Wilson Harris Harris, Wilson - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilson Harris 1921-

(Full name Theodore Wilson Harris; has also written under the pseudonym Kona Waruk) Guyanese novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Harris's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.

A highly regarded figure in contemporary Caribbean literature who has written over twenty novels, Harris is best known for two major series, The Guyana Quartet (1985) and The Carnival Trilogy (1993). Harris defies narrative convention and recognizable genre categories in his works which blur the boundaries between external reality and internal states of mind. His narratives are complex and highly imaginative works, interweaving conventional plot with experimental fictional elements often described as poetic, mystical, or surrealistic. Most of Harris's novels are set in the cities, villages, and Amazonian jungles of Guyana. These settings convey the region's history of European conquest and colonization, and Harris's characters include such diverse representatives of Guyana as the descendents of the aboriginal Amerindians, the slaves brought from Africa and India, and the European colonizers. His frequent use of symbolism is drawn from a rich cultural history of Amerindian folk legend, classical mythology, Christian iconography and allegory, Jungian psychoanalytic theory, and English literature. Harris is celebrated as a postcolonial writer whose works have wide appeal for addressing universal human questions. His major themes include redemption, the role of the imagination, the ambiguity of language, the forging of identity, and the nature of artistic creation. While there are numerous darker elements in his fiction, Harris's works ultimately convey a positive, life-affirming outlook. Recognized as an important literary and cultural critic, Harris has also published commentary in several collections of essays.

Biographical Information

Harris was born March 24, 1921, in New Amsterdam, British Guiana (now Guyana), of Amerindian, African, and English descent. His father was an insurance agent. From 1934 to 1939, Harris attended Queen's College in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Upon graduation, he studied land surveying and geomorphology until 1942 when he began working as a government surveyor, leading expeditions into the Amazonian forests in the interior of Guyana. His familiarity with the geography and cultural diversity of Guyana has contributed to the content and themes of many of his novels. In 1945, Harris married Cecily Carew, but later divorced. In 1959, he moved to London, England, where he met and married the Scottish writer Margaret Burns. From this point, Harris began to focus on fiction writing, publishing his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, in 1960. During the 1970s and 1980s, Harris lectured as a guest or visitor at many colleges and universities throughout the world, including State University of New York at Buffalo, Yale University, University of California, and University of Texas at Austin, as well as Mysore University in India and University of Aarhus in Denmark. Harris also served as writer-in-residence at many colleges and universities, including University of West Indies, University of Toronto, and Newcastle University, Australia. Harris won the Guyana National Prize for Fiction in 1987.

Major Works

Harris's earliest published works include the poetry volumes Fetish (1951), The Well and the Land (1952), and Eternity to Season (1954). The Guyana Quartet is comprised of Harris's first four novels: Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963). In this series, the landscape, history, and culture of Guyana become symbols for the landscape of the mind. In Palace of the Peacock, the unnamed narrator and his brother, Donne, begin a journey through Guyana, and ultimately experience a type of rebirth. Donne is a cruel plantation owner, whose workers have fled to escape his oppressive treatment of them. The narrator, who is considered a dreamer, goes with Donne in search of the workers. Led by Donne's female companion, the two brothers embark on a journey of self-discovery in which they experience a series of visions. The Far Journey of Oudin is set in an East Indian community in Guyana and recounts the complex history of the family of Oudin, a recently deceased man who emerges as the hero of the story. Oudin, a servant, flees with Beti to save her from the unwanted advances of another man. Beti becomes pregnant with Oudin's child and the two forge a contract to relinquish their baby to another man when it is born. After Oudin's death, it is discovered that Beti had swallowed the contract in order to keep her child. The Far Journey to Oudin has a more conventional plot and is less dream-like than Palace of the Peacock. The Whole Armour focuses on Magda, a prostitute in a brothel, and her son, Cristo, who is accused of murder and flees for his life. He is joined by Sharon, with whom he conceives a child. Cristo is eventually captured and sentenced to death. The Whole Armour contains a more realistic narrative, eschewing the blurring of dream-states and reality which characterizes Palace of the Peacock. The Secret Ladder also features a primarily realistic plot. Told by a third-person narrator, the story revolves around Russell Fenwick, a government surveyor who is sent to a remote village to carry out an assignment. Fenwick becomes involved in the cultural and political struggles of the ethnically diverse population, which hampers his ability to complete his job. Heartland (1964) includes characters from Palace of the Peacock and serves as a sequel to The Guyana Quartet.

