Literature Review of Cambridge by Caryl Phillips

Topics: Slavery, Atlantic slave trade, African slave trade Pages: 5 (1661 words) Published: March 3, 2013
For my Internal Assessment I have chosen to do a review of Caryl Phillips’ post-colonial work of fiction, “Cambridge”. This novel published in the year 1991, explores the interlocking of a variety of forms of marginalization, displacement and dispossession that emerge from the experience of cross-cultural encounters. It persistently raises questions of home, identity and belonging. Philips’ novel is set in an unnamed small Caribbean island during a transitional period, sometime between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the emancipation of slaves in 1834. Phillips raises the consciousness of the readers by highlighting the brutality and horrors of slavery through perfected use of narrative techniques such as imagery, irony, symbols etc. He most wonderfully uses these techniques to address the thematic concerns of the novel such as, Racial Prejudice, Women Subjugation, Loss of Identity and Cultural Erasure.

This work of fiction constitute self-conscious fiction: to a greater extent, it is a pastiche of other narratives and deliberately calls attention to its intertextuality. Cambridge’s exploration of slavery comprises the juxtaposition of three main narratives framed by an epilogue and prologue. The first two of the three narratives are written in first-person voice: those of Emily Cartwright, the mistress of the plantation and Cambridge, a slave on the same plantation. The third narrative seems to be a reproduction of an unsigned report in a contemporary newspaper sympathetic to slave owners detailing the events leading up to Cambridge’s death.

Emily’s “fictional” journal which recalls as Evelyn O’Callaghan has observed “real” travel journals by nineteenth century women travellers such as Lady Nugent and Mrs. Carmichael. It describes her movement away from her home in England into “a dark tropical unknown”, where she intends to reside for no longer than three months. There seems to be doubt at the beginning of Emily’s journal as to where she belongs. Emily is sad to leave a country which “beers the title of (her) home”, and she quotes the following lines to emphasize her sorrow: “O my country, I have no pride but that I belong to thee, and can write my name in the muster-roll of mankind, an Englishman”. The trouble is that she is in fact unable to “write (her) name in the muster-roll of mankind” as “an Englishman”. She is a woman.

As early as the prologue we already can see that Emily is an “uncanny stranger', she simultaneously belongs and does not belong. As the author of the prologue puts it: “the truth was that she was fleeing the lonely regime which fastened her into backboards, corsets and stays to improve her posture. The same friendliness regime which advertised her as an ambassadress of grace”. This patriarchal “regime” of gender, which inscribes its rigidity on the female body and sees women as no more than “children of larger growth”, also dictates that she be married on her return from the West Indian plantation to a fifty-year old prosperous widower with three children to ensure her profligate father’s future. The Prologue equates marriage with “the rude mechanics of horse-trading”. To Emily, her arranged marriage is nothing less than “a mode of transportation through life”.

“Transportation” evokes the forced movement of slaves across the “middle passage”. To an extent, therefore, Emily’s position within the strict regime of gender – being an object of the future, profitable exchange between two men – is uncannily similar to the predicament of the black slaves she will soon encounter on the island. It comes as no surprise that Emily starts her “adventuring” as an abolitionist, condemning the “iniquity of slavery”. In fact she begins to set down her observations in a journal precisely in order to instruct her father as to the “pains” endured “by those whose labour enables him to continue to indulge himself in the heavy pocketed manner to which he has become accustomed”.

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