What is the "Flying Dutchman Syndrome" and what does it represent in the play The Dutchman?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Flying Dutchman legend refers to the legend of the cursed Dutch ship, whose ghost captain is doomed to forever sail the oceans, never being able to bring his ship ashore. There are several variations of this myth, but it seemed to have originated in the seventeenth century. Except, the...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

The Flying Dutchman legend refers to the legend of the cursed Dutch ship, whose ghost captain is doomed to forever sail the oceans, never being able to bring his ship ashore. There are several variations of this myth, but it seemed to have originated in the seventeenth century. Except, the curse is lifted every seven years and the cursed Dutchman is able to bring his ship ashore and spend six months attempting to find a woman who loves him to the point that she will die for him. If he finds this woman, the curse is finally lifted.

Amiri Baraka, in his play Dutchman,interweaves some of the cursed elements of the legend into an analysis on the life of black people in a dominate and racist white society. In Dutchman, Clay, a black man, is harassed and eventually murdered by a racist white woman as they are riding a subway. Like the Flying Dutchman, Clay is doomed to wander in a world that is hostile to him. He faces the curse of white supremacy. When Clay finally defends himself against Lula, the racist white woman, she kills him in cold blood. Clay's only escape from the curse of white society is death at the hands of this woman, whereas in the legend of the Flying Dutchman, the only escape from death for the Dutchman is to be saved at the hands of a woman. The play certainly inverts the myth, while speaking to the cursed nature of black existence within the context of white supremacy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Flying Dutchman legend, especially in its most famous incarnation in Wagner's opera, concerns the captain of a ghost ship who is condemned to sail the seas forever, except that every seven years he is permitted to make landfall. He is told that the sole possibility of redemption for him, for the lifting of this curse, is if, during these periodic respites on land, he can find a woman who loves him fully and is willing to sacrifice herself for him.

Amiri Baraka in Dutchman presents the legend in an updated and significantly inverted form. The character Clay is an emblem of the African American experience, in search of salvation from his placement in a racist and hostile world. His fate is analogous to the perpetual wandering of the Dutchman, the ship captain of the legend. In Lula, the woman on the subway car who taunts and eventually kills him, we see a reversed version of the woman Senta, who, in Wagner's treatment of the legend, represents redemption for the cursed captain. Lula forces Clay to reveal his inner thoughts and the turmoil that he, as a black man, is forced to undergo as a stranger, an outsider in a white world, just as the cursed captain is a perpetually wandering alien in his world. The "Flying Dutchman Syndrome" is thus presented negatively, in that a female, instead of enabling salvation for the haunted man, destroys him. At the same time, however, one could argue that Clay does find a kind of salvation in death, and in his final moment of rejecting the vengeance he sees, on one level, a solution to the racism of white society.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team