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...
(The entire section contains 1339 words.)
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