Under the Volcano

Under the Volcano
By Malcolm Lowry

“Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry is a masterpiece of modernist literature that takes place over the course of a single day in Mexico. The novel employs stream-of-consciousness narration, multiple perspectives, and a dense, poetic style to explore themes of love, addiction, and existential despair. Lowry’s vivid descriptions of the Mexican landscape and his characters’ inner turmoil make this a haunting and unforgettable read.

Themes 📚

  1. Addiction: The novel explores the destructive nature of addiction, both to alcohol and to relationships. The protagonist, former British consul Geoffrey Firmin, struggles with alcoholism throughout the novel, and his addiction ultimately leads to his downfall.
  2. Existential despair: Lowry examines the existential crisis of his characters, particularly Firmin, who is struggling to find meaning and purpose in his life. The novel is set against the backdrop of the impending Second World War, and the characters’ sense of despair is heightened by the political uncertainty of the time.
  3. Love and loss: The novel explores the complex nature of love and loss, particularly through the relationships between Firmin and his estranged wife, Yvonne, and his half-brother, Hugh. The characters are haunted by their pasts and the mistakes they have made in their relationships.
  4. Mexican culture and politics: The novel also explores Mexican culture and politics, particularly through the character of the Indian, who represents the marginalized and oppressed people of Mexico. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Day of the Dead festival, and Lowry uses this setting to explore Mexican history and culture.
  5. Nature and the environment: The novel’s setting in the Mexican countryside allows Lowry to explore the themes of nature and the environment. The volcano looming over the town is a constant presence in the novel, representing both the power and beauty of nature and the destructive potential of natural forces.

Use of Literary Devices ✍🏽

  1. Stream-of-consciousness: The novel uses this narrative technique to allow readers to experience the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters. The technique creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy with the characters and their experiences.
  2. Symbolism: Lowry uses a range of symbols throughout the novel, including the volcano, the dog, and the Day of the Dead festival, to represent different themes and ideas.
  3. Allusion: The novel makes references to a range of literary and historical works, including Shakespeare, Dante, and Mexican history, to enrich the text and deepen the themes explored.
  4. Foreshadowing: Lowry uses hints and clues throughout the novel to foreshadow the tragic events that occur at the end of the story, creating a sense of foreboding and tension.
  5. Imagery: The novel is filled with vivid and evocative descriptions of the Mexican landscape and the characters’ experiences, creating a rich sensory experience for readers.
  6. Metaphor: Lowry uses metaphorical language throughout the novel to convey complex ideas and emotions. For example, the volcano is used as a metaphor for the characters’ inner turmoil and the destructive power of addiction.
  7. Irony: The novel employs irony to create contrast and highlight the absurdity of the characters’ situations. For example, the fact that the Day of the Dead festival is a celebration of life and death while the characters are grappling with their own mortality.
  8. Multiple perspectives: The novel shifts between the perspectives of different characters, allowing readers to see the same events from different angles and creating a sense of ambiguity and complexity.
  9. Flashbacks: The novel uses flashbacks to explore the characters’ pasts and their relationships, deepening our understanding of their motivations and desires.
  10. Repetition: The novel uses repetition of certain words and phrases to create a sense of rhythm and structure, as well as to emphasize certain ideas and themes. For example, the phrase “Quauhnahuac, two o’clock” is repeated throughout the novel, emphasizing the circular and repetitive nature of the characters’ experiences.

Examples of Literary Devices 📋

1. Symbolism

The volcanoThe volcano represents the looming danger and potential for destruction throughout the novel. It serves as a constant reminder of the unpredictability of life and the ever-present threat of catastrophe.
The Day of the DeadThe Day of the Dead is a symbol of the thin line between life and death. The holiday’s rituals and imagery foreshadow the tragic events that unfold in the novel, as well as the characters’ own mortality.
The consul’s alcoholismThe consul’s alcoholism symbolizes his personal struggle and self-destructive tendencies. It is a manifestation of his inability to confront and cope with the challenges of his life, ultimately leading to his downfall.

