Themes and Meanings
Austin Clarke’s “Leaving This Island Place” follows an honored tradition in West Indian fiction initiated by V. S. Naipaul in 1959 with the final chapter of Miguel Street, in which the central character explains his reasons for leaving the Caribbean. Clarke elaborates the theme of the search for greater opportunity abroad by introducing the conflict between the traditional family unit and illegitimacy, and the insincerity of the religious middle class with its pretensions, hypocrisy, and duplicity. As a result, the story is more than one young islander’s search for personal satisfaction by attending a university abroad rather than a local university; it is a search for personal identity, an investigation of self and conscience, and ultimately a search for the meaning of love and responsibility.
The mother never tells the eighteen-year-old protagonist who his father really is; the godmother assumes that her intuition is correct but seems to be motivated by animosity rather than love; Barrabas clearly takes pleasure in punishing a simple man and a community hero for simple pleasures such as drinking heavily—a common indulgence in the West Indies; and Cynthia, although she protests her great love, is intent on deceiving her father and did not love the narrator enough to admire his rise from poverty, illegitimacy, and social marginality. The clergy love not the poor and despised, but the affluent and socially acceptable. Only Miss Brewster, the old and knowing nurse, seems to comprehend the real nature of love: She sees it in the old man and exhorts it in the young one. For her, love is demonstrated by a visit, by the gift of a piece of fruit, not by an expensive briefcase, sexual pleasure on a beach, or a ride in a fashionable car. The death of the old man, whose name the narrator has never borne, represents the death of love for and from people and the death of attachment to Barbados. Seawell Airport is the end and the beginning.