How is death a central theme in Under the Volcano?
Malcom Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano starts on the Day of the Dead in 1939, and the theme of death dominates the rest of the novel. There are the physical deaths of the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, and his wife Yvonne. The novel is also about the death of love, expressed in the end of their marriage and in the book’s enduring line: no se puede vivir sin amar (we cannot live without love).
The novel begins in Mexico in 1939, one year after the deaths of Yvonne and the Consul, who both died on the Day of the Dead the previous year. This framing puts death in the center of the novel, and the book is not only about physical death but also about the spiritual death of the Consul and the death of his marriage with Yvonne. A deeper look at the novel, set in 1939, also shows that the impending death of civilization itself is also a theme.
In the main, however, the subject of death involves the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, his wife Yvonne, and their marriage. Separated for a year, during which time the Consul’s alcoholism has taken over his life and Yvonne has embarked on affairs with Geoffrey's half-brother Hugh and his friend Laurelle, the couple appear to be headed toward reconciliation when Yvonne shows up on the eve of the Day of the Dead. But the Consul’s drinking, among other problems, gets in the way:
For [the Consul] life is just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.
In truth, the two have a pact of mutual destruction. Yvonne, who wrote numerous letters to the Consul (he also wrote her many but never sent them) when she was away, says in one of the letters,
Help me, yes, save me, from all that is enveloping, threatening, trembling, and ready to pour over my head.
It is tempting to conclude that Yvonne is alluding to the ongoing calamity of World War II, but more than likely it is simply a measure of her personal anguish. Her desperation is as real as her husband’s, and instead of killing herself with mescal, as The Consul seems determined to do, she has killed her soul by having affairs with two men close to her husband’s inner circle.
As much as the Consul wants to move on, to get back together with his wife, he is unable; in the end, he could not overcome the demon of his alcoholism. And so even though Yvonne came back, the couple cannot salvage their marriage beneath the twin volcanos. Though their love for each other resonates on the pages, the vehicle for that love, their marriage—which the Consul referred to as having been “sundered,”—was over. Marriage, for all its faults, still meant something to the Consul, and after it was clear his was over, all that remained was for him to die a drunken wretch, even if his actual death occurred because he was mistaken for a spy and executed. No matter. The Spanish phrase that echoes between the volcanoes and the novel suggests life is not worth living without love—no se puede vivir sin amar. If it's true that “we cannot live without love," it's perhaps more true we cannot live at all if we are unable to conquer the monsters that lie within.
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