The Wine of Astonishment

by Earl Lovelace

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Last Updated May 21, 2024.

Cultural Contact, Conflict, and Change

In The Wine of Astonishment, Earl Lovelace explores the theme of cultural contact, conflict, and change in his home country, Trinidad. 

Lovelace writes from the perspective of the island’s Black population, who descend both from slaves and from Trinidad’s indigenous population. Over time, these Trinidadians have developed their own culture, formed from a blend of African traditions, island customs, and Western adaptations.

Stickfighting, for instance, combines elements of battle tactics, point keeping, and artistic dance; the Spiritual Baptist religion combines Christianity with African spiritual traditions.

This rich culture came in contact with British culture through active colonization (the British governed Trinidad until 1962). It was also influenced by American culture during World War II when the American military established a base on the island. With this contact comes conflict: Both nations think themselves superior to the local Trinidadians, and the British go so far as to outlaw Spiritual Baptist worship as a heathen religion, failing to understand its meaning or importance to its followers. In its stead, the British government allows only “civilized” expressions of religion, such as Anglicanism and Catholicism.

The British, in partnership with the Americans, heightened the cultural conflict during the war years, cracking down on both Spiritual Baptist worship and traditional practices like stickfighting. By encouraging Bonasse residents to work on the military base and adopt a Western manner, they begin a slow process of cultural assimilation. Even after the war, the conflict continues when government officials pointedly ignore the needs of Trinidad’s people, making them stand in lines for hours in the hot sun for assistance, applications, and even medical care.

Responses to this conflict vary. Bee, for instance, guides the church to conforming to the law and changing worship styles. He and Eva realize that the lives and hopes of their children depend on their choices and actions. When Bee does choose to break the law, the result is nearly disastrous and costs him emotionally and financially. Others in the village also try to persevere, hopeful things will change.

After the war, Bonasse residents elect Ivan Morton to the Council as their representative, unaware of his determination to conform to Western culture to boost his teaching profession and political career. He changes his religion, leaves his family’s home, and even marries a light-skinned woman. He advises others to do the same, telling Bee to abandon his "heathen" ways and become "civilized."

Other Trinidadians change culturally when they come in contact with British and American ways. The young people of Bonasse, for instance, receive a Western education. They begin wearing fashionable clothing and trying to imitate American speech and behaviors. Some older people follow Ivan, becoming members of his party and acting as he does, primarily for the financial and status benefits it brings them.

On the other hand, many refuse to conform and change. They are exemplified by Bolo, who, as a warrior, represents Bonasse's traditional culture. Bolo advocates violence against their oppressors and encourages the villagers to stand up for themselves. When this fails, he tries to goad the village men into reclaiming their manhood, which he believes they have lost through conformity.

Bolo, however, does not realize that the people of Bonasse cannot fully reclaim the past. The world changes; so have they. This is symbolized at the end of the novel when the Spiritual Baptists return to their traditional ways of worship only to be disappointed. While they will continue to practice their faith and hold onto their traditions, Eva and the others understand that they must adapt their culture to the ever-changing world.

Religion in Human Life

The Wine of Astonishment  explores the role of religion in human life, evaluating it through a variety of perspectives. By adopting so many distinct lenses, the novel reflects the centrality and...

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variability of religion, highlighting how it so innately depends on peoples’ goals and motives. Religion stands at the very center of the lives of Eva and Bee Dorcas. Their faith guides them and strengthens them, but they have difficulty understanding why others persecute them for their expressions of worship. They are, after all, hurting no one; they are merely reaching out to God in a way that feels meaningful to them.

Others, however, see religion as a tool for social control and cultural conformity. The British government allows worship only in the forms of Anglicanism or Catholicism, demanding services that imitate those two established faiths. This encourages uniformity throughout Trinidad and, in the eyes of the government, minimizes risk. The Spiritual Baptist faith may be a threat, officials think. It is “other” and uncontrollable; it falls outside of “civilized ways.” Therefore, it must be eliminated to promote and maintain proper order—to bring all citizens into a religious milieu that is acceptable and controllable.

Still others use religion as a stepping-stone, a way to improve their status in the world. Some do this out of a desire to survive, others out of a desire to get ahead. Ivan Morton is a prime example of the latter, as he joins the Catholic Church not for his faith but for the status and wealth it might bring. The father of the girls Bolo kidnaps becomes Anglican because he feels like he must get a good job to support his family—and only religious conformers get good jobs.

Through this story, the author invites readers to examine the role of religion in their own lives and the use of religion in their own cultures. Eva notes that the Spiritual Baptists never force anyone to join their faith, but they welcome all. When someone leaves, they still love and respect that person as both a child of God and a brother or sister. This, the author suggests, is the heart of true religion.