Jamaican Signatures: An Archetypal Analysis of Marlon James' John Crow's Devil

Article excerpt

Twenty-first century Jamaican authors have a rich cultural heritage to draw upon. Their literary heritage has been influenced by the many peoples who have lived on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. The first of these, the Arawakan people who have become known as the Taino, lived on the island when Columbus arrived in 1494 (Woodley). By 1509, the Spanish had begun colonizing Jamaica, and they brought the first African slave laborers to the island in 1640 (McArthur 539). In 1670, the British took control of the island from the Spanish and maintained control until Jamaica gained its independence in 1962 (McArthur 539). The disparate influences of these preceding cultures manifest themselves in a variety of ways in the language and folklore of Jamaica.

Most view the language spoken in Jamaica on a continuum. In this model, the acrolect (Standard Jamaican English) is a direct result of the British's presence and is "essentially a regional dialect of English associated with upper- and upper-middle-class speakers and spoken in the capital of Kingston and other metropolitan areas" (Wassink and Dyer 15). In contrast, the basilect (known as Jamaican Creole) contains "the greatest number of West African retentions, [is] spoken mostly in rural areas, and [is] associated with working-class speakers" (Wassink and Dyer 15). The mesolect denotes the "intermediate forms" that consist of features from the English, West African, and Spanish languages (Wassink and Dyer 15).

In addition to their linguistic influences, the island's various occupants have left their mark on Jamaican folklore as well. For example, many traditional Jamaican stories reflect an African emphasis on singing to praise God, conjuring, and trickster tales (Byerman 2) that portray "important ethical dilemmas for both the individual and society" (Thury and Devinney 342). As a result of slavery, churches, spirituals, and sermons became important because they "functioned to give blacks some dignity" (Thomas 16). From the Spanish and British, salvation through Jesus, baptism, and other elements of Christian beliefs and rituals began to emerge in Jamaican folk stories. Linguistic and folkloric features such as these identified continue to appear in modern Jamaican literature such as John Crow's Devil, a twenty-first century novel by Marlon James.

John Crow's Devil, set in a small Jamaican village called Gibbeah during 1957, begins with Gibbeah's drunkard pastor, Hector Bligh, being run out of his church by a man who calls himself "Apostle" York. The young Widow Mary Greenfield takes Pastor Bligh in and cares for him while Lucinda, Mary's rival since childhood, helps the Apostle settle in. The narrative continues as the Apostle begins to isolate the village, turn its residents upon themselves, and harm or kill those who oppose his beliefs. In response, the Pastor redeems himself by spiritually struggling and wrestling with the Apostle for control of the village. By the end of the novel, Pastor Bligh, Apostle York, Lucinda, and at least seven other characters are dead. In the final chapter, Widow Greenfield emerges as hope personified.

Throughout this multi-narrated novel, James uses a variety of rhetorical strategies that combine the continuum of Jamaican English and traditional Jamaican folklore. For instance, the principal third-person, limited-omniscient narrator uses Standard Jamaican English. A second, first-person narrator interprets events from the perspective of Gibbeah's villagers in Jamaican Creole. A variety of other linguistic features appear in the characters' dialogue: Lucinda and the Widow speak mesolect; the Pastor and the Apostle speak near Standard Jamaican English when speaking to each other, but they incorporate more basilect features when speaking to village members. Some of the folkloric aspects include the importance of spirituals and sermons that praise God, the centrality of the church where James sets much of the action, and numerous biblical references such as the intertextuality of Gibbeah with the Old Testament book of Judges. …