Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

Life, Death and Decay: The Symbolic Setting of the Ramchandin House

Deirdre Aaron '04, English 365, Northwestern University, 2003

The Ramchandin house in Cereus Blooms at Night is one steeped in history, violence, emptiness, and decay. The house stands as a focal point throughout, not only as a location where plot activity occurs but also as a location flooded with symbolism for its inhabitants, namely Chandin and Mala. Just as the other characters revolve around Mala, so do their activities revolve around the Chandin house. The house takes on such a life of its own that it appears to be a character itself, its decay in many ways mirroring the life events of the inhabitants in both good and bad ways. The decay and destruction of the house following Sarah and Lavinia's departure can represent both Mala's tragic history, as well as the hope that she embodies. Far from being a stagnant setting, the house and its surroundings morph in ways that reflect Mala's own life.

Chandin Ramchandin first constructs the house in an undeveloped part of Paradise. Far from his fantasy of a brick and mortar house similar to that of the Thoroughlys, the house is built out of mudra trees in a style typical to the island. Chandin himself "took no interest in the house himself" (50), but following his wife's departure with Lavinia, the house becomes a symbol of Chandin's dominance and abuse towards Mala. Mala is inexplicably bound to the house through the mixed feelings of guilt and hatred she harbors towards him. Even after Chandin inflicts his final abuse and Mala retreats into her own mental world and language, the markings of Chandin's presence (including his decaying body) are left on the house. The last thing Mala does to the house after securing her father in the sewing room is to construct a wall of the house's furniture to protect against intruders. Never again did she, "since that day, pass a night inside its walls" (230), the house so filled with her father's destruction.

Since the day of Mala's final triumph over her father, however, the decaying of the house's history transforms the space and gives it a new significance. Despite the house's history, it becomes through Mala's care (or, alternately, neglect) a place full of potential for life. The decay of the house, its stench so offensive to its visitors, represent something entirely different to Mala herself. Mala , a protectress of "all things unable to defend themselves from the bullies of the world" (119), and in her yard and house, all insects and creatures are allowed to roam free, and all things to take their natural course. To Mala , "the scent of decay was not offensive. . . . It was the aroma of life refusing to end. It was the aroma of transformation" (128). Out of the decay of her dead father and the traumatic memories of his abuse, life breeds throughout the house. The house, with its "decades of dust" (153) is a testament to the deeply gentle nature of Mala, and her desire to protect life in all its forms.

The remarkable nature of the house lay not in its construction but in the manner in which it matures as the Ramchandin family makes its history within its walls. As Mala's story unfolds, a symbolic life imbues each part of the house and its surroundings. As Mala, who "did not intervene in nature's business" (128), allows the house to take its natural course of decay, The houses interior and exterior each reflect portions of Mala's history and identity. The house, a fixed location in which much of the action of the story occurs, is also a place that is constantly changing in significance and appearance. A deep misery and hope both exist in the house, where death is always "feeding life" (130), and the tragedies of its past serve as fodder for new life.


Mootoo, Shani. Cereus Blooms at Night. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.

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Last modified: 5 December 2003