The Tragedy of King Christophe

by Aimé Césaire

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In the novel, Aimé Césaire explores the issue of tyranny and megalomania as a danger to democratic self-governance. Juxtaposing two possible outcomes of the Haitian Revolution, Césaire offers a republic and a monarchy that split the island. Although the heroic military leader Henri Christophe had the opportunity to become president, it seemed inadequate. Convinced that he is the man to lead the Haitian people, Christophe instead declares he must be king. This leads to a schism, with both sides struggling to make their way as new nations. Sadly, the trappings and grandeur of monarchy go to Christophe’s head. His unlimited hubris not only leads him to squander the poor country’s limited resources on an extravagant palace, but he even issues challenges to the Virgin Mary. Finally, not only is the king painted into a corner by the threat of French invasion and the challenges from the republic, but his own paranoia gets the best of him and he ends his life.

An underlying question remains of whether being king destroyed Christophe’s mental health, or whether he was unstable before he assumed the throne. Because Césaire constantly shows the king indulging in extreme behaviors, the novel stays in satiric territory rather than veering into tragedy. When the king has the archbishop put to death, for example, the author uses a method out of Edgar Allan Poe: having him shut behind a wall while still alive. Aside from the pomp and vainglory of Christophe’s court, however, the impact of his folly on his subjects sounds a serious note. Given that a monarchy did return to France, why would the system not succeed in America? The author shows that the French were threatened as much by the abolition of slavery as by independence itself. Césaire asks the reader to consider how a viable nation gets on its feet in the early days when its very existence threatens the colonial project, and especially how race affects its acceptance on the global stage.

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