Study Guide

Under the Volcano

by Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In the most symbolically charged scene of Under the Volcano—a garden, with a snake, where Geoffrey keeps talking about Eden—he proclaims that ownership of property was obviously the original sin. This is, of course, not the only theme of the complex book, but it is its core, holding together its social, religious, and literary vision. The fundamental problem of property takes many forms. For Geoffrey’s brother Hugh, it includes his greedily plagiarizing others’ songs as his own, even while stealing his publisher’s wife. For Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne, it is memories of her lost material success as an actress, dragging her away from Geoffrey. For Geoffrey himself, it is his position as paid defender of British territories in the period when he had some complicity in German soldiers being burned alive. The different forms of guilt that the characters feel are variations of the way coveting or defending property divides people from one another.

By the final draft of the novel, Lowry’s long fascination with the supernatural had brought him under the influence of the occultist Charles Stansfield Jones (also known as Frater Achad), whom Lowry met in Canada. Based on Jones’s synthesis of various kinds of mysticism, including Jewish Kabbala, Lowry associated the divisive power of property with the metaphysical idea that, in the beginning, God’s divine energy entered vessels that broke, with the tragic consequence being the multiplicity of the material world where there should have been divine unity. As Lowry explained in his preface to the French translation of the novel, Geoffrey should have been a prophet, whose consciousness was bringing the world back toward that unity. Being infirm instead of firm, Geoffrey, as broken as those vessels, fails as a prophet, occasionally glimpsing the future, but through an alcoholic haze. Lowry adds in that preface that Kabbala likens misused magical power to alcoholism (such as Geoffrey’s drunkenness). Throughout the novel, Geoffrey keeps pretending that liquor brings a universal brotherhood, but the plot of the novel shows that, quite the contrary, as a material substitute for the divine, liquor provides only an illusion of sharing, sabotaging the reality.

Under the Volcano begins on the Mexican Day of the Dead in 1939, the anniversary of Geoffrey’s death. Dr. Vigil and Jacques Laruelle, two of his friends, while themselves drinking, deplore the tragedy of the consul’s alcoholism and demise. Such mournful thoughts are appropriate to the Day of the Dead, and the two feel some guilt for the consul’s passing. Vigil was then focusing on his own problems rather than on what he diagnosed as Geoffrey’s sickness of the soul. More disturbingly, Laruelle had committed adultery with Yvonne, thereby undermining her marriage. Having lost his idealism, Laruelle, who once dreamed of improving the world through filmmaking, has declined into collecting Mexican “idols,” material substitutes for the divine.

The locale of the novel is the Mexican city of Quahnahuac, described as “tortuous and broken.” As Lowry often stated in later explanations of his novel, its twelve chapters (like the twelve hours of its main action) constitute a symbolic number, fitting with the many other symbolic numbers in the work, which together suggest that a fated drama is transpiring, with cosmic resonances.

The second chapter moves back to the previous Day of the Dead, in 1938, when Yvonne arrived in Quahnahuac to see if her marriage could be saved. Both through repeated references to Johann Wolfgang von...

(The entire section is 1474 words.)

Under the Volcano Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

On November 2, 1939, the Mexican Day of the Dead, Jacques Laruelle, a French film producer, is ready to leave Quauhnahuac, Mexico. Before leaving, Laruelle joins his friend Dr. Vigil, and the two talk about their common acquaintance, Geoffrey Firmin, former British consul to Quauhnahuac, who was murdered exactly one year earlier.

After his visit with Dr. Vigil, Laruelle walks toward the Casino de Silva and recalls that day a year before. His recollections lead Laruelle to remember the time he spent with Geoffrey and his half brother, Hugh, at the Taskersons’s home when all three were youngsters. One memory moves to another, and the story of Geoffrey and Hugh’s childhood is told.

Laruelle stops at the Cervecería XX, where he chats with Señor Bustamente, owner of the bar and neighboring cinema. Bustamente tells Laruelle that he suspects that the dead consul might have been a spy, or “spider.” At the end of their conversation, Bustamente gives Laruelle the copy of Elizabethan plays that Laruelle borrowed from Geoffrey. Laruelle intended to create a French version of the Faustus story. As he thumbs through the book, Laruelle finds a letter that Geoffrey wrote to his estranged wife, Yvonne, attempting to talk her into returning to him. Geoffrey never mailed the letter. When Laruelle leaves the bar, he walks up the Calle Nicaragua and remembers the day when Geoffrey was murdered and Yvonne was trampled to death by a horse.

On the morning of the 1938 Day of the Dead, Geoffrey did not sleep and sat in the cantina drinking. Unexpectedly, Yvonne, the consul’s former wife, appeared. She left Quauhnahuac the year before for America, where she secured a divorce from Geoffrey. Almost as unexpected was the return of the consul’s half brother and Yvonne’s lover, Hugh. Hugh returned because he felt that he could not stay away without suffering the pains of guilt that Yvonne suffered.

After their reunion, Geoffrey, Yvonne, and Hugh left on a trip to Tomalín. Their trip was interrupted when they stopped by the home of Laruelle. Laruelle was one of Yvonne’s former lovers, and the stopover caused much distress for Geoffrey because of Yvonne and Hugh’s new closeness. Geoffrey drank several tequilas. Hugh and Yvonne went...

(The entire section is 925 words.)