Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988

Richard Hughes’s fame has rested on just a handful of novels, each one quite different and quite remarkable in itself. A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published as The Innocent Voyage in the United States, was the first of these. It has been claimed, wrongly, that the novel is without ancestors. It is based on an actual event narrated to Hughes by an old woman who had been one of the children, and Joseph Conrad used the same story for his Romance (1903).

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The novel can be placed within a tradition of prose fiction that deals thematically with children, or, more precisely, with the interplay of the world of childhood and the adult world. Hughes’s contribution to this has been crucial, marking both the demise of certain Victorian attitudes about children and the emergence of modernist attitudes based on the work of Sigmund Freud and his associates.

The nineteenth century began, at least in children’s literature, by stressing the fallen nature of children and the need for strict discipline to counteract the effects of a child’s natural tendency toward willfulness and rebellion. In adult literature, such a view had not taken a deep root, partly because of a residual Lockean view of childhood as a regrettable stage of life to be completed as quickly as possible; this view was displaced by Romanticism’s celebrations of the innocence of childhood.

As the Victorian novel developed, the notion of the “innocent” child, exploited and mistreated by the adult world, emerged. Writers used this figure to criticize society. Another version of this emerged in the works of Americans Mark Twain and Henry James, in which the naïveté of the child unmasks the hypocrisies of the adult world. Toward the end of the century, the fallen child finally disappeared in children’s literature, to be replaced by a sentimentalized version of the innocent child, or, more significantly, by a depiction of the childhood world as basically separate from the adult.

In A High Wind in Jamaica, Hughes is one of the first writers to suggest that this separate world is, in fact, much more strange and much less innocent than the late Victorians supposed. Children left to themselves largely unsupervised can let loose, or find let loose within themselves, primitive forces and drives—something with which the earlier Calvinist writers would have agreed. Hughes also makes important use of the theories of the infant sexuality and developing sexuality proposed by Sigmund Freud and others between the end of the Victorian era and the writing of this book. Emily’s latent awareness of the Captain’s sexuality and the implied sexual behavior of Margaret illustrate this. Hughes also takes as a central theme Freud’s opposition of libido and civilization. Unfettered by the constraints of society, the primitive drives, fears, and egocentrisms of the children’s libidos are allowed full play, with devastating results.

As in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Hughes, by setting the novel’s background in jungle conditions, shows just how quickly the lawlessness and ferocity of untamed nature lets loose the lawlessness and ferocity of the children. Furthermore, Hughes removes his children from civilization by placing them in a self-enclosed world of lawlessness, the pirate ship, which becomes a powerful symbol of its adult paradigm. The central irony of the novel is that it is the pirates who appear innocent and naïve, and the children who seem fierce.

The children’s amorality is as shocking as in Golding’s depiction, published twenty-five years and a world war later. Hughes, however, depicts more forcefully than Golding the strangeness of such violence, whether libidinal or learned. Readers are shocked, for example, not just by Emily’s act of murder but also by her strange ability to...

(The entire section contains 988 words.)

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