Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Randolph Stow reveals the dilemma of a people caught in time between different realities; the natives have vestiges from other cultures—a sixteenth century French sword, an airplane suspended in a place of worship—which perfectly symbolize their condition. In turn, the fate of these island people takes on symbolic meaning: Stow implies, subtly but with great persuasive force, that their unsettled state, their incongruous mix of cultural influences, is characteristic of the modern world—and perhaps of life itself, where being is always conditional.

If the symbolic resonance of the cargo cult is global, it is also personal, for in the character of Cawdor one can see the estrangement of the native culture reflected on an individual level. Just as visitants have come and gone among the natives, so do people come and go in the lives of others, and Cawdor’s life is an illustration of the fragmentation and pain that result from influences that have come and gone. Yet the natives are more resilient than Cawdor. They absorb their relics—the French sword, the airplane, the half-understood teachings—and go on about the business of living as best they can. Cawdor, alone and alienated, has nothing to fall back upon when his “visitants” leave.