The coming-of-age novel (Bildungsroman) is a popular form among writers from formerly colonized nations; for their personal development has often been linked to the emergence of their homelands from colonial dependence or the personal transition from indigenous resident to immigrant. Perhaps the most widely-read and influential example from the Caribbean is the earliest, this novel by George Lamming, recounting his youth in Barbados, written shortly after he emigrated to England. Lamming makes this point vividly in his fine introduction to the Schocken Books edition of the novel, which you should read.
Franz Fanon was a psychiatrist born in Martinique who worked in the French colony of Algeria and finally joined the revolution against the French. He wrote two eloquent and influential books examining racism: Black Skin/ White Masks (1952), and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Much of his work stressed the difficulties caused by blacks trying to identify with their white oppressors. For him the failure to embrace one’s own identity could be a form of mental illness.
Paul Robeson, the son of a former slave, was a brilliant bass and actor who embraced a variety of political causes, including the struggle against racism. Because of his support of the Soviet Union he was banned from performing in many venues later in his life.
Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Congo, was killed in 1961 by his Congolese enemies in the midst of a violent civil conflict.
Lamming’s fellow-Barbardian Edward Kaumau Brathwaite is one of the most influential critics and scholars of Caribbean literature as well as being an important writer of poetry and fiction.
According to Lamming, what was the relationship of the Barbadians (who call themselves Bajans , by the way) to Africa?
What is the effect of beginning the novel with the torrential rains marking the protagonist’s ninth birthday? How does he use the weather to set the tone of the book? Castor oil is a diarrhetic which used to be given regularly to children to keep them “regular.”
Can you see any symbolism in the killing of the pumpkin vine? The fowlcock was doubtless being offered for sale for the popular sport of cockfighting. Savannah: a large park covered with lawn. What effects did the prejudices of the white landlords have on the black people’s self-esteem? What does Lamming do to make the custom of the boys making knives out of pins seem ominous? How does he make the sexuality of the villagers repulsive through its surroundings?
What are the children’s conceptions of Barbados’ relationship with England? The assertion of the inspector that the British Empire has always worked for peace is supposed to be obviously false to the reader, since that Empire was built through relentless warfare and oppression. Note that the musical part of the program is called “a test of voice control.” What do you think is the significance of the incident triggered by the giving of the Queen’s pennies? How do the boys feel about their mothers and fathers? “W.C.”: water closet, toilet. Why do the boys so enjoy the story about the schoolmaster’s relationship with his wife? How do the boys learn about slavery? The Battle of Hastings happened in 1066. Why does the head teacher have trouble thinking about his wife after he receives the letter? At the end of the discussion about slavery, what is the boys’ attitude toward the Empire?
The notion that God cares specifically for birds like pigeons comes from a passage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:26). The story of Moses and the Exodus has always been popular among oppressed peoples who identified with the ancient Hebrews enslaved in Egypt. “God elect”: God’s elected one, chosen one. Why do you think Lamming has made this chapter about an elderly couple facing the end of life follow on one about young boys just discovering what life is about?
What is their image of America? Matthew 6:1921 says “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust cloth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust cloth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” What is the aim of the penny bank founded by Mr. Slime?
“Savory” means “tasty,” and is presumably a nickname. J. B. Priestly (19984-1984) wrote a good deal of social commentary as well as fiction and literary criticism. What is the significance of the passage by Priestly? Trinidad is the second largest of the Caribbean Islands (after Cuba) and the most southerly. It has had a tumultuous history. Cricket, a game most Americans associate with the British upper class, is still quite popular in the former British colonies in the Caribbean. Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica, but became influential after he moved to the United States and founded in 1914 the Universal Negro Improvement Association to encourage black unity worldwide. He tried to organize a fleet of ships to carry blacks back to Africa; but failed, being finally arrested for fraud and deported back to Jamaica. He is fondly remembered there, however, exercising a major influence on Rastafarianism. The shoemaker confuses the date of Julius Caesar’s invasion of England with that of William the Conqueror more than a thousand years later. What is ironic about Mr. Foster’s praise for the British colonial education system? A “nosey Parker” is a busybody. “Cakes”: cookies, pastries.
“Belleville” means “beautiful city.” How does the way the narrator interprets the clouds in the sky reflect his own life? Luke 16:13 “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (wealth). How does the boy stop his mother from beating him? What do you think of her as a mother? How is the game of diving for coins symbolic of the entire existence of the villagers? Canute (995?-1035) was at various times king of England, Norway, and Denmark. Legend has it that he commanded the sea not to advance.
