Just as the plot does not fulfill the romantic expectations of the adventure story, so too the characters of At Play in the Fields of the Lord belie the stereotypes and idealizations of romantic characters. Matthiessen’s characters are naturalistic creatures whose behavior is usually determined by environment.
The environment in which the characters move, the jungle and the river towns upon its fringes, are overwhelming and hostile physical presences. This description of Madre de Dios typifies the difficult stage upon which these actors must play out their fates: It “formed a yellow scar in the green waste. With its litter of rust and rotting thatch and mud, the capital of Oriente State resembled a great trash heap, smoking sullenly in the monotony of rivers.” The landscape is the antagonist of everyone in the novel; it constantly assaults the senses and the spirits of these characters. Ultimately the landscape triumphs over both the indigenous and the intruders.
The Niaruna are creatures of the rain forest who resist easy labeling. They are not noble savages inhabiting some remote and primeval Eden: The jungle is too harsh to be a garden. By hunting and cultivating, the Niaruna find enough to live on, but no surplus. The Indians are constantly alert to combat the dangers from animals, poisonous plants, and rival tribes. Their humanity is fragile: As Aeore points out to Moon, the Niaruna paint their bodies because, in the jungle, how else can human beings distinguish themselves from the animals?
On the other hand, though primitive in technology and social organization by the intruders’ standards, the Niaruna are neither ignorant barbarians nor Satan worshipers. They have adapted ingeniously to the rhythm of the jungle, knowledgeably working the land in both dry season and rainy season, cunningly harvesting the river in its rising and falling stages. The Niaruna possess a stoic philosophy that enables them to accept privation, injury, and death without self-pity. Moon marvels, for example, at the quiet dignity of the Indians as Boronai, on his deathbed, receives a last respectful visit from each tribesman.
The citizens of Madre de Dios also reflect their environment. As unpleasant as the jungle, the town is at least less dangerous, but the lack of danger seems to foster inertia and decay. Freed from the necessity to wrest a daily living from the jungle, the townspeople are content to get drunk and to fornicate. Guzmán and Father Xantes, its leading citizens, possess more energy but are no less degenerate: Guzmán uses his energy to tyrannize over the townspeople; Xantes abstains from grosser pleasures, yet he abstains, too, from active pastoral care. He is content to bear silent witness to the sufferings of humanity.
The North American missionaries, who have come to transform the Niaruna, find themselves transformed by the jungle and the Indians. Utterly repelled by the constant physical realities of procreation and death, Hazel retreats into sullen passivity. Stung by resistance to his energetic pastoral work, Les hypocritically interprets misery and failure as happiness and progress: In his newsletters, he conjures unwarranted hope from the senseless death of Billy and the accidental martyrdom of Quarrier. Quarrier learns that the jungle accentuates his physical limitations (clumsiness, poor sight, low stamina) even as it challenges his assumptions about conversion. Only Andy seems little affected; she pays more attention to consoling the others as the environment’s demands drain them.
Of the missionaries, only Andy Huben and Martin Quarrier engage the reader’s interest. They show some capacity to learn and some humility in abandoning the prejudices with which they arrived. They alone express some sympathy with the Niaruna and antipathy for the fate they help to bring upon the Indians. Andy is an underdeveloped character, however, and Quarrier is physically unattractive; neither gains much sympathy with readers. Quarrier is...
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