Jacques Roumain's Masters of the Dew
Masters of the Dew indeed had it all—Religion, Love, Tragedy—incorporated in such a powerful way that one never really becomes affected until the novel reaches its inevitable finish. Jacques Roumain describes the life of peasants in Haiti, a campaign in which he dedicated a part of his life to. The novel shows the power within such a tight group of people, and the conflicts that arise. Written with utmost care and precision, Masters of the Dew is a classy anecdote encouraging a new beginning from devastating circumstance.
Jacques Roumain was born in Port-au-Prince (Haiti) in 1907. In his-thirty eight years he had traveled and studied in Europe, Martinique, Cuba, the United States, and Mexico. He was highly opposed to Fascism and believed strongly in the rights of the oppressed. Roumain would return home often, but imprisoned no less than five times for his leadership of Haiti’s younger intellectuals. Surprisingly, Roumain, though born into one of the first families of Haiti—inheriting wealth, title, and physicality—adopted the viewpoint of lower classes. He founded the Revue Indigène (1927), beginning a wave of Haitian literature focusing on African, rather than a French background.
Jacques Roumain could not possibly have been aware of his magnitude at the time. He lived a life of truth, doing all that he could to bring what he saw necessary to the Haitian life. He wrote poems of social protest and fictional works displaying domination, exile, futility, pessimism, and imprisonment. He founded the Haitian Bureau of Ethnology, supported by his scientific training at the Musée de l’Homme. Roumain’s most effective discovery was the peasant novel—directly portraying the life which was never spoken of but successfully revealed in Masters of the Dew, published shortly after his unfortunate passing. A year and a half later, the Haitian people overthrew the dictatorial Lescot regime—a movement encompassed by the younger intellectuals continuing to follow in his wake.
The novel was the story of a small village in a lesser traveled region of Haiti called Fonds Rouge. The story’s principle character, Manuel, is spoken about by parents’ Bienaimé and Délira and introduced shortly thereafter. Manuel, who had left for Cuba to work on a cane plantation, returned home as a stranger of the land. He encountered a woman of captivating presence named Annaise, whom reacted negatively to his familial background when brought up in discussion. His family was exctatic of his return, as were neighbors and the members of the small village, but a lot has changed.
When he had left, Fonds Rouge was covered in green with streams running the land—not enough to live extravagantly, but enough to live. Mango and banana trees littered the landscape, as did fields of Congo beans and corn. Upon his return, he saw all of this was a memory. There was no water nearby; the landscape was the color of desert sand and people were starving. The joy of living was lost as the need to survive displaced any hope for a future.
Manuel brought with him that fresh light, noted by his mother in both life and death. He befriended a fellow peasant named Lorélien immediately and told only him and Annaise of his quest for the answer to all of their prayers—water. Though it was not seen for years, they trusted that if anyone could find it, Manuel could.
Each new day gave Manuel new hope and though at times discouraged, he never gave up. Manuel believed and for that he was rewarded, for he found his answer and now required the aid of his beloved Annaise and friend Lorélien to bring together all of the villagers in the region in a coumbite. This of course stirred trouble, as there was a feud between families.
In Manuel’s absence, a relative had died, entrusting his land to his descendants. In a coumbite to clear the land there was a quarrel over its division. As explained by Bienaimé, land is not like cloth, it cannot be given out, everyone has an equal right. The feud was between Dorisca (continued by his direct descendant Gervilen) and Saveur (Bienaimé’s brother) ending in bloodshed and death on both parties. Hatred existed for an unknown reason between the two families, fueled by the direct relatives of the injured parties.
The news spread shortly and the villagers were speaking about it. Annaise did her part in telling the women and Manuel convinced the townsmen. Shockingly, Manuel was brutally wounded on the return trip to one of his meetings and died shortly after. His death did not stop quest to restore life to Fonds Rouge. In fact, it was strengthened, because in his death there was reconciliation and in his death there was a great coumbite bringing the life which had forever ago been lost.
