Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Informing the universal question of the meaning of life and death which A Room on the Hill seeks to answer is conflict between generations. This conflict is seen as responsible for the characters’ feelings of guilt and their quest for true personal independence and direct control over their lives. John and his friends each offer different interpretations of the question of life and a right death; these responses range from the voluntary state of semiconsciousness (embodied in the drifter), to suicide, to consciously dangerous, even antisocial, hedonistic behavior.

On a social level, St. Omer scrutinizes the alternatives life offers the colored inhabitants of the island in the West Indies at the end of World War II and the beginning of a new era (a definitely autobiographical touch). His characters share the dream of an education abroad and a triumphant return home; there is hope for most of them, with the exception of Dennys, who believes that the island is too small to contain not only the nonconformist members of its society but also the successes such as Harold.

Yet despite traumas and disappointments, there is a greater atmosphere of hope in St. Omer’s novel than was generally recognized on its first publication. Despite many failures (the mention of many anonymous young men returning from France with shattered hopes instead of as priests), the island is still home for its people and can even accommodate dissenters such as Dennys and drifters such as John.

The universality of the problems that the novel investigates is mirrored in the fact that although the island’s patois is used when appropriate (for example in John’s drunken outburst), the language of A Room on the Hill does not detract from the theme by being in itself exotic: It is elegant standard English. St. Omer’s is the voice of a novelist who has chosen to write in the traditional Western mode; his language and form are an inheritance he chooses to accept in the same way as the characters look to England for education. Furthermore, throughout the text, and exceptionally so in the first half, there is a noticeable reticence on the part of the author as to specifics of the locale, again in order to stress the universality of his theme.