Themes and Characters

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The principal character in The Cay is Phillip Enright Jr., an eleven-year-old boy who is shipwrecked as he returns to the old family home in Norfolk, Virginia, from Willemstad, Curacao. Early in the novel, Phillip considers war a game only slightly more serious than the pirate raids he stages with his friends. After German submarines attack the island, he disobeys his mother and visits the harbor to look for enemy ships. A typical child, he is upset at the prospect of returning to Virginia with his mother, insisting that he will not leave his friends. When their ship, the S.S. Hato, is torpedoed and Phillip finds himself alone on a raft with Timothy, he is filled with self-pity, concerned only about the head wound he suffered while abandoning the sinking Hato and his separation from his mother and father. At first Phillip behaves irresponsibly, demanding extra water and stumbling off the raft. He opposes landing on The Cay and, once there, insults Timothy and refuses to help construct their shelter.

Gradually, however, Phillip comes to respect Timothy's superior knowledge, and develops the courage to climb palm trees and retrieve coconuts, the self-discipline to rebuild the shelter after a storm, and the self-reliance to find food for himself and his adopted cat, Stew Cat, after he has buried Timothy. When he is rescued and returned to Willemstad, Phillip has trouble communicating his experiences and feels much older than his friends.

Other than Phillip, Timothy is the only character developed in any detail, and the increasing depth of his characterization reflects Phillip's maturing sensibilities. Phillip is unaware of Timothy until he regains consciousness and finds himself stranded on the life raft with this old man who he condescendingly decides "look[s] pure African." Phillip loses his sight only after three days at sea; before that, he is able to see his raftmate. He describes Timothy in stereotypical terms, mentioning his "flat" nose, "pink-purple lips," "face [that] couldn't have been blacker," "mass of wiry gray hair," and very white teeth, and he repeatedly refers to Timothy's ugliness over the course of the book, thus establishing and reinforcing this negative image.

Timothy's behavior is gentle and considerate. On the raft, when Phillip is obviously suffering physical and psychological pain, Timothy patiently allows himself to become the target of Phillip's resentment. By addressing the boy as "young bahss," he behaves according to Phillip's expectations and thus further calms his anxieties. Nevertheless, Timothy combines firmness with kindness. He carefully rations water, shames Phillip into weaving sleeping mats, encourages the boy to explore the beach, and cajoles him into climbing the palm tree. When Phillip tries Timothy's patience too far and the old man responds with a slap, Phillip begins to respect his companion.

As Phillip becomes more mature, he gains independence and the ability to survive despite his physical limitations. He learns that there are many kinds of strength, some of them much more important than physical strength. After Timothy's death, Phillip must find the emotional strength to rely upon himself as well as the mental strength to think for himself and to remember what Timothy has taught him.

Taylor clearly intends to suggest that Phillip's prejudices are eliminated by his experience of nearly ideal friendship on The Cay. To emphasize this theme, Taylor employs the device of physical blindness as a metaphor for ignorance and bias; through blindness, Phillip gains insight, and though his sight is restored after his return to civilized society, his attitudes are permanently changed.

Underlying the novel is an anti-war theme. Though Phillip at first reacts to the submarines' presence in Curacao's harbor with childish excitement, he begins to recognize the brutality of war when he witnesses an attack on the S.S. Empire Tern, a British tanker torpedoed off the coast of the island. Timothy comments on the senseless cruelty of war; when Phillip blames his mother for his plight, Timothy sarcastically responds, "she started dis terrible wahr, eh, young bahss?"

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Chapter Summaries