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


In Morning at the Office, characters have in­dividual definition only through their positions in the social order. Consequently, they are primarily social types. But in The Life and Death of Sylvia, the character of Sylvia stems from inner qualities react­ing to outside phenomena. She reacts sensitively to natural phenomena, interacts with psychic landscape, and interiorizes the tragedy of the social order. Sylvia, born of a half Black-half Guyana-Indian mother and an English father, is in an ambivalent social position, and becomes a tragic victim of harsh social circumstances. A low-class mother, Charlotte, unable to cope with being elevated to the position of wife of an English engineer, lives cloistered in her room sewing and gossiping with her friends. Sylvia’s father, losing interest in her mother, has many illicit affairs and entertains English friends with whom Charlotte has little commerce. Sylvia adores her father and lacks respect for her mother, and on her father’s death, finds it difficult to support her mother and brother while maintaining certain self-imposed moral standards. Her search for employment shows the difficulty which even an educated middle-class coloured girl experiences in Guyana. Her deepening personal tragedy comes about because she is unable to prostitute herself to various employers or to fit easily into any of the clearly defined social classes.

Sylvia is sensitive to the sea, trees, and shadows, often identifying changes in her mood with changes in sounds and colours of the landscape. Her tragic situation finds resonance in the sea:

She felt the darkness melting into her as though it were etherized down. A low, cool wind seemed to hum delightfully in her lungs. She could hear the sea swashing remotedly, and it might have been within the distance of her own being that the sound had its existence. [Sylvia, p. 191].

In Of Trees and the Sea and The Weather Family, this interplay of emotions and landscape or weather moves into  the forefront even as the colonial social stratification forms a background. In these novels, emotions are heightened and the psychic qualities of both characters and landscape become dominant.

In The Weather Family, the Larches, Mr. Harbin, and the other characters not only see their every emotional state in terms of weather changes, but also are totally influenced by the weather. Consciously or unconsciously, all these characters begin to anticipate the build-up of a hurricane. The movement toward a climax in the relationships among the various charac­ters is paralleled by the build-up of hurricane Janet. Weather does not only control the presentation of character but, guiding the novelistic time, it provides the very structure around which the novel is built.

In Of Trees and the Sea, the whole novel is pervaded by the trees and the sea. To be sure, Mittelholzer presents the various strata of Barbadian society with its rigidly defined social groupings pat­terned completely on colonial lines. The essence of the novel is the interplay of the characters’ emotional states with psychic forces emanating from Barbadian landscape:

“You’re right. You know, there’s some­thing in the air of this island that makes one want to dream up odd things, Roger. Haven’t you felt that?”

He nodded. “I know, what you mean. There’s the scent of fantasy—and comedy— everywhere. It’s all around us. In the people with their stiff, old-world ways, in the strange flower and vegetable scents. In the trees and in the sea-sounds. [Trees, p. 162].