Leaving This Island Place

by Austin Clarke

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Essays and Criticism

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As death is a central theme of this story, the narrative is filled with references, both direct and indirect, to death. Because the story is told from the first-person point of view of the narrator, these recurring references to death express his own inner psychological state and preoccupations. On a literal level, he is preoccupied with death because his father is dying. This fact, occurring just as he is preparing to leave Barbados for college in Canada, has brought up memories of his family circumstances and reminded him of his socioeconomic roots, in contrast to his current lifestyle as an educated, upwardly mobile young man. On a figurative level, the narrator's preoccupation with death symbolizes the theme of "leaving" and the various symbolic forms of death which accompany his imminent departure from his family and culture.

As the story opens, the narrator is visiting his dying father in an almshouse just across from the cricket field where he plays every Saturday. This is the narrator's first visit to his estranged father in many years. As he enters the almshouse and the head nurse shows him down the hallway to the room where his father lies dying, his perceptions of what he sees, hears, and smells around him are filled with associations to death. Everyone in the almshouse seems to him to be dying or already dead. ‘‘Something in those faces told me they were all going to die in the almshouse,’’ he reflects. His own father's impending death is first indicated in the story by the narrator's comment that he "would never live to see the sun of day again.’’ The narrator's feelings of guilt and ambivalence toward his father are in part motivated by the knowledge that his father is dying, and in part palliated by the reminder that he is "leaving" and therefore does not need to get "involved" with his father. "I know it is too late now to think of saving him,’’ he notes. ‘‘It is too late to become involved with this dying man.’’

Everyone there seems to him on the verge of death. The other men inhabiting the almshouse look to the narrator "half-alive and half-dead.’’ Even the head nurse, Miss Brewster, seems to the narrator to be occupying the space of death: ‘‘She is old and haggard. And she looks as if she has looked once too often on the face of death; and now she herself resembles a half-dead, dried-out flying fish, wrapped in the grease-proof paper of her nurse's uniform.’’ The impression that the almshouse is filled with masses of dying men is implied by the image that some of the men in the ward lie on their backs in bed, ‘‘like soldiers on a battlefield.’’

The narrator's impression that he is surrounded by death becomes transferred onto his own sense of himself, as if he were also dying; he feels that the men in the almshouse "all looked at me as if I were dying.’’ When the narrator is finally in his father's room, he says, ‘‘I was alone with the dead.’’ In his mind, his father is already dead. And his father's death again leads him to feel as if he himself were dead or dying, as he states that "there is death in this room and I am inside it.’’ The narrator himself is nowhere near literally dying; symbolically, however, the imminent death of his father, and his imminent departure from the island, represent the death of his ties to his family and to his cultural roots. The death of his father symbolizes the disappearance of his only...

(This entire section contains 1655 words.)

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true connection to his personal and cultural history. And, while his father seems to him to represent his own death, his wealthy, educated friends, particularly his girlfriend Cynthia, are associated with life. In the room with his dying father, he tries to imagine Cynthia's face, as ‘‘I kept myself alive with the living outside world of cricket and cheers and 'tea in the pavilion.'’’ Thus, for the narrator, his desire to be associated with a wealthier socioeconomic class feels like a means of rescuing himself from death.

While in the room with his father, the narrator continues to evoke imagery symbolically associated with death. Echoing his claim earlier that his father will never again see the sun of day, his sees his father "in the sunset of this room." The sunset is a figurative image of death. The narrator repeatedly describes his father as not just dying but already dead. When his father speaks, he says that ‘‘it was the skeleton talking.’’ And when his father holds out his hand to the narrator, the narrator perceives it as a "dead hand" and does not take it. In describing his father as if he were already dead, the narrator is attempting to justify the fact that he is going to be abandoning his own dying father when he leaves the island for Canada. By telling himself that the father is already dead, the narrator can imagine that there is nothing more he could be doing for the man, that he need not feel guilty for abandoning him. The narrator imagines that the physical distance of Canada will relieve his guilt over his abandonment of his father; later that day he imagines that, once in the airplane, he will be "bound for Canada, for hope, for school, for glory; and the sea and the distance had already eased the pain of conscience; and there was already much sea between me and the cause of conscience’’—the ‘‘cause of conscience’’ being his dying father, about whom he feels so guilty.

It is the father who directly makes the connection between the narrator's plan for ‘‘leaving the island’’ and his own inevitable "leaving" when he dies. "I hear you going away," he says, "and that is a good thing.. .because I am going away. . .from this place." As he listens to his father's "words and words and words’’ he continues to remind himself that, as far as he is concerned, his father is already dead. He thinks back to his childhood, when his mother forbade the mention of his father's name in the house, and concludes that "he had died before this present visit.’’ And again, the narrator tells himself, ‘‘He was dead before this.’’ Here the narrator is repeatedly trying to relieve his own sense of guilt by trying to convince himself that his father is already dead to him.

The narrator then uses the metaphor of his father's "claim" upon his life. A claim is an official document which proves legal ownership, usually of land. The narrator tells himself, "Let him die. I am leaving this island place. And let him die with his claim on my life. And let the claim be nailed in the coffin." This imagery implies that the narrator feels his father holds the rightful ownership to his own life. All of the narrator's efforts to tell himself that his father is already dead are thus in part an attempt to deny his father's "claim" upon his life, that is, to deny to himself that he has any duty to take care of his own father, even to help pay for something better than a pauper's funeral. Nonetheless, the narrator continues to feel that his father does indeed have a claim upon him. And this claim is in part the fact that the narrator belongs to his own family and his own culture. This claim is the proof that, although he can ‘‘leave the island,’’ he can never escape his personal or cultural roots; they will always hold a claim upon him, no matter how successfully he makes his way into the privileged socioeconomic world.

When, after the farewell party thrown by his friends, the narrator walks on the beach with his girlfriend, he continues to perceive his surroundings in terms which make reference to death. The beach they walk on is called ‘‘Gravesend Beach,’’ echoing his own guilt over the fact that his father will be buried in a pauper's grave. He hears ‘‘the laughter of crabs scrambling among dead leaves and skeletons of other crabs." Later, he describes the docked fishing boats as "lifeless," as they are ‘‘taking a breather from the deaths of fishing.’’

As he waits in the airport terminal for his plane, the narrator wonders, "My father, is he dead yet?" The degree of his alienation from his father is expressed through the fact that he considers looking in the obituary column of a newspaper in order to find out if his own father had died yet. Even his mother encourages him to think of ‘‘leaving the island’’ as a justification for abandoning his father; she tells him, ‘‘Look, boy, leave the dead to live with the blasted dead, do! Leave the dead in this damn islan' place!’’ But, despite his own, and his mother's, insistence that ‘‘leaving the island’’ is a legitimate excuse for abandoning his father, he continues to express guilt and sadness over this departure. However, rather than directly expressing his own sadness that he is leaving, the narrator projects this sadness onto the strangers he sees around him at the airport; he sees only "the fear and the tears and the handshakes of other people's saying goodbye and the weeping of departure.’’

While he has stated that "leaving the island" for him represents ‘‘hope . . .school.. .and glory,’’ the final image of the story expresses his feelings of emptiness and loneliness upon "leaving" his family and his roots. As he looks down from the plane, he sees only, ‘‘the sea, and the sea, and then the sea.’’

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, with a specialization in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

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