Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412
From the beginning, it is necessary that Helen be perceived as an exceptional woman because she is pivotal to the action of the epic on four levels. First, she is the cause of the conflict between Achille and Hector, just as conflict between Paris and Menelaus in the Odyssey over...
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From the beginning, it is necessary that Helen be perceived as an exceptional woman because she is pivotal to the action of the epic on four levels. First, she is the cause of the conflict between Achille and Hector, just as conflict between Paris and Menelaus in the Odyssey over her namesake, Helen of Troy, was the cause of the Trojan war. Second, Walcott, as a participating narrator, is inspired to immortalize her in Omeros. Third, the character of Dennis Plunkett undertakes to base a history of St. Lucia on her. Fourth, she embodies and symbolized the island of St. Lucia itself, since the island has been fought over so many times by France and England that it has earned the epithet "Helen of the West Indies." In spite of all the Homeric paraphernalia surrounding her, Walcott insists on her existence as a real person. As he explained to J. P. White (see Sources for Further Study), Helen is based on a woman he saw in a transport van he described in the poem "The Light of the World."
Helen is called Penelope as she awaits impatiently for Achille's return from the prolonged dream of Africa; Achille once refers to her as Circe when he feels unworthy to approach her sexually; and when the Major responds to the full power of her charm, he compares her to other memorable women of the past: Helen of Troy, Judith, and Susanna from the Apocrypha. The woman carrying all this metaphorical weight in Omeros is out of work and unsure whether the father of her unborn child is Hector or Achille. She had been a maid to the Plunketts until they fired her when her proud assurance made them feel like intruders in their own home. Then there is the question of the low-backed yellow dress that Helen may have stolen or that may have been given to her by Maud Plunkett. Walcott leaves the issue ambiguous through most of the poem.
Hector's untimely death in book six leaves Helen to Achille. Both Walcott and Major Plunkett abandon their desire for Helen when both men realize that by regarding her as an idealized object, they are repeating the shameful pattern of hundreds of years of imperial domination. Many of the ambiguities surrounding Walcott's reliance on classical allusions are resolved when, in the text, he and Plunkett recognize Helen's right to be herself, untainted by the various meanings that they have tried to heap on her.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 372
The title character is an ageless blind man who has settled in St. Lucia after sailing the oceans of the world. Omeros, like both the island's sightless patron St. Lucia and the Greek Homer, possesses the gift of inner vision. Omeros is a citizen of the earth, not limited to citizenship of a single place and time. For most of the story Omeros is a trusted counselor among the villagers of Gros Het, but Walcott takes him through a series of reincarnations. In book three, he joins Afolabe as a tribal griot in Achille's African dream. In book four he reappears as a Sioux shaman. Walcott encounters him in Trafalgar Square in London while on his own odyssey, clutching a worn manuscript of his odyssey— testimony to the fact that Homer, Omeros, and Walcott are engaged in the same enterprise. This particular incarnation reinforces Walcott's explicit statement in an interview with Robert Brown and Cheryl Johnson (see Sources for Further Study) that his poem has nothing to do with the renowned Homer of classical tradition. While he may exploit affinities with Homer's legacy, his purpose is to do for his own island nation what the itinerant wanderer Homer did for the emerging people of his Mediterranean.
The earthy Omeros of Walcott's conception steps forward to advise the Caribbean poet that "a girl smells better than the world's libraries," but a greater cause for an epic is "the love of your own people." The walking statue of Omeros then acts in the capacity of Dante's Virgil, who escorted the poet through Hell, escorting Walcott through a hellish region of the city of Soufriere. The experience introduces Walcott to the mercantile exploiters and selfish poets being punished for violations of the island's natural resources. Because Omeros embodies the wisdom of the ages, he is in a position to sum up the narrative strands of the epic. In his capacity as advisor to Walcott, he refines the terms of the duty imposed by Warwick Walcott. When he is last seen, sitting among the customers of Ma Kilman's No Pain Cafe, he hums quietly to himself the song of "the river griot, the Sioux shaman, "and he predicts that, like Philoctete,''all shall be healed.''
