Study Guide

Barbados

by Paule Marshall

Barbados Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title suggests a story that treats life in the Caribbean island of Barbados, perhaps on the microcosmic scale that suits the scope of the short story. However, the main character, Mr. Watford, deliberately lives far outside the mainstream of Barbadian society. He lives alone in an ostentatious plantation house with stone walls, large windows, and a columned portico, which is set far back from the gate that separates it from the crude wooden houses of the village. He tries to live like a white man. His house is an emblem of such a life, with size and pretense, with its furniture from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and its enormous parlor, where in the evenings he reads the newspapers from Boston. He is pleased when the boy who comes to order coconuts for Mr. Goodman shows him deferential gestures usually reserved for whites. Although he worked in a Boston hospital until he retired at sixty-five and although he has kept his American accent, furniture, and newspapers, he had been as detached from American life as he is from life in Barbados, the homeland to which he returned to buy his plantation and live five years before the story begins.

Alone, he works his five hundred trees all day, from dawn to dusk. At seventy, his vigor is fading, though he works ever harder to deny it, driving his body to perform as it did when he was much younger. His lean body is filled with tension, as if he could clench into himself all of his strength and prevent himself from breaking down in exhaustion and despair.

His solitude, his independence, his routine, and his forced energy all isolate him from the village. His disdain for his own people lies in his inability to hate the white family who forced him into servility when he worked for them as a yard boy. His hatred was redirected toward his own race, even toward his mother, who had given birth to nine stillborn children and whose only child to survive was himself. His terrible fear of death, his racial disgust, and his self-loathing drive him to work like a young man, a slave to his weakness and fear.

The antithesis to Watford is Goodman: corpulent, full of lusty vitality and magnanimity, with a rum shop and a coconut booth at the racetrack, a wife, two mistresses, and fourteen children. Goodman dispensing coconuts to the loud, sweating vulgar crowd at the track is the very image of sociability—an image that disgusts Watford. When Goodman comes to buy Watford’s coconuts for resale, Watford criticizes as an idler the young man whom Goodman had sent to order the coconuts. Goodman replies that people such as Watford and himself, who have money, must provide work for those who need it. Watford balks at Goodman’s assertion that they are responsible for helping others and becomes nauseous with rage when Goodman says that he will send a girl...

(The entire section is 1146 words.)