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Romanticism in W. H. Hudson’s "Green Mansions"
Man’s affinity with nature is a favorite theme in literature. Parallel to that, deconstructing W. H. Hudson’s “Green Mansions” entails one to delve deeply behind the surface meaning of the texts and to associate himself to characters as well as to the author of the story himself. Hudson’s fascination with nature was vividly expressed in the novel through a poetic-like description of the environment employing the different imageries that appeal to all the senses – visual, auditory, olfactory, organic, kinesthetic, tactile, and gustatory – as delineated by Perrine (1987).
Basically, Romanticism is about the imagination and the feelings. The term refers to the movement in literature of virtually every country of Europe, the United States, and Latin America that lasted from about 1750 to about 1870. It elevated folk art and ancient custom to something noble, made of spontaneity a desirable character (as in the musical impromptu), and argued for a “natural” epistemology of human activities as conditioned by nature in the form of language and customary usage. Characterized by reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature, the movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe-especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities, both new aesthetic categories.
Thus, the German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann declared: “infinite longing” is the essence of romanticism (Clements 2008). This “infinite longing” can be interpreted as the “ambiguity” and the “crux” that the author Frank Kermode (1957) mentions in his book Romantic Image. Kemode explains that poets and writers have in them “a sense of powerful forces extruding them from the life of their society, a sense of irreconcilable difference and precarious communication.” Kemode adds that they encounter this ambiguity concerning the degree of responsibility for their estrangement.
Green Mansions: The Novel
Published in 1904, the novel “Green Mansions” tells about Abel, a wealthy young man, who got entangled in a failed revolution and left his town Caracas to seek adventure in the unchartered forests of Guyana. Surviving fever and hostile Indian attacks, failing at journal-keeping and gold hunting, he opted to settle in a friendly Indian village headed by a chief named Runi. During one of his explorations, Abel discovered an enchanting forest where he saw the huge trees which he referred to as the green mansions. While spending time appreciating the beauty of nature, he heard a strange bird-like sound that seemed to follow him. His Indian friends warned him that the sound comes from “the Daughter of the Didi” whom they feared. Continuing the search, Abel finally found Rima who saved him from a serious fall in a ravine after having been bitten by a snake.
Abel soon became a household companion of Rima who was living with her grandfather named Nuflo. However, despite of being accepted in their abode, Abel failed to know more about the background of Rima and Nuflo. Then, Abel went back to the Indians but he was treated coldly suspecting him of betraying their friendship because of his long absence. He also learned that the Indians are devising a plan to kill Rima. Fearing for Rima’s life, Abel went back to the “green mansions” and decided to live with Rima and Nuflo for good.
Abel and Rima became constant companions in exploring the forest. The growing closeness caused them to eventually fall in love with each other. However, Rima, being only seventeen and naive, got so burdened and confused with what she was feeling towards Abel.
In one of their visits atop Ytaiao Mountain, Rima asked Abel about “the world” known and unknown, asking him if she was unique and alone. Abel sadly reveals that it is true. However, when he mentioned the mountains of Riolama, Rima perked up and realized that Nuflo was lying to her regarding her true identity. She then confronted Nuflo and demanded that they should go to Riolama to trace her roots. Eventually, the three went to an expedition to Riolama which took them eighteen days. Along the way, Nuflo revealed his past and the truth about Rima.
Abel learned that seventeen years ago, Nuflo led a band of bandits who preyed on Christians and Indians. Eventually, forced to flee to the mountains, they found a cave to live in. Hiding in the cave was a strange woman who was Rima’s mother. Superstitious and religious by nature, Nuflo assumed that the woman was a saint sent to save his soul. Nuflo left the bandits and ran away with her. Nuflo, upon learning that the woman was pregnant, brought her to Voa, a Christian community, where she delivered and raised Rima.
When Rima was already seven years old, her mother died due to an illness which was attributed to the poor condition of the settlement. With that, Nuflo brought Rima to the drier mountains but the local Indians resented her presence believing that she is the protector of their source of food. Abel realized that the Indians Nuflo referred to were the members of Runi’s tribe.
After learning Nuflo’s story, Abel revealed the sad news to Rima – that her mother belonged to a gentle, vegetarian people without weapons, who were wiped out by Indians, plague and other causes. Rima is indeed unique and alone. It was at that instance that the two finally expressed their true feelings for each other. Rima, who felt released of her emotional problems towards Abel, decided to return to their house in “green mansions” to prepare a life for herself and Abel. She flitted away, leaving Abel and Nuflo behind to be delayed by rain and hunger.
