Leaving This Island Place

by Austin Clarke

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Themes and Meanings

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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.


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Leaving A central theme of this story is "leaving.’’ The story follows the day prior to the departure of the narrator from his native Barbados to go to school in Canada. He mentions repeatedly that he is ‘‘leaving’’ the island of Barbados. The story focuses on the various implications for the narrator of ‘‘leaving’’ his home. Out of guilt, he goes to visit his dying father the day before he leaves. He is also leaving his girlfriend, Cynthia. Although she insists that he write every day, and that they should have run off to get married, and that she will be at the airport to see him off, her promises are hollow. She doesn't even show up at the airport to say goodbye to him. So leaving the island means not only abandoning his poor, dying father, but also forfeiting his relationship with Cynthia.

"Leaving" also functions symbolically in the story. "Leaving" symbolizes death. His father even describes his own imminent death by stating that his is "leaving." Furthermore, "leaving" the island, for the narrator, means leaving his family and his cultural roots. Throughout the story, the narrator expresses ambivalence about the fact that he is "leaving." At one level, the reminder that he is "leaving" is a justification for abandoning his father. "Leaving" also represents a fantasy of ‘‘escape" from both his troubled family history and his socioeconomic background. He tells himself that he is ‘‘leaving. . .for Canada. . .for hope. . .for glory.’’ But he also feels the anxiety of leaving the home that he knows for the unknown, as represented by the image of the vast and endless...

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sea which ends the story.

Social Climbing One of the central anxieties expressed by the narrator is over his socioeconomic status. He is from an underprivileged background. The fact that he was born out of wedlock and is therefore a "bastard" is a constant reminder of his lower socioeconomic status in society: ‘‘The absence of [my father's] surname on my report card would remind me in the eyes of my classmates that I might be the best cricketer and the best runner, but that I was after all, among this cream of best blood and brains, only a bas-’’ His success at sports, particularly cricket, is a symbol for the narrator of his success as a social climber. He continually contrasts the world of the cricket field with the room in the almshouse where his father lies dying. Despite his success at school, and his association with his wealthy and privileged classmates, the narrator, at his farewell party, is constantly reminded that ‘‘I was out of place here, that I belonged with the beginning in the almshouse. Each giggle, each toast, each rattle of drunken ice cubes in the whirling glass pointed a finger back to the almshouse." One of the themes of the story, in relation to social climbing, is that, no matter how successfully one works one's way into the upper classes, no one can escape his or her roots.

Family and Paternity This story is centrally concerned with the theme of family, and particularly with paternity. The narrator' s parents were never married, and so he is an "illegitimate" child. His mother, who married another man, forbade the mention of his father's name throughout his childhood. Much of the narrator's anxieties throughout the story revolve around this condition of alienation from his own father. Although he was forbidden, he did occasionally sneak off to his father's shack to visit him. And, although his mother assured him that his father "had come 'from no family at-all, at-all'’’ and ‘‘had had 'no background'’’ the narrator feels a strong sense of family in the presence of his father; he states that ‘‘to me in those laughing days he held a family circle of compassion in his heart.’’ However, years before the story opens, the narrator had run away from his father's home and never again went to visit him. As the story opens, he is going to visit his father, who is dying in an almshouse. The narrator feels extremely ambivalent about his father, and about his father's death, but his overriding feeling is one of guilt for abandoning him as he is dying. The narrator tries to justify the fact that he is abandoning his own father in a time of need by telling himself that his father is already dead to him; he tries to relieve his conscience by reminding himself that he is "leaving the island" for a better life.