Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
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...
(The entire section contains 907 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Youma study guide. You'll get access to all of the Youma content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays
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, quickly added a considerable understanding of their Creole dialect to his already thorough knowledge of French, and even climbed Mount Pelée. In 1890, he published Two Years in the French West Indies, containing many sketches of island life.
A curious feature of dialogue in Youma is its tantalizing mixture of standard French and native patois, sometimes but not always translated. For example, Gabriel praises Youma thus: “Quaill! ou brave, mafi!—foute! ou sévè!” Hearn translates only sévè, as “severe,” meaning “courageous” in context. Hearn’s own prose is often similarly quaint. It sometimes reads like a deliberately archaic translation of a foreign text. For example, “’Gabou’ . . . realized for her some figure of the contes.” Employing a palette of diverse colors in his descriptions, Hearn combines the vividness of African primary colors—especially in the complexions, dress, and jewelry of the slaves—with the West Indian pastels of flowers, houses and fields, beaches and water, and vaporous mountain slopes. Notable is Hearn’s startling, if infrequent, use of similes and metaphors. Two examples: “those strange Creole words which, like tropic lizards, change color with position” and “spidery shadows of palm-heads on the floor.”
A key element in Youma is the heroine’s scary story, reluctantly told to the child. Hearn devotes fully eight pages to it and even annotates two native words in it, although he leaves many others unexplained, for example, in the serpent’s song, which ends thus: “Bennepè, bennemè—tambou belai!/ Yche p’accoutoumé tambou belai!” Significantly, in the story the serpent does not offer the slightest harm to the little girl, whereas the real serpent attacks Youma. In the folktale, the serpent is transformed back into a man, who then returns the girl safely to her mother. The real serpent, however, goes so far as to wrap its flesh around Youma’s thigh. It must be concluded that the episode’s symbolism is ambivalent. Is the evil snake under Youma’s foot intended to symbolize fatal rebellion? Or perhaps fatal sexual love? Hearn does not say.
The pervasive tone of Youma is ironic. The island could be a latter-day Eden, with its slumberous climate, creamy seas, fertile soil, gentle rains, and exotic fruits and flowers—and serpents. The white rulers combine a fancy, indolent lifestyle, austerely aristocratic manners, a brave love of family, and a fierce determination to keep their slaves in their place. The slaves are muscular and lissome, intelligent and highly articulate, but also dominated by voodooism. A curious touch is the fact that the French army, garrisoned in Saint Pierre, is mysteriously ordered not to interfere when the slaves go on their murderous rampage. The dominant religion of the island is Christianity, but one entwined in native superstitions. During the climactic fire, one “négresse” gesticulates like a cannibal at a helpless white mother and her baby. Yet Gabriel’s last sight of Youma, with Mayotte in her arms and the fire “serpentined” behind her, reminds him of a statue of the Virgin Mary seen at the anchorage chapel. A final irony comes in the last paragraph of Youma, in which Hearn tersely explains that at the very hour of the fire a ship was bearing news to the island of emancipation and universal suffrage for the slave population.