In literary works, characters usually illuminate the overt and covert themes of the story, the setting, the plots and subsequent subplots. The literary works’ creators need characters so as to emphasize on the major issues affecting our contemporary society. In his short stories anthology, ‘Ways of sunlight’, Samuel Selvon uses characters to present the themes and explain the actions they undertake in their lives. Using five short stories from the anthology we are able to understand how different characters have been used to highlight the major concerns. The stories selected include; Johnson and the Cascadura, Down the main, Cane is bitter, Erasers dilemma and Obeah in the grove. The book ways of sunlight by Samuel Selvon mirrors the lives of Caribbean in Trinidad and London.
The first part is set in Trinidad where through various characters themes such as superstition, education, cultural practices, love and family and identity are discussed. In this part we are meant to see how life is conducted in Trinidad and the various challenges characters face day in day out. Through the characters behaviors and their relations to the environment and other characters, we get acquainted with the main issues the writer aims at propagating. The second part of the book is set in London.
Here we learn of how immigrants get to familiarize and integrate themselves into a foreign land. We are made aware of their lives in a new home away from home. For instance in ‘Eraser’s Dilemma’, we are informed though in a humorous way, of the challenges an immigrant encounters in a foreign land. The excitement of the new world is not left unattended to as seen in ‘Waiting for auntie to cough’. This paper aims at critiquing the selected stories and evaluating how characters’ lives have been portrayed by the author in the five stories highlighted above.
In Johnson and the Cascadura, the main character, Johnson, is a white man from England who is a friend to Franklin the landowner of the coffee plantation. He is a friendly fellow since he blends in with the natives of the farm. He helped the women while they were sorting out the coffee. Moreover, he joined in some activities that were undertaken in the land for instance the traditional dances. He was not socially prejudiced since he was free while around the local ladies and even the narrator, Sam. This is evident as he confides in Sam; the Indian foreman, his romantic feelings towards Urmilla. His main intention for coming to the West Indies was to do a research for his book which was to be based on superstition. While on the plantation, he is portrayed as being social and helping more so to the girls to an extent that he falls in love with Urmilla, Sookdeo’s daughter. Her being an Indian girl, this is not taken well because culturally, she is not supposed to be involved with a white man. Such a relationship is viewed as an abomination. Johnson is forced to go back to England.
Before he leaves, Urmilla prepares for him the famous Cascadura stew which is believed to make a person come back to the Tropics no matter where s/he goes. Through his findings we are able to see the theme of superstition being addressed, for example, Johnson climbed the immortal tree in search of the vultures’ eggs since the locals believed the eggs brought good luck to whoever owned them. Moreover, Franklin confirms to him that he had a superstitious encounter one night when a ball of fire came out of nowhere and fell right in front of him. The next day when he went to check on the same spot he found no mark left by the ball of fire. Urmilla also believes in the superstition that says, ‘Those who eat the Cascadura, whenever they may wonder will end up in Trinidad’. That is why she ensures that Johnson eats the stew so that he comes back to her. Johnson is friendly with the natives so as to get information on the anticipated book.
He mingled freely with them and he was liked because he was writing a book about them. Sam, to some extent can be portrayed as being the villain since he is also in love with Urmilla. He is the foreman of Mr. Franklin’s farm. He was a hardworking worker as he saw that all the duties were performed. For example, he tells the girls to stop gossiping and continue with their task. He is also a very secretive person. I.e. he knows of the Urmilla and Johnson’s affair but keeps it to himself. This is evident when he doesn’t answer Mr. Sookdeo when asked if he knew the affair existed. He is later betrothed to Urmilla as a death bed wish from Sookdeo, something that he fails to fulfill. Through this action, Samuel illustrates the theme of betrayal since he betrays Sookdeo’s request of marrying Urmilla. Selvon unfortunately doesn’t show us the major role of Sam in the whole plot rather than just providing the theme of escapism and other roles that Mr. Franklin as a character could have also achieved.
