Study Guide

The Cay Analysis

By Theodore Taylor

  • Tone

    Intimate, Variable

    Because the book is written from Phillip's personal point of view, we are privy to his innermost thoughts and feelings. This intimacy lets us see just what Phillip is thinking about whatever situation he finds himself in.

    Phillip's narrative tone changes over the course of the novel. When we first meet him, he's petulant – fighting with his mother and thinking poorly of Timothy. His tone changes, though, once he matures a bit, and we see him address those around him with respect and courtesy.

  • Genre

    War, Survival, Children's Literature, Coming of Age

    As we noted in our "In a Nutshell" section, The Cay is an amazingly awesome mash-up of a harrowing war story and a desert-island survival tale. The first few chapters focus primarily on the World War II aspects of the story, then the novel shifts genre and is dedicated to island time. Both halves are action packed.

    The Cay is also a children's novel through and through, in that it explores coming-of-age themes. We see this focus in the growth and maturation of our 11-year-old protagonist Phillip.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    On a very basic level, the title serves as an advertisement for the book and clues us in to what to expect from it. A cay is a small island in the ocean that forms on a coral reef. From this we can gather that the novel is probably an adventure story, most likely involving ships or a castaway. We also know that the cay is probably where the most important action in the book will take place. The title, therefore, orients us as a reader.

    On a deeper level, the cay also pushes us to think about islands more generally. An island is a self-sustaining little world, an isolated ecosystem. We can interpret the cay as a mini version of the real world; that is, the events and ideas we see dramatized on the cay (acceptance, tolerance, sacrifice, love) can also be applied to life in the outside world.

    "Cay" can also be pronounced "key" – as in the Florida Keys. This suggests to us that the author probably thinks what happens on the cay is pretty darn important – maybe even the "key" to life in the real world. Pretty cool, huh?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    At the end of the novel (Chapter 19) we see a lot of the book's conflicts resolved. Well, sort of. Here's a breakdown:

    Phillip is reunited with his parents.

    Phillip meets up with his parents at long last, but he struggles to tell them about his friendship with Timothy. (In the end, he doesn't.) His mother apologizes to him, but there is no dialogue between the two to demonstrate their reconciliation. On the whole, not a lot of communication happens, which leaves us at Shmoop feeling a little unsatisfied. In Taylor's defense, he seems more concerned with Phillip's relationships on the cay than those off the cay.

    Phillip's vision is miraculously restored.

    Phillip's surgery to restore his sight is a deus ex machina plot move if we've ever seen one. One procedure in New York and the kid can see again? Why do you think Taylor chose to give Phillip his sight back? What would Phillip's life be like if he didn't have his sight restored? How would you have written the ending?

    Phillip returns to Curaçao.

    When Phillip returns to Curaçao we know for sure that he has fully matured. His friend Henrik seems much younger now, and he hangs with the black West Indian people instead because they remind him of Timothy. He's experienced quite a lot for an 11-year-old kid.

    Phillip dreams of returning to the cay.

    The final image in the book is of Phillip studying charts of the Caribbean looking for his little cay. Life on the cay with Timothy is a dear memory, and he longs to return to it. How might Phillip revisit the cay in a less literal sense? Would it be possible to live in the real world with the same values of friendship, love, and respect as he did on the cay with Timothy?

  • Setting

    Willemstad, Curaçao, 1942

    Time: World War II

    Theodore Taylor's The Cay is set during World War II. It's 1942 and Hitler has invaded Holland and defeated France. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and America has officially entered the fray. As the novel opens in February 1942, a significant part of the world's military forces are mired in war. (Check out this WWII timeline.)

    The Nazi submarines, called U-boats, are stalking the island where Phillip and his family live. The war-torn backdrop adds action to the plot, but it also asks us to think about themes of sacrifice and heroism. We're also alerted to the fact that the book will be addressing the theme of violence on many different levels.

    Place: Willemstad, Curaçao

    The tiny Caribbean island of Curaçao (how do you pronounce that?) has a complicated history. Native islanders lived on the island until the Spanish invaded at the end of the 15th century. Then it was conquered by the Dutch in 1634. The island became an active hub for the transatlantic slave trade. In the 20th century, Curaçao became home to many oil refineries. Today it is a popular tourist destination.

    Because of its long history of trade and imperial domination (Europeans have been fighting over the island for hundreds of years), we might think of Curaçao as a "contact zone." A "contact zone" is a term professor-types use to describe places where people from a lot of different cultures have been brought together by trade – in this case, the slave trade and the oil trade. In contact zones you find a lot of mixing and mingling among cultures. We see this during Phillip's descriptions of the town of Willemstad:

    I had played there many times with Henrik and other boys when we were a few years younger, imagining we were defending Willemstad against pirates or even the British. They once stormed the island, I knew, long ago. Or sometimes we'd pretend we were the Dutch going out on raids against Spanish galleons. That had happened too. It was all so real that sometimes we could see the tall masted ships coming over the horizon.

