Sincronía Fall 1999

Priest and Teacher, Pastoral Conflict in Earl Lovelace’s The Schoolmaster

by Dr. William A. Clemente, Peru State College

My limited goals preclude offering a inclusive definition of pastoral, for as Paul Alpers’s  analysis of the subject in his book, What Is Pastoral?, aptly demonstrates, the pastoral mode possesses the polyphonic qualities necessary for ready adaptation in the face of shifting historical and literary demands (1) “Priest and Teacher, Pastoral Conflict in Earl Lovelace’s The Schoolmaster”. For my purposes, The Schoolmaster is a pastoral novel grounded on the contrast between a rural, semi-isolated landscape and an outside, increasingly urban world. In the novel, the Trinidad beyond the remote village of Kumaca generally enters the narrative implicitly, primarily through the double agency of Father Vincent and the teacher, Mr. Winston Warwick, in what Andrew V. Ettin  defines as an "implicit pastoral inset." (2) In addition, the village residents, while not shepherds, serve, to borrow from Kenneth Burke (3) , as the "representative anecdotes" of Lovelace’s activist pastoral, in that they embody verisimilar attributes in concert with their environment. Their experience molds them and their attitudes. In the novel, the pastoral perspectives of the priest and schoolmaster on this remote Trinidadian village reveal the post-colonial root of the novel’s tragic consequences as well as celebrate the regenerative powers of the pastoral mode and the rural community Lovelace portrays.

The following quotation from Derek Walcott’s essay "The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry" establishes the context in which this exploration places The Schoolmaster, pointing as it does to the novel’s appalling tragedy and its hopeful but ambivalent embrace of progress and its attendant consequences: "Sophistication is human wisdom and we [West Indians] , who are the dregs of that old history, its victims, its transients, its dispossessed know what the old wisdom brought. What is called mimicry is the painful, new, laborious utterings that comes out of belief, not out of doubt.... In the indication of the slightest necessary gesture of ordering the world around him, of losing his old name and rechristening himself, in the arduous enunciation of a dimmed alphabet, in the shaping of tools, pen or spade, is the whole, profound sigh of human optimism, of what we in the archipelago still believe in: work and hope...The New World originated in hypocrisy and genocide, so it is not a question for us, of returning to an Eden or of creating Utopia; out of the sordid and degrading beginning of the West Indies, we could only go further in decency and regret. Poets and satirists are afflicted with the superior stupidity which believes that societies can be renewed." (4)  Or, as Benn , the often drunken peasant from whom Father Stevens rents donkeys and eventually earns friendship, says, "To live, a man has to find a way." (5)

Before either priest or schoolmaster finds introduction, Lovelace provides readers a feel for the cadence of rural life in Kumaca. As becomes apparent, however, the viewpoint from which these two perceive the inhabitants of the village generally precludes their apprehending the experience. For in significant ways, neither of these two men who ostensibly serve the people appreciates them as complex individuals. Instead, while one views the population from a Biblical relationship that finds reflection in the Shepherd and Sheep metaphor (or in a more literary context, that of Crusoe and Friday) and the other dominates based on a neo-colonial model of Owner and Slave (or Prospero and Calaban) (6)  both appropriate the village to serve their own selfish interests and needs. Each is, moreover, an outsider whose knowledge of the world beyond the village allows him to appreciate its vulnerability but only in terms of his own assumed superiority. This knowledge ultimately unites these two figures of responsibility; yet by the novel’s conclusion, the priest learns humility and embraces his human limitations while the schoolmaster reinforces a legacy of colonial domination and loses his life.

The opening paragraphs both introduce the natural cycle that regulates Kumacan society and the outside forces and enticements that threaten to annihilate its culture. Note, for example, the manner in which Lovelace insinuates a double perspective into an otherwise bucolic description of the conventional harvest idyll: "Dry season reach now. Sunlight blazes the hills; and scattered between the hills’ valuable timber trees--the cedar, angelin, laurier-matack, galba and mahoe--the poui is dropping rich yellow flowers like a madman throwing away gold. Down on the flat and in the crotches of the land where the two rivers stagger through the blue stone so plentiful in Kumaca, the water is clear, and in places ice cold. The soil is rich, deep and black. .. It is time. The cocao is ready for harvesting" (my emphasis, 3).

