We at Shmoop have to admit that Phillip isn't exactly the most likeable guy out there. OK, let's be blunt: at the start of the novel this kid is a straight-up brat. He's super rude to his mother and tells her he hates her (2.34). He thinks his BFF Henrik is kind of annoying (1.16). And his behavior to the instantly likable West Indian Timothy is, in our humble opinion, unconscionable (really not cool). He thinks Timothy is a "black mule" (9.13), makes fun of him for not being able to spell (9.18), and calls him ugly and stupid to his face (9.18). Would you want to be stranded on a desert island with this kid?
Most novelists, though, don't create unlikable characters just to annoy us readers. Sometimes authors give us flawed characters because they are more than likely going to change in some way. (A character can't go from perfect to more perfect, right?) Much to our relief, the character will learn a lesson, mature a ton, or reform his or her attitude and actions. You can see this arc in other classic characters like the traitorous Edmund in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the greedy Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or the spoiled-rotten Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. Even Harry Potter is an enormous pain in Book 5. All of these characters mature, grow up, or change for the better in their respective books.
Like other characters who learn a major lesson, our boy Phillip undergoes a lot of significant changes in The Cay. (Thank goodness.) He may start off as a jerk, but he ends up as a pretty mature kid with a strong respect for other cultures. How does he get from zero to hero? Let's take a look.
Phillip undergoes a significant change even in the first two chapters of the novel. When the German U-boat (submarine) arrives in the waters surrounding Curaçao, he comments that he is not "frightened, just terribly excited" (1.5). For Phillip, war is a game to be played with your childhood friends. His innocent point of view, though, is soon replaced by firsthand experience of the harsh reality of war itself. Phillip's understanding of war shifts dramatically once he sees what the deadly German torpedoes can do:
It didn't seem possible that only a few hours before I had been standing on her deck. I was no longer excited about the war; I had begun to understand that it meant death and destruction. (2.28)
After witnessing the explosion of the British tanker S.S. Empire Tern, Phillip's views on war come into focus. He understands that war does not mean excitement, but violence, death, and pain. This small loss of innocence is only the beginning of Phillip's maturation; the effects of war will have a major impact on his life.
After a German torpedo hits the S.S. Hato, Phillip is injured and eventually goes blind. This disability forces him to depend on the West Indian man Timothy and see the world from his point of view. As Phillip says after asking Timothy to describe the sea to him, "His eyes were becoming mine" (5.35).
Phillip also begins to see through Timothy's eyes figuratively too. That is, Phillip's blindness leads him to be more open and empathetic with Timothy and see the world from his perspective. Instead of viewing Timothy as a big scary monster, Phillip begins to treat him like a person. They talk about their pasts. They become friends. And Phillip rejects the bigoted views about race he picked up from his mother. In his relationship with Timothy, he becomes colorblind:
I had now been with him every moment of the day and night for two months, but I had not seen him. I remember that ugly welted face. But now, in my memory, it did not seem ugly at all. It seemed only kind and strong.
I asked, "Timothy, are you still black?"
His laughter filled the hut. (13.52-54)
Phillip's blindness is the novel's grounding metaphor for the ongoing change in the way Phillip sees the world. This extends to the natural world as well: his sense of smell and touch become stronger (Chapter 18), and he experiences many events that feel routine, such as fishing, for the first time (13.21). All in all, he's learning not to judge based solely on appearances – because, well, he literally can't.
We should point out that the novel isn't really interested in showing what life is like for Phillip as a blind person once he leaves the cay. Blindness is a just a handy metaphor for his changing worldview before he is miraculously cured at the end of the novel (Chapter 19). What would have happened if Phillip hadn't been saved by an operation?
While Phillip's blindness prompts personal growth, it's his friendship with Timothy that teaches him the values of acceptance, perseverance, and love. After Phillip accepts Timothy as his friend he picks up valuable lessons from the older man. Take Timothy's enlightened views on racial difference, for example:
Wanting to hear it from Timothy, I asked him why there were different colors of skin, white and black, brown and red, and he laughed back, "Why b'fessh different color, or flower b'different color? I true don' know, Phill-eep, but I true tink beneath d'skin is all d'same." (10.13)
Timothy pushes Phillip to learn how to take care of himself and not be limited by his blindness. We can see this in the episode with the coconut tree in Chapter 13. After accomplishing this feat, Phillip says that he has graduated from Timothy's "survival course" (13.50).
As Phillip's guide and mentor, preparing the boy for life on the island alone, Timothy is one of the novel's most selfless figures. He makes the ultimate sacrifice for Phillip during the storm (Chapter 15), setting an example as he gives his life to protect Phillip during the hurricane. After he dies Phillip thanks God for Timothy:
I didn't know what to say over the grave. I said, "thank you, Timothy," and then turned my face to the sky. I said, "Take care of him, God, he was good to me." (16.5)
After Timothy's death, Phillip finally comes into his own as a fully independent and mature person. At first he struggles to navigate the island by himself, but by the book's final chapters he is able to clean up the wreckage after the storm, fish for food, and even figure out how to make a black smoke signal. He respects the birds and learns not to disturb the moray eel. Like the small island itself, he has learned to be a self-sustaining entity. After experiencing the world on his own, Phillip develops his own point of view, separate from that of his parents or other outside influences.