Themes and Characters
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 entire section is 662 words.)