks at what has happened to The Ashanti spider God,
Anansi. If the Jews' Jehovah has simply become the degenerate
capitalist, Anansl has ceased to be the "creator, the word maker." He
degenerates into the con man, the obeah man who has ceased to be
healer and now exploits, the samfle man, the politician....
At this desk
in this cell
in this womt
The slave sweats
cottonfields of Oxford
whiplash of political office
(Islands p. 9)
In those tense lines Brathwaite shows how education itself became
part of the merciless process of slavery. The Black Oxford PhD. is no
different from his brother in the cottonfields, except that he gets a
chance to attain political office, and replace the white slave master
as the one who wields the whip. This severe examination and rejection
of the contemporary political scene in the West Indies is much more
economically and subtly done than in similar passages in Rights (e.g.
"0 Dreams o Destinations").
One of the key lines in the volume appears in this passage "And
the wheel turns/ and the future returns." The future returns. In
other words it is no different from the past. The old history of slavery
is being played out in a new key, though we do possess an embryonic
self, and do seem perpetually to be on the verge of some change or
other. The book is simply too much to be summarized here. Brathwaite
goes on to explore that embryonic self on the verge of gestation. Indeed
the embryo image, like the womb image occurs time and again in this
book, and requires special study. The poet's main point is that
"Streets of my home have their own gods
but we do not see them"
Yet the so-called "dispossessed" Black masses are much nearer
their own gods than the products of Oxford's cottonfields. Hence
"Shepherd," celebrates this possession of the poor Black man by his
own gods. So do "Caliban" and "Wake."
While the West Indian bourgeoisie pursue their gods of "righteous-
ness and mammon", Negus, the Rasta man explodes into language as
Brother Man has done before him in Rights of Passage
it is not enough
to be pause, to be hole
to be void, to be silent
to be semicolon, to be semicolony.
fling me the stone
that will confound the void
find me the rage
and I will raze the colony.
(Islands p. 67)
This rebellion is possible because Negus is in full touch with his own
gods. It has been a fact of Jamaican history that because the mission-
aries were never able totally to control Black minds, Black religion
played a central part in rebellion from the Baptist rebellion in 1831,
the revolutionary work of Obeah and Myal men both before and after
emancipation, to Bogle in 1865, Bedward in the early twentieth century
and Garvey in the late twenties and the thirties. The line of Black
consciousness from Tacky to Negus is in fact unbroken.
It is something like this that Brathwaite seeks to establish in
Islands. This is why he asserts that the white-black petty bourgeois
politics of Oxford, or any politics which preserves the colonial system
is bound to come into conflict with Negus, Brother Man and what they
represent. For these men know that in a slave or neo-slave society,
Black consciousness is connected perforce with Black rebellion, and
not with silent acquiescence, or an object melancholy "holding strain"
in vague hope that things will change.
Thus in "Cane" and "Ogun" it is the humble Uncle Tom types who
show the stirring of rebellion. "Ogun" is a remarkable poem. The
humble carpenter, whose craft in wood is scorned for steel furniture,
hides his true art from the world that scorns him; conceals the god of
rebellion under bemused short sighted spectacles. There is no time
to comment on imagery, but it can be pointed out that throughout the
poem the erosion of African relics and consciousness is shown in terms
of wood being replaced by steel, the organic world of forests by the
waste land of concrete skyscrapers. In "Ogun" the image receives its
Viewing this relentless departure, this scorn of self on the part of
the rich, Brathwalte looks again at the African past, and sees in
"Leopard" that it was the failure of the slave to perfect his rebellion
that has warped the consciousness of the Black West Indian. Yet all
are afraid to assist the awakening. The poet finally realizes that it is
only through a rediscovery of our self hidden beneath the rubbish of
colonialism that the final release will take place. He therefore invokes
the gods of Shango and Voodoo to aid the Black in his rediscovery of
self, and anticipates the moment of perfect reversal when "Christ will
pray to Odomankoma."
I would like to say a final word about another cliche of West Indian
poetry the cliche whereby Walcott is described as a "private" poet
dealing with personal experience in an intense hermetic exploration,
and Brathwaite is viewed as a "public" poet who deals with social and
political themes and often depends on fad and stock response. Each
of these poets is in his different way at once "public" and "private."
Brathwaite's poetry is an intensely personal apprehension of social and
Clearly the politics of a country can move one to as deep despair,
disgust or exhilaration as anything else. Walcott and Brathwaite may
be poles removed in the nature of their art, but they are complementary
rather than opposed. Walcott at forty watches life wither and confesses
himself obsessed by "demons of inaction" ("Metamorphoses." The Gulf,
1969) Brathwaite sees the same crippling scene, but he is in touch with
much more than the sterile white tradition. (It is the whites themselves
who are defining it as sterile). It is this "something more" that gives
him hope, opens to him the possibility of inner self-realization through
rebellion which Walcott cannot accept. But Brathwaite does not
naively expect rebellion to bring about Utopia. The something which
might grow will be both "torn and new" again like Mr. Biswas's
obzocky house. But it seems to be our only hope apart from the
paunch of bourgeoism, the gods of mammon and righteousness which
we serve at present.
SN.B. Walcott's latest production, Ti Jean and His Brothers is an almost total qualifica-
tion of this statement. This review was written with his third major volume of poetry,
The Gulf in mind. Ti Jean certainly does explore the potentials of rebellion and
the different phases of the black struggle for power from elementary mindless reaction
to history, to a younger but more capable self confidence which leads to rebirth of
a self, strangled by centuries of cautious cowardice. Indeed, Ti Jean and Islands end
on nearly the same note. The foetus, now reborn after rebellion, consciously chooses
its own life, in spite of the possibility of pain and further death.
Derek Walcott: The Literary
Humanist in the Caribbean
OUR PAST has in good measure become the facile plaything of
our rhetoric. By this I mean that we only too readily introduce the
argument from slavery and colonialism to explain or explain away
aspects of West Indian consciousness. To fix oneself in the posture of
victim often blinds us to the extent of our complicity, of the in-
evitable degree of complicity which has attended on the processes of
West Indian life. This is surely the point of Sparrow's Dan is the Man.
Because of the scholarship, no matter how inexceptionable be his latter
day anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, the W. Indian scholar loses
his original Innocence by becoming well-educated. His consciousness
can no longer be one with the approximately literate. In an age of
populism, certain kinds of sophistication can generate unease, guilt
feelings, an unwished-for sense of difference. Reserving our position
on the wider meanings of the word alienation, we may say that educa-
tion may portend the beginnings of a state of alienation. By the very
nature of his calling, the man-of-letters in the West Indies is particular-
ly susceptible to such feelings of alienation. Generally speaking, he has
tended to express his sense of difference with reference to the middle
classes, to avoid whose irritations and incomprehension he may flee
to some metropolitan centre.
Nevertheless, no matter how much the intellectual and writer may
extol the peasant, though he may strive to enter into the spirit of
folk consciousness, he is condemned too be other than folk in his own
consciousness. The reason is that to practise his art, he must, in one
fashion or another, make a thing of his own Western literary
humanist tradition. To be inducted into this tradition is to be intro-
duced into the broader dilemma and seductions of modern Western
spiritual life and to become thereby incapable of sharing in the kind of
spontaneous simplicity and vitality as well as the ingenuous quality of
belief which tends to characterize folk consciousness. At the level of
contact with "the people" the writer may well admire the strength of
their endurance and the creative efforts in the face of the stress of
their colonial situation, but he may also be only too acutely aware of
the assimilation of unsavoury or ludicrous aspects of the colonizers'
mores by these very people, for example in regard to dress habits for
formal occasions. It is really no comfort that their leaders and the
middle classes have led the way to apedom.
The second aspect of the impact of the Western literary humanist
tradition is the fact that, ravaged by the onslaughts of rationalism as
it has operated in the West, and sceptical of the new faiths which
are usually of an economic and political kind, this tradition has now
become largely incapable of affirmations of any sort. Flung back upon
itself, sceptical of the belief structures of organized religion yet deeply
yearning for a spiritual base, the literary humanist tradition is
assured only when asserting its belief in the power and transcen-
dence of artistic creativity. This becomes the sustaining faith to which
the literary intellectual looks to rescue and redeem him from the
absurdities of historical experience, in well known jargon, "to recon-
cile the contradictory aspects of experience," the gulf between dream
and desire on the one hand and reality on the other.
The only writer who has dramatized this dilemma of the West
Indian Literary intellectual is Derek Walcott.
It has often been asked why Walcott, who could so easily organize
the mechanics of gaining a livelihood elsewhere, has stayed in the
West Indies. I think the answer is that quite early, he realized that a
theme which could be fundamental to his poetry was the destiny of
the man-of-letters in the West Indies. This awareness is expressed in
the "Prelude" to In a Green Night:
Meanwhile the steamers which divide horizons prove
Found only in tourist booklets, behind ardent binoculars;
Found in the blue reflection of eyes
That have known cities and think us here happy.
Then the poet continues,
And my life,
must not be made public
Until I have learnt to suffer
In accurate iambics
Already heir to the religious scepticism of the literary humanist
tradition, the poet notes in Steerman, My Brother,
Now, what rides
the violent waters of my life, is a mere craft
of words, and thirst
For those fresh springs of grace, which, as I write,
Mourning my faith's death in your death, derides
That earlier, steady trust
that there are harbours, there are fields of light,
But vision cannot see them for time's dust.
When the poet refers to "a mere craft of words", as elsewhere when
he speaks of "this English language that I love", he is surely indulg-
ing in understatement, for such phrases resume his whole involve-
ment with the rich and complex tradition of English letters to which
the sensitive colonial is drawn. How does a poet reject a colonialism
which has given him his "craft of words"? Which West Indian liter-
ary critic could expel English Literature from the Literature syllabus?
Which West Indian politico would wish his base of liberal ideas swept
from the scene altogether because they come from Europe? Moreover
in his loss of faith the poet defines his separation from the people,
and the word "faith" here must be seen not only as a reference to the
people's religiosity but as gradually expanding to their political en-
thusiasms and so many other values to which they are receptive. He
moves from the quietly stated:
Where it is, in the hearts of these people,
In the womb of their church, though the rain's
Shroud is drawn across its steeple.
(Return to D'Ennery, Rain)
to the contradictory movement of sympathy and revulsion of
Laventille when he notes how the "inheritors of the middle pas-
sage still clamped below their hatch, / breeding like felonies,"
produce for the purposes of a christening "the stifling odour of bay-
rum and talc, the / particular neat sweetness of the crowd the
black, fawning verger / his bow tie akimbo, grinning, the clown-
gloved/ fashionable wear that muggy, steaming, self-assuring air
of tropical Sabbath afternoons,"
Such scenes are the poet's cup of bitterness, his "dark nightmare of
the soul" At such a point he is on common ground with Naipaul.
But Walcott has never been as insensitive to the qualities of en-
durance of the inheritors of the middle passage as Naipaul and in
fact in one of his finest poems in The Castaways, finds "an objective
correlative" to celebrate them. I refer to The Almond Trees:
Welded in one flame,
huddling naked, stripped of their name
for Greek or Roman tags, they were lashed
raw by wind, washed
out with salt and fire-dried
bitterly nourished when their branches died,
their leaves' broad dialect a coarse
they shared together.
At the same time, unless a poet can drink at the revivifying springs
of a shared belief and shared values either as a result of a traumatic
experience or a change in the value-qualities of his cultural environ-
ment, he is more and more cast back upon himself, must feed more
and more on the isolated consciousness. And so it is that the poet
grows in his sense of desolation and solitude as is documented by
Gordon Roehler in his review of The Gulf. The poet assumes his
Purgatory, desperately fighting chaos now only by the power to order
experience contained in what he had once referred to as his "mere
craft of words"
The Castaway therefore invokes images of solitude and the
"small terrors", which might beset a man close to middle age. The
lyrical movement, the sweet sounds of the poet's verse rhythms are in
this collection continually threatened by these small terrors. The
poet's brain is
The ripe brain rotting like a yellow nut
Its babel of sea-lice, sandfly and maggot
In The Swamp he broods on
Fearful original sinuosities! Each mangrove sapling
Serpent like, its roots obscure
As a six-fingered hand,
Conceals within its clutch the moss-backed toad,
Toadstools, the potent gingerlily
Petals of blood
And always a brooding sense of the absence of some sustaining faith,
a negative religious sense,
In any church my brain is a charred vault
where demons roost,
A blackened, shifting dust.
(The Wedding of an Actress)
A cry of absence in the heart leads him to exclaim for those who
have held some dream of innocence and seen their life-scheme run
drunks, castaways, beach combers, all of us
yearn for those fantasies
of innocence, for our faith's arrested phase
when the clear voice
startled itself saying, 'water, heaven, Christ'
hoarding such heresies as
God's loneliness moves in His smallest creatures
I have quoted such a steady stream of examples because I would
argue that although not unmindful of public and historical life,
Walcott is much more the sensitive interpreter of the private drama
and the intensities of the individual consciousness. The nationalist
would have the poet devote his rhetorical skill to the encouraging
homily or flaming denunciation, and is rendered uneasy by the writer
who would focus our perceptions of experience from a different angle.
The "social" poet may merely be the purveyor of held opinions rather
than honestly perceived states of consciousness. The social reformer
who would impose order on the chaos of public and administrative
life, may be the more intense because his own private life has been
soured by secret tensions he has suppressed. The point is that we need
Nevertheless any poet, concerned with the quality of the lives we
live must necessarily attend to public events of this age of ours is by
definition a public age in which through the newspapers and tele-
vision, we read and see things as they happen. Walcott's technique
has been to refer the public event to a subjective context where such
things are always threatened by the taste for ambiguity of the modern
literary consciousness. The results can sometimes be painful. The best
known example is the much quoetd line from the poem, "Far cry from
Africa" where the poet feels the need to choose "Between this Africa
and the English tongue I love" after "cursing the drunken officer of
British rule" We know enough now of colonialism to be embarrassed
by the British Empire-type sentiment that it was the drunken officer
who needed to inspire us with terror and revulsion. Another is the
poem "Mass Man" perhaps the worst poem in The Gulf and one which
it is a little unfair to use too heavily against Walcott. On the other
hand there are excellent pieces like "The Glory Trumpeter" and
"Laventille" in The Castaways and "The Gulf", "Elegy" and "Nega-
tives" in The Gulf.
In the poems of The Gulf Walcott makes little or no concession
to populism and while the finest collection of poems put out by a West
Indian in the sxities, this collection is unlikely to be greeted by
genuine widespread enthusiasm. It is guaranteed in fact to leave our
social science realists cold for the poet's vision is not of the purgatory
or hell of the masses held in thrall by administrative and political
devils but his own private definition of purgatory. His theme is the
gulf between desire and reality, between dream and fulfilment which
is the corrosive core of the modern politics of experience in its pro-
claimed pursuit of the bird of paradise. It is in the sixties that the
revolutionary idealism of Che Guevara which dreamed of the end of
administrative corruption itself suffered a brutal senseless blow in the
death of the man himself
the corpse glows candle white on its cold altar -
its stone Bolivian Indian butcher's slab -
from your own fear, cabron, its pallour grows,
The above lines, tough, sardonic, wasting no time on self pity or in-
opportune rhetoric, are representative of the tone of the collection.
The poet does not say what dreams were generated in him by Guevara.
Each reader must make the poem his own, recognize his own dreams
and fear on that "cold altar' The poet turns this way and that dis-
covering the rigid postures of the wrong and wronged. In "Elegy" he
evokes the famous painting of the American couple as an image of
WASP society (WASP stands for white, anglo-saxon protestant) which
has trapped and sought to inflict pain and destruction on the blacks
and Indians who were and are the Others. On the one hand
Some splintered arrowhead lodged in his brain
sets the black singer howling in his bear trap
shines young eyes with the brightness of the mad,
on the other WASP:
while the farm couple framed in their Gothic door
like Calvin's saints, waspish, pragmatic, poor,
gripping the devil's pitchfork
stare rigidly towards the immortal wheat
At the personal level also the poet discovers the violence at the core
of our contemporary life in his neat and savage little poem on race
"Blues" The ultimate black, as we know, is the one who is so black he
looks blue. One evening in New York, the poet, who is a "yellow
nigger" finds ironically what is means to be caught in the rigid streets
.I wasn't too far from
home. but not too bright
for a nigger, and not too dark.
In the West Indies a "yellow nigger" doesn't have to be too bright
to get by. In America
they beat this yellow nigger
black and blue."
