Under the Volcano Summary
by Malcolm Lowry

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In the most symbolically charged scene of Under the Volcano—a garden, with a snake, where Geoffrey keeps talking about Eden—he proclaims that ownership of property was obviously the original sin. This is, of course, not the only theme of the complex book, but it is its core, holding together its social, religious, and literary vision. The fundamental problem of property takes many forms. For Geoffrey’s brother Hugh, it includes his greedily plagiarizing others’ songs as his own, even while stealing his publisher’s wife. For Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne, it is memories of her lost material success as an actress, dragging her away from Geoffrey. For Geoffrey himself, it is his position as paid defender of British territories in the period when he had some complicity in German soldiers being burned alive. The different forms of guilt that the characters feel are variations of the way coveting or defending property divides people from one another.

By the final draft of the novel, Lowry’s long fascination with the supernatural had brought him under the influence of the occultist Charles Stansfield Jones (also known as Frater Achad), whom Lowry met in Canada. Based on Jones’s synthesis of various kinds of mysticism, including Jewish Kabbala, Lowry associated the divisive power of property with the metaphysical idea that, in the beginning, God’s divine energy entered vessels that broke, with the tragic consequence being the multiplicity of the material world where there should have been divine unity. As Lowry explained in his preface to the French translation of the novel, Geoffrey should have been a prophet, whose consciousness was bringing the world back toward that unity. Being infirm instead of firm, Geoffrey, as broken as those vessels, fails as a prophet, occasionally glimpsing the future, but through an alcoholic haze. Lowry adds in that preface that Kabbala likens misused magical power to alcoholism (such as Geoffrey’s drunkenness). Throughout the novel, Geoffrey keeps pretending that liquor brings a universal brotherhood, but the plot of the novel shows that, quite the contrary, as a material substitute for the divine, liquor provides only an illusion of sharing, sabotaging the reality.

Under the Volcano begins on the Mexican Day of the Dead in 1939, the anniversary of Geoffrey’s death. Dr. Vigil and Jacques Laruelle, two of his friends, while themselves drinking, deplore the tragedy of the consul’s alcoholism and demise. Such mournful thoughts are appropriate to the Day of the Dead, and the two feel some guilt for the consul’s passing. Vigil was then focusing on his own problems rather than on what he diagnosed as Geoffrey’s sickness of the soul. More disturbingly, Laruelle had committed adultery with Yvonne, thereby undermining her marriage. Having lost his idealism, Laruelle, who once dreamed of improving the world through filmmaking, has declined into collecting Mexican “idols,” material substitutes for the divine.

The locale of the novel is the Mexican city of Quahnahuac, described as “tortuous and broken.” As Lowry often stated in later explanations of his novel, its twelve chapters (like the twelve hours of its main action) constitute a symbolic number, fitting with the many other symbolic numbers in the work, which together suggest that a fated drama is transpiring, with cosmic resonances.

The second chapter moves back to the previous Day of the Dead, in 1938, when Yvonne arrived in Quahnahuac to see if her marriage could be saved. Both through repeated references to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808, 1833, pr. 1829, 1954; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1828), whose protagonist is saved by the “eternal feminine,” and through allusions to Kabbala, where God’s saving presence, the Shekinah, is feminine, Lowry implies that Geoffrey’s salvation depends on such a reconciliation. On entering Quahnahuac, Yvonne hears an ominous phrase about a corpse coming by...

(The entire section is 1,474 words.)