The Eye of the Scarecrow (1965) is one of Harris's most unconventional narratives. The novel is set in Georgetown, Guyana, and the Amazonian rainforest. The story unfolds as a series of diary entries written by the narrator. Events are narrated in non-chronological order as the narrator recounts a quest with a character called L—— for a mythical four-gated city. The story eschews conventional linear narration with a series of dream-like associations and memories. The characters themselves begin to fragment and meld together, so that they become interchangeable as well as indistinguishable. In The Eye of the Scarecrow, Harris invented a narrative presence, referred to as “It,” which transcends all story-telling conventions. The “scarecrow” of the title functions as a metaphor for language and the process of writing. The Waiting Room (1967) achieves even greater degrees of abstraction, narrative fragmentation, and metaphorical meaning than Harris's previous novels. The story is told through the diary of Susan Forrestal, a woman who is blind despite having undergone several eye operations. She and her husband are killed in an explosion, and her diary is found among the debris. The diary focuses on Susan's various eye surgeries and her memories of a former lover who disappeared into the forest years earlier. Tumatumari (1968) interweaves conventional storytelling with elements of Harris's more experimental narrative devices. After Prudence suffers a mental breakdown, she is nursed by Rakka, her Amerindian servant. Prudence's memories of the past are narrated through dream-states and varied levels of consciousness. The image of the mask which serves as a metaphor for identity is an important concept running throughout the novel.

In Ascent to Omai (1970), Victor embarks on a quest in the jungle to seek a land claim made by his father, Adam. In the jungle, Victor is bitten by a tarantula and enters a realm of unconscious childhood memories. Black Marsden (1972), a relatively conventional narrative, is set in Scotland and features Clive Goodrich, who becomes wealthy after successfully gambling in soccer pools. His meets a beggar known as Doctor Marsden and subsequently undertakes an internal journey into his imagination and his dreams. Companions of the Day and Night (1975) features central characters from Black Marsden. Clive Goodrich, the fictional “editor” of Companions of the Day and Night, constructs a complex narrative from a compilation of papers, diaries, and artwork produced by a figure known as Idiot Nameless. Goodrich recounts the journey of Idiot Nameless into Mexico during the Easter season. The novel interweaves references to Christian iconography with Mexican history. In Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness (1977), da Silva is a painter living in London. The narrative, which emerges from da Silva's paintings, addresses the theme of redemption through love. In this work, Harris makes use of strong metaphorical allusions and striking visual imagery. The novel also uses sketches and graphs to illustrate central ideas within the narrative. The Tree of the Sun (1978) serves as a sequel to Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness. The story in The Angel at the Gate (1982) is presented as the “automatic writing” of Mary Stella Holiday, who undergoes hypnosis by Father Joseph Marsden. The narration is split between two characters, Mary and Stella. Other characters in the novel are drawn from the song “Mack the Knife.”

The Carnival Trilogy is comprised of Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990). This trilogy has been compared to Homer's Odyssey. Carnival, one of Harris's longest novels, traces the life and death of Everyman Masters, a South American plantation owner. The narrator, Jonathan Weyl, meets Everyman Masters on a ship headed for England and discovers that their family histories are intimately intertwined. Carnival addresses several major themes of Harris's earlier works, such as redemption and the imagination. The Infinite Rehearsal is an autobiography of a fictional character, Robin Redbreast Glass. The novel interweaves passages from Harris's earlier novels with allusions from such writers as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, and William Shakespeare. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill (1993) is set in an insane asylum where the inmates believe they are historical figures such as Montezuma, Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates, Buddha, and Karl Marx. Two inmates, Hope and Butterfly, fall in love and are eventually shot by D'eath, Butterfly's jealous lover. Jonestown (1996) focuses on two fictional survivors of the Jonestown massacre that took place in Guyana in 1978. The narrative interweaves elements from the incident with the historical fall of the ancient Mayan culture in pre-Columbian South America. The historical context of The Dark Jester (2001) is the conquest of the Incas by the Spanish in 1532. The narrator, known as the Dreamer, engages in extended conversations with a mysterious figure called the Dark Jester.

Critical Reception

Critics have agreed that Harris's abstract, experimental narratives are difficult to read, often describing his work as dense, complex, or opaque. Many critics, however, have asserted that although reading Harris's work is challenging, it is rewarding. Harris has been lauded for his exploration of the themes of conquest and colonization and the struggles of colonized peoples. Reviewers also have noted his skillful tapping of the geography and history of Guyana as a metaphor for the landscape of the mind. Many critics have declared that his novels are an attempt to express truths about the way people experience reality through the lens of the imagination. Some commentators have faulted Harris's novels for nonlinear plot lines, which are difficult to follow, and for his preference of internal perceptions over external realities. Other critics have faulted Harris's characterizations, viewing them as fragmented and unconventional. Harris's use of language has been described as poetic, and many critics applaud what they feel to be a rhythmic, musical flow in his prose. Many critics have praised Harris for his ultimately positive world view as expressed in both his fiction and his literary criticism. He has also been recognized for his rich array of cultural and literary references. Critics have frequently extolled Harris's extensive use of recurring symbols and metaphors throughout his fiction. Commenting on his nonfiction, several reviewers have noted that Harris's essays push the boundaries of traditional literary criticism, just as his fiction pushes the limits of the novel genre. Several detractors have considered Harris's essays to be incomprehensible, but others contend that his vision is important in examining issues such as colonialism, multiculturalism, and the possibility for a truly global literature.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fetish [under the pseudonym Kona Waruk] (poetry) 1951

The Well and the Land (poetry) 1952

Eternity to Season: Poems of Separation and Reunion (poetry) 1954

*Palace of the Peacock (novel) 1960

*The Far Journey of Oudin (novel) 1961

*The Whole Armour (novel) 1962

*The Secret Ladder (novel) 1963

Heartland (novel) 1964

The Eye of the Scarecrow (novel) 1965

Tradition and the West Indian Novel (lectures) 1965

Tradition, the Writer and Society (essays) 1967


(The entire section is 230 words.)

Anthony Boxill (essay date June 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boxill, Anthony. “Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock: A New Dimension in West Indian Fiction.” CLA Journal 14, no. 4 (June 1971): 380–86.

[In the following essay, Boxill argues that, with Palace of the Peacock, Harris brought a new type of novel to the body of West Indian fiction—the “poetical novel.”]

When Wilson Harris' Palace of the Peacock was published in 1960, a new kind of novel was added to the repertoire of West Indian fiction—the poetical novel. This does not mean that poetry has been lacking in the West Indian novel. There are passages of lyrical beauty in so many of the novels that it would be tedious to list...

(The entire section is 2486 words.)

Joyce Sparer Adler (essay date autumn 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Adler, Joyce Sparer. “Wilson Harris and Twentieth-Century Man.” New Letters 40, no. 1 (autumn 1973): 49–61.

[In the following essay, Sparer discusses Harris's complex use of language, symbolism, and multiple levels of consciousness to create “a vision of the possibility of a new conception of man by man in this age of humanity's deepest crisis and disunity.”]

“Dear Reader, (THE JUDGE WROTE HALF IN THE MARGIN OF HIS BOOK AND HALF ON A VACANT CARD). My intention, in part, is to repudiate the vicarious novel … where the writer … claims to enter the most obscure and difficult terrain of experience without incurring a necessary burden of...

(The entire section is 4901 words.)

D. W. Russell (essay date November 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Russell, D. W. “The Dislocating Act of Memory: An Analysis of Wilson Harris' Tumatumari.World Literature Written in English 13, no. 2 (November 1974): 237–49.

[In the following essay, Russell examines the major thematic developments in Tumatumari as a complex expression of “the art of memory.”]

In describing a new radical art which will go beyond the dead-end realism of the novel, Wilson Harris states “that, in fact, an art of memory which dislocates, in some measure, an idolatrous plane of realism by immersing us in a peculiar kind of ruined fabric, may help to free us from a consensus of bestiality, monolithic helplessness,...

(The entire section is 5224 words.)

Nathaniel Mackey (essay date winter 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mackey, Nathaniel. “The Unruly Pivot: Wilson Harris' The Eye of the Scarecrow.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 20, no. 4 (winter 1978): 633–59.

[In the following essay, Mackey discusses the novel The Eye of the Scarecrow as a pivotal work in the development of Harris's self-reflexive narrative style.]

But I experienced once more the resulting chaos I knew, loss of orientation, the unruly pivot around which revolves the abstract globe in one's head.

—Wilson Harris


Wilson Harris must be one of the most daring authors writing in...

(The entire section is 11056 words.)

Rolstan Adams (essay date April 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Adams, Rolstan. “Wilson Harris: The Pre-Novel Poet.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 13, no. 3 (April 1979): 71–85.

[In the following essay, Adams argues that Harris's early poetry acts as a key to understanding the images, themes, structures, and characters of his later novels.]