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451
Expatriate Dennis Plunkett, a retired British Major, settled in St. Lucia with his wife Maud shortly after World War II. He sustained a head wound in the War and Maud nursed him back to health. As Walcott informs the reader in one of his earliest authorial intrusions, the Major's injury is in keeping with the central theme of affliction that runs throughout the epic. At first glance, this white, landowning couple seems out of place among the predominantly black islanders. Their presence may be justified on at least two counts. First, they represent the centuries-old European entanglements in St. Lucian affairs. Second, Walcott's identification of the Plunketts with his own parents recognizes the European blood in his own veins.
The deepest regret in Dennis Plunkett's life is that he and his wife never had a son. Although the Major busies himself with the duties of raising swine, his interest in historical research fills an emptiness in his life. As it turns out, that avocation eventually provides him with a substitute son. The initial impetus is provided by none other than Helen herself. Plunkett had to fire Helen as a maid due to her imposing proprietorial attitude, but he becomes obsessed with the desire to give her a written history. For him, it is a shame that St. Lucia and her population are always marginalized or omitted from the sanctioned History texts (always capitalized) of the imperial nations. Given Plunkett's allusive imagination and the coincidence of such local names as Achille, Hector, Helen and Philoctete, his design quickly assumes classical overtones. His historical record seizes upon the actual Battle of the Saints as a latter-day confrontation between Greeks and Trojans over a Caribbean Helen. Adding to the Major's enthusiasm, his research into the Battle of the Saints leads him to the name of a Midshipman Plunkett who died serving under the famous British Admiral Rodney. Centuries stand between this father-son connection, but it supplies Dennis Plunkett with the physical link he needs to authenticate his island birthright.
The Major's literal function gradually achieves a deeper significance as he comes to appreciate Helen as a real woman, and not just as the object of his historical manipulation. In this respect his character contributes to the self-reflexive aspect of the text. When he realizes that Helen needs no inscription to give her life meaning, he abandons the project to which he had been so devoted that it "had cost him a son and a wife." The Major continues to heal and to grow after his wife's death from cancer, turning to Ma Kilman's powers as a medium to communicate with his wife's spirit, and learning to relate to his workmen by their individual names.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440
Walcott introduces his own persona into Omeros and joins in the action on two primary levels. He expresses his own fascination with Helen, enters into dialogue, and is often a participant among groups of characters. In addition, he candidly discusses autobiographical details and discloses the underlying structure of Omeros as he is engaged in the writing process. Despite the apparent transparency of motive, however, it would be a grave error to conclude that the Walcott who appears in Omeros is identical to the Walcott who is the author of the text. He expects readers to give him great latitude for poetic license.
The self-reflexive style of the poem depends on the author's freedom to shift perspectives and enter any of the other characters he chooses. His loss of his father, his failed marriages, his schizophrenia are embedded in the afflictions of Achille, Hector, Philoctete, and Dennis Plunkett. He states that in one scene he looks at Maud Plunkett through her husband's eyes. Attending her funeral, he contemplates the irony of his mourning the death of a creation of his own imagination and admits that "the fiction of her life needed a good ending." Then he takes the self-reflection one step farther. Referring to the interchangeableness of his "phantoms" Walcott predicts that readers who suspend their disbelief will themselves become phantoms of the characters with whom they identify.
