Cannibals and Missionaries Summary
by Mary McCarthy

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Cannibals and Missionaries Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cannibals and Missionaries, McCarthy’s least autobiographical novel, is more a character study of human response to fear, deprivation, and imprisonment than a classic espionage tale. The title is derived from a classic riddle asking how, using a two-passenger boat, three cannibals and three missionaries can cross a river without ever having the missionaries outnumbered. Even though the solution is supplied by the “friendliest” captor, Ahmed, the answer to the question of which group (terrorists, millionaires, or liberals) is the cannibals and which is the missionaries is left to the reader.

The investigative committee led by Senator Jim Carey and Dutch Parliamentary Deputy Henk van Vliet de Jonge is the terrorists’ primary target; the first-class tour group with Charles Tennant as self-appointed liaison is a secondary target. Jeroen, a surprisingly sympathetic figure, leads an international terrorist force that has secured a farmhouse stronghold in Flevoland on the polders of Holland by posing as a television crew filming a documentary.

The terrorists’ demands are fivefold. For the helicopter that transported them to the polders and its crew, the ransom is more than one million dollars, half to the terrorists and half to the Surinam poor. For the liberation of the committee members (including a college president, two religious figures, an international journalist, a Middle East specialist who is an undercover agent, and a history professor), the stipulations are more complex: the withdrawal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from Holland, cessation of Dutch-Israeli relations, and the release of “class-war prisoners.” For their wealthy captives, the terrorists have demanded a one-person helicopter to carry taped ransom demands to families of the prisoners.

Jeroen believes that murder should be the last avenue of action. Formerly an artist, he has conceived a plan by which his wealthy prisoners can ransom themselves and pay for their capitalistic crimes by relinquishing to his group specific art masterpieces from their collections. In this way, he lowers his captive count and holds instead as hostage paintings that the world might be even more reluctant to count as casualties. The first-class prisoners are eventually exchanged for their artworks; however, the investigative committee remains hostage because the Dutch government cannot accede to the demand of NATO withdrawal. Consequently, Jeroen, who understands action as his only remaining art form and who sees a primary aim of terrorism as retributory, taking from a corrupt society that which is irreplaceable, acts.

After ordering all prisoners and guards out of the house for an extended exercise period, he detonates the farmhouse, the paintings, and himself. Unfortunately, Greet, one of the terrorists, senses impending disaster and returns early. As a result, only the Episcopalian priest, Frank Barber, and the college president, Aileen Simmons, escape death or serious injury. Jeroen dies in the explosion, knowing that his precautions to avoid senseless slaughter have been futile.

Expected and unexpected character bonding, as well as the materialization of idiosyncratic behaviors, create a spell-binding effect. The most sympathetic terrorist characters are self-sacrificing Jeroen, dedicated to his cause; Ahmed, the young poet; and Greet, once a KLM hostess and now (out of love) committed to Jeroen. The most sympathetic among the captives include de Jonge, the flawless poet-politician who understands Jeroen’s commitment; Senator Carey, an alcoholic widower poet-politician past his time of effectiveness; Sophie Well, a brilliant and beautiful journalist uncomfortable with the spoken word; and Tennant, the wealthy raconteur who cannot bear to be separated from the action. The author’s characterization of these, as well as many of the other less sympathetic characters (such as the alcoholic, cat-carrying undercover agent Victor Lenz), is witty, perceptive, and provocative.

Nevertheless, certain deficiencies detract from the potency of this novel. McCarthy stated that Cannibals and Missionaries was her last novel because as one ages one’s awareness is blunted. Although she had conducted detailed factual research for the book, her nonrealistic, soft-edged portrayal of the terrorist force is disappointing. Furthermore, her customary philosophical editorializing is conspicuously absent except for discussions of art. Finally, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the author’s pace distractingly falters.