Under the Volcano: The Death of Yvonne

Jacqueline Bisset as Yvonne in Under the Volcano
Jacqueline Bisset as Yvonne in the movie version of Under the Volcano (1984) (Image from www.screenrush.co.uk)

Under the Volcano is our main focus in this month’s Culture Club. In an earlier Penguin Modern Edition (I don’t have a link, as it’s no longer published) the introduction features a very length letter that Lowry wrote in 1946 to Jonathan Cape (the publisher) arguing against suggested cuts. He goes through each of the 12 chapters, and one of the most fascinating revelations is that he regards the death of Yvonne (and how it happens) as central to the novel.

The passage comes at the end of chapter 11, in which Yvonne and Hugh follow the Consul into the forest. Amid the confusion we find dark portents, in Hugh’s song ending with the words ‘prefiere morir prefiere morir’, and the ensuing description of the coming storm:

All at once the rain fell more heavily. A wind like an express train swept through the forest; just ahead lightening struck through the trees with a savage tearing and roar of thunder that shook the earth…

Before his own death, the Consul unleashes fate/destiny – the horse with the number 7 brand that crosses their respective paths throughout the novel and then kills Yvonne while she’s searching in the dark for him, trying to reach him:

Again trying to rise she heard herself scream as the animal turned towards her and upon her. The sky was a sheet of white flame against which the trees and the poised rearing horse were an instant pinioned –

The contrast of their respective ends is clear: Yvonne’s death is a rising up to the stars, whereas Geoffrey’s at the end of the next chapter is a falling down into the volcano/ravine, representing the entrance to the underworld towards which he is drawn throughout the book. According to Lowry himself: ‘a not dissimilar idea appears at the end of one of Julian Green’s books, but my notion came obviously from Faust, where Marguerite is hauled up to heaven on pulleys, while the devil hauls Faust down to hell.’ Both are scenes of burning – Yvonne’s is in the heavens, Geoffrey’s is in the earth:

And leaving the burning dream Yvonne felt herself suddenly gathered upwards and borne towards the stars, through eddies of stars scattering aloft with ever widening circlings like rings on water, among which now appeared, like a flock of diamond birds flying softly and steadily towards Orion, the Pleiades…

See the excellent Hypertextual Companion to Under the Volcano for more details on the references in this chapter and throughout the novel.

Buy the novel here: Under the Volcano (Amazon affiliate link).

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