Study Guide

The Cay Violence

By Theodore Taylor


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

The novel begins with this image of the German submarines preying on the islands. Why does the author compare the German submarines to sharks? How is man-made violence connected to violence in the natural world?

I was not frightened, just terribly excited. War was something I'd heard a lot about, but had never seen. The whole world was at war, and now it had come to us in the warm, blue Caribbean. (1.5)

At 11 years old, Phillip is as innocent as they come. Having no experience of the violence of war, he is excited by the arrival of the Germans in the Caribbean.

Then I began to wonder if the Germans would send soldiers too. About nine-thirty I sneaked out of bed, went to the tool house, and took a hatchet out. I put it under the couch. It was the only thing I could think of to use for fighting the Germans. (2.3)

Phillip begins to fear the Germans, so he arms himself with a hatchet. What else might Phillip have done besides arming himself? Is there ever a nonviolent solution to violence?

Some of the women cried at the sight of her, and I saw men, my father included, with tears in their eyes. 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)

Witnessing the explosion of the <em>Empire Tern </em>drastically changes Phillip's views on war. War is no longer a game; it's a violent act that causes harm to others.

Everything was bright red, and there were great crackling noises. The entire afterpart of the ship was on fire, and sailors were launching the lifeboat that was on our deck. Steam lines had broken, and the steam was hissing out. Heat from the fire washed over us. (3.6)

Violence comes closer and closer to Phillip's life. Here the Germans attack the <em>S.S. Hato</em> while Phillip and his mother are on board. As a result, Phillip is blinded. Now he has firsthand experience with the kinds of harm that can come from war.

Something slapped up against my leg, and I thought it was Timothy. I knew how to swim, but didn't know which way to go. So I was treading water. Then I heard Timothy's frightened roar, "Sharks," and he was thrashing about near me. (6.4)

Even though they've escaped the German subs, Phillip and Timothy still face the danger of the natural world. The ocean is filled with bloodthirsty sharks.

I stood up, threw the palm fibers at him, and screamed, "You ugly black man! I won't do it! You're stupid, you can't even spell!"

Timothy's heavy hand struck my face sharply.

Stunned, I touched my face where he'd hit me.

Then I turned away from where I thought he was. My cheek stung, but I wouldn't let him see me with tears in my eyes. (9.18-21)

After friction mounts between them, Timothy and Phillip are involved in a violent exchange. Phillip abusively screams at Timothy, and Timothy hits Phillip. Phillip now finally sees Timothy's point of view. Do you agree that escalating violence can make someone change for the better? How is this moment a turning point for Phillip's character? In what other ways might Timothy and Phillip have resolved their issues?

Excited, I asked, "Who's shooting?"

"D'sea," he said.

I laughed at him, "The sea can't shoot a rifle."

"'A crack like d'rifle," he said, worry in his voice. "It can make d'shot all right, all right. It b'tell us a veree bad starm is comin', Phill-eep. A tempis'." (14.5-8)

Here the violence of the natural world is associated with the violence of war – the sea is imagined as shooting a rifle. How does war compare to the tempest? How are they similar? How are they different?

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)

The hurricane wrecks the island. Notice the violent verbs used to describe the storm: "slashing" and "crash."

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 sacrifices himself for Phillip in the face of the storm's unstoppable violence. Phillip notes the damage done to Timothy by the winds and sand.

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)

The birds attack Phillip when he invades their nesting ground. How is this moment symbolic? Can you connect this moment on the cay to the novel's backdrop of war?

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)

Phillip searches a hole for lobster and gets bitten by a moray eel. What does this teach Phillip (aside from the obvious: getting bitten stinks)? Why doesn't he ever go back to the hole again?