Why did Timothy slap Phillip in The Cay?

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Timothy slaps Phillip across the face in chapter 9 of The Cay. This is a super pivotal event and chapter for their relationship. By this point in the story, it is clear to readers that Phillip is a racist, ignorant bigot. He simply thinks that he is better than Timothy based on age and skin color. It's actually incredible that Timothy is as patient with Phillip as he is. This chapter begins with Timothy telling Phillip that they need some sleeping mats, and Timothy believes that Phillip is quite capable of weaving the mats despite being blind. In typical Phillip fashion, he gets frustrated and angry very quickly; however, this time he starts throwing racial insults at Timothy. Timothy isn't willing to put up with that, and he slaps Phillip in the face.

I tried again, but it didn't work. I stod up, threw the palm fibers at him, and screamed, "You ugly black man! I won't do it! You're stupid, you can't even spell."
Timothy's heavy hand struck my face sharply.

Phillip is shocked that Timothy would do such a thing, but the slap serves as a wake up call for Phillip. He realizes that he needs Timothy for physical survival reasons as well as emotional reasons.

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.

As the chapter closes, readers get to see Phillip asking Timothy to be his friend and call him "Phillip."

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bullgatortail eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Young Phillip's impudence finally becomes too much for old Timothy in Theodore Taylor's novel, The Cay. After arriving on the island, Timothy attempts to teach the now blind Phillip about self-reliance, beginning with how to weave a palm mat, but the boy's frustrations about their situation overcomes him.

    I tried again, but it didn't work. I stod up, threw the palm fibers at him, and screamed, "You ugly black man! I won't do it! You're stupid, you can't even spell..."
    Timothy's heavy hand struck my face sharply.

The young boy's rudeness causes Timothy to temporarily lose his temper, but the old man is soon his normal self again, singing "that fungee and feesh song in a low voice." After some reflection, Phillip realizes his own mistake in overestimating Timothy's lack of intelligence, and he tells the old man that "I want to be your friend."

    He said softly, "Young bahss, you 'ave always been my friend." 

 

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