Philoctete’s Wound as the Wounds of Slavery
Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines a simile as, “An explicit comparison between two different things, actions, or feelings, using the words ‘as’ or ‘like’…” (Baldick 334). In his critically-acclaimed epic poem, Omeros, Derek Walcott uses similes to connect Philoctete’s shin wound to the sea as a life giver and a life taker, thereby linking it to the displacement of slaves, symbolizing Philoctete’s wound as the wounds of slavery. His lesion is healed when Ma Kilman picks a flower from their homeland for his medicine, signifying the return of their ancestors to their homeland.
Throughout Omeros, Walcott compares the wound on Philoctete’s shin to sea-creatures, which connects it to the ocean. In this poem, the ocean is a life giver and a life taker. It provides food and profit for St. Lucia in that the fisherman catch food to eat and sell, and it designates the Caribbean as a vacation location for tourists visiting via cruise ships. The people of St. Lucia are also able to trade via liners. It steals the life of Hector when he drives his van over the cliff on page 226, and it steals the lives of slaves who were brought to America via slave ships. Walcott writes, “Negro shacks / moved like a running wound, like the rusty anchor / that scabbed Philoctete’s shin,” the rusty anchor from the sea which took his freedom, and metaphorically, his life (Walcott 178). He is forced to work for Plunkett instead of for the sea, as he longed to do, just as slaves were taken by the sea to work for American slavers. Along with the metaphorical ending of lives by means of stolen freedom, “records suggest that until the 1750s one in five Africans on board ship died” (International Slavery Museum). The sea quite literally takes lives, as it did with Hector, as it did with slaves.
When Philoctete’s wound is first introduced, Walcott writes, “It has puckered like the corolla / of a sea-urchin” (Walcott 4). Connecting Philoctete’s wound to the displacement of slavery, the sea-urchin is a delicacy in the Caribbean; therefore they are commonly poached, just as people were poached from their homelands and devoured into American slavery (Jamaica Observer). Covered with a hard shell and spines that are painfully sharp, they sting when threatened (Gardner), so using a sea-urchin first to describe Philoctete’s wound, Walcott is symbolizing the resistance of slaves by fighting their captors. Per the Understanding Slavery Initiative, slaves from the Caribbean rebelled and ran away or fought colonial forces, even taking control of armies and islands. However, eventually they were defeated and captured and sold into slavery, displacing them from their homeland.
The next couple of times Walcott mentions Philoctete’s wound he writes, “The sore on his shin / still unhealed, like a radiant anemone” and “The itch in the sore / tingles like the tendrils of the anemone” (Walcott 9-19). This is a significant plunge from the sea-urchin comparison because anemones are “are soft-bodied, simple animals that remain primarily sedentary, resembling flowers in appearance” (Gardner). A noticeable shift in comparison, he is now symbolizing that after capture, slaves moved from fighting to submitting to slavers and colonialism. As more and more people were forced into slavery, slave owners resorted to increasingly cruel and inhumane methods to keep them from rebelling, which included whippings and murder. Understandably, slaves grew progressively more afraid to oppose their masters for fear of torture and death, so they grew more and more like an anemone—sedentary and simple. They also grew more and more like Philoctete’s shin—wounded.
When Philoctete is tending to his lesion with Vaseline, Walcott writes, “At night, when yards are asleep, and the broken line / of the surf hisses like Philo, ‘Bon Dieu, aie, waie, my sin / is this sore?’ the old plantains suffer and shine” (Walcott 235). This is symbolic of his wound representing the wounds of slavery and the regret of the people who allowed their brothers and sisters to be captured, sold into slavery, and displaced. It was also a shame of these people to adopt and allow the ways of the men who colonized their islands. They abandoned their people to slavery and their traditions and freedoms to the methods and manners of the colonists. Walcott refers to this regret and shame as a sin, and therefore something that is, or should be, punishable by suffering, like Philoctete’s wound.
Ma Kilman finds the flower that heals Philoctete’s wound by following ants, which Walcott reveals are her ancestors by writing, “ants had lent her / their language, the flower that withered on the floor” (Walcott 245). When she prepares the basin for Philoctete “he entered / his bath like a boy. The lime leaves leeched to his wet / knuckled spine like islands that cling to the basin / of the rusted Caribbean” (Walcott 247). She has finally found the medicine which will heal his wound, and Philoctete “could feel the putrescent shin / drain in the seethe like sucked marrow” (Walcott 247). By returning to her roots and ancestors, Ma Kilman healed the wounds of slavery, as depicted on Philoctete’s shin, as they no longer deny their ancestry, and “the corolla / closed its thorns like the sea-egg. What else did it cure” (Walcott 247)? Instead of trying to heal himself with modern medicine, Philoctete and Ma Kilman embrace and accept the ancestors’ traditions they have denied, and thus betrayed. It is a beautiful representation of their ancestors returning to their homeland.
In conclusion, Derek Walcott uses similes in Omeros to powerfully compare Philoctete’s wound to sea-creatures, thus connecting to the life giving and taking sea and representing the displacement of people from their homeland and forcing them into slavery. His wound is an embodiment of the wounds of slavery and is thus only healed when Ma Kilman and Philoctete embrace and accept the medicinal roots of their ancestry, therefore returning the denied and betrayed peoples back to their homelands.
Walcott, Derek. Omeros. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.
Baldick, Chris. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 4th ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
“Concerns raised in St Lucia about illegal harvesting of sea urchins.” n.d. Jamaica Observer.
“Life on board slave ships.” 2017. International Slavery Museum. National Museums Liverpool.
Gardner, Keri. “Sea Anemones vs. Sea Urchins.” n.d. Mom.me.
“Resistance and Rebellion.” 2011. Understanding Slavery Initiative.
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