Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Objectification in Pursuit of History in Derek Walcott's Omeros

By Emily Phillips

In Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros, the figure of Helen is constantly gazed upon, “the island beauty…in her looks” (96). She is used to symbolize the island of St. Helena and to address colonialism as a haunting part of its history. For example, Major Plunkett, a key figure in the poem, seeks validation for his presence on the island, Helen's role as a maid in his home, and his lust for her by constructing a history of the island that is meant to “help her people, ignorant and poor” (97).

By attempting to make Helen a symbol of the island and “her people,” Plunkett distances himself from his attraction toward her and the complex power dynamic present in their relationship. Plunkett doubly objectifies her: first, as the object of his lust, and second, as symbol rather than person.

Throughout the epic, Helen’s beauty alludes to “the face that launched a thousand ships” that is the myth of her namesake, but even as she is inspired by a Homeric past and is fashioned by Major Plunkett and perhaps even Walcott himself, toward the end of the epic, the narrator suddenly becomes conscious of these attempts and asks, “Why not see Helen / as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow, / swinging her plastic sandals on that beach alone, / as fresh as the sea-wind? / Why make the smoke a door?" (271).

Helen is consistently portrayed as object rather than as a person with an interior life of her own, a fact Walcott calls into question, further complicating an understanding of both the character and her presence in the text. This insight made in the poem about the poem illuminates the difficulties in constructing a history and understanding of the island and its past, and calls attention to the problematic slippage that arises in such a quest.

[Related: Notes on Derek Walcott's Omeros]

Emily Phillips, a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE, is currently pursuing her PhD in American Literature at Saint Louis University.

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