Study Guide

The Dragon Can't Dance

by Earl Lovelace

The Dragon Can't Dance Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Dragon Can’t Dance is the story of the existence of the people of Calvary Hill and the culture they create in the process of surviving. The novel is episodic, with a greater emphasis on character portrayal than on story line. Earl Lovelace uses a prologue to focus on those special elements that are responsible for and are manifestations of the culture of the Hill’s inhabitants.

The Hill attracts people from throughout Trinidad, who are quickly absorbed into the life and culture of the Hill, except the East Indian Pariag and his wife, Dolly. Carnival, a festival marked by steel band and calypso music, totally transforms the Hill and its occupants, so that even a snob like Miss Cleothilda can claim “All o’ we is one.” The time is the late 1950’s, a period marked by violent clashes between the politicized steel bands and between toughs known as “bad johns.” In this environment, Fisheye and the other bad johns assert their manhood and act out the aggression that colonialism has nurtured in them. Aldrick uses his Carnival dragon costume to threaten and intimidate.

All this is not to last, however; sponsorship and commercialism step in. The steel bands are quieted down, and their warriors are “emasculated.” Fisheye is asked to behave, and when he refuses, he is thrown out of his band. Aldrick’s dragon is unable to dance, Philo gives up on his “calypsos of rebellion,” and Carnival, once an expression of...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

The Dragon Can't Dance Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Dragon Can’t Dance chronicles the lives of a number of people living in the poverty-stricken Calvary Hill section of Port of Spain, Trinidad. No single person emerges as the main character because the third-person narrator treats the five or six main characters equally. Indeed, the main character may be said to be Calvary Hill itself, which is the subject of a lengthy description at the outset of the novel:This is the hill, Calvary Hill, where the sun set on starvation and rise on potholed roads, thrones for stray dogs that you could play banjo on their rib bones, holding garbage piled high like a cathedral spire, sparkling with flies buzzing like torpedoes.... This is the hill...its guts stretched to bursting with a thousand narrow streets and alleys and lanes and traces and holes, holding the people who come to the edge of the city to make it home.

In addition to the description, an anecdote introduces the character of life on the hill and burlesques the problem central to the lives of all of its residents: how to take meaningful action against the constraints of poverty. One day, a local evangelist named Taffy tells his followers that they should crucify and stone him, and that he would love them still. When they actually begin to stone him, however, he angrily swears at their stupidity for stoning him “with big stones when so much little pebbles lying on the ground.” The anecdote is rich with implications for the people of Calvary Hill, the name of which implies that all who live on it are crucified by their poverty. When Taffy sets himself up as a savior, the effort is futile because it is a meaningless masquerade. The people were hardly taken in by his pose, since the stones they threw were big enough to shatter it.

Yet the problem that Taffy parodies—asserting oneself against one’s own powerlessness—is real and forms the question central to the actions of all the characters. For the...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

The Dragon Can't Dance Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Barratt, Harold. “Metaphor and Symbol in The Dragon Can’t Dance.” World Literature Written in English 23 (Spring, 1984): 405-413. Argues that the rebellion and Carnival are forms of expression by those seeking to claim their “personhood.” Explores the larger theme of the quest for identity in the major characters.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1984. Overview of the subject that includes a discussion of Caribbean literature. Useful for placing Lovelace’s work in context.

Ilona, Anthony. “’Laughing Through the Tears’: Mockery and Self-Representation in V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance.” In Cheeky Fictions: Laughter and the Postcolonial, edited by Susanne Reichl and Mark Stein. New York: Rodopi, 2005. Argues that derisive humor in The Dragon Can’t Dance tears down individual characters’ egos in order to make possible a more authentic representation of the complexity and diversity of collective Caribbean identities.

King, Bruce Alvin, ed. West Indian Literature. Hamdon, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979. Survey of the West Indian literary scene published contemporaneously with The Dragon Can’t Dance. Index, bibliography.

Meeks, Brian. Narratives of Resistance: Jamaica, Trinidad, the Caribbean. Mona, Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2000. Compares the representation of resistance in The Dragon Can’t Dance to that in Michael Thelwell’s Harder They Come (1994).

Nazareth, Peter. Review of The Dragon Can’t Dance, by Earl Lovelace. World Literature Today 56 (1983): 394-395. Argues that Aldrick carries the message of the text. His development as a character demonstrates that self-understanding, which comes from looking inward and not from material possessions, is the key to life.

Ramchand, Kenneth. “Why the Dragon Can’t Dance: An Examination of Indian-African Relations in Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance.” Journal of West Indian Literature 2 (October, 1988): 1-14. Argues that it is possible to focus on Pariag and still offer a response to the whole novel, since the theme of the African-Indian relationships allows for an examination of the concepts of alienation and selfhood.