"Good Lord ... he looked to her like a soukougnan": the warring aspects of Vodou and Christianity in Maryse Conde's Windward Heights.
Vodou is a complex religion born from the collected suffering of African slaves in the Caribbean. The etymology of the word Vodou has been the source of a sometimes rancorous debate, although the majority of scholars place the point of origin in Nigeria, where it was known as "vodu," meaning "spirit" or "deity" (Guiley 348). The practice of Vodou (1) among the African slaves living in the Caribbean "derived its rationale from two strands of African belief and practice; that which was related to witchcraft, and that which was connected to magic" (Bisnauth 90). Many slaves in the Caribbean began practicing Vodou as an attempt to connect with their African homeland and, at least temporarily, to ease their suffering. The slaves were often so devout that white Christian plantation owners would forbid the practice of Vodou on their property, only to find later that the slaves had secretly congregated at night to practice Vodou against, and perhaps in spite of, their orders (Guiley 348).
Even though Christianity is currently one of the most popular religions in the Caribbean, its history is inextricably linked with the oppressive tactics of the white slave owners. As a result, Vodou practitioners loathe many aspects of the Christian religion. As Tituba, herself a Vodou practitioner, forcefully states in Conde's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, "I do not belong to the civilization of the Bible and Bigotry" (176). This sentiment is echoed by many believers in Vodou who view Christianity as a white man's religion because of its usage by white colonizers in the Caribbean to "educate," and therefore subjugate, the native population. Derek Walcott's Omeros also reflects this sentiment:
by forgetting his parents, his tribe, and his own spirit for an albino god, and how that warrior was scarred for innumerable moons so badly that he would disinherit himself.... (139-40)
Many white colonizers with the "albino god" shared the same view as Richard Ligon, who upon his arrival in Barbados in 1647, declared "that the Africans did not 'know' any religion," somehow missing the African religious practices occurring around him at all times. This viewpoint was shared by many other whites arriving in the Caribbean who held "the general view ... that the African slaves did not hold to a system of beliefs that could be described as a religion ... their beliefs amounted to nothing more than heathenish superstition" (Bisnauth 82). As time passed, slavery became an art form for the European settlers, who began to attempt new and more efficient ways to keep a people subjugated. The answer for the white slave owners came to them through the glowing radiance of Christianity, which they promptly began forcing upon their slaves. Of course, the sudden interest in saving their slaves' souls was not a purely charitable decision but was intentionally introduced to further subjugate their slaves. One cringes when reading the account of Edward Long, an English settler, who somewhat scientifically points out that his "observations have tended to confirm me in the opinion that our Creole Blacks ... may, with a very moderate instruction in the Christian rules, be kept in good order, without the whip" (Bisnauth 102). Christianity was a perfect fit for the white slave owners because it served not only to prevent African slaves from rebelling but also to keep them in a state of perpetual guilt, encouraging hopelessness, lassitude, and unquestioning obedience. The plantation owners' goals were "to bring before the minds of the Negroes the fact that they were 'children of wrath,' that through the love of God every believer in Jesus Christ, the redeemer, was saved ... hitherto, the difficulty which Negroes had in believing and obeying Jesus Christ arose from the wickedness of their hearts" (Bisnauth 122).
Christianity's usage in the Caribbean as an accomplice to slavery places an intense dichotomy between Vodou and Christianity, splitting the slaves into two distinct groups. One group believed in Christianity as a legitimate religion long after they were freed from every other form of physical slavery. On the other hand, as the plantation system crumbled in the Caribbean, many former slaves were left with an intense disgust for the practices of Christianity, a didacticism that is reflected in current Caribbean literature.
The very formation of the Vodou religion is based on rebellion against Christianity. The slaves' embrace of the Vodou religion is also indicative of the relevance to their oppressed lives. Many sociologists now perceive Vodou to be a cultural mirror of sorts that represents many facets of the society that practices it. The religion of Vodou, argues sociologist Roland Pierre, is a rebellion against the political, economical, social, psychological, and cultural oppression by the whites. Vodou, therefore, is an outlet for those peoples placed in turmoil through slavery and its ripple effect through Caribbean society. Pierre believes that mitigating factors, such as the dominant white minority seeking a profit as well as the classicism that slavery and its subsequent abolition caused, has led to the modern-day success of Vodou as "an instrument of expression of the masses" (34). Vodou, after many years of being ignored by the white majority, is now being recognized as an actual religion. The practice has many devout followers, and was once so powerful that it was at the center of a deadly rebellion in Haiti when a "Voodoo King ... declared war on the colonials" (Davis 227).
Razye, the Heathcliff-like character in Maryse Conde's Windward Heights, serves as a reflection for this Vodou hatred of Christianity. Buried within Razye is an encapsulization of the Caribbean black man. Razye contains within his personal history the results of the oppressive atmosphere of enforced Christianity and his subsequent hatred for the religion. Upon Razye's first arrival at the Gagneur's l'Engoulvent plantation, one of the first orders of business for Hubert Gagneur, who discovered Razye alone in the heath, is to give his servants orders to "take him. Wash him. Dress him. Try to make him look like a Christian" (21). This new identity encroached itself into every aspect of Razye's life, and like many slaves before him, he breaks down, telling Nelly Rabotuer through his tears that he wishes he "were white with blue eyes in my face! White with blonde hair on my head!" (30). Eventually, Hubert, who officially serves as Razye's adoptive father but is legitimately his enslaver, dies, entrusting Razye's care to his son, Justin. Unfortunately for Razye, Justin is jealous of the relationship that is growing between Razye and his sister Cathy. "He's a person without education or culture," scoffs an older and newly indoctrinated Cathy Gagneur when recalling Razye, echoing the sentiment of the white plantation owners (61), and the Gagneur men are quick to try to indoctrinate Razye.
