Analysis of Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew

Originally titled Gouverneurs de la rosée and published four months after the death of its author, the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain (1907–44), Masters of the Dew has remained a timeless and lyrical novel of human suffering, loss, and redemption. When the book first appeared in December 1944, it met with immediate success. Critics hailed Masters of the Dew as Roumain’s finest narrative achievement and a masterpiece of the roman paysan, or peasant novel, genre, which Roumain himself pioneered in his 1931 novel The Bewitched Mountain (La montagne ensorcelée). The peasant novel was formally related to late 19th-century prose fiction experiments in realism and naturalism, two artistic trends imported to Haiti from France. However, the setting, characters, and themes came from the Haitian rural culture that Roumain believed most authentically represented Haitian national identity.

Written during Roumain’s Marxist period, Masters of the Dew centers around a young peasant named Manuel Joseph who returns to his birthplace in the Haitian hills after having spent 15 years as a sugar plantation laborer in Cuba. The green and fertile land he once knew is dusty and unproductive, victim of a devastating drought. His village, Fonds Rouge, has been ripped apart by an old, unresolved blood feud. Dismayed by the villagers’ superstitious passivity before what they see as the workings of forces greater than themselves, Manuel conceives of a plan to locate water in the lush mountains above his village and, through a series of canals, bring this regenerative flow to his people. He also falls in love with the daughter of a family that, since the rekindling of the blood feud, has become the archrival to his own. The relationship Manuel forms with this young woman, Annaise, is both landscape-defining and landscape-defined. When they consummate their love, they do so by the spring Manuel has found in the mountains. The water thus becomes symbolic of both new life and healing, for Annaise, Manuel’s supposed blood enemy, finds herself pregnant as a result of their encounter.

Manuel’s vision of prosperity for all in Fonds Rouge is one he cannot achieve alone: Bringing water to the village requires a coming together of despairing villagers who have taken sides in a bitter community conflict. Calling upon group memories of the successful coumbites, or agricultural collectives, the peasants once formed to help each other, Manuel, along with Annaise, attempts to change the villagers’ minds and put an end to community distrust. As his experience with labor organizations in Cuba has shown him, unified action can move mountains.

But others—most notably, Gervilen, Manuel’s distant cousin and rival for Annaise, and Hilarion, a greedy moneylender—do not want Manuel to succeed, the one out of jealousy and personal enmity, the other out of a desire to profit from the villagers’ continuing misery. However, the promise of that which can nourish a dry earth and wash Fonds Rouge clean of all dust and hatred is not enough to end communal hostility. The blood feud begun by two other cousin-ancestors, Dorisca (Gervilen’s father) and Sauveur Jean-Joseph (Manuel’s grandfather), who destroyed each other in a land rights dispute, can be ended only by a blood sacrifice. A victim of Gervilen’s murderous wrath, Manuel becomes that very sacrifice and earns immortality as the tragic hero who in life offers enlightenment to a divided people and in death finally brings them together.

Roumain clearly reveals his love of both Haitian peasant culture and the beauty and harshness of rural life in the story he tells of the villagers of Fonds Rouge. At the same time, he also critiques what he sees as peasant blindness—itself the result of ignorance and religious resignation—to the transformative power of taking unified action against what appears to be an unchangeable fate. Through socialist education, all men and women, even the poorest and most humble, can achieve the instrumentality necessary to shape their own destinies and, in the symbolic language of the novel, become “masters of the dew.”

Cobb, Martha. Harlem, Haiti and Havana: A Comparative Critical Study of Langston Hughes, Jacques Roumain, Nicols Guillen. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1979.
Dash, J. Michael. Literature and Ideology in Haiti, 1915–1961. London: Macmillan, 1981.
Fowler, Carolyn. A Knot in the Thread: The Life and Work of Jacques Roumain. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1980.
Roumain, Jacques. Gouverneurs de la rosée. Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Imprimerie de l’État, 1944.
———. Masters of the Dew. Translated by Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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