The Mosquito Coast (Magill's Literary Annual 1983)
The life of Allie Fox, the protagonist of The Mosquito Coast, illustrates the truth of Blaise Pascal’s wry but terrifying epigram on human nature: “Man is neither an angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.” Allie, or “Father,” as his family calls him, is the archetypical Yankee hero: inventive, opinionated, resourceful, independent, the friend of the underdog and the foe of big business and big government. A strain of messianic fervor, however, tinctures his essential pragmatism. Disgusted by rampant consumerism and contemptuous of the liberalism that he blames for finger-painting in the schools and pornography in the corner drugstore, Allie no longer feels at home in the land of his birth. America, he claims, has fallen prey to “savages” and “scavengers.” Savages, in Allie’s definition, are the capitalists and bureaucrats who exploit technology for their own gain and introduce the law of the jungle into social relationships; scavengers are the lackeys who feed on the corpses the savages throw them. Allie has lost faith in the institutions—law and especially religion—that should protect men from the savagery in themselves and in one another. For Allie, Christ is only a scarecrow—a hollow man stuffed with straw. He therefore resolves to transplant his family to Honduras—on the map “a forehead of territory, a bulge of coastline with an empty interior”—to make a new start....
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By using a young first-person narrator, Theroux creates an effective point of view from which to observe Father's character. Readers experience the tension and ambivalence that Charlie feels, and alternately laugh and shudder at Allie's words. Charlie proves a faithful reporter, honest and less critical than the other children. His relationship with Father is psychologically complex, because Charlie both fears and respects him and this lends considerable tension to the story. The sensitivity of Charlie's vision can also be seen in his descriptive powers as he makes the jungle come alive. Readers may feel slightly manipulated, however, because many passages reveal the professional hand of Theroux himself. Charlie also lacks the personality and perspective of such entertaining first-person narrators as Huck Finn or Jack Crabb from Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964).
Key episodes in The Mosquito Coast have biblical parallels. The leveling of Jeronimo recalls the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Babylon, with the accompanying implication that the settlement and Fat Boy represent unnatural evil. After the family relocates on a primitive raft, they experience a frightening storm and a flood tide that nearly swamps them. Here the parallel with the Flood and Noah's deliverance could have ironic relevance, since Father revives only to lead his family toward greater danger. The final event of the book, with the appearance of vultures on the...
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In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans began to question their country's image as the material paradise, "the land of opportunity." That questioning led to the founding of communes and other experimental societies. It also prompted some adventurers to escape the stifling, success-oriented climate of American city life to recover those Thoreauan values of self-reliance and resourcefulness in still untouched regions of the world. The hero of The Mosquito Coast is just such a frustrated fellow, who uproots his family from the security of their Massachusetts home and drags them to the Honduran jungle to help him build his own brave new world. Even though the family at first functions smoothly as a unit, the reader soon realizes that Father's missionary spirit has its darker side. In fact, his scorn for the natives' habits, especially their lack of industry in helping him to build an ice-making factory, begins to look more like the working out of America's "manifest destiny" on foreign soil. Father changes into a parody of the ugly American as he attempts to teach the inhabitants the technology needed to make their own ice.
The portrait of oppression suggests as well the consequences of an unharnessed patriarchy. Father's authority goes unquestioned by Mother, who qualifies as a classic enabler, indulging her creative child-husband yet trying to limit the damage his abuse inflicts on her children. The tragic conclusion of the novel signals an escape for...
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The Mosquito Coast belongs to the tradition of the novel of character. Father's speech and behavior rivet the reader's attention, even though Charlie serves as first-person narrator. Theroux traces Charlie's development as the action unfolds — he clearly matures, gains insight — but this change comes as a reaction to Allie's actions. The closest American precedent for this technique is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), in which the narrator gives a detailed portrait of a complex character whom he both admires and fears. Gats by's death, like Father's, both haunts and liberates the narrator. A recent popular precedent is James Dickey's Deliverance (1970), a novel about a Georgia hunter and he-man who convinces three of his less rugged, city-softened friends to take a perilous canoe trip down a beautiful but dangerous river soon to be flooded as part of a dam-building project. The narrator here is a sensitive man who is fascinated by their leader, both drawn to and pulling back from his influence. Dickey suggests, as does Theroux, that life for modern man is a struggle between natural and civilizing influences.
Probably the most important literary precedent for The Mosquito Coast is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902). Conrad typically places his heroes in situations where the principles they have lived by no longer fit the circumstances in which they find themselves. Either they gain some degree of...
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Two other Theroux works offer portraits of heroes in unfamiliar surroundings attempting to survive and prosper. Saint Jack (1973) exposes the poverty, vice and political corruption of Singapore as observed by Jack Flowers, an expatriate American with the dubious responsibility of providing prostitutes for visiting businessmen and servicemen. His dream is to own his own brothel and win fame as a writer. The dream becomes a reality but at a price: He secures the money for the brothel from a man charged with building a rest and recuperation "center" for U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam. But the Army soon closes the place down, and Flowers is cast adrift. He manages to survive, however, believing that he still has "all the time in the world" to regain his dream. Like Allie Fox, he yearns for something better than his present life; unlike him, he finds a way of accommodating to the society in which he has chosen to live.
In a novella written after The Mosquito Coast, Half Moon Street (1984), Theroux portrays an American woman living in London and working for an investment think-tank seeking ways to recycle Arab petrodollars. She wants some adventure in her life and hires on with an escort service, dating interesting but dangerous Arabs with petrodollars to burn. Her adventure turns sour when her life is threatened, but she manages to escape with an enlightened understanding of the workings of high finance and underworld dealings.
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The motion picture version of The Mosquito Coast was released in 1986. It is directed by Peter Weir and stars Harrison Ford as Allie Fox. In spite of a good supporting cast that includes Helen Miren, River Phoenix, Conrad Roberts, Andre Gregory, and Martha Plimpton, the movie is a disappointment. Ford is noted for his ability to carry an otherwise mediocre motion picture, but his Allie Fox is a selfish and foolish man who elicits little sympathy.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Bertens, Hans. “The Convention of the New Beginning in Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast.” In Convention and Innovation in Literature, edited by Rainer Grubel. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1991. Insightful study of Theroux’s literary predecessors, highlighting the starting-over theme.
Christian Science Monitor. March 12, 1982, p. B2.
Coale, Samuel. Paul Thoreaux. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Overview and critical interpretation of the writer’s life and work. Includes a chronology and a bibliography.
Commonweal. CIX, September 24, 1982, p. 506.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, February 14, 1982, p. 1.
Newsweek. XCIX, March 1, 1982, p. 71.
Saturday Review. IX, February, 1982, p. 55.
Stewart, Mathew. “Devolution, Madness, and American Myth in The Mosquito Coast.” The Arkansas Review: A Journal of Criticism 4, no. 2 (Fall, 1995): 42-58. Comprehensive article that illustrates Allie Fox’s descent into madness and how American myth functions in his demise.
Theroux, Paul. My Other Life. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Fictive memoir of Thoreaux’s life that details his early life as a Peace Corps volunteer and his friendship...
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