Under the Volcano

by Malcolm Lowry

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Critical Evaluation

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Although Under the Volcano was well received on first publication, the novel did not sell well and was not reprinted for many years. Since 1958, however, it has shared in the growing appreciation of Malcolm Lowry that followed his death in 1957 and the publication of his third volume, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, in 1961. Lowry would have appreciated the irony of late acclaim. In the first chapter of Under the Volcano, Jacques Laruelle receives two messages from Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist of the novel, who died the year before. The doomed, damned, and dead Geoffrey still manages to communicate with the living, and they possibly pay more attention to his words now than they did when he was alive. The posthumous publications of Lowry serve much the same purpose; readers and critics are paying more attention to what Lowry has to say now that he is dead.

His message is summed up in one word: doom. His characters feel they cannot escape their fate; it is as if the volcano in whose shadow Geoffrey lives was also Lowry’s imaginative projection of the crises and the violence of his time. The sense of doom is the central feature of Lowry’s vision and work, and an English reviewer, noting that James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) and Lowry in Under the Volcano use one day for the action, suggests that the time of Lowry’s novel is simply “Doomsday.” Undoubtedly, the sense of doom, intensified by waste and exile so prevalent in Lowry’s life, is a response to the mid-1930’s, the time when Lowry began to write the novel. Such a sense of doom has not lost its relevance. In Under the Volcano, doom is presented as accident; Hugh Firmin causes the death of Geoffrey, his half brother, by leaving an incriminating cable message in the jacket he borrows from Geoffrey; in turn, Geoffrey releases the horse that later kills Yvonne Constable, his former wife.

The novel tends to move on an allegorical level into a consideration of human destiny. This idea is important, for the novel would be a failure if it were considered only on its realistic level. The action relates very little to any moral. The qualities that tend to be presented as enduring and worthy of regard are compassion for the individual and the sense of doom that looms over the alcoholic. Geoffrey’s death is not seen as a punishment for his weaknesses; it is simply the culmination of the series of tragic events that take place in the consul’s soul that day—his death merely ends the series of spiritual defeats he succumbs to during his fall.

This idea must have been unpalatable in the late 1940’s and in part could account for the lack of continuing interest in Lowry. Furthermore, the difficulty of estimating the true standing of Under the Volcano was due to a lack of enough writing by Lowry to place the novel in a context. Readers may see that the novel is probably the center not only of Lowry’s projected sequence of six novels, ending with Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, but also the center of all of his work, particularly his poetry.

Lowry’s work is a continuous whole, with its central novel representing hell or the point of lowest descent. The covert references to his first novel, Ultramarine (1933), in the sixth chapter of Under the Volcano are balanced by references to Dollarton, Lowry’s residence near Vancouver, in the fourth and ninth chapters. Dollarton is the setting of much of Hear...

(This entire section contains 1703 words.)

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Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place and of his last poems. Similarly, Under the Volcano is echoed in his poems, including one entitled “For Under the Volcano,” and in his shorter fiction.

Recognition of the midway position of the Mexican novel indicates three features of Lowry’s work: its painfully autobiographical sources; its unity or continuity; and its close texture and highly symbolic content, an indirect product of the first two features.

The general features of Lowry’s writings are shown in four aspects of Under the Volcano, two of which are immediately apparent. The novel is very specifically placed in time and space; the events of the first chapter occur on November 1, 1939, exactly a year after the events of the remaining eleven chapters, which in turn are clearly timed as occurring at stated intervals throughout the eleven hours of the action. The geographical placing of the novel in Quauhnahuac, Mexico, for the first seven chapters and in nearby Tomalín and Parián for the last four affords Lowry an opportunity to use his flair for symbolism. The principal geographical feature of the area is the barranca, or ravine, which local legend says opened on the day of the Crucifixion. The unity of Lowry’s vision, or rather possibly his single-minded view of the world, enables him to fix the novel firmly in space and time and to range rapidly over them, giving a sense of cosmic urgency to the most innocent description. For example, the first paragraph mentions the Tropic of Cancer and the Juggernaut of India. Furthermore, Lowry’s delight in symbolism is evident in the apparently innocuous introduction and juxtaposition of the terms “Crucifixion,” “Cancer,” and “Juggernaut.”