The attempted indoctrination by Hubert and subsequent enforced slavery by Justin scars Razye and bends him against Christianity for the rest of the novel. After Cathy's death, Razye vows that he "shall take [his] revenge, a devastating revenge, on what Heaven, in league with the white Creoles ... has done to [him]" (106). This statement is a clear reflection of his burgeoning hatred of the Christian groups on the island. This outburst can easily be dismissed by the reader as the somewhat bizarre and irrational ravings of a madman; however, as the novel progresses, Conde feeds the reader more and more morsels of information concerning Razye's childhood, revealing to the reader that Razye's hatred of Christianity began at an early age:
Until then, as far as I was concerned, all this business about God was nothing but a trap fabricated by whites the better to enslave us with. When we were little, Cathy and I made a prayer to our liking ... "We hate you, sitting up there invisible in Heaven. There is no justice in the way you share out color, plantations, and land. We shall never call you father, cos you're not." (118)
Razye's hatred of the "albino god" begins to boil to the surface more as he grows into adulthood. Razye, after his marriage to Irmine de Linsseuil produces children, allows a Christian preacher to teach them but only "on the condition he never mentioned the name of God in his presence" (112). Eventually, Razye's hatred of Christianity becomes so severe that when his son Aymeric is baptized against Razye's wishes, Razye "beat him more than the other children, even though he was his spitting image" (128). Razye even becomes so fierce in his hatred that Christians on the island, including his own wife, see him as the ultimate embodiment of their own form of evil, stating that Razye was "solid as a rock, eternal as Satan" (130).
Razye's hatred of Christianity, especially considering his background, seems to be obvious; however, his outright embrace of Vodou as an alternative is never distinctly mentioned in the novel. Instead, the reader must examine Razye's actions, especially his willingness to embrace Vodou practitioners, as evidence of his belief in the religion. Indeed, Razye's first action in the novel is to approach Melchior, a "high priest" of a form of Vodou (5), and Razye comes to Melchior "to fathom his future" (9). After Cathy's death, "in hopes of seeing [her] again ... [he] had never given up frequenting ... all sorts of genuine or fake masters of the invisible world" (124). Razye visits two of the more powerful practitioners, Cileus Cileas and Madhi, both of whom are unable to answer his questions about Cathy. Throughout the novel, Razye consults with many practitioners of Vodou, often at the point of desperation:
At one point, mistress Pulcherie, a healer from Morne-al-Loge, had made him take potions and decoctions that twisted him inside out with vomiting and diarrhea ... he realized too late that she was only after his money. Another time, Mano from Maribal had recited for him all the loas in the voodoo pantheon and had promised to place him under the special protection of Azaka-mede ... Three days later, a stab in the back got the better of [Mano]. (124)
Razye's visits to the Vodou priests are not simply narrative devices; instead, Conde offers the reader evidence for Razye's embrace of Vodou.
Razye is not the only character in Windward Heights to be scarred by Christianity. Conde creates several other viewpoints in Windward Heights to explore further this dichotomy between Christianity and Vodou. These varying viewpoints are a collage of ethnic and racial backgrounds and include such diverse characters as Mabo Julie, Lucinda Lucius, Mabo Sandrine, and Sanjita the Housekeeper. Through these various characters, Conde successfully illustrates through these first-person narratives the split between the former slaves who embrace the continued servitude of Christianity and those former slaves who reject Christianity and look towards their own heritage.
Mabo Julie's tragic narrative reveals the extent of her servitude. She is completely lost in the white man's world, blindly embracing his religion and calmly accepting her unfortunate fate. Mabo Julie exhibits the signs of her Christian servitude because she is resigned to her life as a slave, believes that she is at fault for her own slavery, and views Razye in the same negative light as other white Christians do. Mabo Julie's first words to the reader--"For fifty years of my life I have served white folks" (110)--indicates to us her perceived identity as a permanent slave of sorts, unable to realize her own potential for freedom. Even though Mabo Julie never distinctly states her Christian beliefs and vaguely refer to "angels" and "the good Lord," her statements and actions indirectly uncover the level of her Christian indoctrination. For instance, Mabo Julie signals that Christianity's all-encompassing demands for humility and subservience have completely crushed her self-esteem. "Fate ... has inflicted my color on me and condemned me to hell," she states, echoing the sentiments of the English plantation owners Ligon and Long. She has resigned herself to not seeking freedom and instead embraces the totality of her servitude, stating, "I suppose I'll always remain a slave to white folks." Razye, who may not be the most upstanding citizen in the novel, is certainly not a supernatural being with wings; however, the white Christians seem willing to equate him with one, and Mabo Julie also blindly adopts the Christian platform of portraying Razye as "the Demon" (111), further indicating her unyielding and unfortunate support for her own slavers.
Lucinda Lucius's account virtually shadows Mabo Julie's, and the typical white Christian beliefs. Lucius has fully embraced the Christian doctrine and has lost all hope of breaking out of her slavery as well. Lucius is a servant of the de Linsseuil family who views their family estate, Belles Feuilles, as her "jail" (67). Lucius is just as resigned to her fate as Mabo Julie, stating that she has practically forgotten her ancestry, remembering only "that they toiled, suffered and died on this plantation where I am toiling, suffering, and where I shall die when the Good Lord calls me to him" (67). Lucius directly implicates, though it seems she is unaware of the ramifications of this implication, the person(s) responsible for her loss of heritage and thus her loss of identity: "Like all servants of the house," she says, "I had learnt to read and write, since the master never stopped repeating that only education would make us forget Africa and set us on the road to improvement" (77). Lucius, however, recalls a conversation she once had with Cathy, where Cathy wonders aloud if "the Christian religion is not a white folk's religion made for white folks; whether it's right for us to have African blood in our veins." Lucius is "stupefied" by the comment and poignantly remarks that "the religion we are taught in church forbids us everything that makes life exciting" (81). Lucius's only reaction upon seeing Razye is to pray "to the Good Lord for over an hour," (perhaps in an effort to cleanse herself of his "demonic" presence), an action that echoes the reactions of the whites who instinctively crossed themselves when seeing Razye (72). Lucius's account is just as troubling as Mabo Julie's, for it portrays two women defiled and destroyed by Christianity and its teachings.