The novel presented many themes which seemed evident to the Haitian lifestyle. For instance, religion is spoken about but leaves the reader to decide if the peasants were Roman Catholic or if Voodoo was their form of religion. Délira prays for the return of her son, about the devastating circumstances of life, and about any large decision to God, Jesus, and the Mother of Miracles (the Virgin Mary). Délira was also a heavy participant in a voodoo ritual for good blessing led by a hougain and his hounsi. Manuel seemed to also question these beliefs. He told his mother there is life which God is solely responsible and life for which man is to be held accountable. Later on in the novel he also explained the uselessness of the voodoo rituals and that his participation was dependent on his upbringing and his birthplace, but not because he believed in the ceremony.
Another concept presented was that of the submissive woman and courtship. Délira was complaining about the hardships her and her husband were facing when Bienaimé snaps. She snaps in response but immediately becomes weak and apologizes. This happens to her character as several of the other female characters presented in the novel. The idea of courtship was also one of submission. Annaise became weak to Manuel and though barely knowing him, agrees upon marriage based on the existence of a mysterious but unmistakable trust. Marriage need not be ceremonious and glorified, but simply the acknowledgement of plans for the future and the submission of one to the other and agreement. Formal notification is later to be announced to the parents of the female party, but not necessary for their union.
The culture itself was heavily based on family. The feud was a silent war between families. All parties extended to any and all living relatives and all of their living relatives. When approaching a hut, one would call out “Honor” and the other would answer “Respect.” Everyone was a brother and sister, though not truly related, everyone was a part of each other’s lives. When united everyone was a stronger power and Roumain seemed to portray this idea in his understanding and implementation of coumbites in the novel. In a more specific example, Délira valued and honored her promise to her son and carried it out to unite the people of the land. Though a considerably weak woman, his death strengthened her to accomplish his goal in living. The wake and the mourning of Manuel united all together, differences aside. The death itself was the sacrifice needed to bring to an end the silent war which had raged on for so many years.
Roumain was powerful in his visual imagery. In almost every scene in the novel, he painted a clear picture of the people and the surrounding lands. Instead of saying “this person is like this” he allows the reader to meet and get to know each person on an individual basis, panning the camera (so-to-speak) on the situation and into their heads. The reader is not given warning before this change of prose and person, but knows based on how the person is acting in a given scenario. He uses rich descriptions to make one almost taste the despair and poverty in Fonds Rouge. The land and physical descriptions infused with personality unite man and nature as one—one without the other is nothing. This exemplifies the idea that nature is a part of one’s identity and Manuel’s return as a stranger suggests his absence allowed him to question himself.
Oral tradition is also valued heavily in Masters of the Dew. From the story of the family feud to the tell-of-the-mouth about the discovery of water, orality is necessary for culture. As many could not read or write (surprisingly Manuel was not able to) this tradition was necessary for the preservation of history. Sinidor Antoine was the epitome of orality, as without breaking a sweat he could tell a proverb, story, riddle, or relay some form of history. Oral culture explains that which cannot be portrayed in writing. Roumain made sure this was clear and with Antoine, he created a character that relied on vocal inflection, facial expression, and hand movements in addition to the story itself.
Identity related to all of the aforementioned key concepts of the novel. Manuel, like Roumain, was a traveler. He returned as a stranger of the lands to be both hated and loved. The strength of family, the importance of nature, the preservation of orality all shaped the concept that identity is dependent upon the roots in which one was birthed. Women, though appearing as submissive, were actually the strength behind every man. It was actually the women, in the end, who led the way to water and reconciliation, upon the request of Manuel. The women showed the connection between mother and son and husband and wife. The women spread ideas and exuded the emotions of which men seemed absent. Identity is heavily dependent upon a life’s journey, and Manuel found his identity, carried on in promise through wife and mother.
The story was written beautifully and affects the reader in ways not even presumed. Initially one approaches it as informative, sitting on the outside looking into this culture as a bystander, not a participant. As the novel unfolds, one cannot help but become entrapped by the culture and the lands and enraged at the price paid for reconciliation. Over the remaining pages, the reader becomes a part of the family stressed throughout the novel and cannot help but feed off of the emotion presented so clearly in description. The novel sheds light on many of the ideas of peasants of the time, a side not talked about often, or at all. Each theme seems to be a building block in one’s identity, and all seem to create the strength of character needed to have a dream and to have hope, as did Manuel. The novel is a story which one cannot help but become involved. One can laugh and cry knowing there is a resolution and surprisingly the reader, too, is able to join the people of Haiti as a Master of the Dew.
Note: All conclusions were drawn from Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain, translated with great care by Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook (1947).