The Struggle of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Caryl Phillips's Crossing the River

Gilbert McInnis, Postgraduate Student, Laval University, Canada

This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath's "Postcolonial Literature II" [ANG-64699A], Laval University.

Marginalisation and racism are central themes in Caryl Phillips' Crossing the River. When asked in an interview whether he felt comfortable about "assuming a female voice" in his novel, Phillips responds:

I don't feel it requires any particular strengths. The deal is really that we all play to our own strings, and you find out where you feel most comfortable. Women's position on the edge of society -- both central in society, but also marginalized by men -- seems to me, in some way, to mirror the rather tenuous and oscillating relationship that all sorts of people, in this case, specifically, black people, have in society, and maybe there is some kind of undercurrent of communicable empathy that's going on. [77]

Phillips" motivation for bringing the "marginal" to the "center" is clarified when he says, "maybe there is some kind of undercurrent of communicable that's going on." He creates "communicable" empathy in order to bring the marginal to the center. He embodies this idea in two particular characters in his novel, Martha and Joyce. Martha is a black woman surviving in a racist United States, before and after the abolition of slavery, while Joyce is a white women who falls in love with a black man, Travis, who simultaneously is also an "anti-type" for Martha's brother, Travis.

Both Martha and Joyce are marginalized by their respective societies, but for different reasons. Martha is oppressed because of her society's support for slavery. First, she is marginalized when she is separated from her daughter Eliza Mae and her husband Lucas. At the slave auction Martha tells us that the farmers "are in need of breeding wenches, they look across at us and wait their turn. I am too old for breeding. They do not know that I would also disappoint. My Eliza Mae holds on to me, but it will be to no avail" (77). And once the business of separating this black family is finished, there is only one thing that remains with Martha, and that is she "no longer possessed either a husband or a daughter, but her memory of their loss was clear"(78). Furthermore, Rushdie, in Imaginary Homelands, professes that this notion of memory is a post-colonial struggle when he says, "The struggle of man against power . . .is the struggle of memory against forgetting" (14).

The postcolonial idea that characters struggle with memory is carried throughout Martha's story. When slavery has ended she is not only forced to live with the memory of loss, but she also faces a loss of dignity. This loss of dignity has happened because of the racism that was forged into the American psyche, before and during the Civil war. And even when slavery is outlawed, she is not freed from the shackles of racism, because Phillips transposes, metaphorically, this idea of racism of slavery to another level, when after the emancipation, she becomes a slave to her scars of family fragmentation. We witness this shortly after she is freed when she meets a man, Chester, in Dodge. Initially, her hopes of freedom begin to seduce us into believing that her life might work out happily, and we can see this ray of hope when Martha tries to rebuild a family with Chester. We are told:

'I guess you noticed I ain't one to dress to impress local belles." Then he laughed some, till the tears streamed down his sweet chocolate face. That same afternoon, I pulled off my apron, pulled on a clean, calico dress, pinned down my hair with a bandana, and moved everything to Chester's place (84).

Martha's happiness is not due to her recent release from slavery, because she still carries the yoke of loss; a loss caused by losing her first family. But Chester's love for her does liberate some of her existential pain. Martha tells us, "I was free now . . .I was more contented, not on account of no emancipation proclamation, but on account of my Chester" (84). However, her liberation does not last that long, not even for one page in the novel, because shortly after, Chester is murdered in the streets of Dodge by "Three brave men with pistols smoking" (85). Even though Dodge is a post-slave society, Phillips transposes slavery, metaphorically, to there, and blacks who live there now have to struggle with the memory of slavery, because they remain slaves to the reality of fragmented lives and disrupted communities.

Phillips' choice to "deconstruct" and "reconstruct" our impression of Dogde in Crossing the River, however, reveals his active interests in the theories of post-modernism. First, he reconstructs the history in Dodge. His portrayal of Dodge is nothing like the American Classic Western T.V. show Gunsmoke that some of us would have seen years ago on television. Phillips has altered our traditional impression of Dodge. The Dodge in the novel has no sheriff, Matt Dylan, who "should" have rescued Chester. Furthermore, no "calvary" shows up unexpectedly to rescue Chester from "Three brave men with pistols smoking." So Phillips offers an alternative view of Dodge, and by doing so he reconstructs a new image of Dodge. And by Phillips" attempt to deconstruct and reconstruct a historical "icon," Tiffin says that "these post-colonial writers seek to recast history as a 'redefinable" present rather that an irrevocably interpreted past" (176; Tiffin cites this idea from Eva-Maria Kroller). In addition to recasting the historical "Dodge as a 'redefinable" present," the entirety of the novel is historical in itself. He begins the story in the early 19th century, and the novel ends in the late 20th century. The definite end to the novel is 1963.

Phillips utilizes other stylistic devices of post-modernism for his own postcolonial purpose. First, he incorporates meta-fictional elements into his novel. Second, he does not rely on a linear narrative to carry his story. Third, he refuses to give emphasis to only one central voice in the novel. It is a polyphonic novel, and this notion is central to the theories of postmodernism. Mikhail Bakhtin has said that the post-modern purpose of the multivocal novel "is constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousness as objects into itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely become an object for the other" (quoted Landow, 11). The notion of the individual "dominant" voice is moved to the "margin" and the "collective" marginal voices move to the center, giving a "collective" meaning to story telling. The narrators in Crossing the River are: Nash's biological father, Nash, A narrator telling the story of Edward William's voyage, Martha, James Hamilton and Joyce. Furthermore, Phillips confirms the polyphonic influence of post-modernism on him. He says Crossing the River is a "novel which is fragmentary in form and structure, polyphonic in its voices, which means that a lot of my reading and a lot of the people whose work I"ve enjoyed have made their way in" (94).