Upon their return, Abel and Nuflo did not find Rima, and what greeted them instead was Nuflo’s burnt hut. Abel searched the place but the Indians found him and took him as prisoner. At the hands of the Indians, Abel was subjected to a trial in which he successfully defended himself and was accepted again in the tribe. Later on, Abel learned that the Indians had indeed killed Rima by setting afire the tree where she had hidden. Abel was overwhelmed with rage that he vowed to avenge Rima’s death. In carrying out his plan, Abel ran away and went to the rival tribe headed by Managa. There, he succeeded in persuading Managa to raid Runi’s tribe.
The battle that ensued left all in Runi’s tribe dead. Then, in the middle of Managa’s celebration, Abel slipped out into the forest and found the burnt tree where Rima sought refuge from Runi. Abel searched for any remains of Rima while still hoping against all hopes that she is still alive and that she was able to escape her ordeal. However, the heavens fell on him upon seeing what was left of her. Abel gathered Rima’s burnt remains vowing to keep them so that when the time comes, his own ashes will be mixed with that of hers.
Trekking homeward, despondent and hallucinating, Abel was helped by friendly Indians and Christians reach his home. Luck struck him because all his lost possessions were returned to him by the new government. He opted to settle in Georgetown. There, he lived in solitude while waiting for the fulfillment of his promise to Rima: to have their ashes be joined as proof of their true and eternal love.
Green Mansions as an Expression of Romanticism
Written during early days of the Industrialization, Green Mansions portrays Hudson’s deep love and concern for nature. It also highlights his interest in ornithology which inspired him to create Rima as the “bird-girl.” Hudson’s Christian background being a Latin American by birth was evidenced by the title which was lifted from the Bible (John 14:2) that says: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
To quality the novel as an expression of Romanticism, it is then important to tackle the details that support the claim. According to Robert Clements (2008), Romanticism bears the following characteristics:
a. The exaltation of the sentiment
The spirit of Romanticism was influenced by Rousseau who established the cult of the individual and championed the freedom of the human spirit through his famous announcement: “I felt before I thought.” Many of the libertarian and abolitionist movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were engendered by the romantic philosophy – the desire to be free of convention and tyranny, and the new emphasis on the rights and dignity of the individual. (Clements 2008).
In the novel, Abel exemplifies the idealistic libertarian who was among the instigators of a failed uprising against the president of Venezuela. That failure had compelled him to flee together with the other conspirators.
b. The love of nature
Basic to the sentiment in the Romantic Movement was an interest in nature: the concern with nature and natural surroundings. Delight in unspoiled scenery and in the (presumably) innocent life of rural dwellers
Abel’s self-imposed exile brought him to the jungles of the Amazon. There, despite the absence of the luxury that he previously enjoyed in the city, he finds a deep sense of awe and contentment brought about by the magnificence of nature that had unfolded before him. The romanticist’s interest upon nature transcends from the environment towards everything that depends on it. Abel came to this realization upon encountering the other dwellers of the “green mansions.”
c. The lure of the exotic and the supernatural
Romanticism combines the concern for the picturesque, preoccupation with the heroic past, and delight in mystery and superstition. The nostalgia for the Gothic past mingled with the tendency to the melancholic and produced a fondness for ruins, graveyards, and the supernatural. (Clements 2008)
The novel exposes the unique and exotic way of life of the Indians in the Amazon. Included in this are the following:
• Their belief of the Didi as a deity of the forest and of Rima as a supernatural being that cannot be harmed by their weapons;
• Their fondness of an intoxicating concoction made from herbs and human saliva which Abel considered as their own version of the beer and of their consumption of grubs and other insects as food;
• Their use of the blow pipe with poisoned arrows in hunting for food which Abel has not learned how to use; and
• Their practice of wearing mask among the women to hide their true age and of claiming the right to possess or acquire the weapons or any possession of a conquered enemy.
In addition, Abel’s attraction to and eventually falling in love with Rima whom the Indians referred to as the “child of the Didi” show man’s tendencies toward what is mysterious and unique. Rima is, indeed, unique: she is a total vegetarian and prohibits the consumption of meat, she can move with such lightness and agility as if she is just “gliding” from one tree to another, she wears a piece of clothing made from spider’s web, and she can speak the language of the birds thus she was also regarded as the “bird-girl” of the forest.
d. The fashionable tendency to frenzy, melancholy, world-weariness, and even self-destruction.