Elusive as he makes himself, Walcott carries a significant portion of the narrative in his own right. Beginning in book four, he takes the reader with him as he moves to Boston, looks back at the Indian territories through his reading of Catherine Weldon, and tours Europe at the urging of his father's ghost. In Lisbon, he compares the Old World port and its equestrian monuments of conquest with his New World counterpart of colonial ruins and a past "better forgotten than fixed in stony regret." In London, he catches sight of Omeros in the guise of an old bargeman clutching a ragged manuscript. In Maud Plunkett's native country of Ireland, thinking of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, he recognizes Anna Livia: "Muse of our age's Omeros." Then, having visited the fabled cities of his father's dreams, he completes the circle and finally returns to St. Lucia in the sixth book. There, under the tutelage of the animated statue of Homer/Omeros in the seventh book, Walcott reaches the same accommodation that Dennis Plunkett has achieved with Helen. Given the choice between the Aegean and the Caribbean Helens, he prefers the living woman rather than the classical image. Art has its compensations, but only St. Lucia's "green simplicities" prove sufficient to maintain his inspiration.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305
The actual Catherine Weldon was a widow from New York whose commitment to the cause of Native Americans led her to the Indian territories of the Dakotas in the 1890s. Walcott's treatment of her as a fictional creation seems to be faithful to the historical and biographical accounts that are available. Weldon became private secretary to Sitting Bull during the time that the Ghost Dance movement was making its way through the plains tribes, creating uneasiness among white settlers and frontier military units. The Ghost Dance offered the Sioux the false promise both that the vanishing buffalo herds and past generations of native American warriors would return. They also believed that the magic shirts worn during the dance rituals would render their wearers invulnerable to bullets. White frontiersmen feared the unifying, rallying force of the movement and used the unrest it caused as an excuse for the Wounded Knee Creek massacre of 1890.
Perhaps the most consistent criticism of Omeros questions the inclusion of non-Caribbean segments in what is supposed to be a West Indian epic. Critic Robert Bensen has observed that Walcott is more concerned with the person of Catherine Weldon than simply with the time and place she appears in actual history. Weldon is another of Walcott's composite characters, embodying at different times Major Plunkett, Helen, Achille, and Walcott himself. Like Dennis Plunkett, she is an outsider attempting to carve out a place in an adopted society. She is as emblematic and unfathomable as Helen, poised between two worlds. In a mirror image of Achille watching the decimation of his African village, Weldon is relegated to standing by helplessly as Omeros in the persona of a Sioux shaman bemoans the destruction of his village. Weldon serves, as does Dennis Plunkett, to lend a vulnerable human face to the oppressor's side of the imperial equation.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2811
The primary protagonist among the villagers of Gros Ilet in St. Lucia, Achille (pronounced A-sheel) is a fisherman deeply in love with the local beauty, Helen. Because he and his friend Hector both love Helen, they become arch-rivals, as did their Homeric namesakes three thousand years earlier. Afflicted with the rootlessness that often results from living under colonialism, Achille not only needs to win Helen, he also must discover his personal and racial roots in order to confirm his rightful place in St. Lucia. The event that gives his life ultimate meaning is a sunstroke-induced trance that transports him through time and space to his ancestral river village in Africa. There he meets his distant grandsire Afolabe, who teaches him his name and the forgotten ceremonies that restore the racial memory taken from his predecessors by the Middle Passage. When he reawakens the following day, he must still face all his old problems, but he has acquired a new appreciation for the transplanted customs, rituals, and ceremonies that survived in St. Lucia's Creole culture. After his estranged friend Hector dies, he acknowledges their brotherly bond and is reconciled with Helen.
Unlike Homer's superhuman Achilles (son of the sea nymph Thetis and King Peleus), Achille represents the unacknowledged type of earthy protagonist Walcott described to D. J. R. Bruckner in an interview (see Sources for Further Study). Looking at the people of the Caribbean who come from distant lands and who have been neglected by history, Walcott is inspired to capture their names, lineaments, and features in painting or words. He insists to Bruckner that a classically derived slave name such as Achille or Hector is not simply a metaphor lightly given: "It is something you watch becoming itself, and you have to have the patience to find out what it is." In Omeros it is significant that Achille misspells the name of his pirogue "In God We Troust." Not only does this replicate the name of an actual canoe Walcott saw in St. Lucia, but it reflects the simple, unadorned humanity Walcott wishes to celebrate. When his mistake is challenged, Achille declares "Leave it! Is God' spelling and mine." Near the end of Omeros, Walcott admits that despite his determination to give voice to these remarkable figures, Achille will never read the epic to which he is so central.