The poet learns "from cuts and tears" what race hatred has done to
Nearer home, the images do not improve. In "A Georgetown
Journal" which says so much about what politics has done to Guyana
without a mention of politics, the poet writes
"an elegy that chokes its canals
like the idle rotting lilies of this frontier."
and discovers that
"The air has been cleared of hawks
and the bourgeois gurgling like canals
reminisce over carrion."
The examples could be multiplied of the contradictions between all
that the heart yearns for and the widening terrors of contemporary
life. From a provincial base, the poet probes the modern condition in
which we are all caught refusing the obvious rhetoric and from his
own line of vision, that of the bewildered humanist who is forced to
say of love, "If it's so tough, / forget it"
The problem of the literary humanist as man of letters, such as
I take Walcott to be, is that his posture in the face of violence is one
of impotence, for his resistance to things as they are seem to lie in the
language of his life, in the life of his language. This is the limitation
of the literary humanist, especially if he decides that his essential
response to the violence of his times must emerge through his art.
There are, of course, alternatives. There is the kind of "social protest
writing" which is so common in Latin American writers, sometimes
to the detriment of their art. This is an alternative in which Walcott
as poet would seem not to be interested. He has chosen to address him-
self to the language of our lives, a language with which we are con-
demned to struggle, rooted as it is in the history of those who
The Return of Jean Rhys
JEAN RHYS was born in 1894 in the Windward Islands. Her father
was a Welsh doctor who had settled there, and her mother a Creole-
that is, a white West Indian. On the verandah of their home at Roseau,
upon a wooden table with sturdy legs, stood an enormous brass
telescope. Through it, their daughter would spy out the steamers pass-
ing to Guadeloupe; always, she noted, the Royal Mail was the shabbiest
of the lot. Over-looking their garden was the tall house of the Editor
of the Dominica Herald and Windward Islands Gazette. Papa Dom, as
he was nicknamed locally, was full of race prejudice. He 'hated' the
white people, not being white himself, and he 'despised' the black ones,
not being black: '"Coloured" we West Indians call the intermediate
shades, and I used to think that being coloured embittered him.' Embit-
terment is a recurring theme in Jean Rhys's books, whether the cause
be the shade of a person's skin: lack of money; or the mere fact of
being a woman. All her heroines are born victims.
At the age of 16, she came to England to attend 'what is now the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was then just the Academy of
Dramatic Art.' But her father's death, after one term, put a stop to
further training. So, she joined a touring company of Our Miss Gibbs
and every night fluffed her one line 'Lottie, Lottie, don't be so epi-
grammatic.' Her next venture on the stage was as a chorus girl in The
Count of Luxembourg. Then at the end of the First World War, she
married a Dutch poet and went to live on the Continent, where she met
many writers and artists, including Ernest Hemingway and James
Joyce. She recalls that Joyce was terribly kind to her; if the zip of her
dress came undone at a party, he would obligingly do it up. In Paris
she also met Ford Madox Ford who not only launched her in his bi-
lingual Transatlantic Review, but later in 1927 contributed a long, en-
thusiastic introduction to her first book.
The dust-jacket of The Left Bank describes its contents as 'Studies
and Sketches of Present-Day Bohemian Paris' a description that covers
the prevailing mood of most of its twenty-two pieces. The exceptions are
the flashbacks of her childhood in Roseau, and the 50-page story with
which the collection closes. This is longer than anything else in the
book and is set in Vienna. In the course of it, there occurs an outburst
to mark: 'If there's one hypocrisy I loathe more than another, it's the
fiction of the "good" woman and the "bad" one.'
In 1928, Jean Rhys's first novel came out under the title of
Postures in England, and Quartet in America. (The author prefers the
latter title.) It has an epigraph which warns: 'Beware of Good Samar-
itans though, perhaps, 'Women Beware of Men' might be more
to the point. For Marya Zelli, an English ex-chorus girl, is married to
a Pole who can charm the birds off the trees. But his business trans-
actions on the antique market are shady, and it is not long before he
is caught out and imprisoned for a year. Whilst he is serving his
sentence, she is befriended by H. J. Heidler, a German art-dealer. The
idea suggested by Heidler's wife is, that they should form a menage a
trols. Because Marya's husband has made no proper provision for her,
she is hard pressed for money and eventually agrees to the arrange-
ment. Any misgivings that she may entertain, are tempered by the fact
that she is, in turn, both wildly repulsed and madly attracted by Heidler.
When her husband is released, there are misgivings between all the
quartet-and she loses both men.
Geographically, Paris provides the setting for this novel,-though
when the afternoons are foggy, and there is a cold sharpness in the air,
'It might be London,' Marya keeps repeating to herself. The truth is it
might be any capital city in Europe in which a woman finds herself
adrift without private means and without the temperament to make
herself economically independent; or, in which she finds herself lum-
bered with an unstable husband or lover. In Jean Rhys's next novel,
After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, which came out two years later in 1930,
Julia Martin is in a similar predicament. She has just received a letter
from the solicitors of her ex-lover, Mr. Mackenzie, saying that her
allowance has been stopped. So, she leaves her Left Bank hotel and
visits London in the hope of tapping some old boy friends. One chapter
heading is, 'It Might Have been Anywhere.'
In Voyage in the Dark, originally published in 1934, Anna Morgan
has come from the Caribbean to try her luck on the boards. She is just
19 and suffers hideously from the English climate; she equates being
white with being cold and sad, whereas being black means being warm
and gay. Soon she is seduced by an elderly admirer who lets her down,
and she sinks gradually into a life of easy virtue. Whilst on tour in
the provinces-it is casually let slip that the year is 1914-she learns
from Maudie who shares the same digs, that in Europe some dogs can
be more expensive than people. She elaborates:
'D'you know what a man said to me the other day? "It's funny,"
he said, "have you ever thought that a girl's clothes cost more than
the girl inside them? You can get a very nice girl for five pounds
you can get a very nice girl for nothing if you know how to go
about it. But you can't get a very nice costume for her for five
pounds. To say nothing of underclothes, shoes, etcetera and so
For her next heroine in Good Morning, Midnight, originally publish-
ed in 1939, Jean Rhys chose a woman in her forties. In her time, Sasha
Jansen has acted as a guide for the American Express in Paris, been
a vendeuse in a dress shop, and given English lessons at ten francs an
hour. When the book opens, she is to be found revisiting Paris at the
suggestion of a friend who thinks she has been going to pot in London.
Her aim is to avoid those caf6s and bars that will stir memories of the
golden days spent with husbands and lovers but which, like all golden
days, faded away. She thinks of the French telegraph wires buzzing
throughout the capital with the same message from deserted women
everywhere: 'Send more money, send more money.' She has enough for
a Pernod-but not enough for a new pair of gloves. Her own are dread-
fully shabby, and shabbiness is always something that women notice
(even the Royal Mail's). For it diminishes their self-respect and so
makes them nervous to take chances on relationships. 'Tomorrow I'll
go to the Galeries Lafayette buy anything cheap. Just the sensa-
tion of spending, that's the point. And when I have had a couple of
drinks, I shan't know whether it's yesterday, today or tomorrow.'
Jean Rhys's women belong to an in-between world. In whatever
European capital they find themselves, they are the flotsam floating
between the rich and the poor, just as, in the West Indies, the Creole
belongs to neither white nor black. For example, Anna Morgan longs
to be 'pure black' with as much desperation as Sasha Jansen longs to
be 'financially emancipated.' Anna may be only in her teens, but she
hears her elders use the term 'youth' as though it were a crime, where-
as Sasha has reached the stage when she is afraid to be young. And
between these two heroines, stand the other two, Marya Zelli and Julia
Martin-Marya torn between the demands of love and security, and
Julia caught at that critical hour, summed up in the first sentence of
her story, as the one 'between dog and wolf.' To all of them, daydreams
offer an escape-hatch; but once they are asleep, their dreams turn
to nightmares, based on the injustices done to lovely, foolish women
by cruel, deceiving men. But in Wide Sargasso Sea, her fifth and most
ambitious novel which came out in 1966, that injustice is less one-
For many years Jean Rhys was obsessed by the figure of the first
Mrs. Rochester, the mad Creole wife in Jane Eyre who is locked away
in the attic of Thornfield Hall. The figure of the lunatic had always
seemed to her especially in contrast with Mr. Rochester and Jane -
a 'cardboard' one, and she longed to do something about it. Wide
Sargasso Sea is no pastiche or sequel to Charlotte Bronte's book,
though indirectly it does offer a number of possible explanations for
Mr. Rochester's violent outbursts-outbursts whose credibility some 19th
century critics had challenged when Jane Eyre first came out in 1847.
Charlotte Bronte never visited the Windward Islands, although one
of her dearest friends at school was a West Indian girl called Mellany
Hane. They talked much about their different homes, and Mrs. Gaskell
says that Mellany was ever ready to protect Charlotte against en-
croachments on the part of the elder girls.
In Charlotte Bronte's novel, Mr. Rochester in one outburst, when
woken out of a deep sleep, shouts at Jane: 'What have you done with
me, witch, sorceress?' In Jean Rhys's novel, both Mr. Rochester and his
bride tell their own stories. She thinks that he has married her for
her creole inheritance and dowry, whereas the truth is that he is the
downtrodden younger son who has agreed to this arranged marriage
because his over-bearing father has demanded it of him. Both husband
and wife are victims of circumstances beyond their control. Nor is it
surprising that his love should grow cautious after the novelty of the
honeymoon has worn off, or that she in turn should visit a local sorcer-
ess in Dominica and ask her to try and regain it for her by means of
Forty years ago, in his introduction to The Left Bank, Ford Madox
Ford expressed the hope that he would bring its author 'a few readers.'
It would seem that his wish has been granted, in so much that, when
a gifted author disappears from the literary scene, it takes a handful
of readers to keep alive the impact and myth which she has created.
For between Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea there was,
except for a few short stories, a silence of 27 years. In one of these
stories, 'Tigers Are Better Looking,' and now included in a volume of
that name, Jean Rhys describes a journalist preparing his weekly
column for an Australian newspaper. The floor is littered with dis-
carded starts of the article. 'He couldn't get the swing of it. The swing's
the thing, as everybody knows-otherwise the cadence of the sentence.'
Recently when Jean Rhys was questioned about her own work, she ad-
mitted that she drafted many times and that writing was 'either per-
sonal or it [was] wishful thinking.' She went on: 'There may be people
with vast imaginations, great people. But I am not one of them.' She
was speaking with the modesty of a perfectionist. Yet she has been
proved wrong. Her books and stories show the assured touch of a
master, and are among the most original and memorable of our
MAIS OF JAMAICA
His own life died but he has not truly died.
There, man! Look, look at him, the writing man.
Muscles of Jamaica's hills carved in his face,
His skin coloured above the blood in brown drought sun,
His hands strong like a carpenter's, his eyes strong,
His work strong, his writing a good thing for his land.
His theme was the terrific future of the poor
Commonplace and powerful as the sea's green weight.
Do not forget him in your ordinary days.
See his paintings there gaunt as starved oxen
He put his hand to them in no search for praise.
His own life died but he has not truly died.
Man, you have seen a great tree put to the flame
How it roars up red as blood above the land
And nothing will stop the red and fiery tree
Until the red flames eat the tree-heart out.
And then it dies, it dies, the good fire dies
But no dying can put the glory out.
So! Touch his life, your heart burns like a fire-tree.
English Studies in The University
of The West Indies: Retrospect
(A shortened version of a lecture read to the P.E.N. Club, Jamaica,
Tuesday 21st April 1970.)
THE opinions which I shall express are my own opinions and do
not necessarily represent the views of the University or the Depart-
ment of English.
In the Preface to Saint Joan, Bernard Shaw tells us that "the
law of change is the law of God" and he adds that "there is nothing
for us but to make it a point of honour to privilege heresy to the last
bearable degree on the simple ground that all evolution in thought
and conduct must at first appear as heresy and misconduct."
In my experience, academics as a group are not famous for far-
sightedness or as architects of change. Perhaps this is an inevitable
corollary of that occupational caution which comes of having been
schooled in rigorous examination of all aspects of any problem. But
it would seem as if there are times when academics, for their own
survival, have to forego some of the satisfaction of that carefulness
in order to keep pace witlM and make the best oi, and make their
own contribution to, the inevitable process of change.
For the better part of twenty-odd years, the University College
and, subsequently, University of the West Indies slumbered along,
taking itself pretty well for granted and becoming more and more
set in its ways. Novw, quite recently and suddenly, it finds itself shaken
by change as a result of pressures from within and without. This
development was bound to follow the political independence of the
region and the University's own independence from its parent insti-
tution of London. But these changes and demands for change are
coming so rapidly that some people are no doubt ready to cry "Hold,
enough!" and to ask for a moratorium on change. If we had some
means of measuring the quantity of change and demand for change dur-
ing the past year, we might well find that it is greater than all the
change or demand for change which had taken place in the preced-
ing two decades. Indeed, if all the proposed changes were to be put
into effect as immediately as the proponents of those changes desire,
the whole machinery of the University would, ironically, simply cease
to function, stalled in bewilderment and confusion. The question, as
I see it, is not so much whether the changes are good or bad (after
all, the morality of great and popular movements of change is never
quite the same as the morality which governs the day-to-day business
of living); the question, then, is not so much whether the changes
are good or bad as whether or not we are prepared for them and In
a position to make the best of them. One of the things which we have
inadvertently consolidated over the years is a significant lack of any
philosophy or strategy of change; and in proportion as we have con-
solidated this deficiency, so much more traumatic must change prove
when it is effected. We need to create a system which allows for
change, a system built on the principle of the inevitability of change,
a system which can accommodate itself to change with the least
possible strain and waste.
The general unpreparedness, the upsurge of questioning and self-
examination, and the suspicion of unreality about many of the things
which had been taken for granted, manifest themselves in all areas
of the University's life from the paved pathways which bear little
relation to where people actually walk, to the growing traffic problem
of a campus which was not really designed as a motor-car campus, to
the relatively superficial question of ceremonial (some of us finding
ourselves with splendid, expensive robes and, suddenly, the prospect
of nowhere to wear them), to the questioning of the structure and
authority of the administration, and, ultimately, to the overriding
and most basic question of what the University is for anyway, the
question of its very reason for existence. It is clear that many of the
questions which are now being asked should have been asked before
now. And while some of those who are clamouring for change are no
doubt being merely fashionable or merely anarchic, or are only seek-
ing in dissent and activism a therapy for their private ailments, we
cannot afford to let slip the opportunity for self-questioning and
stock-taking to which the clamour exhorts us. The more conservative
among us, and those who were accustomed to taking things for grant-
ed, cannot afford to be merely petulant in reaction to the new,
challenges. It will not do simply to parade the old cliches and assump-
tions, the old "what-is-the-world-coming-to" and "we used to get along
well enough thank you without any of this new palaver" To react
in this way is to ensure our doom.
So I am happy to address myself to the question of what I am
doing in the Department of English in the University of the West
Indies. Let us remember from the outset that English studies, more
than most other university disciplines, has always been the subject
of a seemingly endless debate as to Its nature and purpose. There has
always been a steady stream of theorising on the subject, coming, as
we would expect, mainly from those actively Involved In English
studies. The approaches and emphases vary from university to uni-
versity, and even within the same Department we sometimes find
quite a sharp difference of opinion as to what a course in English
should be and how it should be taught.
While the very lack of agreement about what the subject should
be accounts for some of the excitement and challenge which people
find in it, that indefiniteness and elusiveness have been used against
the subject by those, and we have never been without them, who would
question the very idea of literature as a university discipline. To quote
D. J. Palmer: in certain quarters it is still suspiciously regard-
ed as an occupation not altogether respectable, good neither for edu-
cation nor literature."2 It is regarded with suspicion because it
proves so intractable to efforts to reduce or elevate it (depending on
your point of view) to the status of a science, because it depends so
little on fact and so much on sensibility, feeling and the pleasure
I have no intention of joining that old battle now. But at least
we should note that the question of the value and necessity of the
study of literature at our university takes on a new urgency in the
present West Indian context. Attending the currently popular question
of whether or not the University is meeting the needs of the society
(which needs, incidentally, seem to be as diverse as the people who
champion them) is a suggestion that the University is wasting its
resources in turning out so many Arts graduates when there are more
useful priorities to be met. It is suggested that except for teachers,
an Arts degree is at best a mere luxury which the society can ill
afford and at worst a training-ground for misfits and trouble-mak-
ers. In this latter regard Arts students are identified with their much
maligned brothers the social scientists. The argument for the useful-
ness of literature has been made many times and by many famous
men. I do not think that I need to repeat it now. Nor do I doubt that
the society has need of more technologists and artisans and tractor-
drivers and people trained in management skills and commerce. And
perhaps many of the Arts graduates of the University of the West
Indies would have been of more use to themselves and to the society
if they had devoted their three years to subjects rather less genteel
or subjects which are, in the popular sense of the word, useful. But
it would still remain true that as many people as possible should be
allowed to study it as fully as they desire. And we should remind those
politicians who profess to care about culture and the fostering of a
genuine native culture that careful study and training in the Arts,
properly conceived, is essential to any healthy society. The needs of
a society are not only those which are obvious to hungry voters and
to politicians bent on impressing the world.
