The title and thematic center of Soul Clap Hands and Sing are taken from William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium”: “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing.” The male protagonists of these novellas are not singing. Each is middle-aged or older and has lived a life essentially empty of commitment; each reaches out tentatively and too late to another person.
In this collection, Marshall moves the setting beyond the United States to the islands of the Caribbean Sea and South America, deliberately assuming a male perspective. These stories concern not so much the age of the men but the parched condition of their souls.
Barbados is the first and shortest novella. Mr. Watford, thin, spare, and comfortably retired from his job in America, spends his days tending his coconut trees and scoffing at the young people and their political slogan, “The Old Order Shall Pass.” A local shopkeeper urges Mr. Watford to support the unsteady economy by hiring a servant, but the girl he sends disturbs Mr. Watford, who is grudging and harsh with her, though he allows her to stay. Only when he sees her dancing with a young man does he begin to realize how jealous he is of her, and how lonely. He tries to approach the girl, but she spurns him, and he realizes that in his life “it had been love, terrible in its demand, which he had always fled.”
(The entire section is 539 words.)