    Of course, they were only the tattered-sailed native schooners from Venezuela, Aruba, or Bonaire coming in with bananas, oranges, papayas, melons, and vegetables. (1.9-10)

    Willemstad is a mash-up of many different cultures. As Phillip's description suggests, the town brings together lots of different people all together in one place. This clash of cultures is explored on a personal level in the friendship between Timothy and Phillip, and even, to a lesser extent, in the friendship between Phillip and Henrik.

    Shmoop Head Scratcher: Why does the book lament the Nazi invasion of Holland (1.23), but not the Dutch or Spanish invasion of Curaçao? What makes it OK to invade one country and its people, but not another? Is there a double standard here?

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    To Dr. King's dream,
    Which can only come true
    If the very young know and understand.

    Theodore Taylor begins his novel with a dedication to Martin Luther King, Jr., a major figure in the American Civil Rights Movement. The dedication suggests that the book will address race relationships and issues of equality, dramatizing in fiction, King's vision for a just and equal society. You can learn more about Dr. King's "dream" from his famous and awesome "I Have a Dream" speech.

    For more, see our section on "Themes: Race."

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Theodore Taylor's The Cay is a desert-island survival story set against the backdrop of World War II. Since there's no shortage of submarines, torpedoes, and hurricane-force winds, we're sure that Shmoopers will find themselves flying through this exciting book's pages.

    But wait! A quick word of warning: the novel is a piece of historical fiction, and the action is set in the Caribbean. Readers might want to brush up on their World War II knowledge and their world geography skills to help keep all those names and dates straight.

  • Writing Style


    Theodore Taylor started writing for newspapers when he was only 13, and his journalistic flair comes through in the pages of The Cay. His descriptions of Willemstad and the cay in Chapters 1 and 2 are vivid and lifelike. He recounts every bit of action – from torpedoes to hurricanes – clearly and astutely so as not to lose any detail.

  • Blindness

    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?

  • Tempest

    A tempest is a tropical storm with major rain and high winds. You might have heard of these storms by a different name: a hurricane. Hurricanes are common in the Caribbean, the setting of The Cay. The hurricane in the novel is not just a natural phenomenon, though. Sure it's a storm, but it's also a metaphor that represents the violence of the natural world. We learn that nature can be pretty terrible, battering away at the island and the people on it.

    Rain was now slashing into the hut, and the wind was reaching a steady howl. The crash of the surf was sounding closer; I wondered if it was already beginning to push up toward our hill. (15.9)

    Notice how verbs such as "slashing" are used to describe the tempest, emphasizing its violent nature. Phillip is sheltered from the brutal storm by Timothy's body, while Timothy gets sliced and diced:

    Timothy had been cut to ribbons by the wind, which drove the rain and tiny grains of sand before it. It had flayed his back and legs until there were very few places that weren't cut. (15.39)

    Timothy selflessly gives his life to protect another person in the face of unstoppable violence. Who else in the book sacrifices like Timothy does? (Hint: The book is set during World War II when the world was at war with Nazi Germany.)

  • Sharks

    Sharks are natural predators in the ocean, and they play a minor role in The Cay. The animals generate suspense and a sense of danger when Timothy and Phillip are floating on the raft, not to mention when Phillip falls into the water in Chapter 6. The image of the shark also gets connected to that of the Nazis, as in this quote from the first line of the book:

    Like silent, hungry sharks that swim in the darkness of the sea, the German submarines arrived in the middle of the night. (1.1)

    Taylor compares the violence of the natural world to that of humans, suggesting that the two are perhaps linked. In what ways are they similar? How are they different?

  • Coconut Tree

    Tons of heroes face trials in their adventures: think of all of the challenges and monsters Percy Jackson faces, for example. The coconut tree is a trial Phillip must face. He's afraid to climb the tree because he's blind, but he does so for the hungry Timothy's sake.

    Squatting near me, his teeth crunching the coconut, Timothy said, "You see, Phill-eep, you do not need d'eye now. You 'ave done widout d'eye what I couldn't do wid my whole body."

    It was almost as if I'd graduated from the survival course that Timothy had been putting me through since we landed on the cay. (13.49-50)

    Phillip's climbing the tree tells us that he has reached a certain level of maturation. He is acting as a provider for Timothy now; he has conquered his fears and can survive on his own.

  • Island Animals

    The animals on the island are fighting for survival just like Phillip and Timothy. In their behavior, we see echoes of human behavior. Phillip's interactions with these animals become a metaphor for the human relationships we see in the backdrop of War World II. For example, when Phillip invades the nesting grounds of the birds, they attack him:

    Wondering what had caused the birds to attack me, I felt around in the sand. Soon, my hand touched a warm shell. I couldn't blame the birds very much. I'd accidentally walked into their new nesting ground.