Mabo Sandrine's tale is almost entirely different from the others. She was born in the same month that the abolition of slavery was announced in Guadeloupe and therefore could not be as fully enslaved or indoctrinated as Julie and Lucius. Unfortunately for Sandrine, however, the complete eradication of slavery never quite arrived, as economic conditions forced her into a life of servitude. Sandrine, however, refuses to embrace Christianity. She immediately tells an anecdote showing her openly rebellious nature, stating that when her master's son Justin-Marie tried to get her to face him, she stated "[e]nough of that, slavery's over" and turned away from him (194). She views her master with no small amount of disgust:
Monsieur Aymeric has been very good to me. He had taught me how to read and write as he does for everyone who works for him. At the beginning of each month he deposits my wages in the bank to see me through my old age. But a master is a master. You can't love him. Sometimes the hatred I have for him stirs in my stomach and surges up to my mouth, fetid like the spit of a toad. (196)
Sandrine's intense dislike for her enslaved status leads her to Razye, who she sees at a Socialist meeting. Her view of Razye is radically different from an indoctrinated Christian's perspective. Her description of Razye portrays him not as a demonic figure, but almost as a lazy and bored human. Razye is not a demonic beast, but has his "eyes half closed" and "didn't speak, didn't shake hands, [and] he gave no embraces" (197,198). Sandrine does not view Razye as a demon, a Satan, or any other evil figure; rather, she views him as someone who is "contemptuously bored," (198) further separating her views and perspectives from Christianity.
Conde's collage also presents to the reader Sanjita the Housekeeper as a more complex case, a woman struggling to find out which god she needs to have in her life. Complicating matters further for the reader is that Sanjita looks white, and is not African, but Indian. Sanjita was never physically removed from her homeland and taken to a white-owned plantation, but she, like Sandrine, is a victim of economic slavery. As a child, her parents died and left her and her siblings in poverty. Sanjita supports herself and her daughter through a sort of slavery-for-hire business, taking ridiculously low wages to work at various plantations as a housekeeper. Despite her servant status, Sanjita manages to break away from Christianity during a traumatic time in her life. She wonders if her trauma is because she "had turned her back on the gods of India ... and was worshipping the god of the white Creoles." Sanjita eventually destroys all of her Christian relics but then states that "even today I have no answers to my questions" (160). At the risk of overwhelming the reader with symbolism, Conde also inserts Madam Marguerite, a wealthy white slave-owner, into Sanjita's story to further elucidate the prevailing opinion of the whites toward the blacks. Marguerite echoes her white ancestors' opinions when she wonders aloud if "it was the Good Lord who created niggers. He can't have, because they're a heathen race" (161). Sanjita, of course, even if she is not black, is classified by the whites as a "heathen" as well, simply because she is confused about her own religious identity and is not a Christian.
Much of this hostility from whites towards black practitioners of Vodou comes from popular misperceptions of the practice that the whites have adopted. This mistrust and purposefully damaging mythology that whites have attached to Vodou is a common thread that runs through Caribbean literature. Many of the whites that populate Caribbean literature, like those that populate the Caribbean itself, are woefully ignorant of Vodou's background and its purpose, believing it to be too primitive and "heathenish" to be a respectable religion. One of the most common misperceptions is the belief that the focus of Vodou is to cast harmful spells on one's enemies. Valerian Street, an elderly upper-class white man in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby, views Vodou as a primitive religion that prevents blacks from advancing in society. When discussing his son, Michael, and his work with minorities less fortunate than the quite wealthy Street family, Valerian scoffs at their religion, stating that Michael's "idea of racial progress is All Voodoo to the People" (72).
In I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Conde illustrates the purpose of Vodou, which is to heal people. Tituba at first has the desire to kill Susanna Endicott, her white master, using Vodou, ignoring the stiff warnings of her Vodou teacher, Mama Yaya, who states simply that Tituba's powers must serve "her own people and heal them" (29). Tituba succeeds in eliminating Susanna Endicott by making Endicott eliminate her own bodily fluid in a particularly grisly scene, but as Tituba grows older and wiser, she embraces Vodou as a healing art, often "dividing her time between my herbs and healing the slaves" (158). Many of the whites in the novel, often the intensely devout Puritans, remain convinced that Tituba is a witch whose powers are meant to do only evil. For instance, Goody Hutchinson, knowing Tituba's Vodou background, asks that Tituba kill the firstborn or at least the wife of her enemy (86). Tituba rejects this request and instead fully adopts Mama Yaya's philosophy of healing throughout the rest of the novel. Truly, Tituba's passion for healing is so profound that she continues to "heal and cure" well into the epilogue of the story ... after she's already dead (175)!
The misperception by whites that Vodou is a harmful practice is also stated poignantly by Michelle Cliff in her novel Free Enterprise. Mary Ellen Pleasant's preferred legacy is that of being "a friend of John Brown," but instead, whites are more interested in Pleasant's relationship to Vodou and the scandalous gossip that results from their purposeful distortions of Vodou. They are not aware, and certainly do not seem to want to be aware of Mary Ellen Pleasant's relative ignorance concerning Vodou. All Mary Ellen Pleasant knows about Vodou is that her mother, Quasheba, was a Vodou priestess; however, the fact that Mary Ellen Pleasant appears to be black and not a Christian leads to far more juicy gossip for the whites than the actual truth:
"Mary Ellen Pleasant?"
"Wasn't she the voodoo queen?"
"Didn't she work voodoo on that white woman and send her off her head?
"Wasn't she Haitian?"
