In the Castle of My Skin

by George Lamming

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Themes and Meanings

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Character, theme, and point of view are inextricable in In the Castle of My Skin. As already noted, the alternation of first-and third-person narrators is the author’s crucial device for conveying the communal identity of his protagonist and his concern with the fate of the community as a literary and moral question.

The novel’s autobiographical framework is a strategy for narrating the larger story of the village’s demise. In the Castle of My Skin clearly is not merely an autobiographical novel or a standard bildungsroman. At the same time, the narrator’s awareness of the community’s plight, increased between the time of the events recounted and the time of writing, is a crucial element. As Sandra Pouchet Paquet writes about The Pleasures of Exile, though again her remarks apply equally well to the novel and to G. as its “author,” “His dissenting voice is personal and collective. As colonial subject, Lamming offers himself as a representative text to be read and as a privileged interpreter of his own historical moment.” That is, Lamming unabashedly uses his own subjective, autobiographical understanding of events and relationships to correct, in his view, earlier “imperialist” versions of his island’s and region’s history.

Lamming allows his narrator to comment on the characters in such a way as to emphasize individuals’ importance as parts of the communal identity. Possibly because of his relative youth when he wrote the novel, he eschews subtlety in favor of explicit insistence which, nevertheless, is effective in its repetition. “Three, thirteen, thirty” is a phrase he uses several times in the first two chapters to refer to representative village women. He later expands the phrase’s use to refer to collectivity in general.Three, thirteen, thirty. It does not matter. They come and go to perpetuate the custom of this corner. Once a week, black pudding and souse. The pattern has absorbed them, and in the wood where the night is thickest it has embraced another two in intimate intercourse.

The middle chapters, in which the three boys ruminate on cosmic questions, serve as a bridge from G.’s childhood to the cataclysmic events at the novel’s end. In a symbolic scene, G. frets about having lost a pebble from the beach that he had arbitrarily decided he must not lose, and which he hid for safekeeping. It is a scene and a sentiment familiar to anyone who has gone through adolescence.It had become one of those things one can’t bear to see for the last time. . . . I selected the spot and placed the pebble under the leaf on the even slope. A day had passed. There was no change in the weather, and the waves were as quiet as ever on this side of the sea. . . . But the pebble had gone. The feeling sharpened. It had really started the evening before when I received the letters, and now the pebble had made it permanent. In the evening I had read the letters and it seemed there were several things, intimate and endearing which I was going to see for the last time.

In the Castle of My Skin is, classically, a novel about losing innocence and gaining self-awareness.

Themes and Meanings

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Near the end of the novel, as G. and Pa are saying farewell to each other, Pa notes, “We both settin’ forth tomorrow.... I to my last restin’-place, an’ you into the wide wide world.” G.’s leaving for his teaching job in Trinidad and Pa’s entering the Alms House dramatically illustrate parting and change. Nurtured in part by Pa, G. now embarks on...

(This entire section contains 301 words.)

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his own quest for meaning. At various times, G. is struck with the sad sensation that he is seeing “the last of something,” and this feeling culminates in the ending scene with Pa. A focus on change is a feature of the novel, painful change suffered by displaced villagers and their world and apprehensive change affecting G. as the growth of his self-awareness within the insular community deepens his exile and alienation.

Another theme emerges from contrasting G.’s sense of himself as a “castle” protecting his inner self with other concepts of “castle” in the novel. Mr. Creighton’s castle on the hill, for example, defines to some extent the social order over which it dominates though its authority is succeeded by Mr. Slime’s consortium. G.’s awakening artistic consciousness fashions an alternate central “castle” of definition which gives preserving autonomy. His perch is one of loneliness for the moment, but his situation gives him the opportunity to delineate himself, to view the outside world, and to try to become a conscientious relater of meaning. It is in relating to others that his life will assume real meaning.

Several of the villagers, with Pa as the chief example, are displaced, evicted from their familiar but tenuous groundings; for the time being, G. has refuge in the expedient and firmer “castle” of himself, from which he may be able to sally forth with confidence.


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The relationship between colonial powers and their colonies, and the effects that this relationship has on the inhabitants of the colonies, is the enduring concern of George Lamming. All of his works address these issues. As the first of his novels, In the Castle of My Skin appropriately anatomizes this dynamic as it bears upon a nine-year-old boy in one of Barbados' small rural villages.