In the next few paragraphs I shall outline certain principles
which I think we ought to bear in mind in considering what English
studies in the University of the West Indies should be. I shall also say,
briefly, what has been done over the years in the Department of
English, and what is being done now; so that we may judge those
activities against the principles which I shall have outlined. I believe,
too, that this latter information will be valuable simply as informa-
tion. One of the minor contributing factors to the present crisis of
change in the University is the fact that most people in the com-
munity simply do not know what goes on at the University in the
normal course of its existence. The Community is usually ill-informed,
or not informed at all, as to what has been done at and by the Uni-
versity. I have heard it said that a iUniversity should not bother itself
about explaining or promoting itself; that it should get on with its
teaching and research and that teaching and research will make their
influence felt among those members of the public who are worthy or
desirous of benefiting from that influence. This view may be all right
for some universities and some societies, but I cannot believe that it is
right for our society, a society which still needs to be educated in
the very idea of a university. We cannot afford such olympian
At this stage I should perhaps make it clear that the English
studies of which I speak comprise both language and literature. At
times I shall find it convenient to speak of both fields together under
the one term, "English", while at other times I shall find it con-
venient to speak of them separately; and since it is literature that is
the more ticklish question, it should be understandable if I devote
more attention to that.
But I must return to the matter of principles for determining a
satisfactory course of English studies in the University of the West
Indies. In trying to arrive at such principles, we should do well to
have a look at the history of English studies in England itself. There
are a few useful lessons to be learnt from such a look; and here I
must express my indebtedness to two books in particular, one of which
I have already quoted from-D. J. Palmer's The Rise of English Studies
(London, 1969) subtitled "An account of the Study of English
Language and Literature from its Origins to the Making of the Oxford
English School." The other is E. M. W Tillyard's The Muse Unchained
(London, 1958) subtitled "An Intimate Account of the Revolution in
English Studies at Cambridge." It is significant for our purposes that
Tillyard saw the founding of the English School at Cambridge as
nothing less than a revolution.
From the story of English studies in England, there are four points
in particular which I should like to commend to your attention
as being especially relevant to our present purposes:
1. that English studies as we know it today is a comparatively
2. that the pressures which made for the development of Eng-
lish studies in the universities came to a large extest from
outside the universities;
3. that those pressures involved a clear spirit of nationalism;
4. that the advocates of English studies saw themselves as work-
ing to make higher education more meaningful and closely
related then it was to the life and needs of the society in
I stress the recentness and slow evolution of English studies be-
cause by the very nature of its unquestioned introduction into our
university, it may well have seemed to us to be a phenomenon which
had appeared long ago and full grown from heaven like the Adam of
Genesis, carrying with it a sanctity which placed it beyond question.
And even if the slightest reflection had told us that this could not
have been so, there would still have been an unconscious tendency to
act as if it were so. English studies was introduced into the University
College of the West Indies as an appendage of English studies in the
University of London. I have no doubt that the chief consideration of
the introducers was that West Indian students should obtain, as far
as circumstances would allow, the best that was available to English
students. And since what was best for English students must have
been arrived at after years of deliberation and practice, the only thing
for us to do would be to seize our opportunity of partaking of that
excellence. 1ut the more serious implications of all this are better left
for when I come to talk about nationalism and relevance.
According to Palmer, "The study of English in England began in
quite a humble and informal way, as a kind of poor man's Classics,
and more than a hundred years passed before it won recognition as
a branch of scholarship in the highest seats of learning." 3 The aca-
demic study of English literature, as we know it in schools and uni-
versities, has developed within the last hundred and fifty years.
During that time, it has emerged from humble and informal origins
to become a subject of central importance in orthodox English educa-
tion." 4 During the nineteenth century, the study of the Classics re-
mained the central discipline in what is called humane education. The
struggle to get English studies recognized was ultimately, in effect, a
struggle to remove the Classics from the central position, though this
was not necessarily the intention of the early champions of English
One such champion of English studies, who, nevertheless, saw
it as taking a place secondary to that of the Classics, was John Churton
Collins. He brings me to my next point, the one about pressures from
outside the universities playing a great part in the development of
English studies. Palmer devotes an entire chapter to an account of
Collins' attack on Oxford for that university's tardiness in giving the
study of English literature a central place in its curriculum. While
Collins was engaged in this attack, he was not a lecturer at Oxford
or any other university; he was a free-lance teacher and journalist
and an editor of the works of earlier English writers. His campaign
against Oxford, of which he himself was a graduate, was one of the
greatest single influences in bringing about the revolution in English
studies there. But Collins is only one example of the kind of outside
pressure of which I speak. Tillyard has an interesting comment in this
connection. He says, "The old universities are proud and would like to
think that they are self-sufficient, and they resent pressure from with-
out. But this they have to endure and finally yield to." 5 It seems to
me that the truth of Tillyard's observation applies not only to old uni-
versities, but to all universities, not least our own.
In England the pattern of influence was one of popular demand
throwing up institutions of higher education to fill the needs which
the existing universities were not filling; these institutions in turn
promoted English studies, which proved increasingly successful, and so
popular demand eventually made Oxford and Cambridge see good
sense. I can cite here, as examples, the Mechanics Institutes,
beginning with the London Mechanics Institute in 1823, which later
became Birkbeck College and was incorporated into the University of
London in the 1870's. Then there were adult education colleges like
The People's College, Sheffield, founded in 1842, and The Working Man's
College, officially opened in 1854, which grew out of evening classes
given by a few far-sighted professors from King's College in 1852.
There was also pressure on the older universities from the newer
universities, a pattern which is still very much in evidence. Let me
round off this section of our survey by quoting briefly from Henry
Morley, who has the distinction of being one of the first two men "to
devote an academic career in England solely to English studies."6 In
a lecture on "The Study of Literature", given to the London Extension
Society in February 1887, he said:
I watch with the greatest sympathy and admiration the efforts
of those who are striving so hard, and I hope, so successfully, to
bring the systematic and methodical study of our own literature,
in connection with other literatures, among the subjects for teach-
ing and examination in the Universities of Oxford and Cam-
I have gone into this business of outside influence in the develop-
ment of English studies in England in trder that we may remind our-
selves. lest we forget, that much good can come out of suc'i influence.
Lest we become too hardened in our self-satisfaction, and think our-
selves above popular interests, and have here a clear lesson that the
people within universities do not always necessarily know best what is
best for universities or for the people whom universities exist to serve.
And this lesson, exemplified in this instance in the very field of Eng-
lish studies, is especially relevant to our own deliberations as to what
English studies ought to be in our own University.
I have already anticipated the other two points that I wish to
stress in our brief survey of the development of English studies in
England-I refer to the points about nationalism and general relevance
to the development of the society, which two points are, of course, in-
timately inter-related. I say that I have already anticipated these
points because obviously the growing popular demand for English
studies in the nineteenth century was inherently an expression of what
the society regarded as real needs and also, ipso facto, an expression of
the national spirit. In the quotation which I read just now from Henry
Morley, you will remember that he spake for "the systematic and me-
thodical study of our own literature." That our own is what I wish to
focus on now.
Perhaps at this point I ought to establish my position with regard
to the question of nationalism. I hold no brief for nationalism, at least
not as it is popularly presented, as a kind of ultimate virtue, the chief
reason and glory of a man's existence; and I am enamoured of a
rather wistful statement from Rose Macaulay's The Towers of
We mused for a while over parents. Then I went on musing about
why it was thought better and higher to love one's country than
one's county, or town, or village, or house. Perhaps because it
was larger. But then it would be still better to love one's con-
tinent and best of all to love one's planet.
Nationalism is too often nothing but chauvinism, a grand accumula-
tion of the selfishness and egotism of individuals; it is too often
nothing but the rationalisation of the murderous greed of nations.
Nevertheless, it is an incontrovertible fact that mankind is deployed
across the earth in what are, by one set of criteria or another, nation-
al groupings. The best of us, I suppose, in our best moments, think of
ourselves as citizens of the world; but the only true citizens of the
world are displaced persons. We are creatures of time and place. Only
God can see everything completely under the aspect of eternity, and
such glimpses of eternity as we are fortunate to catch are determined by
our particular position in time and space. The question is not whether
or not nationalism is desirable, but how to achieve and maintain the
best kind of nationalism, while guarding against the evils of the worst
I have noticed that the nationalism of small and new and poor
nations is often regarded disparagingly as "mere nationalism" the
pathetic gestures of little men trying to make themselves feel big; while
the nationalism of large and old and powerful nations is seen to be so
natural and rarefied a phenomenon that it is hardly recognized as
nationalism at all. And the distressing fact is that this view of things
is quite common among the people of "little" nations. The literature
of great nations, it would seem, is literature: the literature of little
nations is mere parochialism.
So I wish to stress the nationalistic aspect of the development of
English studies in England. Some Englishmen of the last century felt
that the study of literature in England should be centred in the study
of English literature precisely because it was the literature of England.
a feeling which seems to me to be entirely laudable and proper. It is
significant that when Palmer looks for a point at which to begin his
account of what we might call the pre-history of English studies, he
should say that "There is a natural point of departure in the last
quarter of the sixteenth century, when Englishmen first became con-
scious of their own national literature These critics voiced the
general feeling in their awareness of the new vernacular literature as
a national possession." But let us pass quickly to more recent times
and listen to one of the most formidable of the Victorians, the scien-
tist T. H. Huxley. In 1886 he writes: "That a young Englishman may
be turned out of our universities 'epopt and perfect,' so far as their
system takes him, and yet ignorant of the noble literature which has
grown up in these islands during the last three centuries, is a fact in
the history of the nineteenth century which the twentieth will find
hard to believe." 10 Later, in 1909, when new proposals for English
studies were put before the Senate of Cambridge, A. W. Ward "plead-
ed for English as a proper object of a man's main studies at a univer-
sity," arguing that "it was unworthy of the spirit of the Renaissance
not to admit the study of the national literatures to the position given
to that of the Classics."11
Implicit in statements like these is the idea that to any people
the study of their own literature has a particular relevance which is
not provided for by any other literature. The idea becomes explicit
in other statements, such as that by Charles Kingsley, in his inaugural
lecture at Queen's College, that literature is "the autobiography of a
nation", 12 or of F. D. Maurice, the first Principal of the Working Men's
College, that "we cannot safely separate our literary pursuits, even our
literary recreations, from the history and life of our nation." 13 An
even more pointed, substantial and disinterested statement comes from
A. J. Scott in 1848: a vernacular literature," he says, "is that of
a speech and nation yet both living, and in whose life he partakes who
is to study them; it is the utterance of the free action of mind in
its wholeness or concrete existence, under the conditions of the char-
acter and circumstances of our own people." 14
There is another aspect of the idea of the importance of English
literature to Englishmen in the nineteenth century which we should
note. As Palmer says,
there was a widespread feeling (in the Victorian age) that the
spiritual and physical conditions of the industrial revolution im-
poverished the cultural lives of a large class of people, that they
had been cut off from their traditional past, and that therefore
they needed to be given new means of establishing connections
with a national cultural heritage. 15
I need not elaborate on that observation. If ever there was a state-
ment relevant to the West Indies now, that is it.
We should also note that the question of English studies as being
relevant to the lives of Englishmen was not just a matter of introduc-
ing English studies where there were none. The campaign of the pro-
gressives all during the period under review was also one of making
such study of literature as did take place more and more up-to-date
and realistic in content and approach, less and less pedantic, remote
and purely philological. This important feature of the development
is excellently summarised by Tillyard.
I should like to round off this survey of the rise of English studies
in England by referring to an article on "Nationalism in Canadian
Poetry," written by Louis Dudek, himself one of the better known
contemporary Canadian poets and a member of the English Depart-
ment of McGill University. The Canadian situation, in respect of the
development of a national literature and the study of literature in gen-
eral presents many interesting parallels to our own situation. Dudek
points out that "the study of literature is always to some extent a
political fact, as well as a purely aesthetic or literary one, though
teachers and students are often unaware of that dimension." 16 "Each
of the great nations," he says, "believes its own literature to be the
best Only nations still under tutelage, subordinate to others, live
a life of virginal modesty: to them 'great art' is always what other
people have done, especially those others to whom they are culturally
and politically bound." 17 He says that "this is not a matter (simply)
of qualitative superiority. If it were, we (Canadians) might study
Dostoevski instead of George Eliot, or Goethe rather than Words-
Each nation is interested first and foremost in its own literature
because that is in fact the best for them English literature is
about English life and about the permanent issues of English
society; therefore it moves English readers like no other
There may be a Homer on some neighboring Greek island, but
our own Mimnermus has more to say. We have our George Eliot
and William Makepeace Thackeray; what matter that others have
a Tolstoi or a Dostoevski? 19
On that note, and in the light of all the foregoing considerations,
we can now look at English studies in the University College and Uni-
versity of the West Indies. The story is not eventful. It might be
argued that this is because everything has been as it should be.
From its inception in 1950 until now, what the Department of
English has offered is the history of the literature of England, with
the inclusion, in recent years, of a few fringe benefits. In the beginn-
ing, the final examination for the General degree comprised four
papers, as follows:
1. Middle English and Early Tudor Literature, 1300-1550, with
2. English Literature, 1550-1700.
3. English Literature, 1800 to the present day.
4. Exercises in critical appreciation.
I don't know for certain, but I suspect that the excellent leaven of the
paper in critical appreciation was there partly because the first Pro-
fossor was a Cambridge man, and it was Cambridge which made
practical criticism famous. This syllabus remained unchanged for more
than ten years, except for the fact that Paper 3, English Literature
1800 to the present day, was narrowed down to English Literature 1798-
1830, a sensible change, even if a very minor one, since it at least allow-
ed students to study one homogeneous period in some depth. Inci-
dentally, the term "present day" in the original paper was something
of an overstatement, since there was little or nothing after 1900. The
twelve years during which this syllabus was in effect may be called a
period of stability, depending on how one looks at it. We must re-
member, however, that during all this time the Department was teach-
ing for degrees of the University of London.
The changeover from the University College of the West Indies to
the University of the West Indies (1962) coincided with the departure
of the first Professor. The syllabus for the final examination as pub-
lished in 1963 shows a slight change from the previous syllabus. Now
there are five Papers instead of four:
1. English Literature, Chaucer to Wyatt.
3. English Literature, Donne to Pope.
4. English Literature, Johnson to Byron.
5. English Literature, Victorian Period.
Except for a very slight change in the first Paper, which became "Eng-
lish Literature, Chaucer to Spenser," instead of "English Literature.
Chaucer to Wyatt," that syllabus has remained in effect up to this
year. The changes over the previous syllabus are little more than re-
finements. Indeed, with the dropping of the practical criticism paper,
it became completely a course in the history of the literature of
Thngland; the titles of the papers may be new, but the basic concep-
,ion of the course remains the same; and a paper is introduced to fill
the historical gap between 1700 and 1800 which had existed in the
former syllabus. Besides, the study of literature still stopped short at
When we look at the syllabus for what was originally the Honours
degree, and latterly the Special degree in English. we find basically the
same pattern and emphasis, though with a few more adventurous
offerings in recent years. Here is the original list of papers for the final
1. Old English Texts and Literature.
2. Middle English and early Tudor Texts and Literature, 1300-
3. Outlines of the history of the English language, with a study
of linguistic change from Old English to the present day.
