Thursday, December 9, 2010

Summary of "The Dragon Can't Dance" By Earl Lovelace

The Novel

The Dragon Can’t Dance is the story of the existence of the people of Calvary Hill and the culture they create in the process of surviving. The novel is episodic, with a greater emphasis on character portrayal than on story line. Earl Lovelace uses a prologue to focus on those special elements that are responsible for and are manifestations of the culture of the Hill’s inhabitants.

The Hill attracts people from throughout Trinidad, who are quickly absorbed into the life and culture of the Hill, except the East Indian Pariag and his wife, Dolly. Carnival, a festival marked by steel band and calypso music, totally transforms the Hill and its occupants, so that even a snob like Miss Cleothilda can claim “All o’ we is one.” The time is the late 1950’s, a period marked by violent clashes between the politicized steel bands and between toughs known as “bad johns.” In this environment, Fisheye and the other bad johns assert their manhood and act out the aggression that colonialism has nurtured in them. Aldrick uses his Carnival dragon costume to threaten and intimidate.

All this is not to last, however; sponsorship and commercialism step in. The steel bands are quieted down, and their warriors are “emasculated.” Fisheye is asked to behave, and when he refuses, he is thrown out of his band. Aldrick’s dragon is unable to dance, Philo gives up on his “calypsos of rebellion,” and Carnival, once an expression of rebellion, becomes placid and empty.

The bad john and the dragon, major symbols of rebellion, resist the change and, for a while, perpetuate their warriorhood. They terrorize the community until their continued defiance leads to confrontation with the police. Fisheye seizes a police jeep with two policemen as hostages, and for two days, he and his gang ride through Port-of-Spain in a futile attempt to stir the people to rebellion against the system. Fisheye andd Aldrick’s failure results in their trial and imprisonment and brings about a transformation in Aldrick, who henceforth rejects the notion that playing a dragon once a year for two days is sufficient to constitute living.

Older and wiser, Aldrick returns to see whether there is still a life for him and the beautiful Sylvia, only to discover that the Hill has already claimed her. She is on her way to being married to Guy, not out of love but because he can provide her with material comforts. For Aldrick, it is also late for a rapprochement with Pariag, who has become a shopkeeper. Both Aldrick and Pariag pass up the opportunity to connect. Aldrick stops before the shop and moves on, while Pariag admits that “I had a chance to call him in. I didn’t do it. I paused too. Just like him—and moved on.”

The author begins with the depiction of life in the community known as “the yard,” where most of the major characters live, and the story line returns to the yard at the conclusion of the text. The yard community has disintegrated with the departures of Fisheye, Aldrick, and Pariag. Philo has moved away, and Basil, Aldrick’s apprentice in costume making, is about to join the police force. Cleothilda, now looking her age, no longer spurns the advances of the now successful and popular Philo.

The Characters

Lovelace’s technique is to present his characters one after another in successive chapters, imposing upon each chapter the title of the role the character plays, both in the actual Carnival and in the life of the yard, itself a carnival. This role is crucial to an understanding of each character.

“Queen of the Band” may be a sufficiently appropriate title for Miss Cleothilda, who believes that her mulatto complexion and her fading beauty entitle her to be queen not only on Carnival day but throughout the year. “To her being queen was not really a masquerade at all, but the annual affirming of a genuine queenship that she accepted as hers,” Lovelace writes. The role assigned to Aldrick, though, falls far short of encompassing his total character.

As protagonist, Aldrick is the one character who is connected to everyone else on the Hill, and the one character who undergoes a profound change in the course of the novel. Like Miss Cleothilda, Aldrick takes his Carnival role seriously, but unlike her, he knows that it lasts only two days of the year. While it lasts, however, the role becomes the means through which he asserts himself, through which he demands that “others see him, recognize his personhood, be warned of his dangerousness.”

Lovelace focuses on Aldrick’s attitude toward his skill and toward the significance of what he weaves into his costume in order to make a statement about Aldrick himself. The author invokes religious imagery to describe Aldrick’s attitude toward his dragon costume. He is “Aldrick the priest,” for “it was in a spirit of priesthood that Aldrick addressed his work.” Aldrick’s costume depicts the racial past and the cultural struggle that has made survival possible. With this kind of knowledge, Aldrick grows and develops.

In spite of Aldrick’s commitment to playing the Carnival dragon, thoughts of Sylvia keep “nagging at his brain”; but he cannot go after Sylvia decisively, because it would mean having to accept an unwanted level of responsibility. He is unable to buy her a Carnival costume, just as he is unable to pay his rent. His sole responsibility is to the dragon. Because of this, he has to look on while Sylvia prostitutes herself to Guy, who, unlike Aldrick, is incapable of fully appreciating the real self in Sylvia.