    They were fighting for survival, after the storm, just as I was. (16.32-33)

    And when he sticks his hand into the moray eel's hole, it bites him:

    Pain shooting up my entire arm, I lay panting on the edge of the pool and gingerly began to feel my wrist. It was bleeding, but not badly. But the teeth had sunk in deep. (17.19)

    Just as the animals on the island have to defend themselves against intruders (Phillip), the people of the Caribbean must defend themselves from the invading Germans.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First-Person (Central)

    The Cay is told retrospectively from our protagonist Phillip's point of view. The narrative is written in the first person, which means that Phillip is telling the story himself. He's a "central" narrator because he's telling the story about himself – he's the star in his own story. We get lots of insight into what the young Phillip is thinking and feeling, which allows us to see more clearly the personal transformation he undergoes.

    On the downside, we don't really get to see what other characters, like Timothy, are thinking; we are dependent upon Phillip for all of the information we get. While the first-person perspective gives us a rich view of Phillip's inner life, we are left wondering about other characters' points of view.

    Perspective Adventure: Try rewriting a scene from The Cay from Timothy's point of view. How would it be different?

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    The Germans arrive in Curaçao. Phillip clashes with his mother.

    In the novel's first pages we're introduced to the book's initial conflicts, both big and small. First, the big picture: we're in the middle of a war. World War II, to be exact. Enemy German submarines have arrived in the Caribbean and are targeting the small island of Curaçao. The oil refineries and tankers in the area are valuable resources for the Allied war effort, so the German enemy forces want to take them out.

    The situation on the international scene causes domestic strife in our protagonist's family, presenting us with another of the novel's initial conflicts. Phillip's mother wants to leave Curaçao and return to the family's home in Virginia; Phillip and his father want to stay put. In this way, we're presented with two tense situations: we see both a world at war and a family at odds with itself. The differences in culture between Curaçao and Virginia are set up in this section as well.


    The Hato is torpedoed. Phillip is blinded by falling debris and ends up on a raft with a West Indian man named Timothy.

    The novel starts hitting us with a whole lot of action. First, the ship on which Phillip and his mother are sailing is hit by a torpedo. Then, during the evacuation, Phillip is knocked out, and when he wakes up he's on a raft with a West Indian man and a cat. To make matters worse, Phillip's head starts hurting form his injury, and he goes completely blind. Adrenaline junkies should have their fix by now. This section also introduces us to the character Timothy, a West Indian man will play a big part in Phillip's character transformation. The tense dynamic between the two is set up here, as they embody the differences between American and Caribbean cultures.


    Timothy and Phillip land on the cay, where they butt heads.

    The primary location of the novel shifts as Timothy lands the raft on a tiny cay in an area of the ocean known as the Devil's Mouth. Switching from war to survival mode, the desert island portion of the novel now begins in earnest. In the area of character development, Timothy and Phillip continue to clash as Phillip discovers that Timothy can't spell. Timothy pushes Phillip to help with chores even though he is blind. This irritates Phillip to no end, and he begins to regurgitate racist views he picked up from his mother.


    Timothy and Phillip reconcile. Phillip climbs the palm tree. A storm takes the island.

    The mounting tensions between Phillip and Timothy reach a climax as Timothy and Phillip finally have a major confrontation. Timothy goes so far as to hit Phillip, but after the fight, the two become friends. Phillip lets go of his racist views and realizes that Timothy is attempting to help him. Phillip's personal transformation is symbolically cemented when he triumphs over the palm tree, climbing it and grabbing its coconuts. Phillip also realizes that Timothy is old and sick. A role reversal begins to take place as Phillip starts helping Timothy. Along with all these personal revelations, the action of the novel reaches a climax as a massive hurricane hits the island. In this violent storm, Timothy gives his life to save Phillip, foregrounding the theme of sacrifice.


    Phillip navigates the island alone. A plane comes but fails to rescue him.

    After the novel's climax we see Phillip develop his independence, alone now on the island except for Stew Cat. He rebuilds the shelter, cleans up after the storm, and is bitten by a moray eel. We also see his brainpower at work when he realizes that the signal fire isn't working because the smoke is white. He figures out how to make black smoke with the sea grapes. Growing stronger and more experienced every day, Phillip becomes a fully mature and independent young man.


    Phillip is rescued and returns to his parents. His sight is restored.

    In the novel's final pages all of the conflicts are tied up neatly. Phillip is rescued and reunited with his parents. The novel hints at their reconciliation, but Phillip struggles to tell them about his relationship with Timothy. The mother's character has changed, but there is no serious or satisfying dialogue between her and her son. In a deus ex machina move, a miraculous operation in New York restores Phillip's eyesight.


    Phillip returns Curaçao. Phillip dreams of returning to the cay.

    Phillip's maturity becomes most obvious in the novel's conclusion. He returns to his hometown to find out that his old friend Henrik seems very young now. Phillip hangs out with the West Indian people instead, because they remind him of Timothy. Later he will study charts of the Caribbean looking for the cay and longing to return.

  • Allusions

    Historical References

    While The Cay does not reference any specific real-life incidents or figures from World War II, the war itself plays a large role in the novel. The Germans did indeed invade parts of the Caribbean. The year 1942 is an important part of the novel's setting. And Royal Dutch Shell (1.49), the oil company that employs Phillip's father, did do business on the island during the 20th century.