Between 1951 and 1955 Wilson Harris published three collections of poetry which, when closely scrutinized, provide a critic's best insights into the images, structures, and characters of Harris's novels published later. That there is a distinct thematic thread running through the poetry into the novels is little in doubt. And perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Harris's...

(The entire section is 5846 words.)

Nathaniel Mackey (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mackey, Nathaniel. “Limbo, Dislocation, Phantom Limb: Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Occasion.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 22, no. 1 (1980): 57–76.

[In the following essay, Mackey explores the sense of geographical “place” in Harris's representations of the Caribbean.]

… in a context such as the Caribbean and the Americas … the life of situation and person has an inarticulacy one must genuinely suffer with and experience if one is to acquire the capacity for a new relationship and understanding.

Wilson Harris

She succeeded...

(The entire section is 7957 words.)

Rhonda Cobham (essay date spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cobham, Rhonda. “The Texts of Wilson Harris's Eternity to Season.World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 27–38.

[In the following essay, Cobham examines the evolution of Eternity to Season from its initial publication in 1954 through its final edition in 1978, marking technical changes, reorganization of lines and phrases, omissions, and additions.]

The first publication by Wilson Harris to appear under the title Eternity to Season was a small pamphlet containing three poems: “Troy,” “Behring Straits” and “Amazon.” The pamphlet appeared in 1952 and was privately published by Harris...

(The entire section is 4916 words.)

Wilson Harris and Michael Fabre (interview date spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harris, Wilson, and Michael Fabre. “Interview with Wilson Harris.” World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 2–17.

[In the following interview, Harris discusses the setting, characters, and themes of The Secret Ladder, the evolution of his artistic vision, and his concept of the novel genre.]

[Fabre:] How would you introduce The Secret Ladder to the general reader? How should one begin to approach the novel?

[Harris:] It might be useful to start with saying something on the landscape of the Canje. There is a passage which tells you a little about it:


(The entire section is 8183 words.)

Reinhard W. Sander (essay date spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sander, Reinhard W. “The Quest for Form: Wilson Harris' Contributions to Kyk-over-al.World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 17–27.

[In the following essay, Sander assesses Harris's early development as a writer by focusing on his contributions to the journal Kyk-over-al between 1945 and 1960.]

Form and content are then inseparable.
In fact everything is Form—the mystery is Form.

—Wilson Harris, 19551

The literary magazine Kyk-over-al was edited and published by A. J. Seymour from 1945 to 1961. It appeared half-yearly and contained short fiction, plays, poetry,...

(The entire section is 4869 words.)

Sandra Drake (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Drake, Sandra. “Revolutionary Hope as Immanent Moment: The Writing of Wilson Harris.” In Process of Unity in Caribbean Society: Ideologies and Literature, edited by Ileana Rodríguez and Marc Zimmerman, pp. 168–75. Minneapolis: Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literatures, 1983.

[In the following essay, Drake explores Harris's writing style in terms of the relationship between literature and society.]

This paper is a brief and somewhat preliminary outline of a project on which I am now working, an analysis of the work of the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris. I am especially interested in how his difficult, peculiar and relatively inaccessible...

(The entire section is 2509 words.)

Jean-Pierre Durix (essay date winter 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Durix, Jean-Pierre. “The Visionary Art of Wilson Harris.” World Literature Today 58, no. 1 (winter 1984): 19–23.

[In the following essay, Durix provides an overview of major themes in Harris's novels, concluding that his art is “a deep exploration of the paradoxes of vision, for which a new approach must constantly be invented.”]

When Wilson Harris published Palace of the Peacock, his first and best-known novel, in 1960,1 the Times Literary Supplement immediately perceived the originality and imaginative power of this Drunken Boat in prose.2 The creative evolution of the author since that date has led many...

(The entire section is 3726 words.)

Michael Thorpe (review date winter 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. Review of The Angel at the Gate, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 58, no. 1 (winter 1984): 152.

[In the following negative review, Thorpe argues that The Angel at the Gate is only accessible to “seasoned” readers accustomed to Harris's “opaque” narrative style.]

Wilson Harris's novels are psychical “expeditions,” negotiable only by seasoned voyagers attuned to spatial narrative woven of incremental correspondences and image clusters, the splitting and doubling of character and action (“mutualities”), motifs of vision, transfiguration, flight and ascent, parallel inner and outer universes, dreams of...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

Jean-Pierre Durix (essay date summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Durix, Jean-Pierre. “Through Tension to Metamorphosis: The Angel at the Gate by Wilson Harris.” World Literature Written in English 24, no. 1 (summer 1984): 120–27.