This harvest affirms an unavoidable connection between Kumaca and the world outside, for "even to a people whose needs are simple, desires few, whose women burn dried wood in firesides made of clay, money is a great something" (p.3). This money wends its way down mountain paths often obstructed by landslides through villages only a few miles away and leads eventually to "that big, fast and terrible city that is Port-of-Spain" (4). In other words, though relatively isolated, the predominately illiterate villagers are hardly insulated from the world of Trinidad beyond Kumaca’s confines, though only three of the members have actually visited the city: Constantine Patron and Paulaine Dandrade, the settlement’s two most respected men, and Dardain, the corrupt shopkeeper. And, indeed, the village desires much of what Port-of-Spain offers; therefore, to prepare for the inevitable road that will open up the village beyond the avenues of communication and commerce the radio and donkey presently afford, the Catholic village sends Paulaine Dandrade to ask Father Vincent to support a school. As Paulaine argues, "How long again do we talk about this school before we make some action? ... Today all about in this country people are learning to read and write, but in Kumaca we do not have a school. Our children do not learn to read and write. We remain backward in this place. The world is moving forward. Like a fist the world is closing around Kumaca"(13-14).

The Creole Spanish villagers themselves present a cross section of a small rural community of the sort Lovelace knew first hand from his travels in the service of the Forestry and Agriculture Departments. Hardly idealized, the population comes to represent a microcosm of Trinidad and Tobago, of post-colonial Caribbean society. In the terms of William Empson, Lovelace utilizes "the pastoral process of putting the complex into the simple." (7)   Hardly trusting, innocent shepherds, each character elicits human frailties, which makes them easy prey for the manipulative schoolmaster, especially the most nearly idealized couple--the sweet innocence of the doomed Christina Dandrade and her wide-eyed fiance, Pedro Assivero, who plays her love songs on his hand-made flute and learns to write only to send Christina a letter. This tragic, nature-bound couple epitomize youthful exuberance and hope. Their simple actions foreground traditional values worth preserving. Other members of the community include Constantine Patron and Paulaine Dandrade, village elders and competitors since youth--Christina’s father, Paulaine wants the school; but Patron remains uncertain and silent, fearing lest his competition with Dandrade and the potential loss of prestige cloud his reasoning (he is one of the few in Kamaca who, like Dandrade, can read and write).; Francis Assivero, father of Pedro and Robert, a polio-infected child of no future, once owned over half the land in town but succumbed to gambling on cock-fights and now runs up large debts in Dardain’s store; however, despite sometimes obvious flaws, all--with the significant exception of the storekeeper, who has manipulated the law to cheat nearly all the inhabitants out of their land--all the people possess dignity and underscore the dual virtues Walcott identifies: work and hope.

Despite Paulaine’s determination, however, Father Vincent initially resists sanctioning a school, for he views the people very much as his sheep, as a "simple" and "unsophisticated" (20-21) congregation replete with quaint ceremonies that parade local color: " simple and beautiful. Your people good, honest, simple, hard-working, and in the season, God willing, your crop is good...[Y]ou believe in the virgin, and in the Father and in His Son who died for us all. Maybe it is a good thing that you are so cut off from the outside world" (22). The good priest lauds the traditional ways because, in a sense, they preserve his illusions of self-sacrifice, for in Trinidad the Irish expatriate lives a vicarious, empty existence--he observes but resists.

The priesthood provides Vincent what he desires for the village: disconnect from the world, especially from the uncertainty that characterizes human experience. He dwells in perpetual autumn, the season of the year he left Dublin, his childhood love married, and his father, a victim of British imperialism, "sat there in the house with his rheumatism, looking out his now dimmed eyes grumbling, `The Irish will fight, The Irish will fight,’ and nothing, nothing" (19). He hides behind his profession and "did not often forget that he was a priest" (18); his garb, he believes shields him from the sins his white skin symbolizes for the island on which he has lived for sixteen years. Only at the conclusion of the novel, when parties connected directly with the teacher’s death decline to meet with him, will he accept the words of Benn, who chastises him throughout the narrative for failing to embrace the human frailty temptation manifests. "Your face is white, priest. Perhaps [they do] not trust that."