4. History of English Literature, 1550-1700.
5. History of English Literature, 1700-1800.
6. History of English Literature, 1800 to the present day.
8. Exercises in critical appreciation.
A few noteworthy changes were made in 1963. Old English litera-
ture became optional, at least in theory; the alternative was a course
in "The Classical Background to English Literature", but this never
got off the ground. Practical criticism was removed, and a paper en-
titled simply "The Novel" introduced. "The present day" took on defi-
nite shape, as a half-course entitled "English literature, Yeats to
Auden," the other half being "American Literature," a long overdue
introduction. But the changes were in effect merely small additions to
the old comprehensive foundation of the history of the literature of
England. Other slight changes were subsequently rung, one of the most
important being the introduction of a paper entitled "Selected West
Indian and Commonwealth Literature;" but this was introduced at
the expense of American literature. Other interesting recent introduc-
tions in the final examination were "Modern Drama" and "20th Cen-
tury Prose Fiction", but these were optional extras which the Depart-
ment managed to squeeze in, largely by swelling the syllabus. We still
live under a compulsion, it would seem, to make sure that the students
get a comprehensive course in the literature of England, as if we must
first seek the heaven of that kingdom and one or two things else will
be added on to it. And such daring additions as were effected, were
effected, it would seem, not so much as a result of Departmental policy
as of the particular interests of individual teachers.
This year, for the first time, we are teaching a full course in West
Indian Literature to all students reading for the final examination of
the special degree in English. A similar course will be introduced next
year for students doing what was hitherto called a general degree.
This year we are teaching, for the first time, a full course in Amer-
ican literature as an option for the special degree. Also for this degree,
we shall introduce next year a Commonwealth literature option which
will be based largely on West African literature. And on the language
side, we shall be introducing what should be an exciting new option,
a "Socio-linguistic Survey of West Indian Dialects."
I believe that for us to continue to approach English studies in the
way which we have inherited, to take over wholesale a programme
and approach developed, quite rightly, for the well-being and better-
ment of a people not our own, and to think that we are thereby allow-
ing ourselves the full benefit that a society can derive from the study
of literature, is simply to perpetuate our cultural blight.
I believe that we will have to change the orientation and scope of
English studies. I believe that what it should be for us here in the
West Indies now is not the study of the history of the, lit-
erature of England, but the study of literature in English.
By this I mean literature produced by anybody anywhere who
writes in English. We have a world to choose from-Canada, the U.S.A.,
Africa, Asia, Australia, the West Indies, and, of course, Great Britain.
There is our source, wide open and waiting. We shall go to it freely
and openly, with no bias except that which, as we have seen, is natural
and necessary to any people in this kind of situation. We shall select
from it what seems to us to be most beneficial to us, whether in regard
to our specific problems at this particular moment, or in regard to
matters of universal interest which appeal to us inasmuch as we are
part of mankind. We shall allow for courses designed in all sorts of
ways, flexibly, to give us the benefit of all the possible approaches to
literature-there may be courses on particular historical periods, or on
particular genres, or on particular authors, or on particular regions, o"
on particular themes and preoccupations of different writers, and so
And in this programme, the study of West Indian literature (at
least as long as the University of the West Indies exists as such) should
naturally have a central and increasingly important place. In terms of
sheer volume, that place, though essential, will be relatively small for
the time being, since West Indian literature is in an infant, if not
embryonic state. Almost all the books prescribed for the current West
Indian literature paper were published after the inception of the De-
This new orientation will not mean the rejection of English litera-
ture (i.e. the literature of England). The value and relevance to all
men of the great works of English literature are indisputable, and so
are their particular value and relevance to all whose language is
English. In the present mood of angry reaction against the wrongs of
our past. some voices would seem to cry for such a rejection. I can do
no better than quote from one of our own West Indian authors, Derek
Nowadays (in the West Indies), any foreign or even white
is considered alien or useless. This is a totally new kind of
intellectual fascism that is really an embarrassing form of revenge.
What we will produce if we keep this up is a society of intellectu-
ally stunted people with no other values than "buy local."20
But Derek Walcott himself might not go down too well with the more
"advanced" thinkers. So let me quote from yet another outstanding
West Indian, this time one of the spiritual fathers of our young West
Indian radicals, a man who has recently been teaching in a Black
Studies programme in the United States. I mean C. L. R. James. He
The atmosphere in which I came to maturity, and which has de-
veloped me along the lines that I have gone, is the atmosphere of
the literature of Western Europe We live in one world, and
we have to find out what is taking place in the world. And I, a
man of the Caribbean, have found that it is in the study of West-
ern literature, Western philosophy and Western history that I
have found out the things I have found out, even about the under-
developed countries. 21
What the new orientation will mean is that we will go to English
literature with free minds, concentrating on what in it seems most
meaningful to us, freely recognizing its foreign-ness and not fooling
ourselves into reading it as if it had been written primarily for us.
And this is not to say that we will go to English literature or to the
literature of any other region, only for that in it which flatters our
own immediate moods or prejudices or national desires. There is a
value in studying experiences and ideas different from our own pre-
cisely because they are different. As one of the most eminent of Eng-
lishmen, Francis Bacon, said: "I have taken all knowledge to be my
George Bernard Shaw. Saint Joan (London: Constable, 1924), pp. xli,
D. J. Palmer. The Rise of English Studies (London: O.U.P 1965, p.
4. Ibid., p.
5. E. M. W. Tillyard. The Muse Unchained (London: Bowes & Bowes, 195\). p.
6. Palmer, p. 50.
7. Ibid.. p. 94.
8. Rose Macaulay. The Towers of Trebizond (London: Collins, 1956), p. 106.
9. Palmer, p. 1.
10. Ibid., p. 91.
II. Tillyard, p. 36.
Palmer, p. 39.
Ibid., p. 39.
14. Ibid., p. 26.
Ibid., p. 39.
16. Queen's Quarterly, LXXV (Winter 1968), p. 557.
17. Ibid., pp. 558, 559.
I8. Ibid., p. 558.
19. Ibid., pp. 560, 561.
20. Derek Walcott, interview with Benedict Wight, Exprcss Independence Magazine
(Trinidad), 31 August 1969, p. 27.
C. L. R. James, "The Nineteen-Thirties," Journal of Commonwealth Literature.
No. & (July 1969), pp. 73, 74.
22 Francis Bacon. "Letter to Lord Burleigh" (1592).
Commentary on V S. Naipaul's
"A House for Mr Biswas"
1. A West Indian Epic
IN ITS arrangement, the novel announces itself as an epic. It
opens with a prologue and contains six chapters in Part One: Pastoral,
Before the Tulsis, The Tulsis, The Chase, Green Vale, and A Departure;
seven in Part Two: Amazing Scenes, The New Regime, The Shorthills
Adventure, Among the Readers and Learners, The Void, The Revolution.
and The House; and it ends with an epilogue. The prologue in its first
sentence tells of the hero's death and summarises his physical suffer-
ings in the first paragraph. The tone is ironic, the facts hard and
incontrovertible, the suspense protracted, even within the sentences:
Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of
Sikkim Street, St. James, Port of Spain, was sacked. In less
than a year he had spent more than nine weeks in the Colonial
Hospital and convalesced at home for even longer. When the
doctor advised him to take a complete rest the Trinidad Sentinel
had no choice. It gave Mr Biswas three months' notice and
continued, up to the time of his death, to supply him every
morning with a free copy of the paper. (p. 7)
But the Trinidad Sentinel is not the enemy at the gate: the name is
merely that of a newspaper, a hard and incontrovertible fact but no
harder than those that follow:
Mr Biswas was forty-six, and had four children. He had no
money. His wife Shama had no money. On the house in Sikkim
Street Mr Biswas owed, and had been owing for four years, three
thousand dollars. The interest on this, at eight per cent, came
to twenty dollars a month; the ground rent was ten dollars. Two
children were at school. The two older children, on whom Mr
Biswas might have depended, were both abroad on scholarships.
It is tempting to call the enemy Fate, which troubles and finally
kills Mr Biswas, but this would be to ascribe to the novel a flabbiness
or inexplicable acquiescence to something in itself vague which the
language so clearly denies. It is also denied by the virtues that both
Mr Biswas and his wife have acquired through experience:
Shama did not run straight off to her mother to beg for
help. Ten years before that would have been her first thought.
Now she tried to comfort Mr Biswas, and devised plans of her
own. (p. 7)
He didn't now care to do anything against his wife's wishes.
He had grown to accept her judgement and to respect her
optimism. He trusted her. Since they had moved to the house
Shama had learned a new loyalty, to him and to their children;
away from her mother and sisters, she was able to express this
without shame, and to Mr Biswas this was a triumph almost as
big as the acquiring of his own house. (pp. 7-8)
These virtues are the treasure that two lives have amassed together;
they are heroic virtues, expressed in epic terms: pride, womanly com-
fort, plans, reliance on each other, respect, loyalty and triumph. It
might be misleading to call them aspects of love, but they are the
opposite of human indifference. They have been acquired in the face
of such indifference; and it is human indifference that is the enemy.
It sometimes assumes the name, the disguise, of the Trinidad Sentinel,
the Tulsi family into which Shama was born, the Community Welfare
Department, and so on, but behind each name lies the indifference.
Behind each organisation, commercial, personal, governmental, there
is an indifferent human face. To recognize this is to recognize why,
in this novel, V. S.. Naipaul has been compared to Dickens.
As so often in Dickens, the question that sustains the novel is the
nature of reality. The search for reality is the quest on which Mr
Biswas is embarked. He is introduced to us at his birth as Mr Biswas,
and the effect is humorous because of the incongruity of the baby and
the burden of his title. But the reality of the title is finally established
as its owner moves through various experiences, each time a little more
certain of the essential indestructability of his nature and his claim
to manhood. Experience alters him, but only to confirm those heroic
qualities. From being the cause that wit is in other men, he becomes
witty in himself:
'God! God! Isn't this just the sort of arseness to make you
go and dance on the grave afterwards? You know, I could
turn the funeral column into a bright little feature. Yesterday's
Undertakings. By Gravedigger. Just next to Today's Arrange-
ments. Or set it next to Invalids. Heading: Going, Going,
Gone. How about this? Photo of widow hearing about will and
laughing. Caption. "Smiling, Mrs. X? We thought so. Where
there's a will there is a way." Two photos side by side.' (p. 322)
The language is violent and the image exact because the fool has
become heroic in the face of circumstance.
That the quest for reality should itself be real necessitates the
establishment of the concreteness of experience, the tangibility of
objects, and the creation of a hero who is aware of the concreteness
and its deceptiveness. Because he does the first so convincingly, it is
possible to call Naipaul a realist and his book a novel of social protest;
but to do so is to underestimate the success with which he does the
second, and thus fail to recognize the novel's epic quality.
Mr Biswas is born into a community whose position is illusory. The
Indians in the West Indies are not so much settlers as visitors, all of
them, even though born there, sure that it is no more than a stage on
an incomplete journey, the end of which is a return to India; 'but when
the opportunity came, many refused, afraid of the unknown, afraid to
leave the familiar temporariness.' (p. 168). The Tulsi family, into which
Mr Biswas marries early, enjoys the same illusion, despite 'the solidity
of their establishment' a solidity Naipaul has detailed. But in the
second half of the novel, where the family's return to India becomes a
subject for discussion. 'Mr Biswas didn't take such talk seriously.' (p. 339).
Experience has taught him that, 'Separate from their house and lands,
they would be separate from the labourers, tenants and friends who
respected them for their piety and the memory of Pundit Tulsi; their
Hindu status would be worthless and, as had happened during their
descent on the house in Port of Spain, they would be only exotic.'
Earlier in his life, listening to the old men talk of the same subject,
he had responded differently: 'Though it wasn't cold, many had scarves
over their heads and around their necks; this detail made them look
foreign and, to Mr Biswas, romantic.' (p. 168) We see the detail, itself
born of illusion, and Mr Biswas' response, also born of illusion; and
later, we see the reality that to the Tulsi family illusion is necessary,
and the reality that Mr Biswas has established for himself in being
able to recognize this.
As befits an epic hero, Mr Biswas' birth is surrounded by magic.
He is born with six fingers on one hand. The pundit foretells that he
will have an unlucky sneeze, and gap-teeth, which still mean, six
hundred years after the Wife of Bath, that '"The boy will be a lecher
and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well.'" His umbilical cord is
ceremoniously buried. He must keep away from water; but it is his
father who drowns, diving for Mr Biswas, who he believes has dis-
obeyed the injunction. Having been indirectly responsible for the
death of his father, who supported the family, Mr Biswas is as
responsible for the poverty that overtakes them and the disappearance
of all evidence of his origins when their house is sold and the ground
in which his navel string is buried is developed as part of an oil field.
His brothers 'were already broken into estate work and were too old
to learn anything else.' His mother, 'broken, became increasingly use-
less and impenetrable.' Having been responsible for breaking so much,
Mr Biswas is for the next thirty-five years, 'a wanderer with no place
he could call his own, with no family except that which he was to
attempt to create out of the engulfing world of the Tulsis.' (p. 35). He
has broken into loneliness, as he recognizes, but in coping with it, he
breaks free as a human being. Naipaul uses the signs and portents,
whose significance and portentousness are interpreted by the pundit,
to suggest his hero's mythical origins; that done. he casually
Mr Biswas grew. The limbs that had been massaged and oiled
twice a day now remained dusty and muddy and unwashed for
days. The malnutrition that had given him the sixth finger of
misfortune pursued him now with eczema and sores that swelled
and burst and scabbed and burst again, until they stank; his
ankles and knees and wrists and elbows were in particular
afflicted, and the sores left marks like vaccination scars.
Malnutrition gave him the shallowest of chests, the thinnest of
limbs; it stunted his growth and gave him a soft rising belly
Malnutrition is the reality; vaccination the most scientific form of
illusion, where even the instinctive blood is deluded here means
getting the disease and recovering from it; but in experiencing such
reality, Mr Biswas confirms the reality of his heroic nature. Nalpaul
repeats the paragraph's first sentence. 'And yet, perceptibly, he grew.
He was never aware of being hungry. It never bothered him that he
didn't go to school.' Far from condoning the huge indifference that
allows malnutrition, Naipaul makes his hero indifferent to it. Mr
Biswas becomes heroic, increases in stature, but in human terms. He
does not die, and to that extent lives a charmed life.
Like Don Quixote's, Mr Biswas' heroism is early compromised by
his sensibility; but Naipaul, unlike Cervantes, is not primarily engaged
on social satire. His hero does establish himself as a person in an
indifferent world on his own terms, which are refined in the face of
experience. Like Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, Mr Biswas takes delight
in calligraphy: 'He thought R and S the most beautiful Roman letters;
no letter could express so many moods as R, without losing its beauty;
and what could compare with the swing and the rhythm of S?' (p. 66)
This is a simple aspiration towards beauty, the sustaining companion.
half-human, half-divine, of all epic heroes; and there is no tragedy
in the aspiration, as there is for Mister Johnson. There is instead a
further experience, the truth of which Mr Biswas must learn before
he can be free and therefore happy:
To satisfy the extravagant lettering tastes of his shop-
keepers, he scanned foreign magazines. From looking at
magazines for their letters he began to read them for their
stories, and during his long weeks of leisure he read such novels
as he could find in the stalls of Pagotes. He read the novels
of Hall Caine and Marie Corelli. They introduced him to in-
toxicating worlds. Descriptions of landscape and weather in
particular excited him; they made him despair of finding
romance in his own dull green land which the sun scorched every
day; he never had much taste for westerns. (p. 67)
Despite an education as banal as anything Nicholas Nickleby or Mr
Kipps experienced, Mr Biswas recognizes the alternatives: that which
he knows, and that which he can imagine. He is free to choose; but
the choice Is illusory. He cannot leave his own land, and this other
land signifies 'romance' Yet he chooses, on his own terms of learnt
experience: 'He became increasingly impatient at living in the back
trace The discrimination which normally accompanies choice when
it is real, here follows. A home of his own becomes as much Mr
Biswas' quest as it was Odysseus' when he returned from the Trojan
wars, or Satan's when cast out from heaven.
Malnutrition of the spirit has always been one of the most crippling
effects of social poverty. Mr. Biswas, because he wished to 'persuade
himself that he lived in a land where romance was possible' (p. 68),
learns to delight in a rush job of sign-writing, bus-conducting, tales of
and visits to brothels, daily journalism; even his haphazard engage-
ment and a marriage into which he is pushed leave him with the
momentary feeling that he has taken part in great events. And in a
way of course he has: they are all experiences, but their real essential
greatness is only later evident, in the way Mr Biswas treats his child-
ren and laughs at his role in journalism and social welfare.