In the dream taking Achille centuries back to his African origins, Afolabe appears as his distant grandsire. Afolabe challenges Achille to reclaim his African name, believing that the person who forgets who he is lacks the substance to cast his own shadow. Under Afolabe's instruction, the amnesia caused by the Middle Passage and generations of slavery is eliminated. Achille is surprised to see that elements of African tribal customs survive in familiar St. Lucian rituals.
While Achille watches helplessly, Afolabe and most of his village are abducted by a band of marauding Africans who sell their captives to slave runners on the coast. As it turns out, the story of Afolabe in the third book fills in the background for an episode leading up to the Battle of the Saints already recounted in the second book. When Afolabe appeared in that earlier account, he and other slaves were preparing the British defenses against an anticipated French invasion of St. Lucia. At that point, Admiral Rodney changed Afolabe's name to Achilles. This episode now acquires added significance, as it appears that Walcott intends Afolabe to represent his own African blood.
The Greek sculptress who instructs Walcott in the proper pronunciation of Omeros (Homer's name) is given the pseudonym "Antigone." She appears briefly as Walcott's lover in her Boston studio in book one. She disappears almost at once because she has grown tired of America and wants to return to her native islands. Nevertheless, the encounter resonates throughout Omeros. The pronunciation of Omeros leads to Walcott's explication of the Antillean patois for the name: O expands from the throat of utterance to "the conch-shell's invocation'' to all the other ovular openings in the poem; mer means "both mother and sea"; os evokes gray bone and the surf lacing the island's shore.
Frequently, Walcott's allusions to statuary, recall this character's sculptures. When he takes to the lonely streets of Boston toward the end of the fifth book, he wanders vainly attempting to relocate her dusty, marble-strewn studio. The statue of Omeros that emerges from the sea to guide him through his St. Lucian inferno in book seven is one of the last vestiges of her influence.
Christine is Ma Kilman's niece, a country girl who comes to work in the No Pain Cafe at the end of Omeros. For her Gros Ilet is an amazing city and she is said to be like a new Helen.
Chrysostom is one of the fishermen who gather with Achille and others on the shore before beginning work each day.
Convinced that there is no significant difference between the two major parties that are polarizing the island in attempting to win the general elections, this character, known as Maljo, creates his alternative United Love party. Maljo runs an ineffective, American-style, grass-roots campaign, driving the streets, shouting through an unreliable megaphone about Greek and Trojan parties fighting over Helen. When Maljo is defeated, he leaves for Florida to work the citrus harvests.
Achille's friend turned rival, Hector manages to take Helen home with him early in Omeros, but he suffers from knowing that he has not won her heart. Hector's downfall is the result of his turning away from the calling of the sea to become a taxi driver. His van named the Comet, decorated with flames on the outside and leopard-skin upholstery within, symbolizes the island's cultural ambiguity. The leopard motif harks back to an Africa that no longer exists, while the blazing comet suggests an alluring future driven by tourism and corporate exploitation far beyond local control. Once he abandons the sea, Hector is never at peace, and he can find no security in Helen. In the sixth book, reckless driving takes him over a cliff to his death. Despite Hector's treachery in life, Achille mourns an irreplaceable friend. Hector appears in the inferno section of the seventh book, a soul in the purgatory of his own choosing.
When Walcott stops in Dublin on his tour of Europe, he pays homage to James Joyce. As he stands on the embankment of the Liffey River one evening, he imagines Joyce's Anna Livia (from Finnegans Wake) scurrying by. Then he conjures up the image of Joyce (with his notoriously poor eyesight) as a "one-eyed Ulysses" gazing seaward after a departing ship.
Walcott's attachment to Joyce may be traced back to his school days at St. Mary's College. Walcott recalls in an autobiographical essay in London Magazine, 1965, his schoolboy identification with Joyce's character Stephen Dedalus. In a later interview with J. P. White (see Sources for Further Study), he discusses the epic qualities of Joyce's Ulysses and of Joyce's reflective, rather than heroically active, protagonist Leopold Bloom.
