Derek Walcott’s epic Omerus is a postcolonial re-writing of the classical Greek poems of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The poem is very complex and tackles many themes, but the most important one is that of colonialism and hegemony. The setting is that of the writer’s own native Caribbean island, Saint Lucia, where he gathers many symbolic characters – the author himself, Omeros, a blind sailor who stands for Homer, some of the main characters in Homer’s works, like Helen, Achille and Hector.
Helen is a central character in Walcott’s poem, and a symbol at the same time.
She is, in the first place, the pivot that supports the postcolonial theme of the epic. In Homer’s poem, Helen was the cause of the Trojan War as the object of desire of both Paris and Menelaus. Walcott replaces the Greek Helen with a black, beautiful Caribbean woman, the object of desire of the two fishermen, Achille and Hector, of Dennis Plunkett, a white man, of Philoctete and of the author himself.
At the same time, she is a symbol for the island itself, and the inspiration of the book that Mr. Plunkett intends to write, called “Helen of the Antilles”.
Walcott’s Helen symbolizes thus the object of the hegemonic wars, in their many forms: the hegemony of the white culture over the black one or that of the empires, such as England and France over the Caribbean islands and the sway of fiction and history over reality.
Helen is a symbol in the poem, but she as a character contests the very use of symbols in culture. As the author himself emphasized in his essay called What Twilight Says, what he is trying to do in his work is to use the old names anew, that is, to deconstruct the symbols that already circulate inside the different cultures: What is needed is not new names for old things, or old names for old things, but the faith of using the old names anew, so that mongrel as I am, something prickles in me when I see the word Ashanti as with the word Warwickshire, … both baptising … this hybrid, this West Indian. ”(Walcott, 10)
Behind these symbols, identity becomes a fiction. Walcott intentionally rhymes “affliction” with “fiction” and attaches them to Plunkett’s character, as a symbol of the white colonizer. In his view, affliction and fiction are the main outcomes of the imperialism’s influence over the colonial identity: This wound I have stitched into Plunkett’s character. He has to be wounded, affliction is one theme of this work, this fiction, since every “I” is a fiction finally. ”(1. 5. 2) Helen is, in the first place, a symbol for the fictionalized identity of the Caribbean islands, and an echo of the Homerian Helen. As such, she is a silent character that is only given a few lines in the poem, and for the rest appears only in the representations of the other characters. The fact that she is not allowed to speak for herself emphasis her status as a cultural and historical symbol rather than human being.
At the same time though, the author creates another image for her, making her a real, “local” woman, as he exclaims in the last book of the poem: “What a fine local woman! ” (7. 64. 2) The first function that Helen has in the poem is to symbolize myth itself, the fictions created by art and history over the years, and fake identities constructed by the white, European culture for the colonized nations. Plunkett himself finds what he calls a “Homeric coincidence” between the war of Paris and Menelaus for Helen, and that between France (Paris) and England (Rodney) for the “island called Helen”.
The forced coincidences and the emphasis on symbolic names point to the fictionalizing of identity through the historical perspective. Walcott’s Helen is the personification of the island of Saint Lucia, and therefore the symbol of hegemonic contention between two nations, the French and the English, just as the Homeric Helen was for the Greeks and the Trojans. Like her Greek namesake, Helen is here a figure caught in the “webbed connections”, a symbol or a metaphor that has no identity of her own: “If she hid in their net of myths, knotted entanglements/ of figures and dates, she was not a fantasy but a webbed connection. ”(2. 18)
History and reality are changed into metaphors by Plunkett and Walcott, who are both authors trying to represent Helen. She is liable to become thus only a name or a fiction. The idea of authorship is very important in the poem as it demonstrates the postmodernist contention that the identity and the self are constantly transformed into fictions through encapsulation into culture and history. The Greek Helen as well as the Caribbean one are represented by their authors and do not have a personal voice. Walcott’s Helen is moreover represented by many voices in different ways, so as to emphasize the many different acquired identities.
In the second chapter of his epic, the author describes the 1782 sea war that brought British sovereignty over the island of Saint Lucia. Thus, he recreates the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, and shows how two nations fight for supremacy over another culture, without taking into consideration the rights of this culture to exist or to decide for itself. If Helen is the symbol for the island, the crippled Philoctete is the symbol for the state in which the nation finds itself because of the war. However, even if the nation is crippled, Walcott emphasizes that its cultural identity is still alive in its traditions and customs.
It is therefore not accidental that the main representative of the white culture, Plunkett is childless and heirless. Thus, the white culture has tried to gain hegemony over the island and has achieved its political goals, but is not capable of assimilating the Caribbean culture in its own structure. This is why, after he represents Helen as a symbol, the author starts building an identity for her as a real woman, significantly demanding that she be seen “as the sun saw her”, that is, without the Homeric shadow, as the natural, full of life figure, the representative of the Caribbean culture: There, in her head of ebony, there was no real need for the historian’s remorse, nor for literature’s.