"Didn't she have a witch mark on her forehead?"
"A cast eye?"
"Didn't she come back as a zombie?"
"Didn't she make a senator's balls fall off?" (18)
As Mary Ellen Pleasant recalls a trip on a steam ship to Martha's Vineyard, she again encounters whites that are willing to gossip about her. "I can almost hear them whisper 'voodoo,'" she writes, pointing out that they are somewhat afraid of her, not realizing that Vodou is a religion with healing at its core. Mary Ellen Pleasant, however, intelligently exploits these apparent fears that whites have of Haitians who can make testicles fall off. Pleasant writes that "Still, at times like these, 'voodoo' can be a blessing. For they cut me a wide swath and the service is good" (136). The reader can almost see Pleasant smile.
One of the more famous misunderstood practitioners of Vodou in literature is Christophine in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. Christophine functions as a guide for Antoinette, and eventually leads Antoinette to embrace her Caribbean roots and abandon her English background. Christophine, at times, is misunderstood by Antoinette and is always misunderstood by Rochester. When Antoinette asks for some sort of potion to make Rochester fall in love with her, she illustrates the typically white Christian attitude towards Vodou. She states "You can make people love or hate, or ... or die." Christophine's reaction is to Antoinette's statement is suitable: "she threw back her head and laughed loudly" (67). Christophine is simply unable to contain her amusement at Antoinette's ignorance about the true role of a Vodou practitioner as a healer, not a killer. Antoinette further demonstrates her lack of knowledge and her misinformed nature concerning Vodou by offering Christophine money for her potion. Antoinette's clumsiness stems again entirely from her ignorance, as she is quite unaware that Vodou plays no part in the capitalistic society that Antoinette is so used to (Drake 198). Eventually, Antoinette understands the role Christophine plays in her life, but the same cannot be said of Rochester, who mistrusts the completely alien Christophine from the start. Rochester, a rich white boy, for lack of a better phrase, is from England, and has quite possibly never met someone who is black and not Christian. Because of his ignorance, he accuses Christophine of encouraging Antoinette to poison him, even after Christophine tells him of her attempts to heal a woman whose nose was chopped off with a machete. Later, Rochester realizes that Christophine is having a "negative" influence on Antoinette and moves to separate the two, calling her a "ridiculous old woman" (Rhys 95).
Perhaps one of the greatest reasons for this ignorance that the white Christians share concerning Vodou is that there are many superstitions and beliefs in Vodou that seem alien and bizarre to those uneducated about the practice. Many of these Vodou superstitions and beliefs, however, are richly imbued with symbolic qualities, inserting huge volumes of history and belief into one lonely phrase. This rich symbolism is often used by authors of the Caribbean as a literary device, a way to educate their readers about Vodou, and also to suggest various facets of the personalities of the characters they have created. It is essential to our understanding of Vodou that we examine some of the more prevalent beliefs in the religion that are reflected in Caribbean literature. These beliefs often focus on the state of one's soul and its future place in the spirit world. In an effort to give the reader a greater understanding of some of the symbolic aspects of Vodou, it is worthwhile to explore the usage of such beliefs as ghosts, the silk cotton tree, the soukougnan, and the zombie.
The purpose of ghosts as symbolic elements in literature are understood by all but the most careless of readers; however, the usage of ghosts and spirits in Caribbean literature seemingly carries more symbolic weight than their AngloSaxon counterparts. The Vodou legend, on the surface, mirrors everything we have already learned about ghosts; they are representations of the dead, souls that have crossed into another world after being freed from their earthly shells. By mixing this common belief with Vodou religion and the violent past of the forced slavery in the region, ghosts or spirits seem doubly significant. African slaves used stories of ghosts or spirits to maintain some sort of connection with their African homeland, and as a result, ghosts or spirits not only represent the standard Jacob Marley fare of Anglo-Saxon literature but also signify the African slaves' pride and love of their ancestral roots. Ghosts are believed to inhabit the "human" world on a regular basis, guiding the actions of the living. Throughout Caribbean literature there is also a concern for descendants as well, those who have to reap the seeds sown during the course of slavery and its abolition. Knowing this, it becomes easier to read Caribbean literature not only as a reflection of Vodou or superstition but also as an examination of the racial and ethnic roots of particular characters. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this is Toni Morrison's Tar Baby, in which the antagonist of the novel, Son, admits to his belief in ghosts:
"Did you see any ghosts while you were there?" Jadine asked him.
He shook his head but did not look at her. "No but I guess they saw me."
Valerian laughed heartily. "Are you a believer then?"
"Sometimes." said the man. (93)
Son, of course, is perhaps one of the most "in touch" characters in the novel, fully aware of his African roots and heritage, and Morrison uses the existence of ghosts and spirits to allude to Son's belief system. Of course, ghosts play a prominent but sometimes unspoken role in Tar Baby. Morrison often refers to two rolling armies on horseback, the ghosts of the natives and the ghosts of Napoleon, constantly engaging in battle for the island. These roaming armies of ghosts also represent "the interlocking nature of the past and the present as well as the spiritual and physical worlds" (Harris 92). The men "gallop, they race those horses like angels all over the hills where the rain forest is," reflecting the Vodou belief that ghosts who died tragic deaths continue to wander the world (306). These ancestral armies at once remind the characters of their roots and also reveal them to the reader; Valerian's identification with the white elitist Napoleon's army is no less significant than Son's eventual association with the ghosts of the natives.
Michelle Cliff turns this aspect of Vodou belief on its head in Free Enterprise. Mary Ellen Pleasant the main character in the novel, tries to appease and live for the ghosts of the past; she also must do the same for the apparitions of the future. Michelle Cliff names this chameleon-like spirit of the future a "hologrammatical man," who takes the shape and abilities of famous African-Americans, from Aretha Franklin--"R-E-S-P-E-C-T sang the hologrammatical man as he chalked his cue stick" (146)--to Marcus Garvey and possibly Malcolm X (Brice-Finch 56). Mary Ellen Pleasant, is motivated to action against slavery because of the hologrammatical man, whose mere presence reminds her that her descendants need her to save them from continuous slavery.