Ma Kilman is the repository of African animism that has been adopted into St. Lucia's Catholicism through generations of obeah-women (practitioners of sorcery and magic with roots in African traditions). She has lost the memory of herbs, potions, and spells, but when she sheds the uncomfortable garments of civilization, she finally reestablishes contact with the homeopathic fruit of the earth. It is she who follows a trail of ants into the mountains to unearth the foul plant shaped like the anchor that gave Philoctete his incurable wound. From that plant she concocts the steaming bath that drains all the poison from Philoctete and makes him whole again. Her No Pain Cafe is the village gathering place. A skeptical but grieving Dennis Plunkett seeks her out there in order to contact his deceased wife. When he asks Ma Kilman if she sees her in heaven, she responds simply "Yes. If heaven is a green place." Knowing his wife's attachment to Ireland, the Emerald Isle, Dennis is understandably moved: "That moment bound him for good to another race." Ma Kilman serves as an earth-mother figure, healing men and linking them with the natural environment.
The waiter having difficulty making his way among customers on the beach when both Walcott and the Plunketts observe Helen's first appearance in Omeros is sarcastically called "Lawrence of St. Lucia." He is no Lawrence of Arabia. Near the end of the epic Walcott mentions his name once again as an example of the "wounded race" who laugh uncomprehendingly when an exasperated Achille curses a group of intrusive tourists.
See F. Didier
Pancreas is one of the fishermen who gather with Achille and others on the shore before beginning work each day.
In conformity with the role of his classical namesake, Philoctetes, Philoctete serves as an integral mediator. He tries to convince Achille and Hector that they are brothers in the bond of the sea and should not be estranged from each other. When budding political parties in his newly independent nation threaten to divide the population against itself, he regrets the fact that people do not love St. Lucia as a whole. Furthermore, he bears a terrible shin that allegorically implies all the afflictions plaguing his countrymen. He sets the example of patience under duress, the kind of fortitude that has allowed the progeny of slavery to endure and thrive
As Philoctetes is cut off by the offensiveness of his wound in the Greek myth, Philoctete is too debilitated to participate fully in village activities throughout most of the poem. Just as the Greeks were dependent on the reclamation of Philoctetes before they could defeat the Trojans in the Iliad, the villagers of Gros Ilet do not begin to overcome their colonial malaise until Philoctete is restored to health. When Ma Kilman effects Philoctete's cure in book six, Walcott catalogues the larger psychological virtues of his restoration. As the mind-forged chains of his inferiority drop away in the herbal bath, the residue of tribal shame dissolves; his muscles respond naturally to the bow and oar of his warrior ancestors; he accepts both the lost past and his new name and language until he stands a new Adam in Eden. The moment is pivotal for the self-reflexive emphasis of the rest of the epic. In the scene immediately following Philoctete's healing, Walcott announces the revelation that he has been harboring the wrong kind of love for St. Lucia. He and others must follow the example of Achille and Philoctete in shedding any prejudices that stand between themselves and the island as it really exists.
Placide is one of the fishermen who gather with Achille and others on the shore before beginning work each day.
The wife of Dennis Plunkett longs for the music and the seasonal changes of her native Ireland. Much as she would like to see her homeland once again, Plunkett will not spare the money for passage. Maud is a static character, the steady anchor to her husband's often quixotic energy. Plunkett refers to her as his "crown," his "queen."
Although she is a secondary character, her influence can be traced in an ever widening circle. While Dennis devotes himself to salvaging a place for Helen in the history of declining empire, he feels guilty for abandoning his wife emotionally. Maud occupies her lonely hours apart from her husband sewing a tapestry with all the birds of the archipelago, complete with Latin name tags, thus functioning as Dennis's Penelope (the wife of Ulysses, who spun by day and unraveled her spinning by night all the time her husband was away). The yellow, low-backed dress that becomes Helen's signature garment is "borrowed" from Maud without permission. Incidentally, Maud's death brings about a sequence of communal bonding. At her funeral Walcott notes the "charity of soul, more piercing than Helen's beauty" revealed in Achille's sympathetic tears. Just outside the church, Helen informs Achille that she is coming back to him. In the ensuing weeks, Major Plunkett seeks out Ma Kilman to ease his grief and he learns to work among his laborers without being patronizing.