[In the following essay, Durix discusses the automatic writing and multi-layered narrative construction in The Angel at the Gate, describing the narrative as “a dream journey.”]

The Angel at the Gate by Wilson Harris starts with a liminary note signed “W. H.” explaining that the plot of the novel is a transcription of Mary Stella Holiday's automatic writing, which took place while she was undergoing treatment and receiving guidance from Father Joseph Marsden, a...

(The entire section is 3571 words.)

Reinhard Sander (review date summer 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sander, Reinhard. Review of The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 59, no. 3 (summer 1985): 477.

[In the following positive review, Reinhard praises The Womb of Space as an attack on the traditional critical establishment.]

The Guyanese writer Wilson Harris is a major contemporary novelist and thinker (see WLT 58:1, pp. 19–23). In more than a dozen works of fiction, he has realized a new, original form of the novel that in almost all respects constitutes a radical departure from the conventional novel. In his two previous collections of critical essays, Tradition, the Writer and...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dasenbrock, Reed Way. Review of Carnival, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 60, no. 2 (spring 1986): 351.

[In the following review, Dasenbrock asserts that Carnival is “even denser and more abstract” than Harris's previous novels, and that it is “less a narrative than a metanarrative,” noting that death is a major theme of the novel.]

Wilson Harris (see WLT 58:1, pp. 19–23) has always operated at a very high level of abstraction, higher than any of his fellow West Indian novelists, higher perhaps than any other contemporary novelist in English. Even in his first novel, Palace of the Peacock (1960), the actual journey...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Wilson Harris and Stephen Slemon (interview date 28 April 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harris, Wilson, and Stephen Slemon. “Interview with Wilson Harris.” Ariel 19, no. 3 (July 1988): 47–56.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on 28 April 1986, Harris discusses “post-colonial allegory,” particularly in respect to Carnival.]

[Slemon:] You have talked about how modern allegory enables new kinds of vision, and I'm interested in the question of post-colonial allegory, or the allegorising of Otherness. One aspect of the allegorical mode is that it automatically involves binocular vision or a kind of double vision, and binocular vision necessarily involves depth perception. In what way does the allegorical element in...

(The entire section is 3550 words.)

Sandra E. Drake (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Drake, Sandra E. “The Search for El Dorado: Conquest in Palace of the Peacock.” In Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture of the World, pp. 49–70. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Drake explores the themes of conquest and desire in Palace of the Peacock.]

Conquest is the greatest evil of soul humanity inflicts on itself and on nature.

—Wilson Harris, Explorations, p. 136

Palace of the Peacock, Harris's first novel, develops a version of the Caribbean Ur-myth. … Harris explores how the attempt to find love and...

(The entire section is 9417 words.)

Sandra E. Drake (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Drake, Sandra E. “Tumatumari: The Great Game.” In Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture of the World, pp. 91–107. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Drake explores the feminist themes of family, society, and history in Tumatumari.]

We play the game of history, my child

Henry Tenby, Tumatumari, p. 127

History never repeats itself but it never outlasts itself either.

Comrade Block at Port Mourant, Tumatumari, p. 74

The consequences of centuries of...

(The entire section is 6570 words.)

A. L. McLeod (review date summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McLeod, A. L. Review of The Infinite Rehearsal, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 62, no. 3 (summer 1988): 498–99.

[In the following positive review, McLeod describes The Infinite Rehearsal as an apparently simple yet deeply profound novella, asserting that it is “an allegorical political parable” that explores “the universal imagination.”]

Like Melville, Tolstoy, and Steinbeck, Wilson Harris has chosen the novella form for [The Infinite Rehearsal] one of his most profound yet apparently simple fictions. In the form of a fictional autobiography by Robin Redbreast Glass, Harris has written (in prose that at times becomes so...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Guy Mannes-Abbott (review date 7 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mannes-Abbott, Guy. “Post-Colonial Identity.” New Statesman & Society 3, no. 117 (7 September 1990): 46–47.

[In the following review, Mannes-Abbot offers a positive assessment of The Four Banks of the River of Space, noting that the novel “almost perfects the fabulism” of the first two novels in the Carnival trilogy.]

