Study Guide

The Cay Themes

  • Race

    Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that people would be judged not by the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. Theodore Taylor explores a similar dream in The Cay. He begins with a main character – an 11-year-old white boy named Phillip – who has bigoted views on race. Once Phillip goes blind, he is forced to depend upon a black West Indian man named Timothy to navigate the world around him. Needless to say, his worldview changes dramatically. Taylor's novel explores race relations by dramatizing an unlikely friendship that rises above racial boundaries.

    Questions About Race

    1. Where does Phillip pick up his bigoted ideas about race?
    2. What country is Timothy from? Who are his parents? How old is he?
    3. Timothy believes that underneath our skin we are all the same. Does Phillip believe this? Do you?
    4. Why does Phillip choose to associate mainly with the black West Indian people at the end of the novel?
    5. If you know the story of Robinson Crusoe, how are the relationships of the castaways similar or different in the two novels?

    Chew on This

    I [agree/disagree] with the critics who say that Taylor's portrayal of Timothy is racist.

    Timothy's literal blindness allows him to become figuratively color-blind.

  • Friendship

    We're usually friends with people with whom we have things in common: people in our homeroom class, people on our sports team, people who play the same games that we do... But what about people who are different from us? People who like different music, eat different food, or live in a different neighborhood? Or even people who are very different from us? People who speak a different language, are from a different country, or believe things that might seem strange to us. Can we ever be friends with those people?

    For Theodore Taylor, the answer is absolutely yes. On the surface, Phillip and Timothy could hardly be more different. Phillip is an 11-year-old American. Timothy is an older West Indian man who was orphaned and never learned how to read or write. Despite their differences, these two individuals create friendship based on mutual respect and love. The Cay teaches us a lesson about the importance of connecting with people who are not necessarily like us.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Who is Phillip's best friend in the beginning of the book? At the end?
    2. Why does Phillip ask Timothy if they can be friends? What does Timothy say?
    3. Give three examples of Timothy being a friend to Phillip. Give three examples of Phillip being a friend to Timothy.
    4. What does friendship mean to Phillip by the end of the book? What does friendship mean to you?
    5. How are your friends similar to you? How are they different?

    Chew on This

    It's through our friends that we learn who we are – and who we can be.

    In The Cay, friendship based on mutual respect is more lasting than friendship based only on sharing a common background.

  • Violence

    Violence can be defined in a lot of different ways. It can be "an exertion of physical force," like a violent slap on the face; a "destructive action," like a violent storm; or even a "clashing or jarring quality," like violently loud music. Like the dictionary, Theodore Taylor's The Cay depicts many different kinds of violence and defines them in different ways. We see the violence of war, violence in the natural world, and violence in human relationships. Some instances of violence are painted negatively, while others are shown as necessary. Whatever the case, violent conflict is a constant in the world of The Cay.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What happens to Phillip's views on war when he sees the Empire Tern blown up by a German torpedo?
    2. Why does Phillip's mother want to leave Curaçao?
    3. What happens to Phillip after Timothy slaps him? How did you feel reading about an older man hitting a boy? Was it justified? Was it necessary?
    4. Why do the birds attack Phillip when he wanders into their nesting ground?
    5. Why doesn't Phillip ever dive in the fishing hole again after being bitten by the moray eel?
    6. How does violence in the natural world compare to human violence?

    Chew on This

    Violence is sometimes justified, like World War II or when Timothy slapped some sense into Phillip.

    Timothy shouldn't have hit Phillip. There is always an alternative to violence.

  • Transformation

    Most children's novels are concerned with the many changes their young protagonists go through, and this book is no different. Phillip, an 11-year-old American kid living in the Caribbean, goes through a whole lot of changes in <em>The Cay. </em>And thank goodness for that, because he starts out as a major pain in the butt.

    From the very first chapter, Phillip is in a state of transformation. When we meet him, he's young, sheltered, and pretty immature. The war brings on the loss of his innocence, his blindness demands that he see the world in an entirely different way, and his friendship with the West Indian man Timothy prompts him to rethink his prejudiced ideas about race. Just as in life, all those changes Phillip goes through (even the really hard ones) result in a more mature and experienced character at the novel's conclusion.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What happens to Phillip when he sees the <em>Empire Tern </em>explode?
    2. How do Timothy and Phillip become friends?   
    3. How does Phillip's physical appearance change after he lands on the cay?
    4. How does Phillip's relationship with Henrik change once he returns home? Why?
    5. How does Phillip's physical changes (his blindness) reflect his inner changes?
    6. Is Phillip's mom's transformation convincing? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The most important lesson Timothy teaches Phillip is that he can change himself for the better.

    The Cay would be a stronger book if Timothy went through some transformations along with Phillip.

  • Man and the Natural World

    The natural world is like a diamond – it has many sides. It can be scary (storms and earthquakes), welcoming (a cozy forest bower), inspiring (jaw-dropping mountain view), or isolating (a lonely empty beach). The Cay represents the natural world in all its many sides. The tiny island where Phillip and Timothy land is like a microcosm (mini version) of the larger world: both a loving home and a dangerous battlefield.

    The Cay also asks us to think about the relationship between humans and the natural world. You'll sometimes find Theodore Taylor comparing or contrasting images of nature with human action. In this way, the book asks us to think about the link between the two. How are humans and elements of the natural world similar? How are they different?