Although Aldrick joins Fisheye in perpetuating “warriorhood” and in rebelling blindly, he is never comfortable with that role. Of those who have been imprisoned, jail has the most profound effect on Aldrick. It gives him an opportunity to think through the social situation. Aldrick understands the full significance of the aborted rebellion. He also knows that the action was a demand for recognition, a struggle for self, and an insistence upon the Hill residents’ “peoplehood.”

The quality of change that Aldrick experiences increases the distance between himself and Fisheye, making communication almost impossible. He is called crazy by the others, because they are unable to make the analysis that he does. When he visits Sylvia after leaving prison, the change manifests itself in the way he deals with her. She recognizes it and exclaims “you know, you change.” The new Aldrick has come to Sylvia “not to claim her, but to help her claim herself.” His new awareness allows him to understand that “one is saved only by one’s self.” No one else on the Hill understands the new Aldrick.

Lovelace develops each of his major characters as a full human being, with no one subordinated to the others. As the omniscient author, he fills in all the little details of character, including personal backgrounds, which are revealed through flashbacks. Analysis and commentary are also used for character revelation.

In presenting many of his characters, Lovelace had specific personalities in mind. Many facts of his characters’ lives parallel the real-life experiences of individuals. In fact, some characters in the novel appear unchanged from real life. In an interview given in 1980, Lovelace admitted that he portrayed these characters because he wished “to celebrate real people in a kind of way that other West Indian writers have not done.” The basis for his characters is his own experience.

Themes and Meanings

The Dragon Can’t Dance is primarily about the ability of the poor black people of the Hill to survive and, in the process of surviving, to create cultural traditions as a guarantee of their existence. Surviving, enduring, and producing, just like the plum tree that has “battled its way up through the tough red dirt and stands now, its roots spread out like claws, gripping the earth,” these people represent a race that has resisted slavery, colonialism, and the continuing dehumanization of the present system.

Out of this struggle for survival and resistance to oppression come the cultural forms and institutions that give these poor people a measure of identity and establishes their personhood. Primary among these is Carnival, which reaches “back centuries for its beginnings, back across the Middle Passage, back to Mali and to Guinea and Dahomey and Congo, back to Africa when Maskers were sacred and revered.” This memory, according to Lovelace, remains “if not in the brain, certainly in the blood,” because it has endured up to the present. Carnival allows it to be made manifest in the dragon costume of Aldrick Prospect.

The music, the dance, the calypso, and the costumes, which intensify at Carnival time, are all products of the people’s endurance and existence. These are all aspects of the people’s culture, fashioned both out of the past and out of their present environment. This is an environment of deprivation and stagnation, where children lose their innocence as soon as they are born; this is the environment that produces the bad johns such as Fisheye and the dragon Aldrick. Both are products of the same will which in the past produced “Maroons,” “Bush Negroes” and “Rebels.” It is also the environment that has led the people to “cultivate again with no less fervor the religion with its Trinity of Idleness, Laziness and Waste.”

Whatever form the strategy for survival and resistance has taken, at the center is the desire to reclaim the self, to assert the presence of a basic self. Everyone wants to be seen and acknowledged. Fisheye struggles against the new direction that the steel bands are taking because it will eliminate the need for bad johns and turn him into an anachronism. Miss Cleothilda needs to assert herself as a queen in the public’s gaze during Carnival. Aldrick in his dragon costume becomes formidable and demands attention because of the threat that the dragon represents. Pariag does everything possible to get the yard to acknowledge his existence.

Lovelace suggests, however, that this self is often masked because of the need to survive; progress is only possible, once the mask is removed and the real self is uncovered. Fisheye’s bad john pose, Sylvia’s “whorish” behavior, Aldrick’s dragon role, Miss Cleothilda’s queen image, Philo’s “Axe-Man” posturing—all are masks beneath which is hidden the real self. Aldrick will no longer play the dragon, because he realizes that the dragon hides the self that is buried deep within him. Philo realizes that the new image that he is projecting is not his real self, which is hidden under his gaudy clothing and his middle-class residence. He has to leave his new neighborhood and return to the Hill to find himself. Similarly, it is only when Pariag begins to accept himself and ceases to want to be part of the “Creole” culture of the Hill that he begins to be comfortable with his life.

