[Caribbean Literature]

The Wine of Astonishment and Polyrhythm

Part Two: The Polyrhythmic Village

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

A superficial reading of The Wine of Astonishment might yield a breakdown in the reader's mind of empire and colony, with Prince and even the sell-out politician Ivan Morton lining up on the side of the empire, and leaders Bee and Bolo standing in support of the colony. But looking more carefully at the village reveals that, far from being united behind these two men, they in fact represent a troubling schism within the village. Thus the united rhythm of village, which Lovelace brings to clash with that of empire, itself splits into conflicting rhythms.

Bee, the preacher and husband of Eva (the narrator), comes to symbolize the passive side of the debate over how best to find religious freedom for the church he leads, the Spiritual Baptists. When the ruling British government bans the church from practicing, Bee responds initially by doing nothing. He declares over and over, "I going to break this law," (51) but does not lead the people in their usual worship. His position seems best expressed by Eva:

And I, not bearing to meet his [Bolo's] eyes, turn my head away and try to raise another hymn to show him that we still here, still holding on, battling, hoping that tomorrow would be a better day...(17)

His concern for the safety of the community and his own family winning out, Bee waits and suffers, trying vainly to work within the system (speaking to officials, trying to use the vote) to gain his church's freedom. Along the way, Eva consistently refers to her husband as a figure of Jesus, as in:

And Bee there too, standing up by the kitchen door, with his two hands stretch out across the door like how Jesus Christ had his hands when they crucify him on the cross...(1)

She thus positions Bee as a hero and savior, but also potentially refers to the calm, passive nature of the Christ figure. After years of waiting and unfulfilled hopes, finally Bee's patience pays off. Ivan Morton makes a political move in order to gain reelection, and frees the church to worship. However, Lovelace tempers the villagers' joy as, despite their new freedom, they cannot raise the Spirit. Has Bee's patient suffering gone for nought?

Bolo contrasts Bee's passive nature with his own fierce warrior stance. Bolo, the stickfighter (a Caribbean tradition of dance and fighting with staffs to a drumbeat), calls for action -- particularly violent action -- where Bee stands for waiting and avoidance of conflict. Bolo, without children or wife, and possibly without regard for the future continuity of the church or its members, seeks destruction of the oppressors as the only path to freedom. But when he strikes out at the empire in the figure of Prince, he merely earns himself a long prison sentence. When Bolo returns to the community after serving his time, he attacks the community in a frenzy, taking women and people's money as he pleases. Seemingly he seeks, through these violent means, to stir up the community which has become sheeplike and afraid, completely dispirited. His final act, kidnapping the daughters of the villager Primus, indeed stirs the community -- as they decide to kill him. But Lovelace twists Bolo's death (which in actuality comes at the hands of the police) from that of an outlaw to something slightly more holy:

Bolo pitch forward tumble down the steps and when he come to rest his head was lying at the foot of the steps and his body was sprawl over the ground, with his two feet close together and his arms stretch out as if the shot sting him and fling out his hands so he would come to lie down with his arms stretch out.

Apparently, Bolo has now taken on the role of the Jesus figure, the holy martyr, supported by the fact that not long after his violent death the church finally gains its freedom.

Thus it seems that in the end Bolo has reached, albeit through a contorted process, a means of redemption, vindication for his violent stance. But what of Bee? Does Bolo's redemption drown out the quiet persistence of Bee's rhythm? No. For the final paragraph of the novel reveals that, although the church could not raise it, the Spirit has not abandoned the village:

Then...on a spot where a old house fall down...is the steel pans, and playing these pans is some young fellows...the music that those boys playing on the steelband have in it that same Spirit that we miss in our church: the same Spirit; and listening to them, my heart swell and it is like resurrection morning. I watch Bee, Bee watch me...the both of us bow, nod, as if yes, God is great, and like if we passing in front of something holy. (146)

Thus in his way, Bee has proved victorious as well, as he has kept the church and his own family alive, so that their traditions may be pass on and worship of the Spirit, though in a different form, may continue. Hence the importance of the youth, in the figure of Bee's children and the young pan players, finding their own path to the Spirit.

Discussions of who claims the status of hero -- Bee or Bolo -- inevitably fail to reach consensus. Is the warrior who stands up at all costs, haranguing even his own community but ultimately giving his life to the cause, the hero? Or should the reader rather grant that status to the patient leader who quietly allows the people to suffer but in the end seems them through? The polyrhythmic framework through which we have approached this novel makes such a debate unnecessary. Neither Bolo nor Bee can truly reach hero status in this schema. Rather, Lovelace leaves the reader the synthesizing union of steel pan, suggesting the heroism not of warrior or pacifist, but of the combined rhythms of the village itself, in its ability to carry the Spirit, though hidden, from one generation to the next.


Lovelace, Earl. The Wine of Astonishment. Oxford: Heinemann, 1982.

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