THE RHYTHM OF SOCIETY AND LANDSCAPE (Mittelholzer, Carew, Williams, Dathorne)


Three main forces are at work in the writings of Edgar Mittelholzer.  He comments on the social order, the hierarchy of Caribbean society; he penetrates the psychic landscape of phenomena, reflecting and re­fracting the emotional states of characters; and he re­creates the history of Guyana. The style and structure of his novels, vary according to which of these three facets he is emphasizing. In Morning at the Office, Mittclholzer has set out to present the carnivalesque social order of Trinidadian society. Indeed, with slight variations it could be the social order of any British West Indian territory. The positions held by the various characters are consonant with the given social and prevailing structure of the society. Even spatial positions arc clearly demarcated in this office. Mr. Waley, the English manager, sits in an office, behind a closed door with frosted glass, farthest from the street. Horace, the low class Negro, sits behind a desk near the door, with a barrier between him and the office. Separating the two, in ascending social order, are all other classes, shades, nationalities.

The selection of characters is random, extensive, mirroring the diversity yet homogeneity of this society. We are presented with pettiness, snobbishness, gossip, the clement of puritanism, and paradoxically, certain sexual immorality, all fused and blended together in this social document. The plot is a thin line on which all of these diverse elements hang.

Morning at the Office superficially seems a social textbook, but has many fine shadings and subtle delineations of the social positions occupied by the characters. The author laughs at the social inanities of these characters, yet his laughter is not harsh, but lightly cynical and satirically understanding.

One of the characters in Morning at the Office explains Mittelholzer’s approach:

People, she thought, as I’ve seen them this morning, are cruel caricatures of what I conceived them to be yesterday      Yet, I still don’t feel they should be laughed at out­right. We ought to see ourselves with ironic eyes, but we should revere the humanity in us….. a novelist ought to laugh at his characters — and even at him­self — but his laughter should be in respectful undertones. (Morning, p. 247]

In the tableau. Mittelholzer shows us, for example, the ambitions and inferiority complexes of the Negro office boy, Horace, who reads A Tale of Two Cities because “he had heard it was a great work of literature …. something that would help him to rise in the world” [Morning, p. 16|. He presents an East Indian accountant Jagabir whose feelings of insecurity and in­feriority derive from colonial times when East Indians were indentured labourers.

He had been brought up to feel that an East Indian’s place was in the fields — the cane-fields of a sugar estate, cocoa or citrus plots; shovelling and weeding. An office was meant for white people and good-class coloured people. [Morning, p. 22]

A young English overseer, newly arrived to Trinidad, is admitted to the club “simply on the strength of your (his) pink skin and English accent” (Morning, p.26). Yet a little later he comments about the club:

I’ve got to hate this club, because I’ve come to see it for what it really is — a cheap, tawdry institution infested with pretentious, shallow local whites, many of them not even pure white but trading on the accident of a fair complexion and the fact that they happen to be moneyed.  [Morning, p. 26]

Mittelholzer also portrays Miss Henry, who “belonged to the coloured, as low class” (Morning, p. 45).

Low class, middle class, upper class, kinky hair, straight hair, dark skin, light skin, and all the con­comitant social overtones which these various qualities release run through the whole novel Morning at the Office.

Many of Mittelholzer’s other novels which expose the social attitudes of local society, i.e. The Life and Death of Sylvia, or to a lesser extent Of Trees and the Sea or The Weather Family, possess variant satirical treatments of the yet persistent colonial structure besetting the Caribbean Islands.