Under the Volcano Essay - Critical Essays

Malcolm Lowry

Critical Evaluation

Although Under the Volcano was well received on first publication, the novel did not sell well and was not reprinted for many years. Since 1958, however, it has shared in the growing appreciation of Malcolm Lowry that followed his death in 1957 and the publication of his third volume, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, in 1961. Lowry would have appreciated the irony of late acclaim. In the first chapter of Under the Volcano, Jacques Laruelle receives two messages from Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist of the novel, who died the year before. The doomed, damned, and dead Geoffrey still manages to communicate with the living, and they possibly pay more attention to his words now than they did when he was alive. The posthumous publications of Lowry serve much the same purpose; readers and critics are paying more attention to what Lowry has to say now that he is dead.

His message is summed up in one word: doom. His characters feel they cannot escape their fate; it is as if the volcano in whose shadow Geoffrey lives was also Lowry’s imaginative projection of the crises and the violence of his time. The sense of doom is the central feature of Lowry’s vision and work, and an English reviewer, noting that James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) and Lowry in Under the Volcano use one day for the action, suggests that the time of Lowry’s novel is simply “Doomsday.” Undoubtedly, the sense of doom, intensified by waste and exile so prevalent in Lowry’s life, is a response to the mid-1930’s, the time when Lowry began to write the novel. Such a sense of doom has not lost its relevance. In Under the Volcano, doom is presented as accident; Hugh Firmin causes the death of Geoffrey, his half brother, by leaving an incriminating cable message in the jacket he borrows from Geoffrey; in turn, Geoffrey releases the horse that later kills Yvonne Constable, his former wife.

The novel tends to move on an allegorical level into a consideration of human destiny. This idea is important, for the novel would be a failure if it were considered only on its realistic level. The action relates very little to any moral. The qualities that tend to be presented as enduring and worthy of regard are compassion for the individual and the sense of doom that looms over the alcoholic. Geoffrey’s death is not seen as a punishment for his weaknesses; it is simply the culmination of the series of tragic events that take place in the consul’s soul that day—his death merely ends the series of spiritual defeats he succumbs to during his fall.

This idea must have been unpalatable in the late 1940’s and in part could account for the lack of continuing interest in Lowry. Furthermore, the difficulty of estimating the true standing of Under the Volcano was due to a lack of enough writing by Lowry to place the novel in a context. Readers may see that the novel is probably the center not only of Lowry’s projected sequence of six novels, ending with Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, but also the center of all of his work, particularly his poetry.

Lowry’s work is a continuous whole, with its central novel representing hell or the point of lowest descent. The covert references to his first novel, Ultramarine (1933), in the sixth chapter of Under the Volcano are balanced by references to Dollarton, Lowry’s residence near Vancouver, in the fourth and ninth chapters. Dollarton is the setting of much of Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place and of his last poems. Similarly, Under the Volcano is echoed in his poems, including one entitled “For Under the Volcano,” and in his shorter fiction.

Recognition of the midway position of the Mexican novel indicates three features of Lowry’s work: its painfully autobiographical sources; its unity or continuity; and its close texture and highly symbolic content, an indirect product of the first two features.

The general features of Lowry’s writings are shown in four aspects of Under the Volcano, two of which are immediately apparent. The novel is...

(The entire section is 1703 words.)