2. Foreshadowing

The Day of the DeadThe novel’s setting during the Day of the Dead foreshadows the tragic events that unfold. This choice of timing creates an ominous atmosphere and suggests that the characters’ fates are entwined with the holiday’s themes of death and remembrance.
The consul’s healthThroughout the novel, the consul’s deteriorating health foreshadows his eventual demise. His physical decline mirrors his emotional and mental unraveling, hinting at the tragic outcome of his story.
The conversation about the FarolitoThe consul and his friends discuss the Farolito, a local bar that has closed down. This conversation foreshadows the loss of the life and connections that the consul once had, as well as the ultimate disintegration of his relationships.

3. Stream of consciousness

The consul’s thoughtsLowry frequently delves into the consul’s mind, revealing his thoughts, memories, and emotions in a stream-of-consciousness style. This technique helps readers understand the depth of his alcoholism and the complexity of his relationships with others.
Yvonne’s reflectionsYvonne’s thoughts are also presented in a stream-of-consciousness manner. Through her internal monologue, readers gain insight into her feelings of regret, her love for the consul, and her desire to save him from his self-destructive path.
Hugh’s thoughtsHugh, the consul’s half-brother, also has moments of stream-of-consciousness narration. His thoughts provide another perspective on the consul’s situation, as well as offer insight into Hugh’s own struggles and motivations.

4. Non-linear narrative

The consul’s pastThe novel frequently shifts to the past to explore the consul’s memories, allowing readers to better understand his present actions and motivations. The non-linear narrative helps to reveal the roots of his alcoholism and the history of his relationships.
Yvonne’s pastYvonne’s past is also revealed through flashbacks, showing her previous attempts to save her marriage and her hope for a future with the consul. These glimpses into her history deepen her character and highlight the tragedy of her situation.
Hugh’s backstoryThe narrative also delves into Hugh’s past, detailing his experiences as a sailor, a musician, and his relationship with the consul. These flashbacks provide context for Hugh’s role in the story and his connection to the other characters.

5. Allusion

Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”The consul’s journey through the novel can be seen as an allegorical descent into hell, paralleling Dante’s journey in “The Divine Comedy.” This allusion underscores the tragic nature of the consul’s experiences and the darkness that surrounds him.

6. Irony

The consul’s positionThe irony of the consul’s situation is that he is a British diplomat, meant to represent order and stability, yet his personal life is in complete chaos due to his alcoholism. This contrast underscores the tragic nature of his character.
Yvonne’s returnYvonne returns to the consul with the hope of reconciling and saving their marriage. Ironically, her return sets in motion the events that lead to their ultimate downfall, emphasizing the tragic nature of their story.
The Farolito’s closureThe closure of the Farolito bar, once a lively and bustling establishment, is ironic in the context of the consul’s alcoholism. The bar’s decline parallels the consul’s own deterioration, reflecting the destructive consequences of addiction.

7. Motifs

The volcanoThe recurring image of the volcano serves as a motif that underscores the novel’s themes of impending doom and uncontrollable forces. The volcano’s presence looms over the characters and their actions, amplifying the tension throughout the story.
Alcohol and intoxicationAlcohol and intoxication are recurring motifs in “Under the Volcano.” They represent the consul’s struggle with addiction and his inability to escape his self-destructive habits. This motif also highlights the broader theme of personal and societal decay.
The Day of the DeadThe Day of the Dead serves as a motif that emphasizes the novel’s themes of mortality and the inexorable passage of time. The holiday’s rituals and imagery are interwoven throughout the story, reinforcing the sense of impending tragedy and the characters’ awareness of their own mortality.

8. Imagery

The volcano’s eruptionLowry describes the eruption of the volcano in vivid detail, creating a powerful and memorable image that mirrors the emotional turmoil of the characters and the climax of the novel.
The Day of the Dead celebrationsLowry’s descriptions of the Day of the Dead celebrations, with its colorful decorations, festive atmosphere, and macabre imagery, create a striking contrast between life and death, reinforcing the novel’s themes and heightening the sense of foreboding.
The consul’s physical appearanceThe consul’s disheveled appearance and erratic behavior are depicted in great detail, creating a vivid image of his descent into alcoholism and the effects it has on his life. This imagery underscores the tragedy of his situation and the consequences of his addiction.

