Setting

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The Cay opens in February 1942 on the island of Curacao, then part of the Dutch West Indies. When Phillip is ship- wrecked, the setting shifts to an unnamed cay deep in the Devil's Mouth, long U-shaped coral banks in the Caribbean. Most of the action takes place between April and August of 1942, although the narrative actually concludes in April of 1943 and the entire book is written from the perspective of an adult Phillip recalling his childhood adventure.

Literary Qualities

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The Cay reflects Theodore Taylor's experience in the motion picture industry. Like a movie script, the novel presents an exciting and suspenseful plot in a series of dramatic, vividly described scenes.

Also cinematic are Taylor's effective use of dialogue and his choice of an exotic setting. Cleverly written, the dialogue provides background information while advancing the plot. The setting, the Caribbean during World War II, is portrayed in extensive sensory detail consistent with Phillip's role as narrator. Early in the book Phillip describes visible characteristics of the people and places he sees, but after he goes blind details of sound, smell, and touch become predominant.

Taylor skillfully combines a number of relatively conventional plot elements: an adventuresome young boy's conflict with an overprotective mother, a helpless town menaced by a wartime enemy, a shipwreck, the need to survive on an uncharted island, the developing cooperation between two people of totally different backgrounds, the characters' serious physical limitations, a young man's growing respect for an old person of lower social status, and an old man's struggle to achieve one final victory over the natural environment.

Because the novel is Phillip's story, the other characters are less fully developed than he, and most seem essentially stereotypical. The characterization of Timothy has been criticized frequently. Taylor intended both a realistic portrayal of race relationships in the 1940s and an idealistic picture of the friendship that can develop when negative societal influences are removed. But the consistent use of Phillip's point of view, while increasing reader identification with the narrator and thus heightening the tale's suspense, concurrently limits the reader's awareness of Timothy's background and the motivation for his actions. Although Taylor tries to balance the picture by showing him lose his temper, overall Timothy is too wise and patient to be completely believable.

Social Sensitivity

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Theodore Taylor dedicated his book "To Dr. King's dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand," but failed to recognize elements that have since led critics to label The Cay a stereotypical and racist work.

Part of the problem stems from Taylor's choice of Phillip as the sole narrator. Although Taylor attempts to show that Phillip comes to respect and love Timothy, the only physical descriptions of Timothy occur early in their acquaintance, before Phillip goes blind.

For the most part, Taylor's language is carefully chosen. The word "Negro" is used only four times in The Cay, and there is one reference to Phillip's recollection of visiting a "colored town" in Virginia. Otherwise, the terms "black people" and "black man" are used. But Taylor has Timothy refer to Phillip as "young bahss" until Phillip asks to be called by his first name—leading some critics to claim that Timothy's dignity is destroyed by his subservient behavior. Perhaps Taylor intends Timothy to be a patient mentor who allows Phillip to vent his anger within definite limits. When Phillip demands more water, for example, Timothy ignores both his pleas and his insults; he reacts angrily when Timothy stumbles off the raft, and when Phillip refuses to work and insults him, Timothy responds with a slap, then quietly resumes his own work. Although Phillip never, even in anger, calls Timothy anything other than a "black man," he initially thinks of black people as "them—not like 'us,'" and his early descriptions of his companion reflect this bias. Taylor attempts to show that Phillip becomes comfortable enough to question Timothy about racial prejudice. Timothy explains, "I don' like some white people my own self, but 'twould be outrageous if I didn' like any o' dem."

Through his association with Timothy, Phillip learns that friendship can and should transcend racial barriers. At the end of the book, Phillip states that he prefers the companionship of the blacks at Curacao's Ruyterkade market to that of his old friends: "Some of them had known old Timothy from Charlotte Amalie. I felt close to them." But while undoubtedly well-intentioned, Taylor's work leaves itself open to charges of being overly simplistic. Phillip has trouble communicating with his parents upon his return to Curacao, commenting, "I had the feeling that neither of them really understood what had happened on our cay." Early in the book, Taylor would have had readers ascribe Phillip's burgeoning prejudice to his mother's influence: "they are not the same as you, Phillip. They are different and they live differently. That's the way it must be." At the end of the book, Taylor portrays Grace Enright as reconciled to life in Curacao, but it remains unclear whether her underlying prejudice has been or will be changed by Phillip's ordeal.

Taylor's characterization of Grace Enright is also problematic for its sexual stereotyping. Nervous and extremely emotional, Grace scolds Phillip one moment and hugs him the next. She has always wanted to leave Willemstad and return to Virginia, "where no one talked Dutch, and there was no smell of gas or oil, and there weren't as many black people around." Unlike her husband and her son, she is overly frightened of the submarines and overly annoyed at the wartime shortage of vegetables. When Phillip and his father balk at the idea of leaving Curacao, Grace cries and accuses them of not loving her; insistent upon leaving but afraid of flying, she books passage on the fated S.S. Hato.

It is clear that the burden of guilt for Phillip's shipwreck ought not to lie solely upon Grace. Nor, similarly, can the source of racial prejudice be so localized. Taylor successfully illustrates that individuals learn tolerance from other individuals, a lesson that implicitly suggests that racial prejudice can be eradicated. The Cay falls short as a parable, however, because of its imperfectly conceived characters, who as a result are left to speak only for themselves.

For Further Reference

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Carpenter, Humphrey and Mari Prichard, eds. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. Brief biographical entry mentioning The Cay as Taylor's best known book.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 54. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. Extensive biography along with comments from the author about his use of actual experience in his fiction.

De Montreville, Doris and Elizabeth D. Crawford, eds. Fourth Book of Junior Authors. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1978. Autobiographical sketch of Taylor, followed by a limited bibliography and a short discussion of the controversy surrounding The Cay.

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth Century Children's Writers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. Brief biographical notes and critical comments, with an extensive listing of Taylor's works for both young readers and adults.

Schwartz, Albert V. "The Cay: Racism Still Rewarded." In The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism. Edited by Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1972. Criticizes The Cay for negative images of Timothy (subservience, physical appearance, and language), for Phillip's "incomplete conversion" from racism, and for emphasis upon the "sameness" of these two characters instead of "celebration of ethnic differences."

Tate, Binnie. "In House and Out House: Authenticity and the Black Experience in Children's Books." In The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism. Edited by Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1972. Criticism of Taylor for his failure to show Phillip's growth in human understanding, and to demonstrate that Timothy's "dignity" and "humaneness" result from "his background and culture."

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