Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

Representation of Existential Nightmare in the Novels of Andrea Levy

Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

Representation of Existential Nightmare in the Novels of Andrea Levy

Article excerpt


Existentialism is fundamentally a philosophy which began as a popular movement in Europe right after the end of the Second World War. "It is mainly concerned with an individual person existing in the world, with the problems he has to face in life, with the ways he faces them, with his passions and emotions, and above all, with his personal outlook on life" (Bhattacharya 1979, 1). Existentialism is concerned with the ontological issues of human existence such as freedom, responsibility, dread, death, and authenticity. A closer look at the contexts of Levy's life and writings helps to situate her concerns with various themes of existentialism. Andrea Levy, in all her novels, discusses the existential themes and thereby brings forward the problems of dread, anxiety, quest for belonging, alienation, and lack of freedom, which present her novels as an existentialist nightmare. Genealogical connection with the historical event of immigration of four hundred ninety-two passengers from the Caribbean island in 1948, which marks the symbolic outset of the twentieth century Caribbean diaspora as well as the beginning of change of British society toward multiethnic (Sewell 1998, 1), gives Levy a cavernous outlook in producing such a theme.

Levy's Novels as an Existentialist Nightmare

Levy's (1994) very first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin', is narrated by Angela Jacob who, much like her creator, is a British-born girl of Jamaican descent and who grows up in a working class household in North London in the 1960s. The very heart of the novel is the figure of Angela's Father, Winston. Winston's lengthy struggle with illness, his increasing infirmity, and his eventual death-all of which take place when Angela is an adult-are juxtaposed in the novel with Angela's recollections of much earlier scenes from her childhood. Introducing her father in the opening pages of the novel, Angela recalls that he did not like to talk about his work (Levy 2004, 3), did not like anyone knowing his name, and refused to tell people his age (Levy 2004, 3-4). Moreover, Angela recalls that Winston refused to speak about his past identity:

My dad was from Jamaica-born and bred. He came to this country in 1948 on the Empire Windrush ship. My mum joined him six months later in his one room in Earl's Court. He never talked about his family or his life in Jamaica. He seemed only to exist in only one plane of time-the present. There is an old photo of him-grainy black and white that shows him dressed in an immaculate tailored suit with wide baggy trousers, wearing a shirt with a collar held by a pin, and a proper tie. His hair is short and well groomed. He is standing by a chair in the grounds of what looks to be a beautiful house. The photo looks like my dad as a 'Great Gatsby'-type millionaire. When I asked my dad about the photo that fascinated me, he would grudgingly admit that it was where he lived. But when I pressed him to tell more he would shrug and tell me not to bother him. Or he'd suck his teeth and ask me why I am interested. He would ask this in the manner of somebody who does not want an answer-of somebody who would like you to leave them alone. (Levy 2004, 3-4)

The disparity between Winston's lifestyle in Jamaica and his lifestyle in Britain-highlighted in the passage by the contrast between the image ofhim looking like a "'Great Gatsby'-type millionaire" and subsequently occupying, with his wife, just one room in Earl's Court-not only tells us about his beaten hopes and bad living conditions in England but also shows how the character is facing an existential crisis that he is not even able to share his past with his own daughter. Along with this, is notable the mental status of Angela who requires an understanding of her father's past to be able to understand her own identity. As Lima (2005, 57) states, "It seems as if a return to the past is required for her [Levy's] protagonists to be able to move on. …

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