One purpose of the polyphonic voice in the novel is to bring into question the traditional European emphasis on the Aristotelian conception of linear narrative. According to Landow, hypertext, perhaps the ultimate postmodernist form, "calls into question (1) fixed sequence, (2) definite beginnings and endings, (3) a story's 'certain definite magnitude," and (4) the conception of unity of wholeness associated with all these other concepts" (102). However, a deconstruction of the above ideas may imply a disintegration of meaning too, since there is a symbiotic relationship between the two, and if linear narrative is deconstructed, so is meaning in general. In fact, Francois Lyotard does claims that "lamenting the 'loss of meaning" in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is not longer principally [linear] narrative" (quoted Landow 11).

It is obvious that Caryl Phillips chooses not to rely on a traditional linear narrative to convey the principal meaning of the book. As mentioned above, the story is told by a multiplicity of "voices," and the time line in the novel extends over a century, even though the story examines the three children's dilemma of being sold into slavery by their father. Furthermore, the final section to the novel, 'somewhere in England" defies the notion of linear narrative by offering no "fixed sequence." The first date given in Joyce's "journal" is June 1942; the second entry is June 1939; the third date is August 1939, and the time line continues on in this "fragmented" manner until 1963.

However, Phillips's book does not defy linear narrative to the extent that "meaning" itself is sacrificed for post-modern purpose. The story of the novel has a "definite beginning," and that happens when the father of Nash, sells Nash, Martha and Travis into slavery. Second, the story sequentially follows the life of Nash in America. Then, the novel's "middle" explores the story of the second child, Martha. And the book has an ending too. It is the story of the third child's lover, Joyce, who is reunited to her son (And Travis' too). However, this part of the story has no "definite magnitude" because Joyce is not connected to the family biologically. She is only connected to the story through the third son, Travis, who "realistically" can not be the same Travis that was sold into slavery a century ago by his father. Joyce's Travis is metaphorically opposed to the slave Travis, who we see being sold into slavery by his father earlier in Africa.

Another element of post-modernism that Phillips utilizes in his novel is meta-narratives, and they too are historical in nature. His purpose in doing so reveals his intentions of not only revising history, but to call into question whether the idea of a grand narrative scheme actually exists. Tiffin professes that both post colonial and postmodern writers strategies "involve radical 're-reading' of those records, whether fictional, historical, or anthropological" (173). In addition, Landow says that Lyotard defined postmodernism as "as incredulity toward metanarratives" (104). The meta-narrative elements in Crossing the River are constructed in a way to call into question the "Master" narrative. First, in the "Acknowledgements" of the novel, Phillips says, "I have employed many sources in the preparation of this novel, but would like to express my particular obligation to John Newton's eighteenth-century Journal of a Slave Trader, which furnished me with invaluable research material for Part III." In addition to the log entries of John Newton, Phillips incorporates letters, and even a crew list from the Duke of York. Veith offers one answer that might explain to why Phillips has done this. He says, "central to the 'postmodern condition" . . .is a recognition and account of the way in which the 'grand narratives" of Western history and, in particular, enlightened modernity, have broken down" (48). Phillips recontextualizes the metanarratives and in doing so perhaps he calls into question the validity of these "Master" narratives.

By Phillips incorporating Newton's log notes into the discourse, or even perhaps the impression that they are Newton's, then juxtaposing them with Phillip's own narrative and Hamilton's (or Phillips"?) personal letters, the reader is given a new "history" that calls into question the European grand narrative. First, the log notes presented by Phillips make Hamilton appear to be a very cold and calculated man doing his job for the sake of colonialism. However, when Hamilton's log entries are juxtaposed to his personal love letters, we get a newly defined "human" impression of Hamilton. There are now perhaps two different histories of the man. The first impression of Hamilton from his log is as follows:

Thursday 25th March At daylight saw a longboat on shore. She came aboard at 9.a.m, brought with her 5 slaves, 2 fine boys, and 3 old women whom I instructed them to dispose of. (My emphasis added, 113).

However, Hamilton's personal letter to his wife is a stark contrast to the man above who disposes of human beings. In his lover letter he writes, "My Dearest . . . this trade and a keen faith cannot reside in one breast, one heart can surely not contain the warring passions of both love and hatred"(119). On the novel level, we get an impression of a man who is divided between love and hatred, in contrast to the inhumane man that is depicted in the "official" log notes. On the historical level, in the log notes, Hamilton is represented as a cold individual who is an agent of European authority. But in Phillip's discourse Hamilton is given humanity, by Phillip's choice to incorporate the love letters. Phillips' choice to reconstruct Hamilton/Newton's character creates a new impression of the European "official" history. In essence, Phillips" decision to deconstruct and reconstruct Hamilton's character in this manner reveals the intention of a post colonial writer who seeks to "recast history as a 'redifinable' present rather than an irrevocably interpreted past."


Davison, Carol "CrissCrossing the River: An Interview with Caryl Phillips," Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 25, 4, 1994.

Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Converence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Ledent, Bénédicte "'Overlapping Territories, Intertwined Histories": Cross-Culturality in Caryl Phillips's Crossing the River," Journal of Commonwealth Literature, XXX, 1, 1995.

Phillips, Caryl Crossing the River. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1995.

Richards, Cameron "Postmodernism or Postcolonialism Tomorrow: the relevance of a diaological framework for postcolonial criticism," Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studes (SPAN), 36, 1993.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. Granta Books, 1991.

Tiffin, Helen. "Post-Colonism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of PostColonial History," Journal of Commonwealth Literature, XXX, 2, 1993.

Veith, Gene E. Postmodern Times. Wheaton Illinois: Crossway

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