As with all Maryse Conde novels, aspects of Vodou prominently figure into the plot of the story. In both I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, and Windward Heights, ghosts are simply recurring characters that inhabit the world of the living on a regular basis. Like the people they once were, ghosts have concerns, beliefs, and ideas to share with the living. In Tituba, Conde illustrates this need for ghosts and spirits to guide the living. Throughout all of Tituba, the main character is followed by the ghosts of her dead parents Abena and Yao, as well as the spiritual representation of her mentor, Mama Yaya. Both Abena and Mama Yaya attempt to influence Tituba's decisions regarding Tituba's life. The spirits are not content to rest on their ethereal laurels, however; Conde shows the reader that ghosts can play an active role in healing the souls of the living even without a mortal coil. For instance, Conde allows Tituba to use her powers to conjure the spirit of her lover Benjamin Cohen's ex-wife. Conde's accounts of these visits between the two lovers illustrate not only the author's but also the Vodou belief that spirits influence lives on a daily basis. At the end of the novel, Tituba's death is not mourned but is celebrated as a new beginning where she is "never alone," having joined the other spirits in "the invisible world" (177, 175). Now a ghost, Tituba chooses to influence the world of the living by choosing for herself a successor to whom Tituba tells "her the secrets I'm allowed to share, the hidden powers of herbs and the language of animals" (177). The spirit of Tituba now serves as a link to the past, giving power, knowledge, and inspiration to the generations to follow.
Like Tituba's firsthand account of life as a spirit, we hear Cathy's story from a first-person perspective in Windward Heights. Conde provides Cathy with an unfettered voice with which to speak. "Life is past," Cathy's spirit states to the reader, "[e]ternity ahead" (95). The presence of Cathy's spirit in the Caribbean is perhaps the driving factor behind Razye's Vodou beliefs. Razye knows the spirit of Cathy is still around him, indicating further his belief in Vodou. "She will always be beside me," he says, "she'll cling to me like the murdered haunts their murderers" (89). Razye, in a fit of rage, eventually destroys Cathy's tomb as Conde narrates his thoughts, stating that Razye "knew that Cathy was not under this slab" (153). Again, we see a split: Razye is tormented by the existence of Cathy's spirit and his inability to locate her. The Vodou priests' failure to locate her in the spirit world may be indicative of the encroaching Christianity on the island--one power base is slowly supplanting another, and the Vodou is losing its power. As a result, Razye loathes Christianity even more. There is little doubt that Cathy's spirit is one of the motivating factors for Razye's rage against the whites and Christians.
Razye, like Tituba and Cathy, becomes a spirit after his death. Conde places Razye's ghost at his own tomb and in keeping with the tradition of the ghost, Razye appears to his descendant, in this case his son Gengis. Gengis, who "hated his father" (283), is left with a subtle warning from Razye:
One day, when I was at my wit's end, someone advised me to drink some rum. I listened to him, I drank some rum, but its fire turned to ice inside my body. Someone else told me to have children, they're the remedy for everything--mourning, solitude, and even death ... sometimes I couldn't even look at them, they made me so angry and disgusted. I also smoked herbs that make you talk off of the top of your head, but nothing came out. I kept my head and all that grief that stuck in my throat like a red snapper. (287)
The last words from Razye's spirit echoes those of Cathy's: "What am I going to do with all this time on my hands?" (287). Razye's spirit leaves a caveat his son, telling Gengis how to cope with the overwhelming grief he may surely feel living on an island as an outcast. Whether the message had its intended impact on Gengis is up for literary debate or perhaps another Conde novel; however, the spirit of Razye has undoubtedly left a lasting impression on his descendent.
After becoming a spirit, one is believed to be closely associated with the silk cotton tree. Also known as the kapok tree, it is considered by many Vodou believers to be a powerful marker of the spirit world, often attracting spirits and ghosts. According to reporter Judy Raymond, "the tree is sometimes said to have a soul or to be the home of a spirit. But it is most closely associated with the souls of the dead, who live in its roots and branches" (12). In Caribbean literature, the tree appears most often in Maryse Conde novels. In I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Conde uses the silk cotton tree as a foreshadowing device. Tituba, as she converses with the spirits of her parents, is described as having hair "as white as the flock on the silk-cotton tree" (168). Of course, Tituba soon becomes a spirit herself after being executed by the whites, stating that on the entire island, "there isn't one of its silk cotton trees in whose branches I haven't sat" (177). Despite this overwrought language, it does establish a precedent of sorts for the silk-cotton tree's usage in literature. In Windward Heights, Conde again uses the theme of the silk-cotton tree as indicative of the powers of Vodou. "In front of my very eyes," Mabo Julie recalls of her husband, who was executed by the white Christians on the island, "I watched his body swing from the lower branches of a silk cotton tree" (110). Unfortunately for Mabo Julie, she has turned her back on her Vodou heritage and remains unaware of the implications of her own recollection. For the reader, however, Conde inserts the silk cotton tree symbolism to tell the reader what Mabo Julie does not--or perhaps refuses to know--that even though Mabo Julie's husband died in a tragic manner, his soul triumphantly continues to inhabit the island of Guadeloupe in spirit form.
