Bruce Chatwin Explores Conceptualizations of Time

Anna Sussman '04, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia uses the story of Jemmy Button to compare the different ways that the Fuegians and the Europeans conceptualize time. He uses this comparison to illustrate larger differences in modes of thought between the Christian Europeans who kidnap and train Fuegian boys and the Fuegians themselves.

Chapter 61 begins, "The year the nations of Europe settled the course of the nineteenth century on the plain of Waterloo, a boy was born on the Murray Narrows, who would make a modest contribution to settling the course of the twentieth." On the next page, he describes the boy's childhood, and how seasonal events formed the basis for his cyclic notion of time.

The boy grew up fearless and loyal to the customs of his tribe. Season followed season: egg-time, baby-gulls-flying, beach-leaves-reddening, Sun-Man-hiding. Blue sea-anemones heralded the coming of spring; ibises meant equinoctial gales. Men were born and men died. The people had little sense of ongoing time.

The morning of May 11th 1830 was clear and sharp. (For the Fuegians, the date was a combination of bare branches and sea-otters returning.) Under the snow line the hills were blue and the forests purple and russet-brown. Black swells broke in white lines along the shore. The boy was out fishing with his uncle when they sighted the Apparition.

What does beginning the chapter with a paragraph situating events as contemporaneous do with respect to his later description of how Fuegians see time? Does Chatwin's statement "Men were born and men died. The people had little sense of ongoing time" imply that the Fuegians don't value human life or time, two things to which European culture gives huge import? What is the effect of starting the next paragraph after "The people had little sense of ongoing time" with "The morning of May 11th 1830 was clear and sharp"?

Why does Chatwin then put the Fuegians conception of that morning in parentheses?

Does Chatwin seem to prefer or privilege one mode of thought over the other?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 2 December 2003