The presence of Pariag in the novel allows for a serious treatment of the theme of the African-Indian relationship in Trinidad. Lovelace realizes that the existence of these two races and cultures must be reconciled if there is to be genuine cooperation and progress in the society. The answer is not to be found in the “Creolization” of the Indian, an option chosen by the character Balliram, who “liked to curse and get on like Creole people,” boasting about “his Creole girl friends and about the dances he went to.”

Pariag, who has chosen his wife in the traditional Indian way, represents the Indian community. The yard is unable to accept him because he falls outside the shared experience of its inhabitants. Their philosophy of nonpossession and their addiction to idleness, laziness, and waste—functional and positive during slavery but now self-defeating—are at variance with Pariag’s desire to progress materially.

Unable to accept Pariag as he is, the yard culture smashes his bicycle, the symbol of his material progress, in its strongest rejection yet of the Indian. Only then does Pariag turn away from wanting to be accepted and realize that the solution is not in his absorption into the yard culture.

In the end, Lovelace gives Pariag the solution to the racial problem through a vision of the fusion of Indian and African music: “I wish I did walk with a flute or a sitar, and walk in right there in the middle of the steelband yard … and sit down with my sitar on my knee and say, Fellars, This is me, Pariag from New Land. Gimme the Key. Give me the Do Re Mi.” Pariag now realizes that “we didn’t have to melt into one. They woulda see me.” The cultures should and can exist side by side. Yet, it is still a long way from “All o’ we is one.”

Critical Context

In its frank discussion of the Indian-African theme, The Dragon Can’t Dance broke new ground. Lovelace examined critically the position of the East Indian as an outsider in West Indian society and considered what could be done to reverse this position. In this, he showed a remarkable sensitivity toward the Indian reality.

In his use of the language of the ordinary folk as the medium of expression, Lovelace distinguished himself as a pioneer, infusing into folk language the rhythms of steel band and calypso music. To do this, he eschewed grammatical convention, and focused instead on capturing the sensations of music and dance in his writing. Lovelace also gave literary value to the speech of the carnival people of the Hill.

When The Dragon Can’t Dance was published in 1979, Caribbean critic and scholar C. L. R. James stated that nowhere had he seen “more of the realities of a whole country disciplined into one imaginative whole.” James was merely expressing what so many others saw as the supreme achievement of Lovelace’s novel. Until that time, no novel had focused so directly and so comprehensively on the historical basis for and evolution of a people’s culture within the English-speaking Caribbean. The novel, like no other before it, explained the critical social function of culture in the Caribbean.


Barratt, Harold. “Metaphor and Symbol in The Dragon Can’t Dance.” World Literature Written in English 23 (Spring, 1984): 405–413. Argues that the rebellion and Carnival are forms of expression by those seeking to claim their “personhood.” Explores the larger theme of the quest for identity in the major characters.

Barthold, Bonnie J. Black Time: Fiction of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States, 1981.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1984. An overview of the subject that includes a discussion of Caribbean literature. Useful for placing Lovelace’s work in context.

King, Bruce Alvin, ed. West Indian Literature, Hamdon, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979. A survey of the West Indian literary scene published contemporaneously with The Dragon Can’t Dance. Index, bibliography.

Nazareth, Peter. “Review of The Dragon Can’t Dance.” World Literature Today 56 (1983): 394–395. Argues that Aldrick carries the message of the text. His development as a character demonstrates that self-understanding, which comes from looking inward and not from material possessions, is the key to life.

Ramchand, Kenneth. “Why the Dragon Can’t Dance: An Examination of Indian-African Relations in Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance.” Journal of West Indian Literature 2 (October, 1988): 1–14. Argues that it is possible to focus on Pariag and still offer a response to the whole novel, since the theme of the African-Indian relationships allows for an examination of the concepts of alienation and self-hood.

At a glance:

• Author: Earl Lovelace

• First Published: 1979

• Type of Work: Novel

• Type of Plot: Social realism

• Time of Work: The late 1950’s and the 1960’s

• Setting: Port-of-Spain, Trinidad

• Principal Characters: Aldrick, Fisheye, Cleothilda, Philo, Sylvia, Pariag

• Genres: Long fiction, Social realism

• Subjects: Culture, 1960’s, 1970’s, Self-discovery, Caribbean, Blacks, Race, Music or musicians, Religion, Middle Passage, Yards or backyards, Poverty or poor people, City life, Assertiveness, Drums or drummers, Minorities

• Locales: Port-of-Spain, Trinidad

Summary courtesy (Restricted Access)

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