Michelle Cliff also uses the silk cotton tree to maximum symbolic effect in Free Enterprise. Instead of merely being a place that spirits inhabit, Cliff uses the silk cotton tree as an illustration of the ancestral heritage of the Arawak people. During Cliff's dramatic retelling of the history of Arawak "cinnamon women," Cliff tells the reader that "they called the silk cotton tree, from which they carved their canoes, the Tree of God. The tree grew tall enough to guide the boats home ... in these canoes the people traveled everywhere ... " (122). For the reader unaware of the legends surrounding the silk cotton tree, it would be easy to assume that Cliff inserts this specific tree because of its buoyancy or its waterproof nature; however, Cliff uses the tree to illustrate its spiritual trait. In an almost Homeric metaphor, Cliff indicates that the silk cotton tree, which is inhabited by the spirits of the ancestors, serves as beacons for the descendants, calmly guiding their lives and their actions. Obviously, the Arawaks are aware of the spiritual nature attached to the tree--after all, they do call it the Tree of God--but Cliff leaves the search for a spiritual knowledge up to the reader.
Not all ghosts or spirits in Caribbean legend are kind or gentle. The soukougnan is a nasty fellow, a result of a pact with the Devil that allows the beneficiaries to transform themselves into glowing beasts with wings that thrive on fresh blood. Upon becoming a soukougnan, the person can also transform into any animal (Corzani 135). The legend of the soukougnan appears sporadically throughout Caribbean literature, and like the silk cotton tree, most often in Maryse Conde's works. The writer's use of the soukougnan legend allows a reader to delineate a character's perspective on another character if they begin to accuse them of being a soukougnan. For instance, Razye, who is most often associated with the Christian Satan in Windward Heights, is also equated with the bloodsucker. Even though Conde never explicitly mentions the religious background of Hosannah, Irmine's servant, she apparently has some grounding in Christianity, hence her frightened exclamation of "Good Lord!" when she sees Razye. A few seconds later, she realizes that "he looked ... like a soukougnan" (268). Yet again, Conde pounds her message home as another Christian again equates Razye with the embodiment of evil. This time, however, Hosannah refers to Vodou belief to state her fear of Razye. She, as well as other Christians, obviously sees Razye as a satanic figure that has made a pact with the Devil.
The soukougnan legend also appears in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem as a fairytale of sorts, at least on the surface. Tituba tells the children of the Puritan Parris family the legend of the soukougnan, which prompts their fearful questions of "What are the words of the people in league with the devil have to say before shedding their skin? How do soukougnans drink the blood of their victims?" (42). Again, the soukougnan is presented as an embodiment of evil, and in this case, is one of the sources for the children's later accusations against Tituba; Conde also meticulously insinuates that Puritans, or at least their children, are the real soukougnans in the story. Betsey, deciding to accuse Tituba of witchcraft, is described by Tituba as "screaming ... as if this child had been changed into a vile animal" (72). Later, Tituba covers Betsey's mouth to keep her from screaming, but Betsey bites Tituba "so hard she drew blood and we remained looking at each other while a red pool began to form on the floor" (77). Betsey invariably plays the role of the soukougnan in Tituba, and in Conde's usual blunt style, the condemnation against this child as demonic bears itself out as the Puritans run rampant throughout the rest of the novel.
Almost as frightening to the slaves as the soukougnan is the zombie, although the fright is not because of sharp fangs or steely claws; instead, the zombie is frightening because it indicates further enslavement. The legend of the zombie, or zombi, is intensely symbolic. The concept of the zombi began in Western Africa and, along with the practice of Vodou, arrived on the shores of the Caribbean with the African slaves (Kastenbaum 285). Linguists have traced the term to somewhere in the Congo from the word nzambi, literally meaning "spirit of the dead" (Guiley 395). The legend of the zombie was particularly frightening for slaves in the Caribbean not only because they could identify with its plight but also because even death would no longer provide a sanctuary from hard labor as their soulless bodies were forced into slavery as well (Guiley 396). Critic Maximilien Larouche succinctly describes this sociological aspect of this legend: "He is the symbol of the slave, the alienated man robbed of his will, reduced to slavery, forced to work for a master. This explains his double economic and religious significance ... to put it bluntly, [the master] wants cheap labor" (55). Larouche later states that "the history of colonization is the process of man's general zombification" (59), arguing that the legend of the zombie is a direct result of the colonizing powers of the Caribbean. Christianity also plays a role in sustaining the zombie legend, for even after slaves in the Caribbean were freed, they had to live under the influence of a Christian god (Corzani 134). This continued servitude keeps the zombie myth alive in the Caribbean, especially Haiti, and the legend of the zombie is another common facet of Caribbean literature. One aspect of the zombie legend for instance is that immediately after a zombie is created one of the first steps a new master must perform is to rename it and strip away its former identity (Jones 131). Of course, Razye was nameless, a literal child of nature, until Hubert decides to name him, not bothering to investigate the child's past.
The progression of a zombie that is awakened from his or her slumber is often a violent one. Former zombies exhibit "a vast rage and ungovernable desire for vengeance. They hurl themselves on their master, kill him, destroy his property, and then go in search of their tombs" (Burton 248). In Windward Heights, Razye follows this pattern almost perfectly. Razye's former master, of course, is Justin Gagneur, but Conde places the symbolic emphasis on Christianity as being Razye's true former master. Upon Cathy's death, Irmine sees Razye wandering around Cathy's grave. Irmine says that Razye's "strides are mechanical and he looks like a zombie" (102). This is the end of Razye's zombie-like stupor, as he suddenly begins to rebel against Christianity by actions instead of words. Razye makes his vow, as we have already examined, to destroy Heaven as well as the white Creoles, and promptly sets to the task. Razye joins the Socialists (to be discussed later in greater detail) and eventually begins to kill his former masters and destroy their property. Razye decides to "incite more workers to go on strike, set fire to more cane-fields and sequester their owners" (205). The slaughter may seem random, but Razye's searching out Christians on the island is a practice akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Razye does not discriminate and targets every white Christian landowner he can find. Towards the end of Razye's life, he is remembered for leaving "a wake of mischief ... [and] had plundered the plantations" (230). Razye, of course, is fictionally one of the leaders of the rebellion in Guadeloupe, which destroyed many plantations and crops, effectively putting many white Creoles out of business (Rogozinski 68).
