The Day They Burned the Books: Values, Identity, and Otherness
“‘You don’t like strawberries? ‘No, and I don’t like daffodils either.’”
- Jean Rhys, “The Day They Burned the Books
The Dominican author Jean Rhys was fathered by a Welsh doctor and a Creole mother in the Caribbean during the early 20th century (Bozzini, Leenerts, p. 145). At the age of sixteen, she lived in Great Britain, and later she married a Dutch poet and lived in Paris and Vienna for approximately 10 years. Rhys’ cultural background seeps into her stories and beckons forth depictions of her early childhood cultural values, methods of creating identity or autonomy, and unique social constructs of otherness. In Rhys’ short story “The Day They Burned the Books” a cultural tension arises between western and Caribbean values, identity, and otherness that were personally relevant to Rhys’ early life growing up as a ‘colonial,’ or half-white half-colored person.
Eddie's Mixed Race
In Rhys’ story, a little British boy, Eddie, is in a unique position in his Caribbean residence. His father Mr. Sawyer is an educated British man who loathed the Caribbean islands. His mother, Mrs. Sawyer, however, is an educated colored woman who grew up in the Caribbean and embodied her cultural ideals. These ideals contrasted greatly with Mr. Sawyer’s Western ways of thinking which ultimately resulted in a tense and hateful relationship between them. Even so, simply from examining the creation of the character’s unique situations, it is quite clear that Rhys’ was drawing off of her own cultural experiences to contribute to the story because she also was born from ‘mixed race’ parents in the Dominican.
Rhys must have seen first-hand the tensions between Western culture and Caribbean culture. These tensions between concepts are exemplified through her writing. For instance, while Mrs. Sawyer has a general distaste towards books, Mr. Sawyer gravitates and hoards them. Ultimately, the tension here is caused by a misunderstanding of what books stand for. To Mrs. Sawyer, books are a symbol or reminder of their Western oppressors. To Mr. Sawyer, books are a symbol of the ‘Homeland’ and the Western world. This distinction carries itself with significant weigh throughout the short story.
Cultural Heritage and Acculturation
Before Mr. Sawyer’s death, Eddie seemed to identify himself with his mother's Caribbean roots. For instance, Eddie makes this clear during a conversation with the narrator:
‘I don’t like strawberries,’ Eddie said on one occasion.
‘You don’t like strawberries?’
“No, and I don’t like daffodils either. Dad’s always going on about them. He says they lick the flowers here into a cocked hat and I bet that’s a lie.’ (Bozzini, Leenerts, p. 147)
However, despite his cultural adaption to the Caribbean, following his father’s death, Eddie began to gravitate towards books and identify himself with his father. Thus, while Eddie viewed books as a symbol or reminder of his father, Mr. Sawyer’s library also became an emblem for British nationality and Western culture within their Caribbean house; this was object of identification that was incompatible with his mother's culture. Perhaps she felt this way because she felt as if the books, like Britain, would infiltrate into the household, into the families’ consciousness, into their Caribbean ways of life, threatens the community of the colonials, and ultimately taint Eddie’s identification with her cultural heritage in favor of their oppressors.
By the conclusion of Rhys’ short story Eddie identifies himself with his father hence the quote: “He was white as a ghost in his sailor suit, a blue-white even in the setting sun, and his father’s sneer was clamped on his face” (Bozzini, Leenerts, p. 149). Thus, after Eddie’s active act of defiance in opposition of his mother's act of burning his father’s books, Eddie becomes symbolically all-white or all-western. Thus, while Eddie identifies himself with British culture, he also now is subjected to view himself as a minority in the Caribbean. This idea is exemplified in a conversation between Eddie and the narrator, “‘Who’s white? Damned few’” (Bozzini, Leenerts, p. 149).
While I cannot personally relate to Rhys’ Creole characters or even fully understand Caribbean culture, I can empathize with them. My family tree has a branch of Native American in it, and from my understanding of Native American culture, I can understand why Mrs. Sawyer would burn Mr. Sawyer’s books; an act of rebellion through civil disobedience and cultural intolerance is a power tool to avoid conformism. The Native American’s fought off the oppressive ways of Western culture and dogged Americanism for a long time; there is still a bad taste in most Native’s mouths over the many American exploitations of their culture.
Even so, I can also relate to Rhys’ British characters perhaps even more strongly. I grew up in the United States, became accustomed to Western culture, and always had an intense passion for books. During my first reading I was naturally appalled at Mrd. Sawyer for burning Mr. Sawyer’s books. I felt pity for Eddie because thought about how much books have changed my life and Eddie was going to miss out on that learning and growing experience. After a second reading, I began to understand her perspective. Even so, however, I still identified most with Eddie and his father. How about you, and why?
Bozzini, G. R., Leenerts, C. A. (2001). Literature without borders: International literature in English for student writers. The day they burned the books. (ed. 1, pp. 145, 147, & 149) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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© 2015 Instructor Riederer