Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440
Earl Lovelace offers in “Shoemaker Arnold” a character study in which personal identity is reconciled with the spirit of place, in the sense of both nature and culture. Arnold’s consciously fashioned identity consists primarily of self-sufficient, tough masculinity. Seeking self-respect just to survive in a poverty-ridden rural village, Arnold has held the world at bay with his frightening mask, but he has done so at the cost of alienating much of the community, including his own family. His incessant talking achieves little authentic dialogue; consequently, the very expression in which genuine intimacy is grounded further isolates him: He has tolerated no voices other than his own. As the mask of self-sufficiency drops in order for Arnold to understand Norbert’s spontaneity and as the mask of masculinity falls in order for him to show kindness to the girls, Arnold discovers his own neediness. With the masks removed, Arnold can then participate fully in the community’s life and joy, which he does at Britto’s celebration.
With Arnold’s reconciliation of his own social needs also comes his acceptance of the consoling power of nature and sexuality. Although nature here is not transcendent, it does offer the renewal of rain and green leaves, metaphors for the regenerative power of the young girls as well as that of Norbert. Despite a fallen nature in the figure of Norbert and the fecund island world, the death present in this world is still capable of renewing life just as Norbert attempts to show Arnold that Moses’s life, apparently beastly, may be a choice to tend his coal—heat for cooking and warmth out of dead trees. Arnold seems to fear weakness, aging, and death, but, in actuality, he fears the strength and youth of life itself. Ironically, when Britto greets him as a “man now,” thinking that he acknowledges Arnold’s tough image, he greets an Arnold who is discovering that masculinity consists of intimacy and compassion rather than unconscious fears.
Norbert’s theft in generosities to friends, his penchant for leaving spontaneously with friends, his prodigal returns to the coarse Arnold, and his “appreciation” for Arnold all embody the “faith” of the people in one another. Even amid Norbert’s awareness that “we are dying,” he gives himself to a faith in the life of the community. It is this faith that Arnold embraces when he realizes that Norbert leaves work for “something deeper, a call,” not merely “a good time.” That faith is the freedom of spirit within both nature and culture: It is Arnold’s salvation from the desperation of his loneliness and the alienation of his neediness.