As one reads further, however, two other aspects of the novel may strike one as severe disadvantages: one is the nature of the protagonist, the other the play of allusion. Both, however, are necessary to Lowry’s serious intention. The allusions are part of the web of symbols constructed of reiterated references, for example, those to a film poster advertising “Las Manos de Orlac con Peter Lorre,” the Great Wheel at the fiesta (the “Maquina Infernal”), Maximilian and Carlotta, a dying turtle, shrieking fawns, a pariah dog that follows Geoffrey through the day and down into the barranca, the madman with the bicycle tire, and especially three signs: a fingerpost “To Parián”; the inscription, to the effect that life without love is impossible, over the door of Laruelle’s house; and, most important, the sign in the public garden warning that those who destroy will be evicted. At a glance, it will be seen that these are susceptible to symbolic interpretation, but Lowry uses them both in complicated sets and at crucial moments of the action to increase their power enormously. Two instances show this usage. When Yvonne meets Geoffrey again, it is the morning after the night of the Red Cross Ball, held on All Hallows’ Eve in the Hotel Bella Vista. The year is 1938, and the first words of the consul are the statement that a corpse will be transported by express. The time, place, occasion, and message all combine in gruesome congruity, especially if one is aware, as on a second reading, that the corpse is Geoffrey himself. In chapter 7, Geoffrey contemplates the view across the barranca from the top of Laruelle’s house and remembers how they used to play golf together as boys, having especial difficulty with what they called Hell Bunker and retiring to the nineteenth hole in a pub called the Case Is Altered. In his present changed circumstances, Geoffrey visualizes a golf shot across the barranca to what he terms the Golgotha Hole, leading to his present refuge and the scene of his death, the tavern “The Farolito” (“The Little Lighthouse”) at Parián, where the fingerpost points him.

The irony of these sets of symbols is made more effective because Geoffrey knows what they presage but cannot communicate his knowledge to Yvonne, Laruelle, Hugh, or Dr. Vigil, all of whom are trying to help him escape. This lack of communication leads to what appears to be the second disadvantageous aspect of the novel, the character of the protagonist. At first sight, Geoffrey resembles the feckless drunkard of some of Lowry’s short stories. The point is whether he is drinking mescal to drown his sorrows or, since he calls it the “nectar of immortality,” to avoid his fate; in either case, it both enables him to recognize the signs of doom and renders him incapable of showing their meaning to others, even when he, Hugh, and Yvonne see the dying Indian.

The explanation is that Geoffrey, as British consul, is not so much a character as a type. He is deliberately isolated from his native land, from the Mexicans around him, and from Hugh, Yvonne, and the others. The reader may see him as Everyman. Within narrow limits, he exemplifies the crisis of the liberals in the 1930’s when they realized that the world was heading toward violence and disorder, that liberalism could not stop the march of history.

Such was Lowry’s conviction when he wrote Under the Volcano, and it forms part of the autobiographical base of the novel. Lowry wrote in exile, in Cuernavaca; he was divorced in 1939. The conditions of the novel’s composition and its Everyman character place it in the mainstream of great modern novels. The play of symbolism is intended to raise the novel from the level of plot and action to the level of universal applicability and ritual.

Geoffrey is in a “damnable” situation: He is divorced; his consulate is closed; he cannot stop drinking. He is also damned by his own past actions: his inability to answer Yvonne’s letters and the murder of German officers during an engagement. He is also doomed by the actions of those around him: the affair between Laruelle and Yvonne and the hopeless dreams of Hugh. Every stage of his progress on the Day of the Dead—his reunion with Yvonne, his visit with Laruelle, the bus ride to Tomalín, his final encounter with the secret police at Parián—is an inexorable step in the chain of circumstances that draws him to the barranca and to his death.

If these steps are viewed as part of the elaborate ritual of preparing a victim for sacrifice, the ritual itself is an attempt to purge the awareness of disaster with the acceptance of love. The ritual fails to avert Geoffrey’s fate, making Under the Volcano a compelling record of disaster and doom.


Under the Volcano