9. Allegory

The consul’s journey as a descent into hellThe consul’s experiences throughout the novel can be interpreted as an allegorical journey into hell, similar to Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” This allegory highlights the darkness and tragedy that pervade the consul’s life, as well as the larger themes of suffering and redemption.
The Day of the Dead as a representation of life and deathThe novel’s setting during the Day of the Dead allows for an allegorical exploration of life and death. The holiday’s rituals and imagery serve as a metaphor for the characters’ own struggles with mortality and the passage of time.
The volcano as a symbol of destructive forcesThe volcano in “Under the Volcano” can be seen as an allegorical representation of the destructive forces that threaten the characters’ lives. The volcano’s eruptions and the devastation they cause mirror the emotional and psychological turmoil experienced by the characters, particularly the consul.

10. Repetition

The phrase “No se puede vivir sin amar”This Spanish phrase, which translates to “One cannot live without love,” is repeated throughout the novel. The repetition emphasizes the importance of love and connection in the characters’ lives, while also highlighting the tragic consequences of their inability to find and sustain meaningful relationships.
The word “Mescal”The word “mescal,” a type of Mexican liquor, is frequently mentioned in the novel. Its repetition serves as a reminder of the consul’s alcoholism and his dependence on alcohol to cope with his life, reinforcing the novel’s themes of addiction and self-destruction.
The mention of the volcanoThe volcano is repeatedly referenced throughout “Under the Volcano.” This repetition not only establishes the novel’s setting but also serves to underscore the ever-present danger and impending doom that the characters face, heightening the tension and sense of foreboding in the story.

FAQs 💭

What are the main literary devices used in “Under the Volcano”?

The main literary devices used in “Under the Volcano” include symbolism, foreshadowing, stream of consciousness, non-linear narrative, allusion, irony, motifs, imagery, allegory, and repetition.

How does symbolism play a role in the novel?

Symbolism is used extensively in “Under the Volcano” to provide deeper meanings and represent abstract ideas. Some examples include the volcano symbolizing impending doom, the consul’s alcoholism representing self-destruction, and the Day of the Dead signifying the thin line between life and death.

How does foreshadowing create suspense in “Under the Volcano”?

Foreshadowing in “Under the Volcano” hints at events that will occur later in the story, creating suspense and engaging the reader’s curiosity. Examples include the repeated references to the Day of the Dead foreshadowing the tragic events that unfold, the consul’s deteriorating health hinting at his eventual demise, and the discussion of the Farolito bar foreshadowing the disintegration of the consul’s relationships.

What is the significance of the stream of consciousness technique in the novel?

The stream of consciousness technique in “Under the Volcano” allows readers to delve into the inner lives of the characters, particularly the consul, and gain insight into their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This narrative style provides an intimate glimpse into the characters’ minds, helping readers understand their motivations and struggles.

How do allusions contribute to the novel’s themes and ideas?

Allusions in “Under the Volcano” serve to enrich the narrative and provide context for the characters’ experiences. They also help to emphasize the novel’s themes and ideas, such as the consul’s descent into alcoholism being likened to Dante’s descent into hell in “The Divine Comedy” and the myth of Sisyphus illustrating the consul’s futile struggle against his addiction.

How do motifs reinforce the novel’s themes?

Motifs, such as the volcano, alcohol and intoxication, and the Day of the Dead, are recurring elements in “Under the Volcano” that serve to reinforce the novel’s themes and ideas. They help to emphasize key aspects of the story, such as impending doom, personal and societal decay, and mortality.

How does imagery impact the reader’s experience of the novel?

Imagery in “Under the Volcano” creates vivid and evocative images that immerse readers in the world of the story. The descriptive language used by Lowry heightens the atmosphere and mood of the novel, helping to convey the characters’ emotional states and the novel’s themes.