Romanticism had upheld the imagination over reason, emotions over logic, and intuition over science – making way for a vast body of literature of great sensibility and passion. The Romantic writer had also put more effort into the psychological aspect of the characters wherein heroes and heroines exhibited extremes of sensitivity and excitement. (Clements 2008)
Rima’s growing curiosity and fondness over Abel had resulted to her confusion – a confusion which she mistook as her longing for her mother. This perplexity was aggravated by her discovery that Nuflo lied to her in terms of her true identity. Driven by rage, she hastily demanded that they should go to Riolama to trace her roots. Riolama did not give her what she wanted; yet. it was at that place where she gained her epiphany – that the feeling of confusion in her is actually the feeling of love that she had for Abel.
However, Rima’s impulsiveness led her to her death. She made a hasty decision of going back to the “green mansions” ahead of Abel and Nuflo. Upon her return, she encountered the Indians who eventually succeeded in killing her.
In the case of Abel, a mixed emotion of hatred and anger overwhelmed him upon learning of Rima’s death. Yet, this kind of anger was not just addressed to the Indians but to himself as well. Abel realized that he had contributed a lot to Rima’s death. His constant visit to the “green mansion” after which he returns to Runi’s tribe safe and unharmed, had diminished the Indians’ fear of Rima. Driven by rage, Abel planned to kill all of Runi’s tribe and he succeeded in doing so by seeking the assistance of Managa. Abel’s extreme anguish and anger overshadowed his propensity towards reason. This made him forget that Runi took care of him and treated him as a member of tribe, that Runi’s actions were just motivated by their sense of survival, and that Runi was not aware of his (Abel’s) affinity with Rima
Alone on his way to the civilized world, struggling against nature and against himself, Abel realized that he was just like Runi – that of being subjected to the core essence of man: self-preservation whatever the means be.
• Due to his attachment to Rima, he vowed to avoid meat. Yet, he gave in to Nuflo’s offer of a roasted koati that Nuflo had cooked secretly.
• In his search for the way home, hunger had driven him to raid the nests of the birds to eat the eggs. He had somehow forgotten Rima’s attachment with the birds. In fact, it was Rima who taught him how to find the nest of the birds in the forest.
• Abel had abhorred the savagery and the crude life of Runi’s tribe. In fact, he tried to infuse a touch of civilization to them by making a guitar and by teaching them some songs. Yet, he himself became a savage when he took part in the raid of Runi’s tribe.
Man and his “Infinite Longing”
Critics have argued that romanticism is irrational. Indeed, that is true for how could a man so overwhelmed with his emotions and sentiments think of rationality? Yet, by that, man is just manifesting his true self – something that is, in most cases, hard to suppress. Abel had realized this reality and he felt so bitter about it because of his inability to fight it.
Abel is an example of a human being governed by his emotions – the emotions that had led him to commit actions which he later regretted. But having done already all those acts, what remained of him were guilt and remorse. But to whom shall he seek refuge?
Yet, having failed to find death, he resolved to seek consolation from the memories of Rima – the woman who saved his life, the woman who enlightened him about nature and the woman with whom he experienced true love. And so he vowed to take her ashes hoping that by combining their ashes together, their love will eventually be consummated – something that they had both wished for while they were in the green mansions. But it is not just love that Abel is seeking for, he is also seeking for redemption and he hopes to find that in Rima.
True enough, “Green Mansions” is symbolical – a metaphor of man and his relationship with nature. Rima – that “bird girl” who can mingle and communicate with the creatures of the forest be they small or great, gentle or fierce, who manages the balance between man and the environment – is Mother Nature herself. Runi, by the crude way of life and the savagery of his tribe, represents the untamed side of man. Nulfo, by his suppressed violent nature, represents the “civilized” man; and who is also the “double” of Abel himself. Lastly, Abel, by his perplexity and confusion, is the persona who got entangled in the complex interaction of man and nature, of man and himself, and of man and his fellow man.
Just like Abel, everyone has his own kind of entanglement. Though varying in degree and scope, that certain entanglement is the “infinite longing” that one wants to address on or to deal with. This “infinite longing” is the core of Romanticism. It is the driving force that keeps humanity alive and dynamic. With that, it can then be said that man always has his romantic side and it is always working in him.
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