    We see different relationships to the natural world through the book's two main characters. Phillip's understanding of nature reflects his background: he's attended school and has some understanding of science. He can speak intelligently about volcanoes and coral reefs from his reading about them in books. Timothy, on the other hand, has no schooling and is very superstitious. He attributes bad luck to Stew Cat, for example. He does, though, have years of direct experience with nature and knows how to survive on his own in the wild. Both characters can learn something about the natural world from each other.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. How does book learning about the natural world differ from real-life experience?
    2. How are humans and elements of the natural world similar? How are they different?
    3. What parallels can you draw between the natural world in <em>The Cay</em> and World War II?
    4. What kinds of survival skills does Phillip learn?

    Chew on This

    <em>The Cay</em> argues that we can learn about nature from books, but to really understand the natural world we must experience it firsthand.

    Timothy gains respect for nature when he comes to understand that just like him, all of the animals on the cay are just trying to survive.

  • Appearances

    Ever hear the phrase "looks can be deceiving"? On the surface of things, the two main characters of The Cay appear to be very different. Phillip is 11 years old, American, and white. Timothy is over 70, West Indian, and black. What could these two characters possibly have in common? What in the world would they even talk about? Plenty, it turns out. The Cay asks us to put aside our preconceived notions about people, places, and things in order to see the world in a new way. Through the metaphor of Phillip's blindness, the novel calls our attention to the idea that we must change how we "see the world." (Psst. You can read a lot more about this in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory: Blindness.")

    Questions About Appearances

    1. What is Phillip's initial opinion of Timothy? On what does he base his opinion? How does he describe Timothy?
    2. What is Phillip's mother's opinion of West Indian and black people? Why does she think this way?
    3. How does Phillip get around the island if he's blind?
    4. How does Phillip's appearance change once he lands on the cay?
    5. How does Phillip's blindness influence the importance he places on appearances?
    6. Do you think Phillip ever would have learned not to judge people based on appearances if he hadn't gone blind? Are there other ways to learn this lesson?

    Chew on This

    The biggest differences between Phillip and Timothy lie in their appearances.

    Our appearances are an important part of ourselves, just not the whole part.

  • Sacrifice

    If we were fancy-pants literary critics, we might say that The Cay is a meditation on sacrificial love. What do we mean by that? Well, the novel really wants us to think about what it means to give things up – either for the people we love or for the good of humanity.

    There are tons of super-heroic acts of sacrifice throughout this novel. First, there's the backdrop of World War II and the people who lose their lives during the conflict. Phillip's dad doesn't die in the war, but he does stay on the island out of duty to his country while the rest of his family leaves. Then there are the sacrifices Timothy makes to protect Phillip on the cay. In the ultimate act of selflessness, Timothy shelters Phillip from the hurricane with his own body, sacrificing his life. The novel holds up these instances of sacrifice as heroic and necessary deeds in the face of senseless violence.

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. Why won't the Chinese sailors ride on the lake tankers? Would you ride the tankers if you were in their position?
    2. Why won't Phillip's father leave the island of Curaçao? Do you think he's acting bravely or foolishly?
    3. Why does Timothy teach Phillip to fish?
    4. What sacrifices does Timothy make for Phillip? Does Phillip make any sacrifices for Timothy?

    Chew on This

    In The Cay, sacrifice is the greatest form of love.

  • Contrasting Regions: Virginia and Curaçao

    Curaçao is a Dutch-controlled Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. Virginia is a state located in the mid-eastern section of the continental United States. Phillip and his family have relocated to Curaçao, though Phillip's mother remains homesick for her old Virginia home. These two distinct regions are juxtaposed throughout The Cay as a way of comparing and contrasting the cultures of America and the Caribbean more generally. The novel explores the differences and similarities between the two places, often defining the two cultures against one another.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: Virginia and Curaçao

    1. What country controls the island where Phillip lives?
    2. In what ways are Virginia and Curaçao different?
    3. Why does Phillip's mother want to return to Virginia? Why doesn't his father?
    4. Where would you say Timothy is "from"?
    5. Does Phillip return to America? When and why?
    6. How is the cay similar to or different from Virginia and Curaçao? Why do you think that it's on the cay that Phillip is able to transform and mature so much?

    Chew on This

    On of the main messages in <em>The Cay</em> is that we can learn things from other cultures only if we stop seeing them as different and separate.

  • Family

    Sure they drive us crazy, but our family shapes who we are and how we see the world – especially when we're kids. In <em>The Cay</em>, eleven-year-old Phillip's family has a big influence on him. From his mother he picks up some pretty bigoted ideas about race. From his father he learns what a man is supposed to be. After Phillip goes blind and is stranded on the cay, he gains a new family: Timothy and Stew Cat. Phillip's relationship with Timothy will help him see the world – and himself – in a totally new way.

    Questions About Family

    1. What does Phillip's mother think about black people? Why?
    2. What ideas and values does Phillip pick up from his parents? What kinds of ideas and values have you absorbed from your parents?
    3. Why does Phillip's father want to stay on the island?
    4. How would you describe Phillip and Timothy's relationship in the book? Are they like a father and son? Brothers? Something else?
    5. Who is Phillip's family at the end of the book?

    Chew on This

    The Cay shows us that a big part of growing up is choosing our values for ourselves, instead of just holding our parents values without question.

    Timothy is very similar to Phillip's father, which is one of the reasons why Phillip forms such a strong bond with him.