Youma is an ambivalent narrative centering on the dilemma of a young Creole nurse torn between her ingrained sense of selfless loyalty and duty on the one hand and, on the other, a suddenly emerging, contrary impulse toward love and personal happiness. Lafcadio Hearn begins his account with a long and careful expository introduction in which he defines the traditional role of the da, the slave nanny of a white child. He so strongly describes the typical black da’s devotion to her white charge that he virtually gives away the novel’s climax. Then follow fourteen numbered, untitled chapters. In chapter 4, Youma’s love interest, stalwart Gabriel, is first mentioned. His attraction to sweet little Mayotte’s beautiful da develops in chapters 5 and 6. In the pivotal chapter 7, which ends the first half of the novel, Youma’s and Gabriel’s owners deny the couple permission to marry. This subtly rationalized but arbitrary cruelty precipitates the personal part of the tragedy. Paralleling Gabriel’s no longer quiescent hatred of slavery in general and the heartless behavior of two slave masters in particular is the mounting discontent of the field and town blacks, who are fanned into riotous action by the winds of emancipation blowing through the islands.
Of central thematic importance is the nursery story that Youma tells Mayotte one afternoon. It is about a witch named Dame Kélément and seems, voodoolike, to evoke, once articulated, the appearance of the serpent that night. Youma’s bravery in steadfastly holding the serpent down with her bare foot is in turn what fatally impresses the cutlass-wielding Gabriel. That same courage enables Youma to stand immobile with helpless Mayotte in the fire, refuse to escape despite the fact that Mayotte will die in either case, and immolate herself in the flames. When Gabriel sees how calm she is, he is reminded of her identical courage when threatened by the serpent.
Helping to unify the narrative is Hearn’s skillful sprinkling in of local-color details. Hearn spent two years on the island of Martinique, freely observed the inhabitants of all classes there and made friends with many, admired their way of life,...
(The entire section is 907 words.)