Wilson Harris has come to that stage in a writing life where The Four Banks is both a manifesto and exhibition of his poetic craft. If it lacks Zameenzad's sheer story-telling exuberance, it almost perfects the fabulism developed in the first two parts of this trilogy. Harris's alter ego is “Anselm,”...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Barbara J. Webb (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Webb, Barbara J. “The Myth of El Dorado: Los pasos perdidos and Palace of the Peacock.” In Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant, pp. 61–81. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Webb compares Palace of the Peacock with Alejo Carpentier's Los passos perdidos (The Lost Steps), observing that both novels depict a symbolic quest for cultural and personal identity within the context of Caribbean history.]

In Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps, 1953) and Harris's Palace of the Peacock (1960), Latin...

(The entire section is 9175 words.)

Barbara J. Webb (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Webb, Barbara J. “The Poetics of Identity and Difference: Black Marsden and Concierto barroco.” In Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant, pp. 129–48. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Webb compares Black Marsden with Alejo Carpentier's Concierto barroco, arguing that both novels narrate a journey in which “the protagonists confront questions of personal identity and the relationship between art and reality.”]

The ludic conception of the novel, the play of language, form, and ideas in what Harris calls the “Conception of the...

(The entire section is 7946 words.)

Abdulrazak Gurnah (review date 12 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “A Confluence of Spaces.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4728 (12 November 1993): 22.

[In the following mixed review, Gurnah summarizes the main themes of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill and The Carnival Trilogy, noting that the trilogy's prose is “obstinate and difficult.”]

The Guyanese writer Wilson Harris long ago rejected realist fiction because of its “authoritarian” reliance on event and circumstance, and developed a different method in his own work. His prose cultivates ambiguity—not in the playful manner of postmodernism, which in the Harris cosmos is irresponsible frivolity—but in order not to foreclose on...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Brian Morton (review date 12 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morton, Brian. “The Voyage In.” New Statesman & Society 6, no. 278 (12 November 1993): 39.

[In the following positive review, Morton focuses on the central themes of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill and The Carnival Trilogy.]

Stephen Hawking is to the postmodern novel what J. W. Dunne and An Experiment with Time were to early Modernism. Both provide a consoling objectification of creativity that demands no recourse to psychology. For most readers, Hawking's invocation of God was a satisfying cadence rather than a disturbing philosophical crux; for hadn't God just been dispensed with?

The problem is essentially the same with...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

Michael Thorpe (essay date July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. “Wilson Harris: Writing against the Grain.1Ariel 25, no. 3 (July 1994): 113–20.

[In the following essay, Thorpe argues that The Radical Imagination represents “the distillation of Harris's thought and art,” noting that Harris is at least as influential and important a literary and cultural critic as he is a novelist.]

Two recent compilations supply what may be regarded, respectively, as the distillation of Wilson Harris's thought and art and of the critical responses of an élite corps of Harrisians, devotees, and unravellers of his works during the years 1969–90. The Radical Imagination gathers his...

(The entire section is 2917 words.)

Stephen Breslow (review date winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Breslow, Stephen. Review of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 203–04.

[In the following review, Breslow discusses Resurrection at Sorrow Hill in terms of Harris's use of language and allegory.]

Wilson Harris, the Guyanese-born, English-settled dreamer of South American mythologies, has continued his cycle of poetic novels with Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. Like the other novels of this long series, begun with The Guyana Quartet—which comprised the novels Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

Abdulrazak Gurnah (review date 5 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “Imagining Guyana.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4866 (5 July 1996): 24.

[In the following review, Gurnah discusses how Jonestown addresses broad questions of culture and freedom in the context of Guyanese history.]

On November 18, 1978, in the interior of the Cooperative Socialist Republic of Guyana, over 900 American followers of the “messianic” Pastor Jim Jones died in Jonestown. Most of them took their own lives in a practised ritual suicide, drinking the Fla-Vor-Aid laced with cyanide which was given to them by the Pastor's assistants. The day before, an American Congressman and a group of Concerned Parents on missions...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

Paula Burnett (review date 12 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burnett, Paula. “Apocalypse Now and Then.” New Statesman 125, no. 4292 (12 July 1996): 48.

[In the following review, Burnett offers a positive assessment of Jonestown, calling the novel a “mind-altering experience.”]

Reading Wilson Harris is like staring into the luminous, fluid palaces at the heart of a log fire. Those addicted to push-button heating don't know what they're missing. But, like a log fire, you may need patience to get it going. Harris, a Guyanese novelist who was writing magic realism before the term was invented, puts it down to the influence of the rainforest on him as a young surveyor: “There was this peculiar density, depth,...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Alfred López (essay date autumn 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: López, Alfred. “Meaningful Paradox: The ‘Strange Genius’ of Wilson Harris.” Conradiana 28, no. 3 (autumn 1996): 190–205.