The only formal education open to him is paltry: rote learning and
physical and spiritual humiliation at the hands of people as impoverish-
ed as he. The experience is common enough; but it is complicated for
Mr Biswas because it is offered in the name of a British Empire and
tradition whose representatives lowly ones at Mr Biswas's level -
are the custodians of a history of heroism, of romance, which establish-
ed itself and defined its heroism by being brutal to people like Mr
Biswas. The illusion is compounded by Mr Lal, the Indian school-
teacher, who 'believed in thoroughness, discipline and what he delighted
to call stick-to-it-iveness, virtues he felt unconverted Hindus particular-
ly lacked.' (p. 39) He is not only an Indian one of those people
visiting the West Indies engaged in upholding the qualities of
Victorianism; he is also a convert to Christianity and is teaching in a
Canadian Mission School. The question of identity, of establishing
what is real, is enormously complicated in a society where other child-
ren, those of a pious Hindu family, are educated at a Catholic college
because it offers the 'best' kind of education one that ensures social
elevation through marriage or profession; where one of these children
employs the term 'Christian' to abuse Mr Biswas, because he has
espoused the Aryan cause, which is to reform Hinduism; where a black
West Indian woman can ask for flesh-coloured stockings, be offered
a black pair by mistake, and upbraid the shop-girl for trying to insult
her. Such conflict between illusion and reality provides Naipaul with
the occasion for some of his funniest humour; but the humour is
Integral. It serves his main concern.
As one of Mr Biswas's friends remarks,' "This education is a helluva
thing...Any little child could pick up. And yet the blasted thing does
turn out so damn important later on."' One aspect of its paltriness is
that it supplies Mr Biswas with the vocabulary with which to express,
without refining, his longing for romance. When he decides to build
a cheap house on an unsuitable piece of land, he calls the spot a bower,
'a word that had come to him from Wordsworth by way of the Royal
Reader.' (p. 206) The reality of its unsuitability is disguised for him
in language bestowed by education, the very process that might have
saved him from such error; instead, he must learn from experience, not
only of the land's unsuitability but also of the lying nature of language.
Similarly, when he embarks on acquiring an education for himself, he
reads That Body of Yours, Home Mechanics, Samuel Smiles, rubbish
offered to the recently literate by those older in the ways of the same
system. The fruit of such experience is passed on to his bewildered
son, so that he should not resemble his father; the boy listens to read-
ings from Self-Help, and on his birthday receives a copy of Duty and,
'as a pure frivolity a school edition of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.'
(p. 331) The boy is in the scholarship class, chasing the education that
will free him from the condition of his father; but the same falsity
surrounds this system as surrounded the one to which his father was
exposed: 'Childhood, as a time of gaiety and irresponsibility, was for
these exhibition pupils only one of the myths of English composition.
Only in compositions did they give delirious shouts of joy and their
spirits overflowed into song; only there did they indulge in what the
composition notes called "schoolboy pranks"' (p. 331) The narrator's
voice is clear here as the indictment of the upper-class English educa-
tion system is made; but the boy wins his scholarship, even goes to
England to face his own particular misery, and, seems to his father
upon his death bed, though not to the son himself, the needed comfort-
ing support. By this time, Mr Biswas has established his own reality, his
own identity and this cannot be bequeathed to anyone, even a son.
There is, however, some comfort the epic word or solace, as
Naipaul frequently calls it, in Mr Biswas' literacy. He reads Marcus
Aurelius, and imagines a similarity of condition, as in fact there is;
and, discovering Dickens, in whose grotesques 'everything he feared and
suffered from was ridiculed and diminished. .his own anger, his own
contempt became unnecessary. (p. 324) Naipaul allows the reader
to recognize the truth of the similarity for himself; he is also
scrupulously honest in preserving his distance from the character, a
distance which, in the early chapters about Mr Biswas's childhood, he
is obliged to establish. Only then will the moral categories function
and the social satire be effective. When Mr Biswas discovers Samuel
Smiles, for instanec, we learn that Smiles 'was as romantic and satisfy-
ing as any novelist, and Mr Biswas saw himself in many Samuel Smiles
heroes: he was young, he was poor, and he fancied he was struggling.'
These last few words assert the narrators honesty. Mr Biswas is strug-
gling, but not in the way he fancies; he is heroic, but not in the way
of Smiles' heroes. His heroism becomes plausible because the hero is
not self-regarding, for he is constantly aware of the incompleteness of
the self. That which he regards is a part of something he is still able
to imagine adding to. He is able to say, 'I am not whole' (p. 232); and
this constitutes his heroism: to go on with the journey through the
end is beyond thinking. As a result of reading Dickens, 'he was given
strength to bear with the most difficult part of his day: dressing in the
morning, that daily affirmation of faith in oneself, which at times was
for him almost like an act of sacrifice.' (p. 324)
This freedom the author creates for himself in order to allow him
room to move about his character, view him from several angles, and
establish an honesty of purpose, is constant. And the constancy
sustains the larger purpose: to establish one man's view of reality. Thus,
Mr Biswas 'went to his room, lay down on the bed and forced himself
to cry for all his lost happiness.' (p. 234) This is the concluding
sentence to three pages of the hero's intense analysis of fear: the fear
that his house will be burnt down as part of what might be called
race riots though Naipaul identifies the object of fear as 'People' He
conquers it to the point where he can speak to his children; but then
the regret begins: 'So much that was good and beautiful, from which
he was now forever barred, awaited them.' Given his condition or
any adult human condition such goodness and beauty are as real as
the regret. This is the passing of innocence, as Blake calls it. But
like Blake, Naipaul recognizes that experience, though it precludes
innocence, admits what innocence never can: the awareness of
innocence, though it be past, because it is past. To bear this aware-
ness demands heroism. Thus Naipaul's language takes on heroic
virtues: to cry for grief requires self-enforcement, for what one has is
so much more than innocence. Mr Biswas does not realise this: thus
the phrase 'forced himself to cry for all his lost happiness' indicates
self-indulgence; but for the author, and the reader, it communicates
the character's potential self-awareness. This ambiguity is only
possible in the clear open space the author retains for himself.
The same honesty and means of exercising it are apparent in the
earlier comment that Mr Biswas 'began to speak about the brutishness
of the labourers; and instead of wondering, as he had at the beginning,
how they lived on three dollars a week, he wondered why they got so
much. Here the experience of poverty, the condition of Mr Biswas's
birth, is the natural determinant of his morality; but such a morality
is as inherited as the condition. The experience has not been lived
through, is without its completing opposite. The opposite of poverty is
not wealth but power, for whereas poverty is an absolute condition,
wealthiness is relative; briefly and meagrely Mr Biswas experiences
power as an overseer on the Tulsi estates. It corrupts him till fear -
which is the awareness that all power except over oneself is illusory -
corrects the corruption, returns him to his original morality but now
aware of its basis. While the reader recognizes the hero's indestruct-
ability, he knows also that the hero is vulnerable: 'And though he con-
tinued to solace himself with visions of deserted landscapes of sand
and snow, his anguish became specially acute on Sunday afternoons,
when fields and roads were empty.' (p. 235) Imaginary aloneness is
only a partial antidote to fear of people, for loneliness is its crippling
Naipaul communicates the hero's indestructability as an aspect of
his vulnerability. After Mr Biswas has nicknamed the two Tulsi sons
'the gods' names that convey his envy as well as his contempt he
is in disfavour with the whole Tulsi household, and the victim of their
revenge. But, Naipaul tells us,
There is, in some weak people who feel their own weakness
and resent it, a certain mechanism which, operating suddenly
and without conscious direction, releases them from final
humiliation. Mr Biswas, who had till then been viewing his
blasphemies as acts of the blackest ingratitude, now abruptly
lost his temper. "The whole pack of you could go to hell!" he
shouted. "I not going to apologise to one of the damn lot of
you." (p. 96)
Mr Biswas survives not because he is weak, but because he knows he
is weak. His every experience confirms this condition of developing
self-awareness; and such self-awareness is the only reality that exists.
In establishing this, Naipaul communicates the effects as well as
the concreteness of poverty, as when the Biswas family is offered an
unexpected holiday at the sea:
They had arrived in the late afternoon and had not had
much time to explore. Miss Logle, the chauffeur and the Buick
had gone back; and finding themselves alone, in a large house,
on holiday, they had all grown shy with one another. Night
brought an additional uneasiness. In the strange, musty, blank-
walled drawing-room they sat around an oil lamp, the contents
of the hamper gone stale and unappetizing, the cream cheese,
bought from the Dairies the day before, already going bad. The
house was large enough for them to have had one room each;
but the noise, the loneliness, the unknown surrounding black-
ness kept them all in one room. (p. 438)
As in Dickens, poverty enforces a spiritual condition: a fear of the un-
known; and the unknown is immense, and so the fear. But to enlarge
a person's spiritual frontiers by exposing him to that which is unknown,
then return him to that which he has always known, is only to make
even what is known frightening:
As they drove back to Port of Spain the new shy pleasure
they had found in being alone was forgotten. They were pre-
paring for the two rooms, the city pavements, the badly con-
creted floor under the house, the noise, the quarrels. On the
way out they feared arrival, a casting off into the unknown;
now they dreaded returning to what they knew. (p. 439)
In experiences of this sort, Mr Biswas is shown to share the condition
of those whom he, as a reporter investigating deserving destitutes and
as a member of the Community Welfare Department, is supposed to
be able to help. The supposition is made by a newspaper board, by a
department, by masks worn over indifferent human faces; Mr Biswas
does not make it. When he laughingly refers to himself as 'deserving
destitute number one,' he admits his fear, his humanity, as well as his
disbelief in palliatives. Newspaper boards, policies and therefore
editors change; the department is abolished because it is archaic.
'Thirty, twenty, or even ten years before, there would have been people
to support it,' Nalpaul writes; and the emphasis remains, on people.
People, like Mr Biswas' children, are now using circumstance to arrive
at a situation where self-awareness is more likely: 'the war, the
American bases, an awareness of America had given everyone the urge
and many the means, to self-improvement.' (p. 508) This is not to say
that man lives by bread alone; but without bread he will die. This
conviction, born of experience, allows Mr Biswas a marvellously succinct
refutation of Marxist dogma: 'How can he, who does not eat, work?'
The man he refutes is his brother-in-law, who has been educated
abroad, whose departure for England and opportunity had years ago
been a cause of envy and regret for Mr Biswas. The refutation occurs
in the last chapter, called The Revolution, which concludes with Mr
Biswas planting a laburnum tree in his garden: 'It gave the house a
romantic aspect, softened the tall graceless lines, and provided some
shelter from the afternoon sun. Its flowers were sweet, and in the
still hot evenings their smell filled the house.' From being a term of
self-delusion, 'romantic' has come to mean that which is useful, beauti-
ful, natural, possible. To recognize this change is to recognize the
secret of Mr Biswas's heroism, revealed in the golden age in the chapter
called, Before the Tulsis: 'secretly he believed.' Here his belief is in
love, that state which admits one is needed by another, as the other
is necessary to oneself, a state that is useful, beautiful, natural, and
possible. The implications of this state of wholeness are revealed much
earlier, in the conclusion to the prologue:
But bigger than them all was the house, his house. How
terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to
have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large,
disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and
the children among them, in one room; worse, to have lived and
died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.
The novel's symbolism is clear, early and constant. The house is both
the representation and the thing itself; it accommodates both the
aspiration and the body of man. It fulfills the same function of finality
and reward as the house of 'Unity' in Piers Plowman and the 'Celestial
City' in Pilgrim's Progress. It symbolizes the quest on which Mr Biswas
is engaged; and there are many false conclusions to this quest. The
house? completes him, as powerful an idea of self-fulfilment as the Grail
is for Galahad. Because it is placed early, and its shadows appear
throughout, it dominates the novel as much as it does the title. But
because the need for shelter is universal, the house ne; er becomes
obtrusive in its symbolism. When most symbolic, it is most the thing
itself, keeping out the rain or, when the house is shadowy and ill-made,
letting it in. Even in its final form, it is no place; but it confirms a
dream. That the dream is less than it might have been provides the
novel's pathos; but that it exists at all provides its epic qualities.
All quotations are from the Collins, London, Fantana Library
2. Cultural Confrontation,
Disintegration and Syncretism
in "A House For Mr Biswas"
I CONSIDER the theme of cultural clash to be one of the most
dominant to emerge from a reading of V S. Naipaul's A House for
Mr Biswas. It not only accounts for the background to and explana-
tion of many events in the novel, increasingly so in the latter half,
but is also responsible for Mr Biswas' difficulty of adjustment in his
relationship with Tulsidom, an aspect of the central theme of the
work, that of the individual's assertion of himself.
For Mr Biswas grew up in a more liberal and changing environ-
ment than that which obtained at Hanuman House. And hero, the
definition of the role played by Hanuman House in the creation of
that system Naipaul chooses to call "Tulsidom" is very important.
Hanuman House was founded by a pundit. a Hindu priest, a ven-
erable man, not only in Trinidad but also in India, an immigrant who
had not come as an indentured labourer, one of the rare Indians in
Trinidad who knew his relatives in Indria and was in constant touch
with them. As head of the Tulsi clan in Trinidad, he provides, after
the style of the princely great houses of India, a sanctuary for suc-
ceeding generations of the family. It is perhaps the fault of nature
and of circumstances that a cultural anomaly arises out of this, for it
is the Tulsi sons and their wives who should have populated the house,
but Punc'i Tulsi and his wife apparently had more daughters than
sons, and since the daughters were either older or less educated than
the sons, they married earlier. Furthermore, nearly all of the
Tulsi daughters seem to have married men in need of Tulsi money
and prestige who were glad for a space at Hanuman House. In addi-
tion, Hanuman House was a virtual cloister for the Tulsi family as
outsiders were rarely admitted. On the other hand, Biswas was the
descendant of hut-dwelling peasants. And although the extended family
system was operative in Mr Biswas' personal experience previous to his
encounter with the Tulsis, the absence of a single family house made
arrangements looser For instance. Bipti. although dependent on Tara,
stays with "some of Tara's husband's dependent relations a back
trace" far from Adjodha's house; Pratrap and Prasad go to a distant
relation in another town. Dchuti lives -s a maid with Tara, and Biswas,
although living with his mother, becomes emotionally estranged from
her. His father's hut is no more, his grandparents are dead, and he
early begins his picaresque-like journey through life. He experiences
the comparative cosmopolitanism of primary school life, he then under-
goes the rigid discipline of a pundit-in-training for a brief period,
but abandons this for the insecurities and vagabondage of a sign-
painting career, so that before he encounters Tulsidom he has met not
only a few people of other races, like his friend Alec, but also Indians
like himself, yet subscribing to non-traditional mores, like Lal, his
Christian school-teacher and Bhandat and his sons who have un-Hindu
sex lives. With all this, his little education has excited his curiosity
and, on afternoons at Adjodha's, his eyes and mind would zealously
explore the new worlds opened up to him by the "Book of Compre-
No wonder then that Mr Biswas felt "trapped" when he fell into
the clutches of Tulsidom. for Naipaul depicts Hanuman House as a
symbol of traditionalism, rigidity, cultural infallibility (to its inmates),
ritual, duty. hierarchy, and communal life.
Sharing is behind the principle that at Hanuman House "floor space
is bed space" and therefore at Shorthills Mr Biswas finds that, under
the hotel-like arrangements which obtained, his property, "like his
children at night", were "disposed about the house." One reads of "mass
flogging" at Shorthills. Similarly, parents were absolved from the
responsibility of buying Christmas gifts for their offspring:the identi-
cal gifts received by the children were offered in the general name of
Tulsidom--a good system for suppressing jealousy, individuality and
inferiority or superiority complexes. The car at Shorthills was collective-
ly owned-at least in theory.