What kinds of associations does the narrator have with the sea? What aspect of life does the story of the weddings illustrate? What are the boys’ attitudes toward their skin colors? How does it affect them? Compare the story of Bots and Bambina with other accounts of polygamy we have read. “Torch”: flashlight. “Gaol”: jail. What themes run through the boys’ talk on the beach? What do they tell us about their world? What makes the boys feel that the fisherman is only a man, not a giant? What is the importance of language to the narrator?
In the tropics there is little twilight at sunset. How has the point of view and style changed between the last chapter and the beginning of this one? Why does the candle frighten the boy? “Nancy”: sissy. What is Mr. Slime’s criticism of religion? Automats such as are described by Boy Blue used to be common in New York. Why do you think the scenes at the worship service surround that at the white party? What are the shifting moods in this chapter? The story of the fig tree is told in Mark 11:13-20. Luke 18:16 “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, ‘Suffer [allow] little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”‘
Note how the scenes with Pa and Ma continue to alternate with those featuring the boys. What is the old woman’s theory about why rich whites don’t help poor whites? What version of the scene the boys witnessed has been told by Mr. Creighton? How is it different from what we know really happened?
Note how the disturbances which have begun in the city encroach gradually on the village. What is the cause of the fighting? In the introduction Lamming regrets that he did not have the villagers kill the landlord. How would that have altered the novel?
The rhapsodic passage that follows goes beyond realism to create a kind of prose poem, a meditation on the past. How do the old man’s words describe the traditional values of Africa? “The Middle Passage” is the name of the slave shipping route between Africa and the western hemisphere. How does she imagine the slave trade? Wearing sackcloth is a sign of mourning. “Between the devil and the deep blue sea” means to be caught between equally bad alternatives. The usual expression is “the blood shed for your sins and mine.” Why does the old woman change it to “light”?
Why do you think the narrative voice switches to the first person in this chapter? What do you think is the significance of the hidden pebble? How did his mother dampen the narrator’s enthusiasm about being able to go to high school? In fact World War II marked the beginning of the end for the British Empire. England lost India the year after the war ended, and over the next decade and a half most of the rest gained independence. Lord Haw Haw was the slang term for a clumsy German propagandist who broadcast to the British soldiers, trying to persuade them to desert. German submarines sank many transport ships bearing goods to England. “The neighboring island” of Trinidad is presumably Tobago. Together these two islands make up the modern nation of Trinidad and Tobago, which is quite close to the South American mainland.
Why do you think that at long last there is communication between the old man and the boy, who have always inhabited separate narratives earlier?
What things have changed in the village? How is power shifting? Why is the new landowner not more assertive in his dealings with the villagers? How has Mr. Slime managed to acquire the village? What is the quality of charity at the Alms House?
The narrative technique changes again, as the narrator reads his diary. Falernum is a sugary liqueur. Note that on p. 261 appears the phrase that constitutes the title of the novel. Why does he look forward to living in a place where no one knows him? What is the nature of his relationship with his mother? Trinidad is the most industrialized of the anglophone Caribbean islands. What does the narrator’s mother imagine life is like in Trinidad? The Mardi Gras carnival in Trinidad is as famous in its way as that of New Orleans or Brazil; and provides an even greater contrast to ordinary life the rest of the year in this largely impoverished nation. Many people spend the better part of a year’s wages on lavish costumes. “Ochroes”: okra. Why does he think of the missing pebble while listening to his mother? John 14 consists of the farewell speech of Jesus to his disciples. What are Trumper’s main impressions of America? Paul Robeson was an internationally famous bass and black activist. What is the difference between American discrimination and Barbadian discrimination? How does Trumper react to his association with American blacks? How does the narrator react to Trumper’s analysis of racial problems? What effect does it have on the ending that the village is dissolving as the narrator leaves it?
More Study Materials for World Literature in English of India, Africa, and the Caribbean
- Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
- Buchi Emecheta: The Joys of Motherhood
- Wole Soyinka: Selected Plays
- Athol Fugard: “Master Harold”. . . and the Boys
- Nadine Gordimer: Selected Stories
- R. K. Narayan: The Guide
- Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses
- Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things
- Anita Desai: Baumgartner’s Bombay Translations and notes
- “Postcolonial Literature”: Problems with the Term
- The Irrelevance of “Postcolonialism” to South Asian Literature
- About African Literature, by Azfar Hussain
- Postcolonial Literature Journals List
- World Literature Syllabus
Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.
Mounted May 6, 1996.
Last revised August 7, 1998.