This same process of an open rebellion leading towards doom is also used to great effect in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. At least two literary critics, Sandra Drake and Thomas Loe, have examined the zombification and subsequent rebellion of Antoinette, the heroine and focal point of the novel. Like Windward Heights, Sandra Drake argues that to fully understand Wide Sargasso Sea, the reader "require[s] an understanding of the complex nature of the zombi" (200). Drake argues that the main character in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette, like Razye in Windward Heights, is indeed a zombie throughout much of the novel, awakening at the climax of the book to exact a cruel revenge on her former owners. In Antoinette's story, her "master," so to speak, is Rochester, whose first order of business is to strip Antoinette of her identity, calling her Bertha, a re-baptismal of sorts that further subjugates her (Loe 36). Eventually, Antoinette awakens and literally burns the house down, blinding Rochester, destroying herself, and destroying much of his estate; as Davis argues, Antoinette "possesses herself of the divine fire, of vengeance, and self-reclamation" (204).
The parallels between Antoinette's and Razye's awakening from zombification are astounding; however, Maryse Conde's Windward Heights takes the progression of the zombie even further into symbolism. Razye's uprising eventually leads to the downfall of Aymeric, perhaps the paramount Christian in the novel. On the surface, it seems like Razye wants to destroy Aymeric because Aymeric married Cathy; however, Razye also views Aymeric as an enemy for different reasons. In typical Conde style, she presents a perfect (and often overstated) Christian for Razye to target. It is true that Aymeric never enslaved Razye or forced Christianity on him, yet Conde presents the myth of the zombie to work as a parallel for the enslaving influence of Christianity. Like all white Creoles, Aymeric was "forced into making pretences [with blacks] given their new state of affairs," (130) and often used Christianity as a guiding force in his life and thus the lives of his slaves. Since the beginning of his life, Aymeric had been equated with the best of Christianity; being nicknamed "heavenly Cherub" because of his perfect whiteness, with hair "so blond, his complexion so pink" (37). Even though Aymeric dies of tuberculosis contracted from Justin-Marie, Razye senses his master has finally been destroyed and begins to head for his tomb. For Razye, upon hearing of Aymeric's death, "the revenge he had hankered after was meaningless and he no longer saw a reason for living" (252). Razye becomes so resigned to his death that he no longer has need for the worldly goods, "all of the possessions [he has] wrongly acquired." Nor does he have a need for the rebellious nature of the Socialists, saying that for his funeral, he does not "want anyone else [to attend] ... certainly not the Socialists" (272). Razye's thirst for revenge, like the zombie's, has been quenched by the destruction of his masters, especially Aymeric, and many white Christian Creoles. To the reader, Razye's quest to destroy Christianity seems impossible; however, Razye never intended to destroy all Christians or all churches, but to undermine the blind belief in its oppressive atmosphere. With this goal in mind, Razye's quest to destroy Christianity succeeds. Razye's militant actions even shift many of the character's beliefs in Christianity. One notable progression away from Christianity is that of Irmine, Razye's wife, who seemingly displays the novel's attitude towards Christianity by realizing that Psalm 23 contains "hollow words" and she chides herself for "paying homage to rites she no longer believed in" (280).
Before his death, Razye's awakening from his zombie-like state is also symbolized by his sudden shift towards Socialism. He begins the novel in Cuba, having been recently employed by the Cuban government to help quell a Socialist uprising in their country. Razye's witnessing of the death of Jose Marti (2) is met with a sort of bland stoicism that reveals his zombie-like catatonia towards the Socialist agenda. In Cuba, Razye recalls his work as a mercenary assigned to help quell a Marti-orchestrated uprising:
I was in the plain of Boca de Dos Rios when they shot Jose Marti, who had just been named Major General of the Liberation Army. I saw him jump from his horse and covered in blood, roll towards our lines. After that, the rebellion lost its soul and the rebels dragged their feet. So me and the mercenaries finished them all off. (116)
Even after Razye's awakening, his embrace of Socialism is just as unexpected as it is profound. Razye becomes a visible figure in the Socialist movement and eventually ignites an uprising similar to the one that he helped to defeat in Cuba. After the uprising in Guadeloupe is quelled, Razye's devout belief in Socialism is exemplified by a symbolic moment in which he approaches a widow of one of his fallen men, bringing her a "purse full of money on behalf of the Socialists." Conde even notes that "[he] ... had his eyes filled with tears" (244).
Razye awakening to a militant existence is exemplified in the seemingly smallest of actions. For instance, Razye names his children after non-Christians who are famous for war and rebellion, perhaps in an effort to prevent his sons from sharing his fate. His two sons, Gengis and Zoulou are perhaps paeans to the past in an effort to determine their future. Gengis' namesake is obviously Ghengis Khan, who, as leader of the Mongols, unified all of the warring factions of Mongols into one overwhelming army that dominated much of central Asia (Axelrod and Phillips 124). Raz-ye's desire for Gengis may be to unite the various factions of the blacks, many of whom refused to participate in the Guadeloupe uprising (Rogozinski 168-9). Razye, seeing the lack of participation in the uprising, must have remembered Justin's comment that "the mulattos and specially the blacks [were] always ready to tear each other apart, run each other down and do the dirt on each other" (Conde, Windward 48). The same motive may also lie behind Razye's decision to name his other son Zoulou, referring to the Zulu nation, a people who became united under the leadership of Shaka, who once led a rampaging and unified army that perhaps numbered in the tens of thousands. Under Shaka, the Zulus became one of the deadliest fighting forces in Africa (Axelrod and Phillips 392). Naming his two sons after these military leaders is yet another symbol of his rise out of zombification, especially when compared to his own childhood, with a Razye who seemed to take "pleasure in his abjection," bending easily to the whip, and becoming "sullen and uncouth, a repulsive animal" (Axelrod and Phillips 27).
