Essential Quotes by Character: Helen
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1339
Essential Passage 1: Chapter 1, Section 1
…Men can kill
their own brothers in rage, but the madman who tore
Achille’s undershirt from one shoulder also tore
at his heart. The rage that he felt against Hector
was shame. To go crazy for an old bailing tin
crusted with rust! The duel of these fishermen
was over a shadow and its name was Helen.
Achille and Hector, two natives of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, are in perpetual conflict. Achille is a fisherman, in love with the sea and all its beauty. Hector, however, has abandoned fishing to become a taxi driver. This difference in their visions is foundational to their disagreements. In this conflict, Achille had borrowed a tin from Hector’s canoe. Hector had warned Achille to keep his hands off of his boat; Achille ignored him. Hector approaches Achille with an old sword, and Achille picks up his own knife, ready for the combat. Followed by a crowd, they go down to the beach. With the crowd cheering them on, the two have at it. Walcott, as the omniscient narrator, informs the reader that this conflict is only on the surface about a canoe. It is in fact about the attentions of Helen, who has left Achille to live with Hector. Helen is pregnant with the child of one of the two; even she is not sure who the father is.
Essential Passage 2: Chapter 5, Section 3
…Helen needed a history,
that was the pity that Plunkett felt towards her.
Not his, but her story. Not theirs, but Helen’s war.
The name, with its historic hallucination,
brightened the beach; the butterfly, to Plunkett’s joy,
twinkling from myrmidon to myrmidon, from one
sprawled tourist to another. Her village was Troy,
its smoke obscuring soldiers fallen in battle.
Then her unclouding face, her breasts were its Pitons,
the palms’ rusted lances swirled in the death-rattle
of the gargling shoal; for her Gaul and Briton had mounted fort and redoubt, the ruined barracks
with its bushy tunnel and its penile cannon;
for her cedars fell in green sunrise to the axe.
Major Dennis Plunkett is a retired British officer. With his wife Maud he retired to St. Lucia shortly after World War II, claiming it as his new home. Yet despite his long residence there, he realizes that he is still merely a tourist. The people who had lived here for generations, such as Helen, were the only ones who could truly call it home. In Helen, Plunkett sees the island itself represented. Paralleling The Iliad, Helen represents a cause for which to be fought. However, it is not just the fight between Achille and Hector over her, but the fight of the native peoples and the Europeans who conquered the island that is the true history. Rather than make Helen merely a representation of the other Helen in The Iliad, Major Plunkett decrees that she needs her own story. She represents any cause for which men have fought. She is the personification of conquest as well as resistance to conquest.
Essential Passage 3: Chapter 44, Section 2
…Plunkett, in his innocence,
had tried to change History to a metaphor
in the name of a housemaid; I, in self-defence,
altered her opposite. Yet it was all for her.
Except we had used two opposing strategems
in praise of her and the island; cannonballs rolled
in the fort grass were not from Olympian games,
nor the wine-bottle, crusted with its fool’s gold
from the sunken Ville de Paris, legendary
emblems; nor all their names the forced coincidence
we had made them. There, in her head of ebony,
there was no real need for the historian’s
remorse, nor for literature’s. Why not see Helen
as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow,
swinging her plastic sandals on that beach alone,
as fresh as the sea-wind? Why make the smoke a door?
Walcott, not only as the poet but also becoming a character in the story, portrays himself talking with Major Plunkett concerning Helen’s seeming arrogance. Plunkett insists on seeing her as the emblem of the islands, the object to be won, the treasure to be found, for which the European nations sailed across the seas, hazarding life and acquiring wealth. He sees in her the parallel to Homer’s Helen in The Iliad. However, Walcott is beginning to see her in a different light. While Plunkett tried to change the history of the Trojan War to make it fit more completely with his image of Helen, Walcott has done the opposite. He sees her so that he may more fully understand history. Both of them are wrong. Walcott begins to see her as she is, the emblem of nothing but herself. She is what she is, and nothing more romantic can be made of her.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Helen serves several roles in Omeros, as a cause, as a symbol, as a parallel, and as a real person. Walcott takes her through all of these roles in each of the sections of the poem. Although her actions do not seem to play such a conspicuous role in the plot, she weaves in and out of the other story lines, tying them all together.
Helen serves as the source of conflict between Achille and Hector, much as Helen of Troy does between Achilles and Hector in Homer’s epic, The Iliad. Just as Helen of Troy is only an excuse for the warring parties to engage in conflict, so too does this Helen serve as the instigator of the battle between her two lovers, by one of whom she is with child. At times she seems indifferent to the outcome of the battle, not really caring who wins. She has left Achille to be with Hector, but when Hector dies at the end of the poem, she readily returns to Achille. Her heart is passed between the two without either one really owning it.
Major Plunkett, who is also her employer, sees her as a symbol of the history of the island. She is the “face that launched a thousand ships,” symbolizing the wealth of the New World that attracted the Europeans to conquer the region for their own gain. Yet like Helen, in the end the Europeans leave, having pillaged the island and forever changing it. Which legacy will prevail is uncertain, much as the father of Helen’s child is unknown.
Walcott, however, wishes to strip Helen of all symbolism and romanticism. He sees her simply as herself, a lovely woman, beaten down by the cares of the St. Lucian culture that has been wounded by the Europeans, much like Philoctete bears an incurable wound. Helen’s future is bleak, even though she will return to Achille and bear a child. But it is a future devoid of dream, a bleak reality.
In the end, Helen is given back her role as simply a woman of the island. Walcott no longer tries to see her in terms of Helen of Troy or other classical epics. The romanticism with which she has been clothed has been stripped away, leaving her a housemaid on a poverty-stricken island. But perhaps it is not that he has opened his eyes to her reality, but instead has condemned her to a reality that he has created just as Plunkett did with his vision of her as Helen of St. Lucia. Walcott takes responsibility for her presentation, yet how much of that presentation will turn out to be a self-fulfilled prophecy? She takes a job as a waitress, dressed now in the national costume. Her national destiny is merely a masquerade.
Yet Walcott leaves her employed, in a more stable relationship with Achille, expecting to raise a family; such is the lot of most people on this earth, regardless of location. Helen thus becomes a symbol for all humanity, who go on with their mundane daily lives, do what is required, and expect nothing better. Thus, as the poem ends, “the sea goes on.”