On Chapter XLV of Derek Walcott's Omeros

Article excerpt

Ever since its publication in 1990, Walcott's Omeros has been a celebrated text, helping to earn the poet the Nobel Prize in 1992. The concentration on postcolonial literature in literary studies during the past two decades has spurred interest in Walcott's poem which presents a Caribbean perspective on the west. Walcott's use of Homeric characters, as well as those of his own device such as the exBritish officer Major Plunkett and Maud his wife, have been well documented. One of the most important figures, however, has been often overlooked--namely the narrator himself. In a chapter late in the poem (XLV), the lives of the narrator and a primary character. Hector, coalesce in such a way that any critical or pedagogic evaluation of the poem would do well to focus on this section.

In general, Book 6 of Omeros finds many of the poem's narrative strands coming together: Plunkett loses his wife Maud who, despite his often chauvinistic attitude toward her, loves her; and we witness the death of Hector who, like his Homeric counterpart, is the great rival of Achille in the poem. In fact, chapter XLV begins with Hector's death as he drives his van, the Comet, off the side of the road. The van represents outside influences as it was Hector's canoe (a symbol of island economics) that he traded for the automobile. Like his Homeric namesake who valiantly fought for the Trojans and finally died because of the will of the gods in a battle with Achilles, this Hector is fierce but similarly loses to Achille. In this poem, however, he loses not only his life but also the object of his affection: Helen, an islander who is pregnant with his child and whom Achille pines for during much of the narrative. The death of Hector signals a passing away of part of the spirit of the island as the more timid Achille wins the prize.

Hector's death is described in terms of a Catholic Mass (one of which Maud and Plunkett are on their way to when Hector nearly runs them off the road), and this shows how Hector has been incorporated by westernism. The reader is offered a view of Hector's broken body in the van after the crash: "he stayed in the same place, / the way a man will remain when Mass is finished" (Omeros. NY: Noonday, 1990, p. 225). We learn his positioning expresses a penitential attitude: "He bowed in endless remorse, // for her mercy at what he had done to Achille, / his brother" (226). This westernizing of Hector contrasts with Achille who, in Book 3, seeks to remember the lost gods of Africa in a dream vision brought on by sunstroke. Walcott tells us that Hector "paid the penalty of giving up the sea / as graceless and as treacherous as it had seemed, / for the taxi-business; he was making money" (231). Ultimately the goods produced by modem industrialism force Hector to lose his connection with the island: we learn he adopts "another // kind of life that was changing him with his brand-new / stereo, its endless garages, where he could not / whip off his shirt, hearing the conch's summoning note" (231). Here chapter XLV ends, with an exposition of those things which moved Hector away from what was most natural to him and his culture. The allure of western materialism proved too much to resist and Hector pays its price, leaving behind his unborn child in Helen's womb.

Interwoven with the death of Hector is the reappearance of the narrator--nameless to us--on St. Lucia. The narrator makes note of the changes that have taken place in his absence as the island bears the marks of tourism and commercialism. …