The Mosquito Coast

The life of Allie Fox, the protagonist of The Mosquito Coast, illustrates the truth of Blaise Pascal’s wry but terrifying epigram on human nature: “Man is neither an angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.” Allie, or “Father,” as his family calls him, is the archetypical Yankee hero: inventive, opinionated, resourceful, independent, the friend of the underdog and the foe of big business and big government. A strain of messianic fervor, however, tinctures his essential pragmatism. Disgusted by rampant consumerism and contemptuous of the liberalism that he blames for finger-painting in the schools and pornography in the corner drugstore, Allie no longer feels at home in the land of his birth. America, he claims, has fallen prey to “savages” and “scavengers.” Savages, in Allie’s definition, are the capitalists and bureaucrats who exploit technology for their own gain and introduce the law of the jungle into social relationships; scavengers are the lackeys who feed on the corpses the savages throw them. Allie has lost faith in the institutions—law and especially religion—that should protect men from the savagery in themselves and in one another. For Allie, Christ is only a scarecrow—a hollow man stuffed with straw. He therefore resolves to transplant his family to Honduras—on the map “a forehead of territory, a bulge of coastline with an empty interior”—to make a new start.

Allie’s family, however, does not wholeheartedly concur in his loathing for American society and his enthusiasm for a new start. Mother, a gentle, quietly efficient survivor of the counterculture of the 1960’s, flares up in protest only once before acceding to her husband’s scheme. Allie’s fifteen-year-old son, Charlie, however, embarks on a course of silent but more dangerous rebellion. He finds his father’s opinions and nonconformist behavior embarrassing; he longs for television, fast-food, and all the other temptations of the consumer-culture from which his family has sheltered him; he seeks the attention of men Allie excoriates as ignorant or evil and evaluates his father by their standards as well as his own. Charlie’s ambivalent feelings toward his father are expressed in a dream or vision—it is unclear which—he experiences before their departure from the western Massachusetts farm on which Allie works as handyman. Charlie awakes in the middle of the night and senses his father’s absence from the house; wandering outside, he watches, horrified, as the Honduran field hands crucify Allie amid the sprouting asparagus. The next day, Charlie sees that the crucified man is not his father, but a scarecrow; he feels a mixture of relief and guilt.

Sensing his son’s ambivalence toward him, Allie sets Charlie a series of grueling physical challenges—to sit on a rock in Baltimore Harbor until it is overwhelmed by the tide, to climb the shrouds of the ship carrying the family to Honduras during a storm—to test his loyalty. The motivation behind Allie’s obsessive need to assure himself of the family’s loyalty is suggested in a rare moment of self-revelation. Attempting to justify his emigration from the United States, he explains that he cannot bear to watch the country die and compares his action with the way he behaved when his mother languished on her deathbed with a broken hip and double pneumonia: “I didn’t want to watch, I couldn’t listen. So I went away. They say it was an awful struggle—touch and go—but she was doomed. After she died, I went back home. . . . I loved her too much to watch her die.” For Allie, the journey to Honduras is an unconscious attempt to escape from his own death; the tests he imposes on his family suggest a need to ensure that they will not abandon him in the same way he abandoned his mother.

In eastern Honduras, a region described as “like America before the pilgrims landed,” Allie sets about building his own version of the city on a hill. Purchasing the derelict settlement of Jeronimo, he enlists the backward inhabitants in erecting hygienic cottages, planting hybrid miracle crops, and installing a sophisticated plumbing system. Allie’s masterpiece, however, is a gigantic refrigeration unit, powered by ammonia and hydrogen, that looms over the surrounding jungle “like a block of dark marble, a monument or tomb.” Paul Theroux’s ominous metaphor is borne out by the name with which Allie christens his “ice box”—“Fat Boy,” an amalgam of Fat Man and Little Boy, the names given the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Honduran natives...

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Literary Techniques

By using a young first-person narrator, Theroux creates an effective point of view from which to observe Father's character. Readers...

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Social Concerns

In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans began to question their country's image as the material paradise, "the land of opportunity." That...

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Literary Precedents

The Mosquito Coast belongs to the tradition of the novel of character. Father's speech and behavior rivet the reader's attention, even...

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Related Titles

Two other Theroux works offer portraits of heroes in unfamiliar surroundings attempting to survive and prosper. Saint Jack (1973)...

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The motion picture version of The Mosquito Coast was released in 1986. It is directed by Peter Weir and stars Harrison Ford as Allie...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bertens, Hans. “The Convention of the New Beginning in Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast.” In Convention and Innovation in Literature, edited by Rainer Grubel. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1991. Insightful study of Theroux’s literary predecessors, highlighting the starting-over theme.

Christian Science Monitor. March 12, 1982, p. B2.

Coale, Samuel. Paul Thoreaux. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Overview and critical interpretation of the writer’s life and work. Includes a chronology and a bibliography.

Commonweal. CIX, September 24, 1982, p. 506.


(The entire section is 194 words.)