Young Phillip Enright, the eleven-year-old Caucasian American son of an oil company executive and his wife, is living on the Caribbean island of Curacao, in what used to be called the West Indies. Populated primarily by blacks, the privileged white family sets itself apart from the laborers who perform all of the hard work around the island. Phillip, as it will be revealed in Chapter Three of Theodore Taylor’s The Cay, has been raised to view blacks as inferior, and his mother looks askance at any interaction between her son and the island’s native population. When Phillip finds himself stranded aboard a life boat after the ship ferrying him and his mother back to America is sunk, his only companion, other than a cat, is Timothy, a large black whose appearance is visibly unsettling to the boy, despite Timothy’s kindness:
“I felt seasick and crawled to the side to vomit. He came up beside me, holding my head in his great clamshell hands. It didn't matter, at that moment, that he was black and ugly. He murmured, ‘Dis be good, dis be good’.”
Phillip’s initial hostile attitude toward Timothy is entirely based upon the latter’s race, although Timothy’s refusal to give Phillip more water due to the need for rationing is more than a traumatized eleven-year-old can quite comprehend. That racism was at the core of his perception of the man who would save him multiple times in the days ahead continued to be evident in Phillip’s reminisces:
“I repeated, ‘What is your name?’
'My own self? Timothy!'
'Your last name?'
He laughed, ’I 'ave but one name. 'Tis Timothy.’
'Mine is Phillip Enright, Timothy.' My father had always taught me to address anyone I took to be an adult as "mister," but Timothy didn't seem to be a mister. Besides, he was black."
That Timothy’s racism was a product of his upbringing becomes evident in the following passage also from that chapter:
“Although I hadn't thought so before, I was now beginning to believe that my mother was right. She didn't like them. She didn't like it when Henrik and I would go down to St. Anna Bay and play near the schooners. But it was always fun. The black people would laugh at us and toss us bananas or papayas.”
The reason for all of this emphasis on Phillip’s racism is to illuminate the extent to which he evolves as a person as The Cay progresses. His transformation begins on the raft, when the head wound he suffered when the torpedo struck the ship on which he was sailing with his mother eventually causes him to lose his sight. His blindness makes him even more dependent upon this strange black man that earlier, but also forces him to view Timothy not as a black but as a friend:
“I was still shivering, and soon he gathered me against him, and Stew Cat came back to be a warm ball against my feet. I could now smell Timothy, tucked up against him. He didn't smell like my father or my mother. Father always smelled of bay rum, the shaving lotion he used, and Mother smelled of some kind of perfume or cologne. Timothy smelled different and strong, like the black men who worked on the decks of the tankers whenthey were loading. After a while, I the smell because Timothy's back was very warm.”
Phillip’s transformation from innocent child harboring racist attitudes to young adult viewing Timothy as an equal and as a trusted and valued friend is complete when the two struggle to survive as castaways on the island on which their raft settles. That transformation, however, is not smooth, and their relationship first has to survive Phillip’s angry denunciations of Timothy for the latter’s lack of education. After their most serious confrontation, however, Timothy smacks the young boy in response to Phillip’s continued condescending attitude towards the only person in the world upon whom he can depend for his survival. That Timothy ultimately succumbs to injuries sustained protecting Phillip during a massive storm finally and definitively forces him to acknowledge his now-deceased friend as the kind, compassionate human being he always was:
“I buried Timothy, placing stones at the head of the grave to mark it. I didn't know what to say over the grave. I said, ‘Thank you, Timothy' and then turned my face to the sky. I said, ‘Take care of him, God, he was good to me’.”
Phillip matures under Timothy’s watchful care and becomes increasingly independent despite his blindness. His greatest change, however, is in acceptance of Timothy as an equal and as a friend.