Under the Volcano

by Malcolm Lowry

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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...

(This entire section contains 1474 words.)

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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 express, a foreshadowing of how little time she will have before Geoffrey dies.

In chapter 3, as the consul walks with Yvonne through the garden, he imagines at his side some additional person, who interprets his tragedy as an alienation from nature. He and his wife almost make love, but he thinks of the cantina, the mood passes, and he takes up a whiskey bottle instead. Soon he is asleep.

Chapter 4 takes place the next morning, when Hugh sends a brief dispatch to London about how Germany is stirring up anti-Semitism in Mexico. Particularly given the importance of Jewish mysticism in his novel, Lowry probably intends Hugh and Geoffrey’s generally pro-Semitic attitude as a redeeming quality. Having managed a small good deed by sending the dispatch, Hugh is able to see Yvonne as a luminous being, standing in the garden, but his desire for her is adulterous and thus culpable. He is dressed like a cowboy, and therefore, because her material success was in Western films, Hugh plays a role comparable to the filmmaker Laruelle, whose attraction for Yvonne also reminds her of her cinematic career.

Chapter 5 begins with Geoffrey dreaming about India, the land where he was born. He is climbing a heavenly mountain, but at the thought of drink the scene turns hellish. He wakes with a hangover. Rather than visit his wife, he wanders into the garden, where he sees a sign in Spanish, urging people not to let their children destroy it. Geoffrey, however, mistranslates it as a warning that destroyers will be evicted. This begins a long sequence dominated by imagery of Adam’s eviction from Eden. The chapter ends with Geoffrey suffering hallucinations of swarming insects and voices cautioning him.

Chapter 6 opens in Italian with the first line of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), about a middle-aged man’s waking to find himself (except that the English swearword “bloody” is inserted in the quotation). Ironically, instead of rising to self-awareness, Hugh, approaching middle age, is dropping onto a daybed. He is recalling how he gave up music and went from ridiculous job to job, without widening his understanding of life. As Yvonne walks away with Laruelle, Geoffrey and Hugh look at a postcard from her that has just arrived after its wandering the world—a card that might have brought the couple together if it had come in time.

Chapter 7 develops the relationship between Laruelle and Geoffrey, the former once smaller than the latter, though now their standing is reversed because physically and otherwise Geoffrey stopped growing in late adolescence. Chapter 8 recounts a bus trip, the subject of the short story from which the novel grew. Geoffrey, Yvonne, and Hugh encounter an impoverished Spaniard, who robs a seriously wounded Indian—a theft likened to one source of World War II, when Italy stole Abyssinia while the world watched. The Spaniard’s theft from a native Mexican also mirrors the original Spanish conquest of Mexico and is meant to show how complacently many people witness crimes. As in chapter 7, in which Geoffrey was compared unfavorably to Laruelle, this chapter contrasts his amoral passivity (shared by most of the bus passengers) to Hugh’s frustrated desire to intervene. Disconcertingly, in chapter 9, Yvonne feels cheered by Geoffrey’s indifference, seeing it as a fortunate quality, which may help them to rise above tragedy together. She imagines their going to a shack in the wilderness (like the one where Lowry was writing this novel), but despite saying that he loves her, Geoffrey is heading toward another bar.

In chapter 10, Geoffrey drinks and talks about how countries are stolen. Chapter 11 sends Yvonne and Hugh out together. Instead of taking the right path, they choose a circuitous one that will allow them to visit more cantinas. A runaway horse, a connection to Yvonne’s time in Westerns, kills her, and while dying she imagines that she is in that distant shack with Geoffrey, but it is burning (probably suggested by the building fire that occurred when Lowry was finishing the novel).

Chapter 12 begins with Geoffrey’s ordering mescal and ends with policelike criminals shooting him and throwing him over a cliff, along with a dog. This ending alludes to the conclusion of Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), where the murder of the main character by court officials is likened to the killing of a dog. Lowry’s conclusion also alludes to Goethe’s Faust, in that Lowry connected the dog (referred to repeatedly in the novel) and the canine form of the devil in Faust. Without a redeeming reconciliation with Yvonne and without a sustained connection to God, Geoffrey dies screaming, falling downward, like the evil magician in Christopher Marlowe’s drama Doctor Faustus (pr. c. 1588, pb. 1604)—another of the sustained metaphors throughout the novel. The closest the ending comes to a conciliation is when the trees near the site of Geoffrey’s fall look like they are pitying Geoffrey, the overlooking trees embodying the positive quality that Lowry assigned to nature.