Environment as a Literary Character

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Having written earlier this year about Bloomsday, the June 16th celebration based on James Joyce’s epic Ulysses, my mind recently turned to another legendary novel, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and the day on which it takes place, the Day of the Dead. Lowry traces the experiences of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic ex-consul, known as “the Consul,” on November 2, 1938. Three other characters play into the day’s events: two of them human, and the third, the book’s setting, the diverse landscape of Quauhahuac, Mexico.

Lowry uses a number of devices to give life to the city — a (somewhat fictionalized?) version of Cuernavaca, and its natural features, most notably the twin volcanoes — beyond simply the personification of the land. Chapter 4 (the one I chose to re-read in honor of the Day of the Dead), though atypical of the book because it gives the main voice to Hugh, the Consul’s half-brother, features examples of a number of these devices.

The chapter begins as Hugh approaches the Consul’s house, with the Consul asleep inside, and his semi-ex-wife Yvonne tending the garden. Yvonne’s work consists mostly of removing dead plants and weeds. She remembers, “My God, this used to be a beautiful garden. It was like Paradise.” In addition to likely alluding to her relationship with the Consul, the metaphor approaches religious significance. Later in the chapter, as Hugh and Yvonne ride horses on the outskirts of the city, Hugh thinks of the difficult relationship between all three (human) characters in terms of another Biblical allusion:

“– Christ, how marvelous this was, or rather Christ, how he wanted to be deceived about it, as must have Judas, he thought — and here it was again, damn it — if ever Judas had a horse, or borrowed, stole one more likely, after that Madrugada of all Madrugadas, regretting then that he had given the thirty pieces of silver back — what is that to us, see thou to that, the bastardos had said — when now he probably wanted a drink, thirty drinks (like Geoff undoubtedly would this morning), and perhaps even so he had managed a few on credit, smelling the good smells of leather and sweat, listening to the pleasant clopping of the horse’s hooves and thinking, how joyous all this could be, riding on like this under the dazzling sky of Jerusalem — and forgetting for an instant, so that it really was joyous — how splendid it all might be had I only not betrayed that man last night, even though I knew perfectly well I was going to […].”

This passage, referring sideways to Hugh’s feelings and conduct toward his brother’s wife, also provides a fine example of Lowry’s characteristically long stream-of-thought sentences (as opposed to Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness). The chapter changes pace when Hugh encourages Yvonne’s dream of a possible life with the Consul in British Columbia (one that the real-life Lowry did indeed enjoy for a period):

“He all but shook her horse with enthusiasm. ‘I can see your shack now. It’s between the forest and the sea and you’ve got a pier going down to the water over rough stones, you know, covered with barnacles and sea anemones and starfish. You’ll have to go through the woods to the store.” Hugh saw the store in his mind’s eye. The wood will be wet. And occasionally a tree will come crashing down. And sometimes there will be a fog and that fog will freeze. Then your whole forest will become a crystal forest. The ice crystals on the twigs will grow like leaves. Then pretty soon you’ll be seeing the jack-in-the-pulpits and then it will be spring.”

Hugh’s half-spoken, half-thought description gives real life to a climate — notably the opposite of Quauhnahuac’s — through the fantasy of his imagination.

Finally, towards the end of the chapter, the elements come together. Hugh, the former sailor, galloping on a mare over the plains, imagines the very real sea, somewhere beyond the volcanoes. He feels “the sense of change, the keen elemental pleasure one experienced too on board a ship which, leaving the choppy waters of the estuary, gives way to the pitch and swing of the open sea.” He also imagines Judas’ redemption. When they dismount, surveying the world around them, Hugh sees everything in his surroundings — relationships, shortcomings, and even his own redemption:

“There was something in the wild strength of this landscape, once a battlefield, that seemed to be shouting at him, a presence born of that strength whose cry his whole being recognized as familiar, caught and threw back into the wind, some youthful password of courage and pride – the passionate, yet so nearly always hypocritical, affirmation of one’s soul perhaps, he thought, of the desire to be, to do, good, what was right. It was as though he were gazing now beyond this expanse of plains and beyond the volcanoes out to the wide rolling blue ocean itself, feeling it in his heart still, the boundless impatience, the immeasurable longing.”

It is here, in fact, that Hugh becomes less the focus of the story, for the environment has truly come into its own as a character. It replaces the Consul’s (who never appears in this chapter) vertical plunges into despair (and occasional highs) with the horizontal vastness, the “limitless possibility” of the land and sea. Something deeply poetic exists in the way Lowry explains Hugh’s general state of being — doubts, feelings, experiences — through an entirely separate being, that of the Earth itself.

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.