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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

When our main character Phillip is thrown off the S.S. Hato in Chapter 3, a mast hits his head and he is left blind. Phillip's blindness sparks his personal transformation and functions as one of the book's most important metaphors.

In the most basic sense, Phillip must learn to perceive the world with his remaining senses to compensate for his loss of vision:

There was no day or night that passed when I didn't listen for sounds from the sky. Both my sense of touch and my sense of hearing were beginning to make up for my lack of sight. I separated the sound and each became different. (18.1)

By focusing on his other senses, Phillip is able to enjoy sensations that he otherwise might have taken for granted. He takes pleasure in the rain, for example, because he can "hear and feel" it (10.5). With a little encouragement from Timothy, he also accomplishes tasks he didn't think he'd be able to do while blind, like fishing on his own and climbing the palm tree for coconuts (Chapter 13). The world is made new for him.

There's another way blindness works in The Cay, too. In a figurative sense, Phillip's worldview shifts. It's only when he loses his eyesight that he gains real insight about human beings. Ironic, right? After Phillip goes blind he learns to see people not just for what they look like on the outside, but for who they are on the inside. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (to whom the book is dedicated), he begins to judge people not by the "color of their skin, but the content of their character."

We see this transformation most vividly in Phillip's relationship with Timothy. Initially Phillip thinks of Timothy as a "black mule" (9.14) and "stupid" (9.18). Eventually, though, he comes to see Timothy as "neither white nor black" (10.15-16). He grows to appreciate Timothy's intelligence and the sacrifices Timothy makes for him. So the tragedy of Phillip's blindness has led to something positive: his newfound colorblindness.

At the end of the book, an operation restores Phillips vision. Why do you think that is? Does the return of Phillip's eyesight have any symbolic importance?

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