Such a system fostered a strong sense of cohesion, demonstrated
in various situations. A fine example occurs when Owad is about to
leave for England; in the end Tulsidom overran the boat on which
he sailed. Then there is Shama's vivid account of the excruciating
pressure of Tulsi censure-the ubiquitous "puss-puss", whispered
criticism. But while this sense of community and identification pro-
duced a high degree of anonymity am'ng the inhabitants of Hanuman
House, awareness of hierarchal distir_-.:on is an intrinsic part of the
Because of her age and ancestral role, Mrs. Tulsi holds an honorary
presidential position in domestic af.a rs; Seth is her man-of-business,
the chief prosecutor at "family tribunals" her counsellor and the agent
of her will. Older sisters, like Padma, are respected because of their
age: Hari, as family priest, is highly placed; but there are "some
lesser husbands", and there are generally divisions and subdivisions
among the adults as well as the children. Apart from age-classifica-
tion, there is a clearly defined division of labour, well demonstrated
at times when Mrs. Tulsi has a fainting spell. In times of normalcy,
however, the women cook the general food and feed their individual
husbands. The children are fed in common. At Woodbrook widows
feed "readers and learners", and both mothers and widows punish the
young ones for their misdemeanours. This last duty is not in the
province of the fathers for Tulsi husbands serve their purpose by
relieving Tulsi daughters from the single state, by fathering new
generations of "Tulsis", and by contributing to Tulsi commercial in-
terests. In addition, there is evidence of discrimination on the basis
of caste, particularly as it affects marriage. And some older Hindus are
so particular about caste that they disapprove of Owad's travelling
to England since they believe, ironically, that the act of crossing the
waters causes loss of caste!
Fixed roles naturally lead to an awareness of duties, conventions
and rituals. It is the duty of the new wife to adopt an air of self-sat-
isfaction and a studied blas6 air, well captured in her mannerism of
sitting with her legs apart. After a quarrel with or a beating by her
husband she adopts a piqued air of martyrdom which must be publicly
vaunted as part of the badge of her married status: once pregnancy
begins she must sigh and spit, both frequently. Her new baby must
be bathed according to the traditional unwritten rules of the process
- the oiling, pulling of arms and legs, the slapping Friendly wives
discuss the ailments of their husbands; in a quarrel between two hus-
bands It is the duty of the wife of the victorious husband to beg the
forgiveness of the defeated brother-in-law. Husbands offending Mrs.
Tulsi and therefore Tulsidom in general must be subjected to com-
munal hostility and the offender must show his repentance by making
fervent and frequent inquiries after the health of the stricken Mrs.
Tulsi. Old women like Mrs. Tulsi and Bipti take up patient, suffering
postures, inviting compassion by their tears and the pulling of their
veils over their foreheads. Daughters-in-law must observe punctilious
respect towards their mothers-in-law; and Shama knows it is her duty
to cry at Bipti's funeral. Irr any case, funerals are occasions when it
is socially necessary for female relatives to display uncontrollable
grief. It is likewise part of the social ritual to attend other people's
children's weddings so that similar events in your own children's
lives would in turn be crowded. And it is through these social occasions,
either because of the frequency with which they are arranged or
the value and splendour of the gifts with which you regale your
hosts, that a person's social standing is enhanced. Thus it is that
Shama's annoyance at Biswas' building his house at Green Vale is
only assuaged when she realizes that it provides an opportunity for a
house-blessing ceremony. And in ceremonies like these Hindu ritual
and tradition are again evident the sexes are divided men and
women sit apart.
It is at the house-blessing ceremony at The Chase that Naipaul
emphasizes the human fecundity that Hanuman House prizes. "Babies
swarmed everywhere", for to the Tulsis children were essential
property the more the better to safeguard against lice in the
hair and pains in the stomach in old age, and to increase the honour
of the clan by their economic or academic achievement. This is why
marriage only needed to be a matter of "cat in bag" in the last resort,
for children were the most important aspect of the union and the
inconvenience of an irresponsible husband could be counteracted by
the checks and balances provided by the extended family unit.
Into this apparent monolith of conventions, prejudices and con-
servatism, then, Mr Biswas barges. He openly disapproved of many
of the Tulsi practices and policies. He even challenges their religious
belief and associates with Hindus of another sect with whom the Tulsis
disagree. He disregards everybody's acceptance of superior and in-
ferior gradings within the household and is very disrespectful to
matronly Mrs. Tulsi and the headman, Seth, and sarcastically taunts
the young Tulsi boys with the name "gods" To the total disgust of
the entire household-for he offends the Hindu's scorn of another's
saliva-he spits upon one of the "gods"! Then he refuses to work for
the Tulsis as a labourer. He only submits to work for them when he
is given jobs commensurate with his sense of his own importance and
human worth the jobs of shopkeeper and estate manager jobs
where he would be semi-autonomous from Hanuman and where he
could command and decide and not be continuously pushed around.
In brief, he refuses to feel inferior to the Tulsis, though he has no
money to his credit. He actually feels that he is better than they are
because he has strong intellectual interests, has vague ambitions for
greatness and, most of all, because he dares to have an independent
mind. So where the glory of Tulsidom is its capacity to induce con-
formity among its members, Mr Biswas revels in and exalts his in-
dividuality. And he therefore upsets the Tulsi applecart unforgiveably
when he buys Savi his personal Christmas present and one so obvi-
ous as a doll's house! He differentiates himself by speaking Creole
English in Hanuman House while everyone else speaks Hindi (which
Naipaul translates into Standard English) he ridicules Hari, the
symbol of religious reverence and ceremony; he sees chaos in their
communal family arrangements; he feels the birth of yet another
child as a psychological and economic burden on himself; and he
continually shows up the hypocrisy and illogicality which inevitably
creep into conversation and ritual.
He quickly spots the contradiction in the "gods" doing Hindu puja
and wearing crucifixes at the same time. In the same way. Chinta
later comes to use Hindu incantations in combination with a candle
and a crucifix. When sickness strikes, Hindu prayers, Indian and
African superstition and Western science are all called upon to con-
tribute their complementary offices. Mrs. Tulsi herself succumbs to
practices of Catholicism while remaining a devout Hindu. Even long
before this no one in Hanuman House objected to the observance of
Christ's birthday, and this they did in good Creole style, with English
apples, cakes and ice-cream, and Portuguese cherry brandy. Likewise
the Catholic-influenced Creole custom of eating salmon on Good
Friday finds unquestioning acceptance in Tulsidom. Biswas' own
children, though not Christians, attend Sunday school, yet Biswas at
one time speaks of Christianity as "a recent superstition that was
being exported wholesale to savages all over the world."
This religious ambiguity and syncretism and, in some cases, even
neglect of traditional religion, is one of the earliest aspects of cul-
tural confrontation with which Naipaul deals in his novel. And he
progressively shows the sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, way in
which the Western-orientated Creole culture of Trinidad corrodes
Hindu traditional customs and beliefs, and the shifting attitudes and
psychological bewilderment this produces.
It is the combination of the external force of Westernization and
urbanization aided by internal human impulses which bring about the
decay of that highly structured social organization housed at Hanu-
man and which, in fact, impels Mrs. Tulsi, the head herself, to sug-
gest and execute the clan's removal from Arwacas, as if she herself
recognized the inadequacy of the ancestral home in the face of modern
aspirations: Hanuman House belonged to "a different age."
The role of formal education in the decay of Hindu tradition
must not be underestimated. It is, for instance, Biswas' education
which made him think differently from his illiterate brothers, which
exposed him to a life different from theirs. It had awoken his natu-
rally alert mind and made him a rebel and a misfit in the midst of
acceptors and conservatives. On another level, education had brought
the "gods" into contact with ideas and a religion foreign to those of
their ancestors. In fact, the abnormally exalted position of two teen-
age boys in the Tulsi household where tradition demanded that the
greater the age the higher the respect accorded, was precisely due to
their educational advantage over everyone else around them: and on
his return from Europe, it is Owad's educational superiority that
automatically secures him recognition as head of the clan, over
Shekhar, ov.r his elder sisters, over, almost, Mrs. Tulsi herself. It is
in the interests of Owad's education that Mrs. Tulsi forsakes the
nest at Arwacas and goes into five-day-a-week residence in Port-of-
Spain. A little later. she completely abandons Hanuman to install
herself and her blood at Shorthills. within commuting distance of
Port-of-Spain and its well-reputed schools. And "Tulsi retainers",
taking advantage of this convenience, continuously migrate from the
country to the town.
One of the main reasons for the disintegrating influence of
formal education on tradition is that the topics treated in its system
are European. For instance, because of the divorce between the school-
inspired foreign ideal on the one hand and the real and local on the
other, Mr Biswas imagines his dream house with a "bower", a word
and an object he would hardly encounter in his everyday life, and
when he tries to write fiction he feels the frustration of setting his
Caucasian characters speaking stilted English in foreign landscapes
of snow-capped mountains and the like. In other cultural aspects.
Western education differs from the traditions of the Trinidadian.
Anand comes to see the sacred thread ceremony merely as a con-
venient excuse for absenting himself from school, for he and Mr
Biswas know that he could not present a shaven head in school with-
out inviting the pitiless ridicule of the European-based school
children and teachers. Furthermore, after Anand's "brahminical in-
vitation" Mr Biswas encouraged Anand to spend his retreat in learn-
ing school notes. No wonder Anand was "untutored" in the Hindu
prayers when he was called upon to help do the puja after Hari's
The disappearance of the values symbolized by Hanuman is also
associated with the exposure of what in Trinidad is very largely a
rural way of life to an ubran environment. In this connection, Mr
Biswas' first few days in Port-of-Spain are very revealing. The brave
and spirited Arwacas "paddler" is completely baffled and humiliated
by his new environment. He had never lived so close to Negroes and
was disconcerted by what seemed to him their lack of ordered social
life; the brashness bred by Ramchand's self-assurance, again in a society
whose social gradings Biswas could not yet perceive, disturbed him. But
his awareness of the wider social arrangements in Trinidad became more
acute when he entered the specialist's room in upper Port-of-Spain.
His obvious rusticity, his race in its relation to the white and sup-
posed-white community, his poverty, his social awkwardness -
nothing in his variagated background in the country had prepared
him for this painful self-awareness. He now finds himself in the
midst of a world dominated by European values and ideas-orderly
lawns and gardens, primness, the new and glistening, a world of
antiseptic cleanliness and the muted whisper (the latter assimilated
by Dorothy's sophisticated daughters). It is a world of spaciousness
and luxury, which is why Biswas is so sensitive to the fact that under
Tulsidom he lives in a human chicken-run. It is a world of exquisite
class-consciousness, which is why he squirms whenever Shama drops
green verbs in conversation with Miss Logie. And the attitude of
paternalistic toleration of 'natives' meted out to him by the city re-
ceptionist was to be paralleled by the well-meaning Miss Logie whose
cultural values are so different from Tulsidom's that she had second
thoughts about the seaside trip when she beheld Tulsidom's "swarm
Another reason for the cultural upheaval through which Tulsidom
passes is the economic boom precipitated by the American presence
in Trinidad during the Second World War. Govind is a product of
this 'wind of change' and the sight of the ex-crab-catcher manipu-
lating a large American car and exhibiting his suits (plural) is enough
to incense not only Mr Biswas, but also to increase that spirit of
competition that dominated life from the very first moment of life
at Shorthills. Under the incentive of the Yankee dollar, large-scale
depredations of Tulsi Shorthills property take place and a 'dog-eat-
dog' commercial rat-race begins. All the adults make money from the
common Tulsi property W. C. Tuttle sells cedar trees, Govind dis-
poses of citrus fruits and other agricultural products by the lorry-
load. the saleable parts of the Ford V8 car, bought out of the com-
mon Tulsi purse, are stripped by someone when the car could move
no more. Mr Biswas takes off daily with a paltry number of oranges,
someone privately owns a cow.
But the spirit of selfishness and rivalry was also the outcome of
other factors-human factors. These had always been present among
the Tulsis, but under a highly disciplined system and given a favour-
able environment, these human passions had been suppressed. But
why was it that some sisters tried to distinguish themselves in parti-
cular ways, for instance, by brutality towards their children? Why
was reaction so hostile when any member tried to break the
hierarchal order and make himself superior by building his own
house or giving his own children Christmas presents? Both jealousy
and individualism were long at work in Tulsidom, for the need for
individuality is instinctive in the human race despite the fact that
man is a social being. In this connection, it is worthwhile to examine
Anand's reaction to the doll's house episode. Because his sister gets
a large doll's house, Anand in turn wants a car, which shows that the
system of joint ownership and subsistence-level amenities loses its
hold upon the individual once the opportunity for novelty, private
ownership and unique grandiose schemes is presented. But Mrs.
Tulsi's absenteeism changes the ambiance at Hanuman House. The
living symbol of the past deserts, if only for part of the time, and the
system founders. And once Seth is temporarily head of the establish-
ment, a struggle for power ensues between himself and his sisters-
in-law. They refuse to accept his authority unquestionably. Only now
do they see fit to point out the cultural anomaly-the intrinsic weak-
ness in the organization of Hanuman House that Seth is merely
a Tulsi son-in-law and therefore not a rightful inheritor of power.
The sisters therefore make a bid to "paddle their own canoe" It is
this squabbling for power that causes Tulsidom to disintegrate rapidly.
Eventually Seth moves out he too is jealous, of Mr Biswas' success
- and Mrs. Tulsi takes the decision to move the whole chaotic house-
hold to a new setting and this again furthers disintegration. At
Shorthills there is no Seth to organize and so, besides the depredation,
there is the scandal of the eighty dollars stolen from Govind and
Chinta, and eventually every sister begins feeding her children separately
and secretly. In Woodbrook there is a 'free-for-all' competition among
adults over acquisitions, over the parking of cars, and over their
children's academic progress, and Mr Biswas and Mr. Tuttle are both
hostile to each other because they both happen to be interested in
So, because of various influences, Tulsidom is exposed to change.
Of course, the Tulsis try to resist these innovations at times. This
shows in their objection to Dorothy's way of life. It conflicts with
theirs and the less contact between Dorothy and themselves the
better. She outrages the long-skirted, veiled sisters by her unseemly
short European dresses. She has European toilet habits and is
immoral as far as the sisters are concerned. Her holidays in South
America are an inexplicable extravagance to people to whom the
concept of 'holiday' is quite foreign and who only leave their secure
and familiar enclave to attend funerals and weddings and house-
blessings in neighboring villages. Dorothy's "All-right, people"
breezy farewell is enough to give a heart-attack to those reared in the
leisurely respectful formality of forehead-touching. As if that were
not enough she and her girl children another outrage: no boys -
speak Spanish among themselves, and this is so much resented by
the sisters that they speak with sarcasm on the matter.
There are other changes too, such as readjustments in relationships.
A significant one is that between Mr Biswas, and Mrs. Tulsi and
Owad. Although he was an object of ridicule at Hanuman House, once
he became a public figure through his newspaper work he rose in the
estimation of Tulsidom and his intellectual interests brought him
closer to Owad.
But gradually, syncretism provides a natural way out of the cul-
tural dilemma. So that apart from the religious hybridisation already
mentioned as practised by the Tulsis, there is the compromise made
by Shekhar in the matter of his marriage. Having absorbed modern
ideas and mixed with other ethnic groups whose marriage procedures
are dffierent from the Hindu's, Shekhar objects to having a wife
chosen for him and after suicide threats, he eventually compromises
with an Indian, educated, rich, high caste, but Presbyterian wife with
an English name. But it is W C. Tuttle who is a blatant product of
cultural cross-breeding. He is a strict Hindu, but he is as interested
in the material as the spiritual life, and while he is a modern man, his
manner of blowing his nose is definitely uncivil in terms of the
modern society. As a matter of fact, Naipaul subjects the process of
syncretism to satiric humour. He gives a pathetic but highly comic
exposition of the attempt at cultural transplantation at Shorthills.
Now this estate in one of the valleys of the Northern mountain range
is a relic of the old days of the white planter class, of grand Creole life
-its English tastes and luxuries in a tropical setting. The Tulsis en-
counter here neither rice-nor cane-field, but citrus and fruit and
forest. Their neighbours are French-patois-speaking Negroes. Tell-
ing changes occur in architecture the toilet becomes a sewing-room,
the electric plant provides W C. Tuttle, the physical culture enthu-
siast, with dumbells, a cowshed is raised on the cricket pitch, a temple
is created. This apparent insensitivity to gracious living is really
imposed by deep-seated customs and cultural habits. Then Naipaul
shows up the irony In the fact that the Tulsis, in following the lure of
education as the gateway to material and social progress and money,
at the same time create new and slightly modified versions of Hanu-
man House both at Shorthills and in Woodbrook. Space is still at a
premium, the widows scandalize the bourgeois Woodbrook society by
putting out trays of oranges on the sidewalk, and the Tulsis make
themselves objects of curiosity when the invasion from the country
for Owad's farewell ceremonies begins, and to a limited extent com-
munal eating arrangements for "readers and learners" are operated
in the old fashion by a group of widows.
