Timothy is the kind-hearted West Indian man who saves Phillip's life again and again. He pulls him on the raft, rescues him from sharks, and shelters him from the hurricane. As a character, Timothy's purpose in the novel is to aid in Phillip's character transformation. He is in some ways Phillip's opposite: he represents values of selflessness, wisdom, and love, and he firmly believes in racial equality.
Timothy provides readers with a stark contrast to Phillip. Phillip is young, American, white, and educated; Timothy is old, poor, West Indian, black, and illiterate. Phillip is a small boy, Timothy is a big man. They are, in many ways, opposites.
Timothy is not only unlike Phillip, but he is also very different from the implied reader of this book – a literate young person who, like Phillip, is probably American. In this sense, the reader might relate more at first to Phillip than Timothy.
There are many techniques the novel uses to distance the implied reader from Timothy and make him seem strange, or "other." Through these techniques, the novel sets up an "us" vs. "them" kind of mentality.
First off, Timothy's speech is written to reflect his West Indian accent:
He looked at me in the fading light and said softly, "We will 'ave no other food tonight. You bes' eat dem, young bahss." With that, he pressed a piece of the fish against his teeth, sucking at it noisily.
Yes, they were different. They ate raw fish. (3.69-70)
Timothy's speech will seem strange and unfamiliar to most readers, calling attention his difference or "otherness." Note also Phillip's use of the word "they" in the passage. Who exactly do you think he means by "they"?
Second, Timothy is initially described by Phillip in a way that emphasizes his physical differences:
He crawled over toward me. His face couldn't have been blacker, or his teeth whiter. They made an alabaster trench in his mouth, and his pink-purple lips peeled back over them like the meat of a conch shell. He had a big welt, like a scar, on his left cheek. I knew he was West Indian. I had seen many of them in Willemstad, but he was the biggest one I'd ever seen. (3.17)
Timothy seems big and scary here and very different from our protagonist Phillip. It's almost like Philip is describing a large and dangerous animal instead of another person – who describes a fellow human being as "the biggest one I'd ever seen." Weird, right? Notice also how Phillip compares Timothy's features to the natural world, such as his lips, which Phillip compares to a conch shell. These similes align Timothy more with nature, as opposed to the "civilized" world from which Phillip purports to come.
Timothy also holds religious or spiritual beliefs that are outside the norms of mainstream American culture. For example, the episode with the jumbi highlights Timothy's voodoo practice, which Phillip finds very frightening:
I trusted Timothy, and kept telling myself that he wouldn't harm me, but it was the whole mysterious jumbi thing that was frightening. (11.51)
Even though Phillip and Timothy are friends, Phillip still does not understand Timothy's religion. Readers may be especially worried in this section, since it involves the lovable Stew Cat.
The challenge the novel gives Phillip – and readers who identify with him – is to get to know Timothy despite the fact that he comes from such a different culture. We are asked to look beyond the things that make him seem like an "other" and see in him our common humanity.
Once Phillip decides to trust Timothy, Timothy becomes an important mentor to him. Timothy sets up the island for the blind Phillip so that he'll be able to navigate it should anything happen to Timothy:
I followed it around to the lee side with my fingers. And there they were! Not two or three, but at least a dozen, lashed together, each with a barbed hook and bolt sinker. They were one more part of the legacy Timothy had left me. (16.15)
Here Timothy has set aside fishing poles with lures and sinkers for Phillip to use once he's on his own on the island.
Perhaps most important, Timothy teaches Phillips some crucial lessons about race and equality:
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'feesh 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 also serves as a role model and example of selflessness as he makes the greatest sacrifice for Phillip – using his body to protect Phillip during the hurricane that hits the island:
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)
Despite the fact that Timothy is a paragon of kindness and selflessness, the novel pretty much ignores his inner life. What are his thoughts and feelings? What are his needs and motivations? The novel is less concerned with these questions than with Timothy's impact on Phillip. We might say that Timothy exists in the novel solely to bring about Phillip's character transformation – not to undergo any transformation of his own.
Critics have identified this trend in literature, films, and television as the "magical negro" trope, a term first coined by filmmaker Spike Lee. For more examples of the "magical negro," check out this list). Critics often fault such works for treating a black person's experience only as it relates to a white person's. Timothy fits the bill here, insofar as he exists primarily to help a white character reform his or her racist views.
Were you left with any questions about Timothy's motivations, thoughts, or feelings? Can you imagine any ways in which Taylor could have enhanced Timothy's inner life in ways that would make sense for the book overall?
Dig Deeper: Check out Theodore Taylor's prequel Timothy of the Cay for a glimpse into Timothy's inner life.