[In the following essay, López discusses the influence of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on post-colonial fiction, particularly its representation of otherness, and argues that Harris surpasses Conrad in his writing.]

What a golden jest colonialism and postcolonialism are. What untold riches! He knows as he dreams in his cradle. What a gift for a newborn child.

—Wilson Harris, The Four Banks of the River of Space

It is...

(The entire section is 7455 words.)

Joyce Sparer Adler (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Adler, Joyce Sparer. “Wilson Harris: An Introduction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 9–11.

[In the following essay, Adler provides a brief overview of Harris's works and career, highlighting his main themes and literary achievements.]

Harris has done so much to unblock the Western mind-set. But even now genius is not totally inhibited by all the counter-forces of the world in crisis. Harris may be one sign of a changing wind.

—Kathleen Raine

All generations are blended: and heaven and earth of one kin … the nations and families, flocks...

(The entire section is 1285 words.)

Kathleen Raine (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Raine, Kathleen. “Discovering Wilson Harris.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 42–45.

[In the following essay, Raine discusses the role cultural preconceptions play in Harris's works, noting his reliance on imagination and beauty.]

It is the mark of the new that we never know what it will be until it arrives. Of one thing only we can be sure, that it is unpredictable and is never the outcome of existing “trends.” The wind that bloweth where it listeth is unconstrained, blows round corners. Current ideologies determined by mechanistic and “evolutionary” premises are likely to see the future as the product of the past, whereas...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)

Pauline Melville (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Melville, Pauline. “Wilson Harris: ‘In the Forests of the Night.’” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 50–52.

[In the following essay, Melville focuses on the emotional power of Harris's works, contrasting its impact with other works of contemporary fiction.]

For those of us who are following Wilson Harris in the tradition of Guyanese literature, there is no doubt that he has transformed the literary landscape of the region, and we would be unwise (as would the rest of the world) to ignore his blazing signposts as we try to chart our way forward.

As a writer of fiction and as a fellow Guyanese, there are certain...

(The entire section is 1152 words.)

Stuart Murray (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Murray, Stuart. “Postcoloniality/Modernity: Wilson Harris and Postcolonial Theory.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 53–58.

[In the following essay, Murray discusses the ways Harris's works adapt and confront the methodologies of postcolonial theory.]

The continuing theoretical debate over the shape and size, the resonances and the responsibilities, of postcolonialism grows daily more complex. Questions of what might be termed—generalizing—the “local” (an adversarial nationalism, an essentialized concentration on the subject body within postcoloniality, the relationship between the term postcolonial and the praxis of...

(The entire section is 2247 words.)

Timothy J. Cribb (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cribb, Timothy J. “Toward the Reading of Wilson Harris.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 59–62.

[In the following essay, Cribb suggests an approach to analyzing the elements of narrative in the fiction of Harris, concluding that Harris is “both a modernist and a visionary.”]

This essay sketches an approach to the nature of narrative in Wilson Harris's writing. I have chosen a passage ending book 2 of Palace of the Peacock, running between pages 26 and 31 of the one-volume edition of The Guyana Quartet (1985). The text is identical with that on pages 24 to 31 of the single volume paperback edition first published...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)

Fernanda Steele (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Steele, Fernanda. “Breaking Down Barriers as Genesis of a New Beginning in Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock.Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 63–66.

[In the following essay, Steele explores the formal aspects of narrative in Palace of the Peacock, highlighting a number of boundaries that the narrative breaks down.]

Palace of the Peacock, Wilson Harris's first novel, tells us of a scientific expedition from the savannahs into the interior of the Guyana forest, which the head of the expedition, Donne, and his crew can reach only by river. I should like to point out some formal aspects of Palace of the...

(The entire section is 1947 words.)

Louis James (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: James, Louis. “The Leech-Gatherer and the Arawak Woman.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 67–71.

[In the following essay, James compares the transformative effects of Harris's imagination in Palace of the Peacock to similar ones in the poetry of William Wordsworth.]

One of Wilson Harris's most extraordinary passages of writing comes not in his fiction, but in an essay published in 1973. Harris tells of two moments of danger surveying the Potaro river above the Tumatumari rapids at a time of high water. An anchor snagged and had to be cut loose. Three years later on the same river, the anchor again caught under the water, and,...

(The entire section is 1882 words.)

Hena Maes-Jelinek (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Maes-Jelinek, Hena. “Charting the Uncapturable in Wilson Harris's Writing.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 90–97.

