Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Tragedy of King Christophe is the common story of the rise of an ambitious and hungry young slave and cook to the status of king. Like so many tragic heroes before him, King Christophe, who makes himself king, falls from his high station because of his overweening pride, his tragic flaw. Once Henri Christophe attained his position of power, he forgot the primary reasons for his ambitions: to free his fellow slaves from the tyranny of French colonization and to permit them to be themselves. The story perfectly embodies the principles of classic Greek tragedy since it is the story of the moral decline of a potentially great leader.

On a historical level, the story is part of the history of the island of Haiti. Most of the events actually took place; Henri Christophe did exist and did govern the island from 1811 to 1820. Aimé Césaire chose Haiti because it was the first black country to gain freedom from European domination (1801) and because Christophe was the first black leader who undertook the nearly impossible task of molding an independent black nation. History shows that his methods of building a nation turned cruel when he experienced difficulties in trying to transform the islanders into respectable middle-class European citizens. In unwittingly imposing European, primarily French, strictures on the Haitians, he proceeded to further exacerbate the damage already done to the instinctual lives of the blacks by the departed French. The people rebelled against him in 1820, and he committed suicide.

On a dramatic and philosophical level, however, the play embodies two distinct but interpenetrating tragedies that intersect in the figure of King Christophe. One tragedy cannot be understood fully without understanding its relationship to the other. Césaire delineates the individual tragedy of the main character while simultaneously analyzing the collective tragedy of Haiti itself. In choosing to build Haiti into a kingdom, an anachronism in the nineteenth century, instead of a republic, King Christophe exposes the motivating core of his ambition and, therefore, the reasons that his project could never succeed. Had the French Revolution never taken place and the seeds of democracy never been sown, Christophe’s plan may have succeeded. King Christophe takes his place among the many tragic heroes who were born too late and who mistook their desire for power for a nostalgic yearning for the glories of some long-lost Garden of Eden.