Study Guide

Achille in Omeros

By Derek Walcott

Achille

Girl Trouble

When we first meet Achille, he is traveling down the rocky road of love, hitting just about every bump along the way. He's broke; his best friend stole his girl; and if he had a dog, someone would have shot it—he's basically living a top-of-the-charts country western song. His love for the most beautiful woman in creation is largely responsible for all of this, and gets him into a life-and-death struggle with his BFF:

Hector ran, splashing

in shallows mixed with the drizzle, towards Achille,
his cutlass lifted. The surf, in anger, gnashing
its tail like a foaming dogfight. Men can kill

their own brothers in rage, but the madman who tore
Achille's undershirt from one shoulder also tore
at his heart. The rage that he felt against Hector

was shame.
(III.i.16-17)

Achille and Hector get so messed up over Helen that even the surf acts "in anger" as they maul each other over their shared lady love. For Achille's part, his readiness to trade jabs with his brother from another mother is at least partially due to how long tension's been building and festering inside him.

See, as much as he's adored Helen, he's felt jealousy toward her over her ridiculous beauty and flirtatious nature—so much so, in fact, that his hard feelings are what drive her into Hector's arms. And without her, Achille is the picture of misery. His quarrel with Hector only breaks his heart more, leaving him ashamed, especially in the face of the other men in the village—who all watch the cutlass fight on the beach and, as such, know Achille loses his lady and his best friend.

Fittingly, then, Walcott equates Achille's emotional pain to that of Philoctete's sore, noting they are equally isolating: "He believed he smelt as badly as Philoctete/from the rotting loneliness that drew every glance/away from him, as stale as a drying fishnet" (XXII.i.116). Like Philoctete's sore, it also takes Achille a long time to heal.

But why is he so bothered by this love gone wrong? If he really suspects Helen of naughty behavior (as his jealousy suggests), isn't he better off without her? Okay, we know: He's losing out to his best friend, and that's just embarrassing. But he's also losing that best friend in the process, so it kind of seems like maybe somewhere in here Achille should cut his losses and let bygones be bygones—you know, since not doing so makes him so freaking miserable.

There's something more to Helen, though, than just her beauty. Because she is emblematic of her entire race, Achille interprets her betrayal as a sign of things to come for St. Lucia:

She was selling herself like the island, without
any pain, and the village did not seem to care
that it was dying in its change, the way it whored
away a simple life that would soon disappear…
(XXI.i.111)

Achille's girl trouble extends to that other Helen (the island), and the pain of his girl's betrayal exacerbates his deep anxiety over their fading culture and the encroachment from commercial development.

Kicking it Old-School

Unlike Hector—who gives up life as he's always known it for Helen—Achille won't compromise his life on the sea for woman or wallet. He understands, in a way that Hector does not, that the sea is more than just the means of a paycheck—it's there that Achille finds his heartbeat: "He was at home./This was his garden" (XXIV.i.126). And you know what gardens represent, right? Growth. The sea is where Achille is most fully himself.

It's all the more frustrating for him when he has to elbow his way to the seashore to work, fighting with commercial trawlers for the scant sea-life that remains in the waters. He hears the dire ecological predictions of Seven Seas and wonders if there's any place left for a traditional way of life on the island.

Achille clings to his old ways of work and life not because he's lazy or refuses to change—for him, it's a matter of personal and ancestral identity and shows a deep respect for the world around him: "Was he the only fisherman left in the world/using the old ways, who believed his work was prayer,/who caught only enough, since the sea had to live,/because it was life?" (LX.i.301). In comparing his work to prayer, we understand that is if life-sustaining for Achille, a way of making sense of himself and the world around him.

In the end, his hatred of all those things Helen loves—the "blockos," the expensive shampoo and personal shower in the yard, American music—has more to do with the erosion of a life Achille values and the destruction of a land he adores.

Riding the Wayback Machine

In the middle of all this turmoil, Achille takes a different kind of vacation. He sails across the ocean, courtesy of sunstroke and the divine sea-swift, to the African settlement of his ancestors. It's a visit to the afterlife, really (recall that he meets his father and all the others who have gone before him). He's having an identity crisis—"Then, for the first time, he asked himself who he was" (XXIV.ii.130)—and needs to find out his true name and purpose in life.

As he enters into the hallucination, Achille has a vision of the dead claimed by the sea being disgorged by the waves. It's pretty wicked. But visual coolness aside, it's another indicator that Achille's trouble is ancestral rather than purely physical: "[…] his soul/sickened and was ill. His jaw slackened. A gull screeched whirling backwards, and it was the tribal/sorrow that Philoctete could not drown in alcohol" (XXIV.ii.129). The sickness in his soul, then, is rooted in the sorrow of his generational past. It's pretty deep stuff.

Achille has to go back to his father to find his roots and remember what has been forgotten, just as Ma Kilman has to do in order to heal Philoctete. Although Achille's already a traditional kind of guy, he's lost an enormous part of his cultural heritage due to the enslavement and displacement of his ancestors. He feels the same kind of shame and sorrow for his lost Africa that he felt for the loss of Helen and Hector:

[…] Achille felt the homesick shame
and pain of his Africa. His heart and his bare head
were bursting as he tried to remember the name
of the river- and the tree-god in which he steered,
whose hollow body carried him to the settlement ahead.
(XXV.i.134)

The sorrow of his journey "home" is sometimes overwhelming, especially when he realizes that he can't reverse time and save his ancestors from the pain and separation of slavery. But the journey to the past reveals the importance of personal and familial dignity as he faces his father and learns the truth about his name. Achille comes alive with knowledge and certainty and can return to the present emboldened by the desire to be more fully himself.

Changes

For Achille, stepping back into the present and taking on the uncertain future means moving past old hatred and jealousy. He has to come to terms with the loss of Hector, the return of Helen, and the prospect of being a father to the child of his best frenemy. Is he up to all of this? We're going to say yes. At Hector's funeral, Achille speaks with kindness to his lost comrade, expressing the love that endured all the drama:

You never know my admiration, when you stood
crossing the sun at the bow of the long canoe

with the plates of your chest like a shield; I would say
any enemy so was a compliment.
(XLVI.i.233)

It may be true that death pays all debts and that Achille speaks the way he does here because Hector is gone, but his actions following this moment show that he's ready to become the leader of village and family that Afolabe would expect him to be. Combine this with his desire to embrace his African identity, and we also see a character resolved to live life on his own terms.

By Boxing Day, we know that no matter how much the modern West encroaches on St. Lucia, Achille will never forget the words of his father: "No man loses his shadow except it is in the night,/and even then his shadow is hidden, not lost. At the glow of sunrise, he stands on his own name in that light" (XXV.iii.138). Achille may spend a whole lot of this tale lost and looking for himself, but as it comes to a close, it's clear he's standing in the light.