However, love surpasses racial boundaries. Urmilla grow from the naïve girl to a woman ready to defend her feelings. Her growth though positive for her brings about rebellion and negative sentiments from people closes to her e.g. her father. Through her defying the norm of the society she sets a trend that will open other avenues to fight racial prejudice in Trinidad. Franklin, the landlord is also helpful in illustrating the binary opposition between the rich and the poor, the whites and the colored, masters and servants although he contrary to the other Caribbean writer portrayal of the white masters. He is kind and has good relations with his employees Sookdeo is also portrayed as being conservative of the traditions and customs of the society. Being Urmillla’s father, he is against the love affair between Urmilla and Johnson.
According to him they are different (racially) from one another. Characters portrayed in the story to a larger extent develop the theme of superstition and racial prejudice that existed in Trinidad at the time. Some characters however seem too good to be true as in the case of Franklin. The relationship between master and servant has always been that of oppressor and oppressed. Franklin however is brought out as an ideal master who can even stand accusations of betrayal from a mere local like Sookdeo. Sookdeo tells him that he trusted him (Franklin) to take care of his daughter but he failed to do so. More so, Johnson character to some extent, acts hypocritically. He argues that he does not believe in witchcraft and superstition but at the end of the story we see him convinced that the Cascadura he ate before his departure might have contributed to him coming back to Trinidad.
In Down the main the story centers on Frederick, an ex-soldier who was well compensated but due to his spendthrift nature, lives an extravagant kind of life. He decides to immigrate to Venezuela in search of good life and greener pastures. He inquire from Parker about life in Venezuela . He and the others (ling ping, ilsingh, Charles and Henry) sail for the main. At the start of the story, we are able to notice the theme of emigration as Frederick, Ling Ping, Lisingh and Henry migrate into the new county in such of good pastures. Their pathetic life situations in Trinidad make them risk their lives and freedom in search of greener pastures. Fredrick, having been convinced by Parker that life was much better in Venezuela chooses to abandon his home so that he can make a name for himself.
Though there were better life opportunities in Venezuela the nostalgic feeling of the characters cannot go unmentioned as seen in the case of Parker. He constantly asks Fredrick if he had heard and news from his aunty back in Trinidad because he was concerned about her status. Fredrick’s cunning side is evident when he reaches Venezuela for example he pays the man at the office, who helped him to acquire the legal documents i.e. ‘Cadula’, 20 bovalries (bees)” instead of 200 bees and when Enrique asks for his share he walks away hurriedly since he knew Enrique had a wooden leg and would not keep up his pace. After acquiring the ‘Cadula’ he cuts ties with Enrique. Samuel uses the actions and events of Frederick to portray the theme of corruption. He had to bribe the officer after he had handed him the cadula. He writes;
‘And with that he shakes the fellar hand and palm off a bill that was only twenty bees.’ Enrique is a well vast man. He is intelligent, cunning and corrupt. He knows how to go about acquiring the legal documents in Venezuela. Parker links Frederick to Enrique who will help him settle in Venezuela. Those who he assists have to pay huge sums of money. He is however betrayed by Frederick who fails to pay him after receiving the legal documents. Through Fredrick and Enrique, we are able to see concerns of immigration and corruption majorly being brought up. However the author fails to really show us the risks and danger the immigrants undergo in the foreign land. We are left to think that other than the task to acquire fake citizenship documents the immigrants have it easy. For instance Fredrick easily gets employed after getting the documents. This is however not always the case.
CANE IS BITTER
The story addresses how education clashes with traditional and cultural practices. Romesh, being educated, does not understand the traditional practice of arranged marriage that is to be inflicted on him. He is against the idea and advocates for his siblings to be educated so that they can have a better future. He sees traditional practices as being backward and undermining to his family and community at large. Due to the poor life that he has led, he understands the importance of education and wants to change the beliefs of his community so that they can have what he sees as the better life. Romesh, being the main character although enlightened to some level, comes out as naïve. He thinks that importing the knowledge he has learned on his parents would change their perception and hopefully divert them from the traditional practices. He does not seem to bear in mind that he is still their child and has to succumb to their rules.