And of course, they never do, seeing in the priest the conflict he himself avoids until circumstances with the schoolmaster force him, in fact, to remember his humanity and to forget his vows. For despite obvious failings, Vincent is a good man. As Benn says, "Your intentions are good priest." Eventually, he embraces his rage completely when the seventeen-year-old Christina reveals in confession the schoolmaster’s rape and the pregnancy that soon drives her to drown herself deep in the forest in "the pool where her [mother’s spirit] sat waiting to shelter her in her arms and to kiss her with her lips" (143). While he resists the temptation to pummel Winston, he breaks his vows, confronting the teacher with confessional secrets: "And now the priest smelled blood, saw how it flowed, saw how violence raised its voice and shouted from the very groin of man. Saw wars and slaughter and the grotesque face of anger. Father Vincent saw his dreams of a better life in this world rise up like the sacrificial incense and disappear, leaving only its smell in the region of the altar and on his ritual garments. And now the vision of his own priesthood and usefulness was to him like ashes in his teeth" (108).

From the moment the priest saw the schoolmaster, he noted the man’s "hypocritical smile," which resembles his own feigned benignity, his alter mask, and he quails at the sight of Winston’s leading the newly-organized chorus in "Come Holy Ghost" to greet Vincent’s arrival. The sight of the "well-schooled" teacher and the frequency with which he relates the I-centered activities he has undertaken to lift the villagers confirm Benn’s estimation of the man. When the priest had mentioned that the teacher is "Your own people," Benn replied, "He is black, yes. But not my own people. Priest, he is closer to your people. I think that he is your people. He learned in your schools, and he wears the clothes the way you wear them, and he talks the way you talk, and his thinking is that of your people. He is yours, priest. He is not mine" (66). If the priest takes pride in preserving his personal Eden, the schoolmaster attempts to create Winston’s commercial Utopia.

Most of the villagers, to be sure, find remarkable Warwick’s energy, for he accomplishes a great deal in the name of progress: developing schoolyard activities, which include instruction in cricket, organizing a choir, providing adult-learning activities, teaching his students, and creating a city council. Indeed, when the priest commends the schoolmaster for his success with the village council, Warrick waxes eloquent about his grand plans, which include a road that will ensure economic development: "There is so much in this village. You have cocao and ground provisions, yams, and bananas. If there is a road to transport the produce out of here, it will do wonders for the economy of the place. Then we are also quite rich in timber (69). Though perhaps disingenuous owing to his selfish motives, Vincent’s reply strikes to the center of the issue and the center of empire from which the teacher’s ideology emanates: "What about gold, Mr. Warrick? (69). Where the priest sees a simple harmony his life lacks, the school teacher seeks to impose a new order, and at a very high rate of exchange.

The abrogation of traditional norms does not sit well with everyone. Consantine Patron, for example, worries over the deepening friendship between the schoolmaster and the storekeeper. This ugly union of clerk and scribe, in fact, plots to suck the community’s marrow: in a joint venture supported by law, the two now own the land through which the new road will pass. As Patron notes, "And you see now the schoolmaster buys a white horse, and rides it like a governor." The reference recalls the colonial governor of Rhodesia, who, without irony described Africa as a horse on which empire rides. Warwick’s corruption finds affirmation in excess, in drink and finally in rape, in the satiating of desires, which he sees as his due. Indeed, he sees himself as white, the town as his "Rock of Gibraltar" (140); he denies his color, calling the villagers "flatfaced" (120): "This village was his. And he felt now not only as if he had discovered Kumaca, but had had it willed to him by some Sovereign of The Backward Regions" (140). But in the end, Kumaca becomes only his grave, another reminder of colonial dominion and, perhaps, a turning point.

Thinking to take the secret of the teacher’s rape to the grave, Christina commits suicide after her pregnancy begins to show. She fears that either her father or Pedro will kill the schoolmaster, as is their right according to the traditions the village has upheld. But when her father confronts Winston who, atop his white horse, plans to flee, Paulaine cannot fire his shotgun; the exponent of progress shows courage in tears as well as commitment to his belief in change. As Winston attempts to ride away, however, a shot rings out--Patron finally speaks. Significantly, Consantine does not shoot Winston; instead he fells the white horse, that symbol of colonial domination. And the fall breaks the teacher’s neck. The villagers bury both; and the priest accepts their story and his responsibility in the tragedy because the church sponsored the dead rapist, replaying in microcosm an historical relationship Father Vincent must eventually accept and work to transcend.

To borrow from Wole Soyinka, priest and especially teacher "suffer from externally induced fantasies of redemptive transformation in the image of alien masters." (8)    Soyinka’s discussion here of "the self’s daily apprehended reality" (xi) clearly registers with the chord of painful hopefulness the novel’s conclusion strikes, for the tragic transition the village survives leaves its mark. The final passages affirm the need for education and evaluation to confront the inevitability of change and consequent conflict.

