Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The two principal themes that emerge from The Kaywana Trilogy concern politics on one hand and sexual behavior on the other. The political theme derives from the stern, fatalistic tradition of the van Groenwegels, which amounts to a belief in jungle justice or an amoral world order in which only the fittest survive. This belief is given as the motive behind many acts of sadomasochistic brutality, including Hendrickje’s inhuman treatment of her slaves and the equally inhuman retaliation of the slaves during the 1763 rebellion. To some extent, the belief is justified by the raw, chaotic conditions during the early centuries of Guiana’s settlement by Europeans. As Mittelholzer comments in his travel book With a Carib Eye (1958), these conditions encouraged cynicism and cruelty in plantation owners, who felt themselves completely at the mercy of the rivalries and decisions of metropolitan rulers in Europe, who either did not know or did not sufficiently care about local conditions and problems in their distant West Indian possessions. Consequently, the West Indian planters had to fend for themselves most of the time. This entailed a struggle for survival in which only the physically strongest, intellectually most cunning, and spiritually selfish could succeed.

The ethics of jungle justice that thus evolved dictated that weak, compassionate, or unselfish individuals were likely to be quickly eliminated in the fierce competition of plantation society. That is why the van Groenwegels despise or distrust what they regarded as softness and compassion, either in themselves or in others. Hendrickje, for example, plainly admits that life is blind, haphazard, and...

(The entire section is 686 words.)