Why not see Helen as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow, swinging her plastic sandals on that beach alone, as fresh as the sea-wind? ”(6. 14. 2) The Helen that Walcott speaks about is “here and alive”, that is represents the flesh creature and not an idealized figure, a mere fictional creation. Her exotic beauty and her wild nature (she herself is often compared with a panther, the stolen bracelet resembles a snake on her hand, and so on) are the opposite of the sculptural, lifeless Helen of Homer.
She is alive and fresh, and has not been conquered by the white civilization. The fact that her skin is ebony-black is also significant, as she stands as a token for the entire black race that has been dominated over time by the Western civilization. The two Helens are therefore very different, almost opposites, but both have been turned into symbols by culture and history: “You were never in Troy, and, between two Helens, yours is here and alive; their classic features were turned into silhouettes from the lightning bolt of a glance.
These Helens are different creatures, one marble, one ebony. [ … ] but each draws an elbow slowly over her face and offers the gift of her sculptured nakedness, parting her mouth. (7. 53. 2) Helen is thus the island itself, the place that even the wounded Philoctete, the symbol of the injuries left by colonization, loves. In this sense, she is no longer the symbolic figure, but the woman that is loved with the same passion that a land may be loved: “Why couldn’t they love the place, same way, together, the way he always loved her, even with his sore?
Love Helen like a wife in good and bad weather, in sickness and health, its beauty in being poor’ The way the leaves loved her, not like a pink leaflet printed with slogans of black people fighting war? “(2. 20. 2) The natural side of Helen is thus emphasized, by contrasting the “leaves” with the printed leaflets. Also, it is very important that the author transmits his message by using Helen, an essentially Western symbol, to represent the native Caribbean culture. She incorporates both hemispheres, but her “real” part, as a woman with “cheap sandals”: As Omeros points out to Walcott, “a girl smells better than the world’s libraries” (7. 5), that is the woman, the real life creature is better than the fictions that are created around her.
This is the lesson that the author has to learn on his Odyssey home. Walcott sees Helen significantly as a panther, as a wild creature, representing the natural life of the island, opposed to the metaphor that the white colonizer Plunkett chose to see in her. Her stare is “paralyzes” him “past any figure of speech”, that is, she is alive and not just a product of language. Helen cannot be completely described or contained into mere words. She is a panther, a figure which mixes completely with the wild environment that she comes from.
Her ability to enthrall and almost hypnotize the onlookers gives her an almost magical power over the others. The same fascination seizes Plunkett as he sees her, trying his wife’s bracelet on, and eventually letting her steal it. It is very significant that Helen is the housemaid, the servant of the white family, as she again symbolizes the enslavement of the black culture by the white. However, Plunkett sees her as a possible “salvation” for him, making a pun with “slavery”, and thus emphasizing the way in which the white culture appropriated the other cultures.
Walcott’s trip through Europe, as it is described in the fifth book of the poem is meant to describe the nest of Western civilization and imperialism. The tour significantly comprises the most important historical places where the colonization plans had been developed, such as Lisbon, London or Dublin. The trip is a journey similar to that of Ulysses that ends up with the happy return home. The island itself and Helen play here the role of Penelope, the symbol of returning to one’s origins.
The voyage that Walcott takes is therefore symbolic, as it persuades him to return to the simplicity of the island instead of looking for the sophisticated and metaphoric European culture. The last book of the poem significantly shows Omeros in the shape of a statue talking to Walcott. He thus tells him that Helen is alive and he should stop trying to turn her into fiction. It is very significant that Omeros does this himself, as it points to Walcott’s belief that Homer did represent Helen as a living woman, but the later centuries of literature and history turned her into a symbol.
This is in fact obvious when we consider that in Homer’s epic the war between Greece and the Trojan people is indeed fought for a woman and not for a symbol. Thus, the Caribbean Helen is the full-fleshed woman, through whom Walcott intends to demystify the injustices that art and culture sometimes do to reality. She is not only the symbol of the hegemonic fight between two cultures over a third but also that of the symbol of the distorting effect that art has on reality.
Identity and independence should be cherished therefore both at the real and the artistic level. Helen emerges therefore as a woman who, in spite of the Plunkett and Walcott that try to be her authors, remains alive and unchangeable in her wildness. Through her, Walcott attempts the deconstruction of cultural and literary symbols in general, which can deceive and hide the truth behind signs. Helen of Saint Lucia re-enters her initial identity as a woman, just as she had been represented by Homer.
The author denounces tradition as imperialistic and hegemonic and turns to the simple flavors of life. He therefore expresses the postmodernist belief that reality can not be represented as reality, but only as fiction. Thus, Walcott represents Helen as the object of hegemony between different cultures, but he emphasizes the real part of her character, by making her a black woman with her own life. Like the ocean itself, the poem tries to denunciate the metaphors that memory plants in the way of real understanding of life and of other cultures.
The waves of the ocean cannot hold any traces, and have no memory. In the like manner, Walcott’s poem attempts to erase the traces left by literature, by deconstructing its symbols and showing that they in fact screen reality instead of revealing it. Walcott’s attempt to write an epical poem in the manner of Homer is also significant because it shows his urge to leave behind the whole tradition of literary symbols and to return to the plain epic and story telling that was specific of the Greek author.