The author tries to tell us that some practices i.e. arranged marriages, cannot be abolished in a day or by their ideologies of an individual. It takes more than education of a single family member to transform a community. His parents also; Rookmin and Ramlal have been ridiculed for being so conservative. They believe they have all they need in that small village with knowledge of sugarcane and cultivation only. They do not have a wider perspective of life and feel contented in their poverty. Rookmin is hard working and contented to working in the sugarcane plantation. She is caring to her children as she encourages the schooling of Romesh. She is submissive to the husband and does as the husband says. Through her, Sam Selvon shows the position of women in the society vis a vis that of men. In addition, she comes out as treacherous because she does not hold on to her initial plan of schooling Romesh but rather succumbs to her husband’s demands that he should stay at home and marry a local girl. Other characters such as his siblings do not play a major role in this literary work.
Eraser’s dilemma is in the second part of the book. It deals with life in London. The author introduces us to the main character Eraser, a bus conductor who loves his job so much. Once he sent a photo of the bus he was working on to his grandmother back at St. Vincent. Once in a while he would help the older women on and off the bus. At some times, his jovial nature could be seen when he sang or asks the men to be gentlemen so as to allow the women to sit. When he gets a parcel left behind in the bus, he decides to look for its owner; Miss Bellflent, until he finds her only to realize that the parcel was meant for him. Samuel Selvon uses these characters to show the irony of life. While eraser moves with the parcel up and about he doesn’t realize that it is his present until Bellflent tells him.
Moreover Eraser’s dilemma has been presented in a humorous way to show the challenges immigrants face in a new city. The have to be cautious of how they act and be kind to strangers for fear of losing their jobs. Eraser had to search almost the entire town so as to return her the parcel. He feared that if she reported that she had left it in his bus, he would lose his job. Miss Bellflent on the other hand is a good hearted woman when she moves out from her previous abode she gives the conductor the parcel as a gift. When eraser comes to her new place she welcomes him in and offers him tea. Jack doesn’t play any role of importance to the audience. Themes are not well developed throughout the characters. This can be noted as a major shortcoming. Here the characters are mainly used to guide us throughout the story and understand the plots
OBEAH IN THE GROOVE
In obeah in the grove, we are introduced to the Ladbroke grove with a house that is owned by an English landlord and landlady. The two are too malicious they want to sell the house but they can’t with the tenants living in the houses. They decide to pull a trick that jack uses to get rid of his tenants. They welcome colored people into the house so that the rest of the white people could move out. Four boys from Jamaica move in to help with their plan. Through the actions of the landlord and landlady, we see the racial segregation in the grove and within the tenants. Agnes, a tenant does not like the possibility of living with the colored people. The four boys, Winky, Fiji, Buttards and Algernon, when realizing the intention of the landlord and landlady are annoyed.
Fiji is the intelligent one among the four as he manages to come up with the plan that will counter the intentions of the landlady and landlord. He comes up with the idea of using obeah. The boys are a team as they plan intelligently on how to execute the whole event. The presentation of the boys brings in the theme of superstition. The parcel contained the witchcraft paraphernalia. They planted them in front of the house and bit by bit the house started to fall apart, cracks form, the people who come to buy the house, one of them becomes mad a week later, the roof also falls.
The landlady breaks her leg while the landlord loses his job. The people are convinced that the house has been bewitched. The landlady and her husband are welcoming and at the same time mischievous. They use the boys to piss off the other tenants who are white out of the house in order to sell it. The four boys together are secretive and loyal as they keep their plan well hidden from any prying eyes and ears. Through the representation of the characters here we get to learn how easily the locals can be manipulated by fake witchcraft. The author ridicules the locals by presenting them as gullible.
Samuel Selvon has managed to effectively use lives of characters to bring out his major concerns which are superstition, racial segregation, immigration, education and cultural practices. The surroundings of the characters and their relationship towards each other has contributed to shaping their lives. However some characters are lacking in one way or another as portrayed above. Some have been exaggerated while others have been made to underperform. This binary in characters to some extent is what makes the selected short stories more illuminating and interesting.