Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: Last fall I took a class on neo-slave narratives. Here is an essay I wrote on Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge
Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge utilizes the maxim that there are three sides to any story—my side, your side, and the truth to explore the historical and cultural gaps in society’s narrative of slavery. It also examines Emily Cartwright’s easy corruption by her own ignorance and the societal forces she is exposed to, inviting an examination of why slavery is embraced in a society which espouses liberty. While there is much to be found in Cambridge’s narrative, I am focusing on Emily’s ignorance and its effect on her attitudes to the world around her.
Emily Cartwright is a naïve character who finds herself thrust into a world she has no control over or any knowledge how to navigate. Like Ruth Elizabeth in Dessa Rose, Emily loses her caretaker (her servant Isabella as compared to Ruth Elizabeth’s enslaved woman), leaving her with no one to help guide her in the volatile island setting. Emily’s naivete and ignorance result in her moral corruption. That is not to say Phillips’ female protagonist is a flat character. As Kuurola notes, Emily is “…a complex individual who is sympathetic but prejudiced, humane, but unreliable” (137). However, she is fatally flawed by ignorance, resulting in her abandoning the morals she stands for when she is exposed to the island’s pro-slavery attitudes.
Cartwright’s ignorance would be laughable except it results in her moral corruption and embrace of slavery. Initially planning on writing about the need to abolish slavery, she is easily swayed by those around her that the enslaved have numerous defects. She also seems to fancy herself as a progressive woman, recognizing English society’s treatment of women as second-class citizens. According to Kuurola, “In revealing Emily’s sentiments on the position of women in English society, and on the standard of how women ought to behave, Phillips invites readers to see her as an individual who is discontented with the narrow role assigned to her sex, and thereby a postmodern woman in spe” (133). However, Emily allows herself to be easily swayed by societal attitudes when she leaves England for her father’s plantation in the West Indies.
Her ignorance is noticeable for her inability to judge the characters and relationships around her. Surprisingly, Emily’s gut instincts are accurate, but she repeatedly falls victim to ignorance. For example, she judges Mr. Brown accurately, suspecting Christiana has some sort of illicit relationship with him. Her initial meeting with Brown notes, “There is little more I can recount of our dinner with reference to conversation, for this man’s ignorance knew no boundaries” (Phillips 31). Indeed, she is initially so repulsed by Brown she vows, “I would insist to Father that this arrogant must go” (Phillips 33). However, she succumbs to Mr. Brown’s charms, declaring:
“If truth be told, the single emotion that came rushing into my body was that of happiness, pure, undistilled, happiness at my good fortune to have discovered a man such as Arnold in the tropical backwater of the Americas.” (Phillips 119).
This happiness is short-lived as Brown abandons her once he learns she is pregnant, a reminder of Brown’s true nature. Likewise, she is initially favorable towards island lawyer and doctor, Mr. McDonald, distinguishing him from the unsavory characters inhabiting the islands, “The prospect of such easy wealth has attracted many quacks and under-qualified physicians to these islands” (35). However, she notes of the physician (and lawyer), “…Mr. McDonald however, seems ably fitted for the office” (35) and “Clearly this was a man of impartial mind who would neither herd with the unprincipled whites, nor rally the blacks for their self-evident inferiority” (35). Sadly, Emily becomes blind to McDonald’s decency including his non-judgmental delivery of her bastard child, a blemish on her social standing for the morals of the time.
Emily’s ignorance is also seen in her reliance on whites’ accounts of blacks and her own cultural ignorance towards African culture. For example, she recalls, “Unfortunately, I have heard several reports, some indeed furnished by negro servants themselves, that the black is addicted to theft and deceit at every opportunity” (39). Later, she observes, “I have already commented upon their love, which is no more than brutish gratification of animal desire” (39). This is reminiscent of some whites’ criticism of African blacks for wearing little clothing in the hot African weather. This cultural ignorance is also seen in Emily’s critique of enslaved persons’ dancing, “To me their movements appeared to be wholly dictated b the caprice of the moment” (43) and her critique of their music, “To make out either rhyme or reason was impossible” (43). Emily ridicules dance and music that would eventually be appreciated for its sophistication.
Inherent in Phillips’ narrative is an exploration of how people succumb to societal pressure and accept and even embrace evils such as slavery. Emily appears to be initially opposed to slavery, but she abandons her principles once she is in an environment where people are enslaved. She takes on condescending attitudes not only towards the enslaved, but towards people who seem to have her interests or her father’s interest at heart (including Stella and Mr. McDonald). Thus, Phillips is able to explore how societies that espouse liberty can hypocritically accept slavery at the same time.
While Cambridge can be classified as a neo-slave narrative, Phillips turns what Angelyn Mitchell defines as the purpose of liberatory narratives (aka neo-slave narratives), “…their primary function indeed is in describing how to achieve freedom” (4) on its head. Cambridge finds freedom but is returned to slavery during his passage on his journey back to Africa while Emily’s quest for freedom ends in her being used and discarded by Brown. Both characters believe they are free, but find societal forces can easily return them to subservient status. Emily’s secondary status as a woman has her used and abandoned by Brown while Cambridge’s status as a black man makes his liberty illusory as long as slavery exists.
Cambridge is a multi-layered work which challenges modern attitudes towards society’s past attitudes towards slavery, forcing readers to ask whether they too are easily swayed by society’s hegemonic forces to ignore societal ills. The Emily character provides readers with a chance to compare and contrast Emily’s moral corruption with contemporary attitudes.
Kuurola, Mirja. "Caryl Phillips's Cambridge: discourses in the past and readers in the present."
Nordic Journal of English Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2007, p. 129+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy.buffalostate.edu/apps/doc/A351789332/AONE?u=buffalostate&sid=AONE&xid=ed3da6b3. Accessed 1 Oct. 2018.
Mitchell, Angelyn. The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery, and Gender in
Contemporary Black Women's Fiction. Rutgers UP, 2002. EBSCOhost, proxy.buffalostate.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2002533212&site=ehost-live. Accessed 4 Sept. 2018.
Phillips, Caryll. Cambridge. Vintage International, 1993.