The term zombie appears two more times in Windward Heights. First, a broken (both financially and physically) Justin relates a story to Razye about Cathy's sudden shift from embracing her white heritage to embracing her African heritage. According to Justin, Cathy fell ill soon after discovering that Razye left Guadeloupe for Cuba. Cathy is eventually healed, and awakened, from her zombie-like state by Mama Victoire, a Vodou practitioner who "brought Cathy back to life. Cathy had become a zombie and [Victoire] gave her salt" (47). Cathy does not openly rebel--she does not kill anyone or set fire to anything--however, Justin notes that during her wedding, "Cathy realized she was taking her place of her own accord in a long procession of victims" (50). The "long procession of victims," of course, is open to interpretation, but it seems that Conde is leading the reader to believe from the mention of Vodou that this "long procession of victims" are the victims of slavery, the Africans, of which Cathy shares a small part of this heritage. Indeed, Cathy becomes a completely different person after coming upon this realization, and waiting for her tomb, simply withers away. After her death, Conde notes that the color of Cathy's skin "was not white ... It was as if her black blood could no longer be contained and was taking its revenge. Victorious, it was flooding through her" (84). Cathy apparently parlays her need for revenge to such an extent it simply destroys her. She is able to resist this thirst because she is only partially African. Cathy, like her skin, is black only under the surface, and her awakening also takes place just beneath the surface as well, eventually destroying her.
The reader will never know what happens to Etiennise, Sanjita's daughter, who is also a zombie for a brief period of time in the novel. Compared to the other characters in the book, Etiennise appears only fleetingly, and the conclusion of her story is perhaps best reserved for another Conde novel. In Windward Heights, however, Etiennise is a friend of the tubercular Justin-Marie, who dies while attempting to rape her. Dorisca, a slave for Aymeric, enters the room to find Justin-Marie dead and Etiennise "standing like a zombie." Etiennise awakening, however, is not as symbolic as Razye's or Cathy's; her awakening comes in the form of a hearty, "almighty slap" across her face (192). The last we see of Etiennise is her being pushed out of the door by Dorisca as Etiennise silently cries. This is a different Etiennise than the one introduced to the reader earlier in the novel. Up until Justin-Marie's attempted rape, Etiennise did "not tire of his company. All day long she waited for the moment when she would join him again" (187). This nearly idyllic friendship is shattered, and the reader is left wondering what happens to Etiennise. Conde may purposely let Etiennise's story end here to force the reader to question what will become of Etiennise's awakening. It is very easy to assume, by looking at other awakenings from zombification in Conde's works, the result will be far from idyllic for the white Christian.
If one of the purposes of Windward Heights is to produce a dichotomy with the religions of Christianity and Vodou, it succeeds; indeed, the very existence of Windward Heights calls into question the seemingly complacent belief in Christianity in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. In Windward Heights, Conde places two religions in direct opposition with one another, forcing the reader to question the positive and negative aspects of each. There is a virtual catalog of quotes in Wuthering Heights that displays this devout Christianity, and to list all of the examples would be an exercise in boredom. A few examples should suffice to show Bronte's inability to see outside of the Christian mindset. For instance, upon discovering the child Heathcliff, he is described by the narrator as a "gift of God" (Bronte 28), and his names serves as his "Christian and surname" (29). When Heathcliff vows revenge on Hindley, he threatens that "God won't have the satisfaction that I shall." He lurches towards some form of blasphemy, but falls short of breaking out of Christian belief (47). Heathcliff, as he becomes a more obsessive character, is viewed as someone that "God has forsaken," (84), and like Razye, is called a "devil" (217), but unfortunately, Bronte does not provide poor Heathcliff with another religion to turn to. Heathcliff, unlike Razye, becomes a bit of a villain as the novel progresses, perhaps because of the singular Christian religion, whereas Razye becomes a hero for embracing Vodou and turning his back on Christianity. In Wuthering Heights, the only dichotomy that exists is between God and the devil, heaven and hell. Bronte creates a world that mirrors her own; Christianity is not called into question and is simply embraced as the "right" religion, a belief that again recalls the white colonizers who encroached into the Caribbean. Conde, however, offers the reader an alternative to the Christian religion in effect by creating Windward Heights. By writing Windward Heights, she offers an alternative dichotomy between Christianity and Vodou. Conde paints a sympathetic portrait of Vodou while simultaneously casting Christianity into a negative light. The pair of novels is inextricably linked, and much like Vodou and Christianity and God and the devil, constantly at odds with one another.
To fully understand the forces at work in Maryse Conde's Windward Heights, the reader must have some understanding of the religious beliefs and superstitions surrounding Vodou. By examining the social and religious history of the Caribbean, as well as other literature from the region, the reader can only begin to truly understand the intricacies woven into the plot of Windward Heights that attempts to make the reader question his or her own beliefs. It is almost too easy to condemn Razye-- after all, he does burn down fields, beat his children, and neglect his wife--yet, Conde forces the educated reader to look at the entire portrait of Razye, a man who is representative of much of the Caribbean region through his own personal history. He was forced into slavery, developed a profound hatred for Christianity, and rose to fight against it while embracing his own African roots in the form of Vodou. The symbolism that Conde uses is so profound that it merits further discussion in the discourse concerning not only Windward Heights or the works of Maryse Conde but also the whole body of Caribbean literature.
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--. Windward Heights. Soho Press: New York, 1998. Print.
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Blue Ridge Community College
(1) There are many different spellings of Vodou, including "voodoo" and "hoodoo," both considered to be disparaging (Guiley 348). For the purposes of this essay, the religion will be referred to as Vodou.
(2) Marti's belief in socialism has been open to some debate among historians; however, the majority opinion is that Marti's words and actions indicate his Socialist philosophy (Ibarra 83).
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|Publication:||Journal of Caribbean Literatures|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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