Young Midshipman Plunkett serves two primary functions in Omeros. In an historical flashback, he is the man Admiral Rodney entrusts with a spy mission to Dutch ports to gather information on the enemies of England. Unfortunately he dies later by accidentally falling on his own sword after his ship is breached in the Battle of the Saints. His second, more important, role is to lie dormant for two hundred years before his name is rediscovered, allowing him to become the surrogate son of Major Dennis Plunkett. The Major uses the midshipman imaginatively to link his ancestry with his adopted St. Lucia. It does not matter that the young man passed away centuries before Dennis was born; the event allows him to take pride in the actions of a namesake who died honorably in defense of the Helen of the West Indies.
Commander of the British fleet stationed in Gros Ilet Bay in the eighteenth century, Admiral George Rodney defeated the French fleet under the Count de Grasse on April 12, 1782. The Battle of the Saints, named for the small group of Les Saintes islands, is famous in naval history because Rodney's bold "breaking of the line" maneuver established precedent for future naval engagements and his victory solidified the British position in peace negotiations with France.
In Omeros, Admiral Rodney dispatches Midshipman Plunkett to spy on the Dutch in book two. He is also responsible for changing the African name of Achille's ancestor from Afolabe to Achilles.
See Ma Kilman
See F. Didier
See F. Didier
Theophile is one of the fishermen who gather with Achille and others on the shore before beginning work each day.
Alix Walcott, the aged mother of Derek Walcott, appears only once in Omeros, but Walcott makes the comment that she is incorporated into his portrayal of Maud Plunkett. The character of Derek Walcott visits her at the nursing home where she is cared for.
The domestic scene in which Walcott meets Alix is a respite from the constantly shifting narrative. The poet must prompt his mother, who struggles to remember the names of her loved ones. She finally recalls ''Derek, Roddy, and Pam,'' the children she bore Warwick. The scene reconfirms Walcott's roots in the island before he must be off again, pursuing a calling that takes him away from the source of his inspiration.
The father of Derek Walcott, Warwick Walcott was an influence on his son's artistic ambitions. This accounts for the two pivotal appearances of Warwick's ghost in Omeros, and for the father/son relationships that proliferate throughout the epic as well. Warwick appears first at the end of book one to focus Derek's attention on events of the past and present in the city of his birth. Warning against foreign distractions, Warwick notes the example of the local barber whose loyalties to the Seventh Day Adventists and Marcus Garvey leave him suspended between two Messiahs, representing phantom religious and African paradises. Prominent among the books on the barber's shelf is the multi-volume World's Great Classics a collection rife with icons treasured by Major Plunkett, Walcott, and his father. Warwick's second object lesson is more positive. He reminds his son of the unrecognized generations of mothers and grandmothers who labored their lives away hauling coal up the gangplanks of transient steamers in the deep-water harbor of Castries. Then he performs the role of Virgil's Anchises, who dictated Aeneas's inherited duty to him. Warwick argues that, whereas their ancestors used the implement of their feet, Derek must use his pen ''to give those feet a voice."
Warwick materializes a second time at the conclusion of the fourth book, catching his son in a period of depression over his broken marriage and life in Boston. At this juncture, Warwick advises his son to follow the example of the sea-swift and complete his odyssey by circling back home. Because Warwick knows his son still needs to achieve a more balanced grasp of Western influences, he instructs him to walk the streets of the European cities immortalized in The World's Great Classics before he returns to St. Lucia. Well before Derek Walcott finds within himself the right kind of love for his homeland, Warwick pronounces their common goal: "to cherish our island for its green simplicities." Only Warwick's untimely death prevented his doing more toward this end. Walcott introduces him into his text in order to establish the hereditary continuity of his epic task in Omeros.