Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631

In the essay “What the Twilight Says: An Overture,” Derek Walcott recalled his own doubts about affirming a nativist tradition in the theater arts of the West Indies. As a young playwright born of mixed racial and ethnic heritage on St. Lucia, a West Indian island where French/English patois is spoken, Walcott was educated as a British subject and taught to speak English as a second language. Like many of the characters in his play, Walcott held an ambivalent relationship to the mysticism of the West Indian culture. He felt estranged from his African origins and skeptical about those West Indians who longed for a return to an “African Eden.” This longing for an obscure past, Walcott felt, placed many West Indians in a schizophrenic situation in which they were alienated from their truest selves. Because of his distance from an important part of his racial origins, however, Walcott, like many of his characters, held doubts about his legitimacy as a creative person. “Colonials, we began with this malarial enervation: that nothing could ever be built among these rotting shacks, barefooted backyards and moulting shingles,” he wrote. This self-doubt about the legitimacy of Caribbean life as a subject for literature led writers of Walcott’s generation to become “natural assimilators” of an English cultural tradition unrelated to “the outward life of action and dialect” that Walcott heard on the streets of St. Lucia in his boyhood. “We knew the literature of Empires, Greek, Roman, British, through their essential classics; and both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery,” he recalled. The “discovery” of how to meld the two cultures into a meaningful literary statement about his own relationship to African, English, and West Indian traditions took place in Dream on Monkey Mountain, in which the author’s conflicted heritage of European and local Caribbean traditions becomes the thematic focus of the work itself.

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Walcott’s primary theme in many of his plays and in his beautifully crafted poetry is the dichotomy between black and white, between subject and ruler, and between the Caribbean and European civilizations present in his culture and ancestry. This last theme, which he has described as “one race’s quarrel with another’s God,” is mirrored and reflected in Dream on Monkey Mountain. In the play, Walcott explores the question of how a colonial people living under the rule of Western Christianity and English law can affirm its own leaders, its own dialect, its own spiritual beliefs, its own relationship to an origin in Africa that remains remote even from its own experience. Walcott’s sense of divided loyalties, his ability to see the world through the eyes of the ruled and the ruler, is evident in his ambivalent portrayal of Makak. If Makak is, indeed, the recipient of messages from a mysterious white goddess, and if he does possess the power to heal, how do other West Indians who have already assimilated the language, customs, and beliefs of Europe trust in a figure who, in the light of waking reality, is not easily construed to be a reliable character? Makak, after all, has his hallucinatory vision during a night in prison, where he is sleeping off the effects of a drunken night. His relationship to Africa as a source of his feelings of power is, by itself, problematic. This source of nobility is illusory and is as distant from the current affairs on the streets of the village as are the original homes of the European rulers. The conflict for many characters in the play becomes the struggle to overcome doubts about their own sense of what is valuable and powerful, and to see in the least among them, Makak, the best possibilities of the self.

Themes and Meanings

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