[In the following essay, Maes-Jelinek examines Harris's geographical and metaphorical reconception of the Caribbean and the region's potential for artistic creativity, particularly as represented in Resurrection at Sorrow Hill.]

He saw the complexities yet simplicities of a fiction one may involuntarily write which involves a broken family with an entire humanity though its seed lies in obscure provinces, obscure sorrow hills.

—Wilson Harris, Resurrection at...

(The entire section is 3303 words.)

Mary Lou Emery (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Emery, Mary Lou. “‘Space Sounds’ in Wilson Harris's Recent Fiction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 98–103.

[In the following essay, Emery discusses how Harris utilizes the imagery of Guyanese visual art as a metaphor for the problem of identity in The Four Banks of the River of Space and Resurrection at Sorrow Hill.]

We may carve or sculpt or paint with a hand that falters even as it seeks the true, exact hand it can never capture, Timehri, hand of God. …

I have dreamt, Judge, of writing a manifesto of the ship of the globe. …...

(The entire section is 2664 words.)

Kerry L. Johnson (essay date spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Kerry L. “Translations of Gender, Pain, and Space: Wilson Harris's The Carnival Trilogy.Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 1 (spring 1998): 123–43.

[In the following essay, Johnson focuses on Harris's concern with the body as a metaphorical locus of gendered identity and cross-cultural community in The Carnival Trilogy.]

Vaguely alarming yet unreal, laden with consequence yet evaporating before the mind because not available to sensory confirmation, unseeable classes of objects such as subterranean plates, Seyfert galaxies, and the pains occurring in other people's bodies flicker before the mind, then disappear.


(The entire section is 7942 words.)

Ikenna Dieke (essay date March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dieke, Ikenna. “Anagogic Symbolism in Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock.CLA Journal 42, no. 3 (March 1999): 290–308.

[In the following essay, Phillips demonstrates how Harris uses symbolism in Palace of the Peacock to express ideas of deep spiritual significance that can transform the human psyche.]

Critics of Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris have often noted with acute interest the remarkable way in which his fiction is driven, quite literally, by a single dynamo—the symbol-forming imagination which constructs phenomenal space as a protean theater for dramatizing in stark relief and reflective processes its underlying metaphysical...

(The entire section is 6665 words.)

Caryl Phillips (review date 5 November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillips, Caryl. “The Guyana Enigma.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5040 (5 November 1999): 26.

[In the following review, Phillips offers a positive assessment of Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, praising the selections for elucidating the difficulties of Harris's fiction.]

In a 1975 review of Wilson Harris's novel Companions of the Day and Night, the Financial Times critic, while noting that it “reads like a poem rather than a novel,” concluded his otherwise favourable notice with the following sentence: “It seems to me to be outstanding in fiction in the past 25 years: Asturias obtained the Nobel Prize for writing just such...

(The entire section is 1233 words.)

Bruce King Paris (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Paris, Bruce King. Review of Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 569.

[In the following review, Paris offers a positive assessment of Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, noting that the collection provides a useful introduction to Harris's work.]

After a useful map of Guyana locating places mentioned in Wilson Harris's fiction, Selected Essays consists of Andrew Bundy's thirty-four-page introduction and helpful prefaces to each of the four parts of the volume. There is also a concluding bibliography prepared by Hena Maes-Jelinek. In between are twenty-one essays, talks, and novel...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Christopher Tayler (review date 30 March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tayler, Christopher. “Dreaming with Atahualpa and Faust.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5113 (30 March 2001): 25.

[In the following review, Tayler describes Harris's writing style in The Dark Jester as “romantic modernism,” observing that the characters are “the fragmentary manifestations of a kind of cross-cultural world-spirit immanent within the mind of the dreaming narrator.”]

In November 1532, in what is now Peru, Francisco Pizarro arrived at the city of Cajamarca with a force of about 180 men and requested an audience with Atahualpa, the Inca Emperor. Atahualpa—who only that year had defeated his half-brother Huascar in a civil...

(The entire section is 809 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


James, Louis. “Structure and Vision in the Novels of Wilson Harris.” World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 39–46.

James discusses the narrative structure in Harris's works, based on diagrams included in several of his novels.

Riach, Alan. “The Scottish Element in Wilson Harris.” Scottish Literary Journal 18, no. 1 (May 1991): 68–81.

Riach discusses the influence of Scottish culture on Black Marsden, highlighting the implicit affinities between Scotland and the Caribbean.

Urs, S. N. Vikram Raj. “Wilson Harris: A Major Voice from the...

(The entire section is 242 words.)