Academic journal article ARIEL

Caryl Phillips and the Heroic

Academic journal article ARIEL

Caryl Phillips and the Heroic

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article explores the notion of the heroic in fictional and non-fictional work by Black British writer Caryl Phillips. It uses an ambivalent Caribbean longing for heroes as a point of departure from which to discuss hero-theory and its applicability to the types of heroes found in Phillips' writing. It focuses in particular on The Final Passage (1985), Crossing the River (1993), The Atlantic Sound (2000), and A Distant Shore (2003) in its elaboration of the characteristics of a Phillipsian heroic and how and where to locate such figures. Qualities such as dignity, courage, no-saying, and global ways of being and seeing emerge as heroic traits, apparent also in Phillips' essays in A New World Order (2001) and Colour Me English (2011).

Keywords: Caryl Phillips, heroic, heroes


This essay argues that the notion of the heroic offers new ways of reading characters in Caryl Phillips' oeuvre. Typical interpretations of Phillips' characters focus on their victimised status and the deprivation of their agency. The heroic functions not only as a classification or identification of characters but as a lens through which they can be read, focusing in particular on who they are and what they do in Phillips' textual universe. A heroic perspective is mindful of both ontology--of questions of being in the world of the narrative--and action. Indeed, the heroic perspective corresponds to a way of reading characters that specifically examines what a character does in conspicuous situations and is composed of the interplay of three aspects: the centrality of dignity, a changing status quo, and an innate, or imposed, loneliness. The essay focuses on four characters: Madison Williams in Crossing the River (1993), Judge Julius Waties Waring in The Atlantic Sound (2000), Carla in A Distant Shore (2003), and Leila in The Final Passage (1985). Phillipsian heroes are sometimes at the centres of their narratives, but are more often minor characters found in the textual margins. Phillips' inclusive and democratic vision allows for the heroic to manifest in characters who are male and female, young and old, and white and black.

Discussing ideas of heroes and the heroic in the twenty-first century may raise suspicion about the mental maturity of scholars who choose to explore such topics, Dean A. Miller writes in The Epic Hero (vii). Contemporary hero scholars typically find themselves "rooted in ambivalence," to echo Lucy Hughes-Hallet's caveat in Heroes (3). Evidently, an interest in the heroic is suspect and foolhardy, and often aligned with a history of elitism, fascism, and Eurocentrism. So why pursue such a topic? And why do so in a postcolonial context, through an exploration of the heroic in Phillips' writing? In his reading of In The Falling Snow, Gordon Collier proposes that Phillips "has acquired a cosmopolitan's clarity of vision [but that] this has come from a deep awareness of the value of his Caribbean 'roots'" (398).

This perceptive insight functions as my point of departure in this essay. I include thoughts on Phillips' "vision," inspired by Collier's and Alan McCluskey's observations on his cosmopolitan values. I also explore Phillips' descriptions of the role of literature and his elaborations on inspirational heroic figures. These insights into Phillips' ideas on life and writing affect my reading of his characters. I am interested in how his ideological persuasion and views on literature influence the way he represents characters and the way his characters can be read.

I begin the essay with the Caribbean longing for heroes and the heroic and Phillips' response to this call, but go on to show that the exploration of Phillips' democratic outlook and catholic collection of heroic figures points to what Collier labels Phillips' cosmopolitan clarity of vision. (1) While the motivation for Phillips' inclusion of heroic characters may derive from his Caribbean roots, the heroes in his works are universal. …

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