Achille's Struggle with Hector in Omeros

Heather M. Bradley, Washington and Lee University

Walcott confirms the need for one's recognition of the duality in one's culture through Achille's struggle with Hector, another suitor, for the affection of Helen. The conflict between Achille and his adversary, Hector, signifies the battle between the traditional and modern. Achille lives according to the island custom and thrives on his African heritage, while Hector deviates from tradition and leaves the sea life to engage in commercialism. Hector represents the urbanization of the African culture:

The Comet, a sixteen-seater passenger van,
was the chariot that Hector bought. . . .
Each row was a divan

of furred leopardskin. . . .
the Space Age had come to the Island. Passengers...

were sliding into two worlds without switching gears. (Walcott 117)

Hector grasps at his African roots by decorating his van, the symbol of British influence, with a leopardskin. This relic, once significant of a warrior's prowess, now attests to the power of technology and becomes tacky at the same time.

Helen's role in the struggle suggests the superiority of a life that integrates two cultures. Helen in all her radiant beauty symbolizes St. Lucia, and, therefore, her oscillations between Achille and Hector parallel the island's adoption of a new culture. Helen deserts Achille for Hector, confirming Achille's belief that "Everything is money" (44). Achille aligns Africa with the spiritual, and views the imperial culture as superficial in its concentration on monetary pursuits. Although Helen "still love[s] Achille," her continued allegiance to Hector confirms her own desire, as well as St. Lucia's, to acknowledge her hybridity (Walcott 118). The aesthetic value of the rich African culture lacks the technological advancement necessary for survival in an urbanized society. St. Lucia and Helen represent for the British "a second Eden with its golden apple": "who many young Redcoats had died for her?" (Walcott 97, 93). "The vows of [the] empire" to improve, or rather, civilize African life encourages the acceptance of British culture. Helen, and ultimately St. Lucia, must recognize their British inheritance without regard to the loss of many African customs. Achille, "from his heart's depth knew [Helen] was never coming back" (Walcott 125). However, Achille acknowledges his loss of Helen as a consequence of Hector's riches, rather than an indication of Helen's desire for progress. This realization comments on the role of diversity in the progression of a society.

Walcott resolves his quandaries about this identity through the anouncement of Achille's battle for Helen, a metaphor for his own struggle with cultural hybridity. Through the quests of his characters, he illustrates the impossibility of returning to the past without compromising the future. Achille reaffirms his African heritage and shuns the changes wrought by the British--behavior which ends his relationship with Helen. Conversely, Helen celebrates he hybrid inheritance, as the roots of a new culture, rather than a suspension of two distinctly separate cultures. Walcott accepts his hybridism when he realizes he must create his own cultural identity: "I bear/ my house inside me, everywhere" (Walcott 176). The poet suggests that the definition for one's identity arises not from external influences, but from the individual's decisions about which aspects of each inheritance he/she would like to maintain. This idea combats Walcott's former feelings of isolation as he becomes self-dependent and therefore free from any connection to one particular society. Walcott pacifies his confusion about which culture he should recognize, by deciding to create a new version--a true hybrid with the best of each component.

Omeros narrates the individual quests of several characters; however, the contemplations of Achille most closely resemble Walcott's search for his identity. Walcott represents his thoughts through the "I" narrator. The "I" embarks on a grand tour of Europe, as well as the American West, to define the British aspects of his nature, similar to Achille who ventures back to Africa. In this sense, the "I" is the poet, and Achille symbolizes Walcott's alter-ego. It seems that Walcott already embraces his European ancestry, since the poem uses the imperial tongue, the English language. The figure of Achille provides Walcott with a recourse for his musings about the culture of his conquered ancestors. Despite the separate journeys of Achille and Walcott, the two figures share a common goal.

[The set of interlinked essays derives from a paper originally written in 1997 for Professor Suzanne Keen's English 350 at Washington and Lee University.

[Postimperial] [Derek Walcott] Themes [Politics]