(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Minty Alley is the story of Haynes, a young black educated middle-class man who observes and becomes involved in the daily life of the “ordinary people” of 2 Minty Alley, a barrack yard in Trinidad. Life in the yard is presented from the perspective of Haynes, who is himself transformed in the process of observing and participating in that life.

Beset by financial problems and wanting to escape his sheltered, “monotonous,” and “empty” life, Haynes decides, after the death of his overprotective mother, to take up lodging among the working people at 2 Minty Alley. Encouraged by the affable landlady, Mrs. Rouse, he ignores his servant’s advice about not living among those who are “not [his] class of people.” Shortly thereafter, he begins to regret his decision, until a crack in a board in his room affords him the opportunity to play the voyeur and eavesdrop on the sexual activities of the inhabitants of the yard. Changing his mind, he decides to stay so he can witness the “terrific human drama” unfolding at 2 Minty Alley.

Haynes’s observer status is quickly changed into one of participant as he becomes increasingly involved in the lives of the yard occupants. In fact, everyone begins to confide in him, and he is forced to use all of his skills and resources to keep the peace among them. Even though from time to time he announces that he will leave, something always comes up to prolong his stay. Consequently, he is drawn into every conflict.

His involvement begins when...

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Minty Alley Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Most of the action of Minty Alley centers on the yard of Mrs. Rouse’s boardinghouse, the activity center for most poor and working-class Caribbean people. It is viewed through the eyes of Haynes, a pampered, young, educated middle-class bachelor, who has just lost his mother. The residents of Minty Alley establish him as their judge and confidant, the privileged outsider. His servant Ella attempts to shield him from the ways of these “ordinary” people, but she becomes ill and must go to her own home for many months, leaving the curious Haynes to his own devices. Initially, he is put off by his rough surroundings, but on the first night he is there, he witnesses the miraculous transformation of the house on the homecoming of the nurse, another of Mrs. Rouse’s boarders; she brings with her brandy and beer and an accompanying sense of luxury and gaiety, and the entire household, amid much laughing and joking (except Haynes, who has Ella prepare his meals separately), celebrates through the night, having dinner on a tablecloth in the dining room rather than on the kitchen table, talking and drinking until early morning. It is during the early hours, when Maisie and Mrs. Rouse have left for Mass, that Haynes, through a crack in his bedroom wall, spies Benoit, Mrs. Rouse’s longtime lover, and the nurse locked in an embrace and then hurrying to her room together.

This incident draws him into the drama of the extended household. Only the day before, Haynes was “compelled to summon a sickly smile and ignore the shocking insinuation,” Benoit had made regarding Ella: “Anyway, guard your property. I am a man girls like, you know. If she fall in my garden I wouldn’t have to lock the gate to keep her in.” Now, after witnessing the tryst between Benoit and the nurse, his usual composure is disturbed, but he is determined, as he tells the wary Ella, to come to like this place “very well.”

The novel is not about Haynes’s coming of age in a proletarian paradise, although he does achieve this by the end of the novel. He still remains the outsider, becoming involved in the lives of others not of his class or of his upbringing but never becoming one of them. Minty Alley is about working-class life, working-class culture, and, indirectly, the discrepancy between that life and the life of the black bourgeoisie. It is a slice of West Indian life, carefully detailed and unsentimental and, until that time, largely ignored. It is also screened through the sensibility of the middle-class outsider, who, though black, has clearly been predisposed to a wider, yet, inversely, more constricted and constrained, reality, a different life. By the end of the novel, the reader knows that, although Haynes is somewhat wiser and more compassionate, he has entered Minty Alley out of curiosity, not out of any affinity for its inhabitants. As for Mrs. Rouse, she is forced to sell her house. Haynes moves out; Maisie schemes her way to America; and Philomen, her Indian servant, finds a new position. Life will go on as before, perhaps a little more grimly for the women, each on her own path.

The crux of the novel lies not only in the community life of the yard but also in the individual antagonisms, the greatest being between the nurse and Mrs. Rouse after Benoit’s infidelity is discovered. The nurse, haughty and contemptuous, is driven from the household, but soon Benoit follows her. He marries her and dies a rather miserable death a year or so later. The nurse, meanwhile, is made to stand trial for thievery. She has been stealing those “gifts” she...

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Minty Alley Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Birbalsingh, Frank. “The Literary Achievement of C. L. R. James.” In Passion and Exile: Essays in Caribbean Literature. London: Hansib Publishing, 1988. Minty Alley makes a significant contribution to the development of a literary tradition in the anglophone Caribbean. It is one of the first novels to examine important social, cultural, and political issues in the region.

Buhle, Paul. C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary. London: Verso, 1988. An intellectual biography, this study by James’s editorial collaborator of long standing draws upon extensive interviews with critics and supporters and many previously unpublished documents. It is a penetrating portrait of the man and his times. Includes James’s views on a variety of subjects, from Caribbean literature to pan-Africanism to Marxism to Third World politics. Emphasizes James’s understanding and use of ideas.

Gilkes, Michael. “C. L. R. James (b. 1901): Minty Alley (1936).” In The West Indian Novel. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Minty Alley is intended to be a sympathetic exam-ination of “yard” life of the “despised folk,” seen from a middle-class perspective. It also explores the potential for cooperation, and the benefits thereof, between the middle class and the working masses.

Paris, D. Elliott. “Minty Alley: C. L. R. James, His Life and Work.” Urgent Tasks 12 (Summer, 1981): 77-98. Holds the view that Minty Alley is a forerunner to the later Caribbean literary movement. Notes that James’s sympathy is with the working people. This critique draws out the political implications behind the novel.

Sander, Reinhard W. “C. L. R. James.” In The Trinidad Awakening: West Indian Literature of the Nineteen-Thirties. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Minty Alley’s primary achievement lies in its detailed presentation of the life of the working people and in its preoccupation with the coming together of the middle class and the working class.