But the cultural gap between the old and the new widens relent-
lessly. So that in the urban situation the individual family unit-
father, mother and children is certainly more in evidence than at
Arwacas. Less Hindi is spoken now. Trinidad Creole English holds
sway, and we are informed that the young generation of Tulsi
children understand, but cannot speak, Hindi. Meanwhile Dorothy and
her girls even speak Spanish. At the same time, the Woodbrook house-
hold becomes a brain-improving community for the children, and
among the adults, an arena for competitions over status symbols like
cars, bicycles, glass cabinets, side-tables, suits, and radiograms. Indeed,
it does not take ever so long before Mr Biswas begins taking pride in
his suits and ties, which he, like the Creole society, accepts now as
symbols of Westernization, progress, and respectability. He lures his
children to Port-of-Spain by the exoticism of European-type food. He
is very embarrassed when Anand loudly declares in a restaurant that
Coca-Cola looked like "horse pee" His pride in his social promotion
in acquiring a bicycle is only overshadowed by Govind's and Tuttle's
cars, and when he joins the community of car-owners he exhibits all
the mannerisms peculiar to his class. Hampers, picnics, a seaside
holiday are now part of his existence. Meanwhile Shama devotes her
attention to acquiring suits for her husband, to dropping names,
giving expensive fits, and she simply revels in her lone opportunity
to converse with a white woman. The children too are very finnicky
about their father's car: they accept that the dropping of "Mai" for
"Mummy" and "Bap" for "Daddy" is a sign of cultural advance;
Anand's brief training in the benefits of the anonymity of a com-
munal household cannot withstand the involvement and curiosity on
the part of members of the Creole culture in such vital issues as the
jobs of schoolmates' parents, their possession or non-possession of a
car or cars and a maid or maids, for after all, these are class deter-
minants, and the Creole society is as fussy about class as the tradi-
tional Hindu society is about caste.
Yet it is vital too remember that even while the old system of
values is passing away, a dispossessed person like Dehuti still seeks
social recognition through her association with the Tulsis which she
anxiously cultivates. At the same time, Mother India is the sustain-
ing dream of the old Hindus for they long for cultural stability and
familiar patterns. But on the whole the young are caught in strong
cultural cross-currents and cease to dream of the return to India. Yet
it is ironic to note that when presented with Owad's observations on
the impurity of culture exhibited by Indians from India, the first-
generation overseas Indians see themselves, although far from the
motherland, cast in the role of the last bastions of the old, pure, and
noble culture! So while the old is not totally useless or discredited,
Naipaul does show his readers its points of weakness, through irony
and directly, as it submits to a profound revolution and is betrayed on
Among the issues, then, treated in A House for Mr Biswas is the
problem of geographical uprooting of peoples and the results of
culture contact. Each uprooting brings a further weakening of tradi-
tional forces-a problem faced by all racial groups in the West Indies
and which raises the constant dilemma of 'identity'. For if tradition-
al customs are taken as a yardstick, and if, taking into account the
slowness of change in traditional ways. and if therefore tradition is
conceived of as a rigid monolith of habits and attitudes, one could
then say with Biswas, as with Naipaul, that the society now drifts
without rules or patterns. This is not essentially true-it is a state-
ment of comparison, but the ironic dichotomy of the situation persists:
the old is invaded by the new. but not quite
Naipaul's vision of Trinidad Hindu society seems balanced. For
while the hero of the novel vigorously hoists the flag of independence
and individuality, it is an image of exposure that Naipaul uses to
describe the present condition of Trinidad social life: "The e was no
longer a Hanuman House to protect them; everyone had to fight for
himself in a new world where education was the only protection.
Naipaul further observes, "The virtue had gone out of the family" and
it is to his credit that he lets Mr Biswas not only rile against a -ystem
which tends to destroy the individual personality, but that he also
records Mr Biswas' appreciation of the positive benefits of that
system the sense of security it gave its members and the psycho-
logical and financial support it afforded in times of illness and distress.
Naipaul himself hovers between condemnation of both the old and the
new systems. For he not only presents many aspects of Tulsidom in
a ridiculous light but also seems to have intentionally lodged it as
"Hanuman" or "monkey" House for satiric purposes. Yet, without
necessarily reading his views of contemporary Trinidad society in his
Middle Passage, his exposition of the new order in A House for Mr
Biswas also shows that there is much that is petty and dishonest and
hypocritical in it. So in the end, there does not seem to be much to
choose between either.
The West Indian Novel & Its Background Kenneth Ramchand
Faber & Faber 1970. Pages 295 Price 50/-
THE TITLE of this book The West Indian Novel and its Back-
ground is intentionally broad in its scope. But the author in
scholarly fashion, Dr. Ramchand is a lecturer in the English Depart-
ment at UWI and the book is based on his doctoral thesis, is careful
to define both elements of the title "the West Indian novel" and
In the first sentence of the introduction we are told that "the
concern in this book is with prose fiction, mainly novels, written by
people who were born or who grew up in the West Indies the
formerly British Islands in the Caribbean and the South American
mainland territory now known as Guyana. The literary works to be
approached have a West Indian setting and contain fictional charac-
ters whose social correlates are immediately recognizable as West
Indian. The books have all been written in the twentieth century;
and their native West Indian authors include descendants of Euro-
peans, descendants of African slaves, descendants of indentured
labourers from India and various mixtures of these.
This is an impeccable definition of "a body of works written in
the English language but distinguished from all other as drawing
on West Indian material."
The background with which Ramchand is dealing encompasses the
entire Caribbean society, past and present-not any one island, city or
place as the setting of the novel. On the one hand it Is possible to
regard the West Indies as Wilson Harris does as "a gateway society"
or as "a community which is involved in an original re-construction of
variables of myth and legend in the wake of stages of conquest". This
view implies that the Caribbean man has an "inner universality" and
an inborn talent for accommodation of the variety of his heritage
whether African, European, Asian or Amerindian (Carib & Arawak).
Ramchand acknowledges Harris' complex approach and the resulting
symbolism of his novels. But Ramchand relates Harris' view to the
other West Indian novelists' view of society in terms of the realistic
portrayal of economic and social attitudes in what he calls "the
approach to person" in the West Indian novel.
Ramchand's book appears at an hour when West Indians have
sensed in themselves the hunger for self-understanding and are pre-
paring to analyse themselves in the mirror of the twentieth century.
The "background" he deals with is the history of the provision for
popular education in the West Indies with its beginnings in the post-
slavery era of the 19th. century, the value systems and attitudes of
language, the growth or lack of growth of a reading tradition in the
West Indies, and gives one of the best assessments of the colonial legacy.
But we are spared the usual emotional reaction to the story of slavery
and imperialism or the laudation of the phenomenon of disappearing
race and colour distinctions. The book is therefore organised partly as
a reference text on the West Indian educational situation as a back-
ground to literary efforts, and partly as the critical approach to what
literature has been forthcoming over the span of some 60 odd years.
He agrees with Naipaul that "Living in a borrowed culture, the
West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him who he is and
where he stands" To do this Ramchand suggests "the West Indian
novelists apply themselves with unusual urgency and unanimity to an
analysis and interpretation of their society's ills, including the social
and economic deprivation of the majority; the pervasive conscious-
ness of race and colour; the cynicism and uncertainty of the native
bourgeoisie in power after independence; the lack of a history to be
proud of, and the absence of traditional or settled values." However,
unlike the English novel of the 19th century and its concern with
morals and character, the West Indian novelists cover the whole society
and in doing this the black man has been gradually given his proper
"status and personality"
Ramchand has elsewhere expressed concern for literary criticism
among West Indian readers. He advocates the objectivity which in the
Leavis tradition deals with the work and not the author. The reason
for the book is given as "to clear the way for informed and undis-
tracted discussion of West Indian literature, another is to perform the
critical activity itself." He warns of the twin errors in looking at West
Indian fiction-"the West Indian critic's disproportionate valuation of
content over form" -and the "non-West Indian critic becoming too en-
grossed with the raw material of the socio-historic picture to be able
to apply critical standards." "Literary criticism in the West Indies has
to cope with a situation in which most of the writers are still alive,
their works not yet complete." The variety of style, language and tone
of the West Indian novel will reflect the attitudes and roles which the
writers adopt consciously or unconsciously.
Ramchand suggests an examination of the West Indian novelist's
approach to the use of language and in particular of dialect speech, and
the portrayal of character which he terms "an exploration of 'the
person' As a literary critic he is also concerned that West Indian fiction
should now be taken seriously as a body of literature because of its
richness and broad humane relevance to West Indian society.
We have also to consider the situations resulting from the fact that
West Indian authors are in many instances "artists in exile"--first,
there is the obvious implication for the content and attitude of the
writer to a remembered or imagined situation in the West Indies, and
secondly, the problem of writing for an audience who may not be
responsible because of lack of facilities such as cheap publications or
the proper educational background. We are reminded that while the
West Indian author in exile may chafe at having to produce a litera-
ture disconnected from its sources and complains of his "irrelevance of
function" the population of these islands will be condemned to a life
without fiction unless some effort is made to break through the bar-
riers of middle-class philistinism or the inertia that accompanies
poverty in the West Indies.
This is not a book for the lazy reader to get a quick biographical
note on various West Indian novelists nor a summary of the story of
the novels. We have here a well organized scholarly book which every
student or serious reader of West Indian literature should read. The
author is so thoroughly familiar with his subject (which covers at least
162 works of prose fiction by 56 writers from 6 West Indian territories
--from Tom Redcam's "Becka's Baby" (1903) to Patterson's "Absence
of Ruins" (1967) that the reader is hard put to follow him as he moves
quickly from author to author, illustrating his point with long quotations.
For the collector or school librarian the Author Bibliography and
Year by Year Bibliography at the end of the text is most helpful. In
addition to a short index, Ramchand has also noted in a Secondary
Bibliography his sources of reference to books, pamphlets and current or
defunct periodicals dealing with the educational or language situation
in the Caribbean.
I commend this book to every high school and college and Uni-
versity course in English literature in the West Indies. This is a book
long awaited in the West Indies where emotionalism, wordiness, vague
and half expressed ideas so often covers up lack of depth in analysis,
and where the writer may be expected to take on the responsibility of
explaining the society or to take up prescribed moral stances.
Savacou A Journal of the Caribbean Artists Movement Slavery -
Vol. 1, No. 1, June 1970. Pps. 108.
The following Introduction is reproduced with the kind permission
of Savacou and the author:
THE term "slave society" can be used to describe either the society
made up exclusively of the African and Creole slaves who lived in the
West Indies, or else, more generally, the whole society based on slavery,
including masters and freedmen as well as slaves. The second usage
is the one which seems to fit most closely the conception behind the
present first issue of Savacou, which discusses not only the slaves but
other elements of the wider society of which they were a part.
However, it is worthwhile noting that there is not at present general
agreement about the nature of this wider slave society. I have tried
to analyse it in my Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the
end of the Eighteenth Century as a society held together by principles
of racial subordination and inequality. However, in his Sociology of
Slavery, Orlando Patterson writes: "In contrast to Latin America and
North America, Jamaican slave society was loosely integrated; so much
so, that one hesitates to call it a society since all that it amounted to
was an ill-organised system of exploitation .Like most plant-
ocracies, Jamaica is best seen more as a collection of autonomous
plantations, each a self-contained community with its internal
mechanisms of power, than as a total social system." Archie Singham
seems to include to Patterson's view of the slave society when he
observes, in his review of The Black Jacobins, that: "The plantation
society is not a community, but more like a detention camp, where
various individuals and groups are forced to co-exist but are hostile
to each other. .The plantation society is thus a coercive community,
where there is little or no possibility of its members developing a
cohesive group identity."
Yet a glance at the structure of the slave society in the British West
Indies by the end of the eighteenth century does suggest that there were
general ordering principles at work, in the towns as well as on the
plantations, shaping the status relationships of all groups in the society.
The whites, who made up a small minority of the population, neverthe-
less dominated the whole society. They were the ruling class of the
islands, the most important proper:y-owning group, and the leaders
in social and cultural affairs. There were some differences of class
among these whites but there was a-so, by the late eighteenth century,
an increasing emphasis on racial solidarity as a unifying factor among
Below the whites in the social structure came the free people of
colour, who were predominantly a group of mixed descent. These
people were denied political and social equality with the whites, and a
determined attempt was made to restrict their opportunities for
economic improvement. They were therefore a group which suffered
from serious disabilities in comparison with the free whites. Yet,
because of their freedom, they were better off than the majority of the
slaves, who were predominantly black. The only slaves who approach-
ed them somewhat in opportunities and intermediate status were the
privileged slaves artisans, domestics, and town slaves among
whom there was an increasing proportion of persons of mixed race.
The most disadvantaged group in the society was made up of black
field-slaves, who were very numerous in comparison with the other
classes of the population. They were denied all political rights, being
regarded more as property than as persons. They had the lowest
standards of living and the most Inferior social status; and their culture,
which was based upon a creolised African tradition, was generally
devalued. They were the most systematically coerced and deprived of
all groups, because of their industrial role in the system of plantation
This patterning of the segments of British West Indian society
into a white, brown, black pyramid of superiority and inferiority seems
to indicate that the internal order of the whole society was dependent
upon the distinctions of race and colour; and this conclusion is further
reinforced by the fact that the slave laws of the islands in the later
eighteenth century generally sought to preserve the characteristic in-
equalities of status and opportunities between the races. These laws
were ubiquitous and they were backed, in the last resort, by the over-
whelming force of the metropolitan army and navy. Their function
was to maintain the slave system and the social order to which it had
given rise. These laws indicate that forces from outside of the planta-
tion impinged closely upon the lives of the slaves.
The slaves were subjugated by habit and opinion as well as by
force and law. Their largely mechanical toil, their inadequate diet, and
their inhuman treatment must all have contributed to the traumatic
effects of their relationship with the other groups in the society. What-
ever C. L. R. James and Alejo Carpentier may suggest about the un-
broken spirit of the people in Saint-Domingue, the fact remains that
deep psychological injury to some at least of those who were exposed
to the m--h of Negro inferiority could hardly have been avoided.
Locksley Lindo shows how this affected Francis Williams as a "free"
Negro in a slave society, and Kenneth Ramchand points out its influence
on the development of dialect speech over the course of centuries. Even
today, in spite of the major achievements of West Indian creative
writers in using dialect, the West Indian Standard form of English is
still very generally considered "superior" to creole English, as its name
alone can serve to indicate, though it remains only the language of a
During the slavery period, the black slaves, who made up the vast
majority of the population, could not be effectively assimilated to the
culture of the white master class, and, in any case, the whites wished
to preserve the cultural distance separating them from their slaves. So
African cultural traditions could survive and even flourish among the
slave class. As Monica Schuler's article on Akan Slave Rebellions in
the British Caribbean demonstrates, this might be a threat to the
established order. But, to some extent, this threat was counterbalanced
by the maintenance of ethnic divisions among the Africans themselves,
as her study indicates. The ethnic exclusivism of the Akan and their
distrust of the creole slaves made general combinations more difficult,
though they still, in fact, occurred. African cultural traditions thus
functioned in at least two quite different ways in the slave society. On
the one hand, they might serve to confirm status inferiority; on the
other, they might establish ethnic solidarity across the boundaries of
plantations, and even larger territorial units such as parishes, through
which "men who were still African in culture and loyalties attempted
to free themselves from bondage in the West Indies and the Guianas
up to the end of the eighteenth century."
George Irish's account of Carpentier's El reino de este mundo makes
it clear that Carpentier largely ignores the status inferiority of African
culture in the slave society, while he extols "the positive attributes of
slave life" and especially "the cultural values of a Black world incom-
prehensible to the alien whites." Similarly, Carpentier represents the
ridiculous aspects of the white society of the period, without admitting
that they cannot have been only risible in the eyes of their slaves. After
all, their power in the slave society depended, at least to some extent,
on their ability to instil fear in the hearts of their slaves. Without their
more brutal qualities, they could not have survived for so long as an
effective ruling class in the slave society.
It is true that "The struggle of the white world is against a
whole cultural complex." But, equally, it is also true that the struggle
of the black world was against the organisation of an entire society.
This was why Toussaint L'ouverture found it so difficult to reconstruct
Saint-Domingue after the revolution there had brought him to power.