The colonizing nation does not exert its power on the colonized people solely by using raw force such as that at the disposal of governmental or military bodies. Colonizing powers, especially those of European and Islamic origin, also felt themselves driven by the need to "spread the light" of their own civilization or religion, or at least many of their propagandists argued this. (The famous poem "The White Man's Burden" by Rudyard Kipling is perhaps the best known example of this idea.) More cynical observers have argued that these programs of education in colonized places serve, instead, as a type of psychological policing of the subject people. Colonizing powers often set up extensive structures of education in the values and objectives of the colonizing power and rewards for inhabitants who "play by the rules." In the schools, the colonized people are taught the colonizer's language (often having been forbidden to use their own) and instructed in the subject matter that the colonizing power feels to be the basis of a "real education." Students who follow the rules and show promise are given scholarships to continue their studies, with the eventual prospect of a secure government job. Less promising students are often offered the opportunity to join the colonizer's military or police forces. At all levels, though, the colonizing power attempts to steer people away from the possibility of resistance, whether physical or intellectual.

Compounding the colonizer's ability to reward those who follow the rules and punish those who don't are the almost inevitable differences between subjects and colonizers. In England's first colony, Ireland, the difference was religion. In Barbados, the difference is racial. In his introduction, Lamming writes that

Plantation Slave Society conspired to smash ancestral African culture ... the result was a fractured consciousness, a deep split in its sensibility which now raised difficult problems of language and values; the whole issue of cultural allegiance between the imposed norms of White Power and the fragmented memory of the African masses: between White instruction and Black imagination.

Throughout the novel, in the boys' school or in the relationships between villagers and the landlord, Lamming shows how the colonizing powers devalue everything associated with Africans and exalt everything associated with white English culture.

Lamming's entire book dissects various ways in which the colonizer's values are instilled within a native populace, but in Chapter 3 he describes one of its most basic incarnations: Empire Day at the elementary school. At this holiday celebration, commemorating and exalting the ties between England and its colonies, the boys sing "God Save the King," learn about Barbados's ("Little England's") "steadfast and constant" relationship to Big England. No hint of dissent or irony is heard from these children until one of the boys explains to them his theory of the "shadow king." "The English," this boy tells them, "are fond of shadows. They never do anything in the open." Without realizing it, this boy opens the door to the possibility of resistance.

One of the first acts of a colonizing power, almost inevitably, is the imposition of language on the subject people. Fearing the possibility of plotting against them, the colonizers will generally forbid use of any language but their own in public discourse, and in some cases (such as among American slaves or with the Kurdish people of Turkey) will punish anyone who uses the unofficial language. Colonial schools will teach the colonizer's language, and students who use it particularly well will be rewarded—certainly Lamming himself, given scholarships and teaching jobs, is an example of this. Language can be power, as Trumper observes:

If you were really educated, and you could command the language like the captain on a ship, if you could make the language do what you wanted it to do, say what you wanted it to say, then you wouldn't have to feel at all. You could do away with feeling. That's why everybody wanted to be educated.

Closely linked to colonialism in Lamming's novel is the issue of race. European colonists felt that darker-skinned people were primitive, inferior, and dangerous. For many years, slavery was the cornerstone on which the West Indian economy was built. A debate rages among scholars as to whether European racism caused African slavery or whether European racism was constructed to explain the necessity of slavery, but what is indisputable is that, by the twentieth century, the islands of the British West Indies had two very distinct primary social classes: white landowners and professionals of English descent and black manual laborers whose ancestors came from Africa.

The lessons of racism and black inferiority were taught everywhere, though usually cloaked in the ideology of the "white man's burden," the notion of benevolent white settlers improving the lives of benighted savages in Africa and the Americas. In places such as Barbados, where more than eighty percent of the population is considered to be of African descent, people are encouraged to join the white society by means of hard work and education. Successful people become metaphorically more "white," whereas those who remain low on the social ladder retain their "blackness." In the second chapter, Lamming describes the process of socially separating the black overseers from the villagers:

Low-down nigger people was a special phrase the overseers had coined... The image of the enemy, and the enemy was My People. My people are low-down nigger people. My people don't like to see their people get on. The language of the overseer. The language of the civil servant.

Because it is freighted with social and political meanings, the category of race becomes the dividing line between everything positive and negative in the community. Later on in the book, when the boys stumble upon the landlord's daughter and a sailor in a compromising position, the sailor screams for the overseer to catch the "native boys" and, later, the landlord's daughter claims that black "vagabonds," not the white officer, claimed her virtue. The idea of their own racial inferiority is so ingrained in the villagers that even the Old Woman curses these fictional "vagabonds," not being able to imagine that the landlord's daughter would lie.