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...

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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).

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 forget about it; readers are also shocked in the matter of John’s death.

The story is told mainly through Emily’s eyes, but sympathetic narrative insights into the connections, or lack of connections, that she makes are withheld. Hughes maintains himself as the clinical observer, and readers are made to feel like spectators of an alien world where normative human relationships and sensitivities appear only fleetingly, to be marginalized by the ineffective gesturings of the adults.

Tabby’s nightmarish death hangs uneasily over the consciousness of the children. The wild animals captured by the pirates are a mock adult equivalence of the jungle wildcats that have torn their pet to pieces. The children know more about the savagery of the natural world than the adults do. Similarly, the intensities of the children’s play on board ship mock the ineptness and half-heartedness of the adult pirates. The adults play at life; the children are totally involved in their own version of it. Hughes’s ability to depict such intensities in economical, understated language is one of the main ways the sense of alienation is achieved.

Hughes’s symbols and plot motifs are also bizarre and unpredictable. The parents’ state of mind mirrors Captain Marpole’s; it is their fear that produces the initial unpredictability. The children try to make sense of it according to the logic of their world; for adult readers, however, their logic creates a second level of the bizarre. The final symbol of the adult world, the court of law, is the crowning irony of society’s perception of childhood innocence, the final act of the bizarre. It is also an excellent example of Hughes’s use of plot episodes as extended metaphor. Dramatic irony underlines the book’s thematic ironies. Readers are left to wonder whether they, too, have blotted out their own childhoods. If “the child is father to the man,” as William Wordsworth proclaimed, then what are people? Hughes’s novel is black comedy, a grim reminder of civilization as a game, with people as mere players. It is the children who are the experts—because they make their own rules.

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