The oft-drunken Benn holds the key. When asked by Father Vincent why he drinks, Benn complains that for him life "doesn’t matter " and claims that alcohol helps him not to think. His story, in fact, functions as a parable at the heart of the narrative. Years in the past, he had tried to imitate his white boss, Captain Grant, for whom he had worked for nine years. Grant raised thoroughbreds and sold Benn a sickly black foal for five pounds, thinking the horse would certainly die. But Benn nursed the horse into a beautiful, healthy animal and proudly rode it to work. Grant demands that Benn sell him the animal: "And I know if I want to find work tomorrow I better sell him the horse... But inside me I cry, A man is a man" (60). Instead of selling the animal, he gives it to Grant, "just like I am a white man myself, and have fifty horses, and have riding breeches, and leather whip." Next day, Captain Grant "murdered" the horse; and wanting to live, Benn did not kill him but destroys himself daily. Until he learns of the schoolmaster and his horse’s fate.

Suggestive of the pastoral theme of retreat and regeneration despite tragedy, Benn determines to begin anew since the new road precludes the need for his donkeys. He tells the priest, "To live, a man has to find a way." In reply to Vincent’s question about whether he has found his way, Benn affirms, "I try, priest. Try. And soon I see I will have again to learn how to live" (170). Indeed, he will take his family to Kumaca, where he intends to grow and sell yams. His optimism centered on work and hope, he invites the priest to visit, a gesture that leaves open the door for progress and bespeaks resilience. And through the novel, Earl Lovelace likewise echoes Walcott’s claim: "Poets and satirists are afflicted with the superior stupidity which believes that societies can be renewed." But not without suffering.

Lovelace raises unanswered questions about progress and self affirmation. All his novels and stories investigate similar social concerns about confronting the inevitable, and always with a double perspective, as all steps forward demand reflection on the mediated past. He work punctuates the sentiments in the following statement the Ugandan critic and statesman Okot b’Bitek offers about progress: "If progress has any meaning, then it means making life more meaningful...The critical issue here is that of choice. It is important to keep our eyes and ears open to what is happening elsewhere, to learn and judge, using their examples, whether we can or cannot avoid their false, stupid steps, and use some of the examples of wise moves some fellows might have taken to solve problems; but surely grown up men and women should never merely borrow." (9) Lovelace’s activist pastoral thus heralds his own "belief that the creative artist can heal the wounds of history." (10)



1. Alpers, Paul. What Is Pastoral. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1997. back

2. Ettin, Andrew V. Literature and the Pastoral. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984: 75. One is explicit, where a pastoral place or experience is set within and distinguished from an extensively portrayed nonpastoral context. This type includes the pastoral scenes within epics, romances, novels, and plays. The second type is the implicit inset, which merely suggests the existence of an nonpastoral context. This type includes works using a sophisticated narrator whose knowledge and range of reference indicate existence outside the pastoral world, as well as works in which obviously nonpastoral personages (like religious figures, rulers, and usurers) are treated in pastoral terms. back

3. Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P., 1969: 59.  "Men seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality. Insofar as the vocabulary meets the needs of reflection, we can say that it has the necessary scope. In its selectivity, it is a reduction. Its scope and reduction become a deflection when the given terminology, or calculus, is not suited to the subject matter which it is designed to calculate. Dramaticsm suggests a procedure to be followed in the development of a given calculus, or terminology. It involves the search for a "representative anecdote," to be used as a form in conformity with which the vocabulary is constructed." back

4. Walcott, Derek. "The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?." Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott, edited by Robert D. Hammer. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1993: 57. back

5. Lovelace, Earl. The Schoolmaster. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1979: 170 back

6. On this matter, see especially "A Monster, A Child, A Slave" and "Caliban Orders History" in The Pleasure of Exile by George Lamming. London and New York: Allison & Busby, 1984: 95-117; 118-150. back

7. Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. London: Chatto & Windus, 1934: 23. back

8. Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976: vii. back

9. p’Bitek, Okot. Artist the Ruler: Essays on Art, Culture and Values. Nairobi:East African Educational Publishers Ltd, 1986. 91. back

10. Williams, Kathy. "Earl Lovelace: The Wine of Astonishment." A Handbook For Teaching Caribbean Literature. Plymouth: Heinemann P, 1988: 40. back

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