If the slave system had depended only upon force, it could have been
totally overthrown by force, and its after-effects would have been less
damaging than they proved to be. But, as Singham himself points out,
Toussaint needed to create a new type of society, based on a new type
of man, because "the plantation system and slavery have left behind
them a seriously disabled man." This was because the "morality" of
the slave society was the antithesis of the "morality" that was necessary
in a free social system. The racial particularism of the slave society
was a formidable obstacle in the way of change.
The almost complete failure of the creative writers of the slavery
period to see the blacks as persons, and the neglect of "the harsher
realities" of slavery which affected the work of some of these writers
were products of the slave society as well as of what Edward Brathwaite
calls their "artifying" tendencies. It was not only the "tyranny of the
[English] model" but also the tyranny of the slave system over the per-
ception of the blacks that prevented the writers from questioning the
truthfulness of their various stereotypes of the slaves and even of the
free people of colour. As Ramchand's discussion suggests, it took all
of the modern democratising forces of change that have affected the
West Indies in this century to alter the close connection between the
stereotyped Negro and the dialect. It is, generally speaking, only the
modern creative writers, who perceive the black man without the
established stereotypes, who have been able to depict him as a particular
human being, though Brathwaite has shown that the exceptional
creative writer of the slavery period did also achieve this kind of
realism in entering into "the imagination of at least a single slave." This
ar"hevement by the author of Hamel, the Obeah Man, may have been
clue in part, however, to his leading idea of condemning the Christian
missionary religion by contrasting it unfavourably with the religion of
the black man.
Locksley Lindo is right in describing as a "revolutionary principle"
Francis Williams' claim "that neither art, virtue, nor prudence respects
the barriers of colour." For this was a subversive idea in the West
Indian slave society of the later eighteenth century. It was just the
sort of universalistic claim that spelt danger for the particularistic
structure of the slave society. Yet such principles could not be in-
definitely excluded, especially at a time when their influence was grow-
ing in the metropolitan countries. Hence the black Jacobin revolution,
which James' remarkable seminal intelligence grasped as a crucial
turning-point in the history of West Indian development. Hence, too,
the growing conviction among the slaves in the British West Indies
during the pre-Emancipation period in the nineteenth century that they
had certain rights to good treatment and to freedom for which they
must claim respect.
Monica Schuler doubts that the slave movements of that time had
much influence on the movement for Emancipation in England. But
it may be pointed out that the Jamaican slave rebellion of 1831-32 was
widely used by the abolitionists to prove that immediate change from
above must be instituted if revolution from below was to be avoided;
and the whole series of nineteenth century revolts gave important
evidence of the fact that the British West Indian slave society, under
attack from the metropolis at this time, was also tending to break down
from within as increasing numbers of slaves began to question the
legally-enforced racial subordination which provided its base. Just as
the rise of the slave society had engendered a belief in Negro inferiority,
so its decline was accompanied by an increasing assertion of the values
of racial equality, by the free coloured as well as the slaves.
It appears analytically useful therefore to regard the slave society
as something more than "an ill-organised system of exploitation. For,
at the height of its development, it had an internal coherence which
gives it claim to be considered as a society integrated by discoverable
principles. More investigation is needed to account for its persistence
over a period of centuries and to explain the survival of its basic social
structure even after Emancipation. To this investigation, both scholars
and creative writers can contribute, though their insights may differ:
and it will be of particular interest to us all to hear from those special
people like C. L. R. James and Edward Brathwaite who are at once
Caribbean scholars and artists. Out of this discussion, a consensus of
views about the slave society may eventually emerge; and, if it does,
this would be a development of great value. For the slave society is
one of the most fundamental experiences shared by the West Indies,
and its understanding must be of significance for our future as well as
for our past.
The Year in San Fernando Michael Anthony
Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. New Windmill Series. Price 8/-
ANYONE who has had anything to do with the teaching of
literature in secondary schools in the West Indies will readily agree
that one of the reasons why so few West Indian novels ever get into
our school-rooms, if any do at all, is because in the first place few
of them were written for children or lend themselves to adaptation
for schools. A good school edition of any West Indian novel at all-
well-bound, attractively illustrated, in suitable type and competitively
priced, is indeed hard to come upon. It must therefore be quite excit-
ing for our literature teachers to see at last a West Indian novel
among the new titles in such a well-produced, attractive and generally
available series as the Hutchinson's new Windmill Series.
In retrospect, it is not difficult to see why this noved won for
itself a place in this series. Like "Tom Sawyer", "Huckleberry Finn"
"To Kill a Mocking-bird", "The Red Pony"; all of whom appear in
this series, "The Year in San Fernando" presents a deeply felt, touch-
.ng but in some ways unromanticized picture of growing up in a
particular place at a particular time. What Mark Twain did for late
nineteenth century Mississippi, Harper Lee and John Steinbeck for
twentieth century Alabama and California, Michael Anthony attempts
for Trinidad in the nineteen-thirties.
As the title indicates the book recounts the experience of town
life of a young boy from the remote country village of Mayaro in
rural Trinidad. It is a first person narrative told from the point of
view of the child, Francis, who is the main character in the book
and through whose sensibilities the reader is made to apprehend
the quite often raw realities of life, as the boy attempts to come to
te:ms with them. Like so many West Indian first novels, .this book is
largely autobiographical. The autho. himself, it turns out, grew up
like Francis in remote Mayaro, a country village in Trinidad. Like
Francis, Mr. Anthony -as a young boy spent a year in San Fernando
where he lived with a family. "I was not really a servant in the
house," he writes, "I was living with them, but I had servant status
more or less." "The Year in San Fernando" is fiction, but on the
other hand while It would be a mistake to treat it as a simple account
of what happened to him in San Fernando, the author points out
in his recent article. "I drew very heavily on that year in writing
Undoubtedly the book leaves the reader with a feeling of sad-
ness-perhaps even hoiror-at the hardships a poor boy in such
a position was forced to endure, at the disregard for his youthful
and delicate sensibilities demonstrated by his elders and supposed
social betters. One cannot help being aware of the depressing
meanness and essential cheapness of so much of the experience that
was and is still a part of growing up for many West Indians today in
a society that seems to distinguish itself by its failures to provide
its youth with any sense of their basic worth, of dignity or of respect
for personality. "When I was a child," writes Naipaul in "The Mimic
Men", "it was a disgrace to be poor And it astonished me when
I first came to England to find that it wasn't so here either
Politicians proclaimed the meanness of their birth and the poverty
of their upbringing and described themselves with virtuous rage as
barefoot boys and I was embarrassed on behalf of those great
men." Writing of Trinidad too, in "The Middle Passage" Naipaul
-onfesses to a fear of Trinidad: "I have never examined this fear
of Trinidad, I have never wished to. In my novels I had only ex-
pressed this fear I know that Trinidad was unimportant un-
creative, cynical Power was recognized, but dignity was not
allowed to anyone."
Limiting though it was potentially, Anthony does not however
reject the San Fernando experience, nor does one despair for Francis.
Commenting on his own experience, the author says "I enjoyed my
childhood; looking back, of course, and giving you the details it
would seem hard, but I think, I enjoyed it." Mr. Anthony has succeed-
ed in conveying to us this quality of felt joy. Like Mark Twain, like
Harper Lee he communicates in his book, despite its pain, an under-
lying vision of joy. And, like Francis, the reader stands in his shoes
and he wonders.
The joy is both stated and felt,. It is explicit in Francis' wonder
at the novelty of life in San Fernando. Anthony really sees the city
and mikes the reader see is it as well without the staleness ard lack
of awareness that familiarity brings, so that the most commonplace
observations seem novel and striking. Here, for example, is some of
what, Francis sees when he arrives in the city-or is it just a small
town-at night: "There were bright-coloured lights flashing on and
off, and some flashed things about chewing-gum, and there was one-
that flashed "ALWAYS OPEN" and there was the "Drink Pepsi Cola",
sign again. How many Pepsi Cola signs were there in the world? the
thought came to my head. That sign was one of the first things I
noticed at Rio Claro. There was one even at Mayaro. In my jaded
mind I thought of that girl drinking Pepsi Cola all over the world."
* Growing up with writing (Michael Anthony) Savacou Vol. 1 No. 2 September 1970.
This joy too is present and seems to abide throughout the book
in the early morning trips to market at first with Brinetta, as in his
first sight of Mount Naparaima:
"I looked at Coffee St. again, at the stream of passing vehicles.
and at the red roofs of the shops. And it was only after this that I
saw the hill.
'A mountain,' I gasped.
'It was there all the time,' Brinetta laughed."
and later, when he made those trips alone:
"I was beginning to learn the ways of the market I sampled
the water melons or pomerac or balata. Sometimes I bought barah
and channa from the Indian women and they laughed to see how I
enjoyed it And I watched them smiling, their gold teeth glittering
in the morning light."
It is present in the cane-burning season, in "Indian Summer" and
finally in the rain.
In the Savacou article, Mr. Anthony recalls the great delight he
caused his English composition teacher one day when he used in
one of his compositions a phrase that he had copied from Charles
Kingsley: "Wild nature herself was luxuriously beautiful!" Reflecting
critically on this childish stylistic triumph, Anthony comments: "But
I felt, why should I be repeating Charles Kingsley word for word,
why can't I think of my own phrase?" It is perhaps no exaggera-
tion to say that part of the delight of the author in the description
of San Fernando's many moods is simply that of recording his own
genuine response to his native country-side "in his own phrase."
Despite material deprivation, Francis' early life in Mayaro is
presented in truly idyllic terms. If, as Naipaul states, in Trinidad it
was a disgrace to be poor, Francis was unaware of it, that is until Mr
Chandles began to visit Mayaro as suitor to Marva, the daughter of
Mrs. Samuels of the neighboring Forestry Office, the only family
of "culture" in Mayaro and to whom Francis' mother was employed
as a domestic servant. Symbolically the Forestry Office is fenced off
from its neighbours and it is through Mr. Chandles' presence that
Francis first begins to sense this disgrace: "We often watched Mr.
Chandles leaning against the verandah rails, looking over the tiger-
wire fence into our yard We could see the look on Mr. Chandles'
face as he gazed over and somehow we felt rather small."
Francis remembers the first journey to San Fernando with Mr.
Chandles, mainly through Balgobin, his friend and conductor of the
bus on the first stage of the journey, whose friendliness is now a
source of embarrassment to Francis. "He asked me where I was going
to stay and I tried to make an eye to show I was going to stay with
the person beside me, but he did not understand and said loudly 'What
happen boy? You fraid to talk?' making the passengers in front look
round." The "coarse" Balgobin is left behind at the first stage but
with him, too, goes the last vestiges of village friendliness.
Francis' greatest enemy in town, the force that comes nearest to
defeating him is loneliness, his greatest deprivation not a material
one though he often goes physically hungry as well but one
of love. Mr. Chandles does not give him the suit he promised but
what the boy misses more is that he ignores him. I think this
can easily be missed because of the complicated but rather trivial
superstructure of adult intrigue which serves not vcry successfully
as a story-line. The Chandles and their mysterious family intrigues,
even the triangle of Mr. Chandles, Marva and Julia are not con-
vincingly developed. What lends unity to the book and is in fact at
the imaginative core of the entire novel is the boy's relationships with
these people and not so much the relationships of the adults among
themselves. When their lives touch the boy's they are convincing and
seem real but outside of this focus, they become flat and one dimeln-
sional. Significantly Marva who scarcely affects Francis is a mere
shadow of a character, while Julia, whom Francis loved is very sensi-
tively realized. Mr. Chandles is real only at moments when he talks[ to
the boy. At other times he is an incredibly surly, melodramatic villain.
Mrs. Chandles herself, touched perhaps by the loyalty (or is it caution)
of Francis in refusing to complain about the bad treatment he was re-
ceiving, on the occasion of his mother's visit to him in San Fernando,
develops towards the closing stages of the book a warmer relationship
with Francis. And in so doing she becomes someone real and believ-
able whom we feel for. For these two, Mrs. Chandles and Francis,
there is indeed a beautiful but brief 'Indian-summer'
To my mind, the most serious critics of "The Year in San
Fernando" will question its profundity, its cultural bias and
its relevance to today's youth, and to a developing Third World
consciousness. To one scale of values, the book seems very much
an unquestioning reworking of conventional wisdom. Francis is in
no sense a rebel and might seem destined to become a comfortable
middle-class goody-goody, a black skinned whiteman of "colonial
mentality" I was myself a little disturbed at the ease with which Mr.
Anthony, writing much later and in his own persona in Savacou, dis-
misses Mayaro as he first knew it as "one of the back-waters of Trini-
dad' and using the same metaphor describes life in England "with
all these publishers around you" as the "fountain-head as it were."
"Culture", says Mr. Anthony, of Mayaro; "did not mean anything.
One did not speak of culture." Mr. Anthony unfortunately does not
find it necessary in the article to explain what he means by the word
culture. He assumes that the reader who knows Trinidad will under-
stand him. I suspect he means by culture what Francis would mean-
collar and tie worn in the sun, and an air like Mr. Chandles' of
"having received high honours in life" And yet Naipaul writing in
"The Middle Passage" has this to say: "Few words are used more
in Trinidad than 'culture'. Culture is spoken of as something quite
separate from day to day existence It is like a special native
dish Culture is a dance put on in native costume on a stage.
Culture is the steel-band the calypso." This a substantially dif-
ferent, presumably later, account of what the word means
to a Trinidadian. It is one thing for an author to make us see the
world ,through the eyes of a child. It would be quite another to ex-
pect the reader to accept these values like a child, at face value.
However we have no indication that Mr. Anthony so intended. We
must remember too that thought provoking though this line of criti-
cism might be it merely serves to delimit the kind of achievement
that is Mr. Anthony's by indicating what the book is not. To say
what it is. I need to quote Mr. Anthony again: "I prefer towirite about
things I know," he says "simply because if I know something when I
write I can believe in it." I find this book an act of romantic nation-
alism, an attempt by the author to find again and believe in his roots
through a finely imagined often nostalgic recreation of childhood.
The book succeeds as a child's idyll because of the energy and sincer-
ity of the author's commitment, and as in the final analysis it is a
book about loneliness and a human need for love, it has a relevance
on a different and perhaps higher plane to all times, ages and peoples.
PUBLICATIONS OF THE DEPARTMENT OF EXTRA-MURAL STUDIES
L. S. Grant: Training for Medicine in the West Indies 15c. J.
G. P. Chapman: A New Development in the Agronomy
of Pimento 15c.
G. R. Coulthard: Spanish-American Novel, 1940-1965 30c.
M. G. Smith, Roy Augier, R. M. Nettleford: Report on the
Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica 60c.
R. M. Nettleford: Trade Union and Industrial Relation Terms 35c.
H. R. Roberts: Job Evaluation 35c.
Carlyle Dunkley: Collective Bargaining 35c.
John Hearne, Rex Nettleford: Our Heritage 30c.
CARIBBEAN AFFAIRS NEW SERIES:
2) Adams, Magnus and Seaforth: Poisonous Plants
in Jamaica 30c.
3) George Cumper: Looking at Figures 50c.
Agricultural Research in Jamaica (Five Papers from
Seminar in 1965) 20c.
WEST INDIAN PLAYS:
Catalogue and Plays may be obtained on application to:
Mrs. Myra Hinkson (Publications)
University of the West Indies,
113 Frederick St.,
Port-of-Spain, TRINIDAD, W.I.
RADIO BROADCASTING SCRIPTS: Scripts of broadcast programmes are
available from the Radio Education Unit of the Department 5c.
Catalogues of back issues of C.Q. available (with list of contents)
may be obtained on request from the Editor.
(i) J. J. Figueroa
Vol. II CARIBBEAN VOICES, Anthology of W.I. Poetry
The Blue Horizons 1970.
(ii) E. H. Epstein
Politics and Education in Puerto Rico a documentary survey
of the language issue Scarecrow Press 1970.
(iii) Peter Simms
Trouble in Guyana Allen & Unwin 1968.
(iv) Joseph & Joana Jones
Authors and Areas of the West Indies Steck Vaughn 1970.
(v) Black Academy Review
Vol. 1 No. 3 1970; Black Academy Press 1970.
(vi) Frances A. Ariaze
Sacrifice in IBO Religion Ibadan University Press 1970.
(vii) J. A. Ramsaran
New Approaches to African Literature -
Ibadan University Press 1970.
(viii) Henry H. Breen
St. Lucia Historical, Statistical & Descriptive -
Frank Cass 1970.
(ix) Alma Jordan
The Development of Library Service in the West Indies -
Scarecrow Press 1970.