Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

A microcosm of the larger, European world it reflects and anticipates, the island Saint-Jacques embodies the principal themes of the novel. Its stratified hillsides, regimented and prosperous sugar plantations, neatly structured merchants’ bazaar, and statue-bearing rococo pedestals all manifest the precise, intricate design of the island’s Jacobean forefathers, but upon the artifice fall the snowy ashes of the volcano Salpetriere, a precarious foundation. The volcano metaphorically depicts the fundamental, indefinable misconception upon which Europe’s dissipating political, religious, and social structures were built; the two time periods of the novel, 1902 and 1952, frame the world wars during which those structures were virtually extinguished. Thematically, then, the novel allegorizes Europe’s devastating war years, seeking to understand the causes of, and to discover meaning in, civilization’s seemingly gratuitous holocaust.

Initially, the interpreter of Saint-Jacques’s history, Berthe de Rennes, clings to the ironic optimism of the nihilist, aware that antiquated conventions must be toppled but determined to create sounder ones. Her hope is warranted. The revolutionaries in Europe run a similar course, but theirs depends on violence: the Reign of Terror, the guillotine and, later, the regrettable Dreyfus affair. In Saint-Jacques, where the clamor of armies is distant and the precedent of history nearly a phantom, peaceful revolution may...

(The entire section is 596 words.)