Phillip Enright, in Theodore Taylor’s novel The Cay, is an 11-year old white American male who has been raised by his mother to view blacks as inherently inferior, a product, no doubt, of his family’s Southern heritage (there are references to their previous life in Virginia). He, and his friends, have vivid imaginations – hardly unique among children, especially adventurous boys – often pretending to be soldiers defending their island (“imagining we were defending Willemstad against pirates or even the British”) and enjoy exploring the island (the cay) despite warnings by adults about the threat from German naval vessels (“I told you not to go there, Phillip,” she [his mother] said angrily. “We are war! Don’t you understand?”) Phillip’s mother is very protective of him, forever admonishing the young boy about wandering too far from home (“My mother was always afraid I’d fall of the sea wall, or tumble out of a tree, or cut myself with a pocketknife”). Despite fears of a German attack on the island, and concerns about his mother’s insistence on taking him back to the United States, Phillip remains relatively upbeat about life in general, and enjoys playing with his friends, especially his Dutch friend Henrik. That all begins to change, however, when the hypothetical threat of a German attack becomes all too real. Watching the sudden explosion and sinking of the ship Empire Tern, the brutal realities of the war finally sink in:
“Just as we were ready to go, there was an explosion and we looked toward the sea. The Empire Tern had vanished in a wall of red flames, and black smoke was beginning to boil into the sky. . .It was a German submarine, surfaced now to watch the ship die.”
The sight of the ship’s sinking with the loss of crew made an indelible impression on Phillip. The war was no longer a distant event; it was now a part of his life.
Phillip’s character would change the most dramatically, however, when the ship on which he and his mother were sailing, the S.S. Hato, is similarly sunk, leaving the boy orphaned and blind. The following quotes describe his state of mind at this point in the story:
“I'll never forget that first hour of knowing I was blind. I was so frightened that it was hard for me to breathe. It was as if I'd been put inside something that was all dark and I couldn't get out. “I remember that at one point my fear turned to anger. Anger at Timothy [the elderly, uneducated black man who becomes the boy’s companion] for not letting me stay in the water with my mother, and anger at her because I was on the raft. I began hitting him and I remember him saying, ‘If dat will make you bettah, go 'ead’."
The feelings of impotence, of utter helplessness, that Phillip experiences stranded on an island and unable to see fill him with a sense of dread and...
deep-seated anger, as when he lashes out at birds he senses are diving at him: “Then I felt a beat of a wing past my face, and an angry cry as the bird dived at me, I lashed out at it with my cane . . .”
Phillip’s character, however, is not yet fully shaped. His dependence upon Timothy, whom he has been taught to hold in disdain, evolves as the two learn to coexist and the old man risks his life for the young boy, as when a hurricane strikes the island on which they are stranded: “In a moment there was a splintering sound, and Timothy dropped down beside me, covering my body with his.” The growth in their relationship ushers in newfound feelings of love and respect for the old man, and Phillip learns that the racial prejudices he has harbored were not grounded in any sense of fairness. In one of the story’s most poignant exchanges, Phillip expresses his feelings for Timothy:
“Something happened to me that day on the cay. I'm not quite sure what it was even now, but I had begun to change. I said to Timothy, ‘I want to be your friend.’ He said softly, ‘Young bahss, you'ave always been my friend.’ I said, ‘Can you call me Phillip instead of young boss?’ ‘Phill-eep,’ he said warmly.”
The war and the injury that has rendered him unable to judge on the basis of superficial characteristics like skin color have forced Phillip to mature and reconcile the realities he is experiencing with the prejudices he has been taught. He has, in short, grown up.