All Souls’ Rising

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Madison Smartt Bell has long been interested in social outcasts, deviants, revolutionaries, and the violence and death they engender. The protagonist in his novel The Washington Square Ensemble (1983) is a heroin dealer; the central character in Waiting for the End of the World (1985) is a drunk who, with his equally peculiar friends, is planning to blow up New York. Even in the more traditional Soldier’s Joy (1989), which is set in the rural South instead of the urban North, the well-intentioned major characters are threatened by people who take the law into their own hands, achieving their ends through terror, arson, and murder. It is hardly surprising, then, that when he came to write a historical novel, Bell chose as his subject one of the bloodiest events in the history of the Western hemisphere, the slave uprising of the late eighteenth century that brought an end to white rule in Haiti.

The novel shows evidence of the most painstaking historical research, and Bell has even included a historical chronology and a glossary for his more serious readers. Nevertheless, while All Soul’s Rising is a masterful re-creation of the past, as well as a Gothic tale of unrelieved horror and almost unbearable suspense, Bell’s primary focus is not plot but character, for it is what people think and feel which causes them to act and to react as they do.

Much of the novel is seen through the eyes of Bell’s most dispassionate observer, the French doctor Antoine Hébert. As a newcomer to the island, Hébert is aware of his ignorance about colonial society, and he finds it safest to utter platitudes about restraint. Moreover, both by nature and by training, Hébert is averse to making hasty judgments. He could lean in either direction. When he arrives in Haiti, he is suspected of being a Jacobin, and with some grounds, for as a doctor he knows that no human being is less than human. On the other hand, his reason for coming to Haiti was to visit his sister, Elise Hébert Thibodet, whose reputedly wealthy slaveholding husband owned a large plantation near Ennery. Because he so discreetly refrains from forming and expressing his opinions, Hébert elicits confidences from such natural enemies as Michel Arnaud, a great landowner known for his cruelty, and Toussaint Louverture, the once-trusted slave who leads the uprising. At times, the doctor is central to the novel’s action, desperately attempting to save the lives of others as well as his own. At other times, he functions primarily as an observer and even the author’s persona, for, as the doctor tells Toussaint, he would like to know what it all means. Obviously, the same quest for understanding motivated Bell to spend so many years in researching and writing this book.

Bell also provides his doctor with a more immediate quest, and, at the same time, supplies a simple plot line for this complex and sometimes bewildering novel. When Hébert arrived at the Thibodet plantation, his sister had disappeared, and her husband assumed that she had run away with one of her lovers. Then, quite suddenly, Thibodet died, leaving his financial affairs in a shambles. If she is not to lose everything, Elise must be located.

At the beginning of All Souls’ Rising, the doctor is on his way back to the commercial center of Le Cap, where he hopes to find someone who will know Elise’s whereabouts. Later both the doctor and Elise find their way back to the plantation, but unfortunately they miss each other. Not until the very end of the novel are they reunited. In a story in which almost every other sympathetic character meets with violent death, the two Héberts survive. They are last seen at the Thibodet plantation, looking on as their two small children embrace. This innocent display of affection between the two cousins—Antoine’s son by Nanon, the mulatto prostitute whom he considers his wife, and Elise’s daughter by Xavier Tocquet, a slave owner famed for his relentless pursuit of runaways—symbolize the reconciliation and redemptive love that constitute Haiti’s only hope for the future.

While the character of Hébert is important in the novel, the author does not limit himself to a single perspective. As an omniscient narrator, he moves freely from character to character. For long periods of time, he will be in the mind of Toussaint, a good man who is placed in an impossible situation. Ordered by his master to stir up a small insurrection, so that the slaveless whites with Jacobin sympathies and even the slaveholding free mulattoes will be frightened into supporting the royalist landowners, Toussaint is only too aware that he will likely be killed, along with his family. Thus goaded into leading a real rebellion rather than a pretended one, Toussaint hopes for justice but sees his righteous cause become an excuse for...

(The entire section is 1988 words.)