My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Empathy & Imagination in Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast
As a writer there is always the temptation to be a cruel god over the imagined characters, typing down conflict after conflict without sympathy; there is also an even greater risk of loving the characters too much, coddling them as babes, and becoming benevolent creators over the fiction.
“For me,” wrote Marge Piercy, an American novelist and activist, “the gifts of the novelist are empathy and imagination” (182).
Although Paul Theroux in his novel The Mosquito Coast produces a highly imaginative adventure of a roughshod man, Allie Fox, who leaves America behind and moves his family to the wilderness of Honduras, Theroux remains empathetic to his characters and constantly illustrates his comprehension of his characters’ humanistic states of being.
In Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast Allie Fox, father and driving force of the novel, is produced and established by the novelist’s skill at fully understanding what propels Fox in his world.
“Writers, contemplating their characters,” Douglas Bauer explains, “try to figure out what motivates them. How they think. How they will react. What emotions they will display in a variety of situations” (104).
The reason for the necessity of this task upon the writer is to develop multiple sided characters that become fully formed.
Bauer argues that “a single-shaded character is an uncompleted character, and an uncompleted character is an uninteresting one” and that not every character has to be likable (104).
Allie Fox is certainly not very likable but he can be understood in his complex beliefs because the writer has taken the time to fully shape Fox’s being, despite Fox being a hard-ass on his children, pushing them to be ready for the worst case scenario, the end of America through nuclear war.
The son, Charlie, describes for the reader what his father believes:
Father went on to say that savagery was seeing and not believing you could do it yourself, and that that was a fearful condition. The man who saw a bird and made it into a god, because he could not imagine himself flying himself, was a savage of the most basic kind (Theroux 157).
And more of the Father’s rhetoric over-powering the other characters and shaping the man into another form, that of an arrogant self-serving monster:
Had there been a war? … We did not know. But if you believed any of this, you could be very happy here…Father’s talk took away your sense of smell. After hearing him speak about America, it comforted you to think that you were so far away on the Mosquito Coast. It comforted him (Theroux 277)!
But when Allie Fox becomes completely disagreeable during this wild escapade through the Honduran jungles, Theroux illustrates how even the reader can relate to such a brute through empathy and knowledge of the human condition pertaining to fear or phobia:
He cried most when he saw the birds… “Take those birds away!” It was his old horror of scavengers, but now that he couldn’t raise his arms, he was especially afraid. He was fearful of other things, too. The way the boat tipped—he couldn’t swim as a cripple (364).
And more of the same…
He spoke in baby talk about living on all fours far away in Mosquitia, and about going to sea in a sieve. Usually he said nothing. He stared. Thoughts folded his brow. Tears gathered in his eyes and, without his making a sound, rolled down his cheeks (369).
Theroux swims the reader in and out of the many pools of Fox’s condition, a complex but believable one, for no one person is simply prima facie, so very one-sided and simple. It is then that Fox becomes fully formed and alive.
The reason for this, as Montaigne considered, is that “ugly unphotogenic people may be tender and wise persons whose persons we require in the stories of our lives” (Baxter 173).
Fox’s is a complete character because Theroux shows the reader the ugly as well as the beautiful.
Thus, Theroux ends the novel, albeit cruel at first glance, with the violent death of Allie Fox being eaten by the birds he feared; Theroux, however, remains empathetic to the story and its characters.
In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster believed that “nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth” (71).
Theroux fulfills the quality of “human depth” by evoking empathy in the reader by using powerful descriptions that dive deep into the human condition. Theroux remembers that his characters are not really imagined beings but human beings in a real world:
I had never heard a single person criticize God before. But Father talked about God the way he talked about jobbing plumbers and electricians. “The dead boy with the spinning top” was the way he described God. “And the top is almost out of steam. Feel it wobble (278)?
I saw the clouds over Polski’s barn, and the valley hills and the corn. I smelled the goldenrod and skunk cabbage, pine gum, cut grass, the sweetness of dew on dandelions, the warm tar on country roads (334).
The twins were asleep beside him. They slept holding hands (369).
[The birds] were not frightened. This victory had taken away their fear. They hesitated, they hopped aside, they gave me a look at Father’s head. I grabbed a stick from the sand, but even as I went forward, a vulture bent over and struck and tore again, like a child snatching something extra because he knows he will be scolded away, and this one had [father’s] tongue (370).
Theroux not only fully shapes his characters by showing the good along with the bad, but he also remembers to treat them as human beings, for better of worse, and these constants help make a powerfully moving story.
Marge Piercy continues her statement about a novelist requiring empathy and imagination by explaining that she inhabits her characters and attempts to “put on their worldviews, their ways of moving, their habits, their beliefs and the lies they tell themselves, their passions and antipathies, even the language in which they speak and think: the colors of their lives” (182).
Theroux excels at all of these tasks in his novel The Mosquito Coast. Theroux gives us his characters and situations for what they are and he lets the reader decide the infinity beyond such extraordinary moments, allowing his imagined characters to live beyond the end of the last page because he cared enough to be honest with them and their world.
Bauer, Douglas. The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006. Print.
Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2007. Print.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel (1927). New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1985. Print.
Piercy, Marge. “Life of Prose and Poetry: An Inspiring Combination.” Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times. New York: Times Books, 2001. 178-184. Print.
Theroux, Paul. The Mosquito Coast (1982). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006. Print.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers