Sidney Poitier, in a Very Bad Way:
A Note on the Function of Bryant in V.S. Naipaul's A Note on the Function of Bryant in V.S. Naipaul's Guerrillas
by Martin Kich
In V.S. Naipaul's Guerrillas, Bryant may seem one of the more peripheral characters. After all, he appears in only a handful of scenes: he demands a dollar from Jane when she first visits Thrushcross Grange; that night, he travels to town to spend the dollar at the movies; later, he overhears Jimmy's telephoning Jane, and he then feels angrily betrayed by Jimmy's bringing her out to the house to have sex with her; he relates the news of Stephens' death to Roche and Jane; he haunts Jimmy after Jimmy returns alone to Thrushcross Grange, having failed to turn the rioting to his political advantage; and lastly he kills Jane savagely when Jimmy, having raped her anally, offers her to him as a sort of blood sacrifice or scapegoat. In all but the second of these scenes, the emphasis is clearly on the actions and reactions of Roche, Jane, and/or Jimmy, with Bryant's dangerous brooding or almost maniacal outbursts serving as a sort of catalyst.
In fact, even in comparison to the other minor characters, Bryant may seem sketchily drawn. Certainly, Meredith and Harry possess more sophisticated personalities than Bryant, and, likewise, Meredith faces a crisis that seems to have a more clearly public, as well as a private, dimension than whatever crisis Bryant experiences. Even Adele, whose existence as the maid in Roche and Jane's house is little more than noted in the first two-thirds of the novel, may seem in the later chapters on the state of emergency to emerge as a more fully drawn character than Bryant is. Because the single scene that truly conveys his point of view occurs very early in the novel, we might naturally define him by only his more striking characteristicsBhis physical ugliness, his sexual desperation, and his bloodthirsty rage. We might reduce his function in the novel to that of an almost coincidentally evil agent. In his frenzied murder of Jane, we might see only an inexplicably primitive and malformed personality set loose by anarchic circumstances and used perversely by the more complexly self-delusive corruption represented in Jimmy.
Still, to regard Bryant and his function in the novel in this manner raises a number questions regarding the novel's development and resolution. To give a simple example: how well does Jimmy know Bryant if he has no qualms about arousing Bryant sexually and then going merely to the next room to telephone Jane to arrange their date? Jimmy surely knows that Bryant is jealously possessive, that Bryant habitually lingers around the house to spy on him, and that Bryant is subject to unpredictably directed violence. The only way that we can explain Jimmy's unselfconsciously callused behavior in this instance is to say that it serves as a parallel to Jane's obtuseness, her emotional self-involvement, in her deciding to visit Jimmy near the end of the novel. Just as she makes a gross miscalculation in thinking that, because she is English, Caucasian, and involved with Roche, Jimmy will be grateful for a last sexual experience with her, so, too, Jimmy seems in the earlier scene to presume that, because Bryant is so haplessly ugly and lonely, he will be gratified by any sexual attention from someone of Jimmy's stature. So, we can say that Jimmy knows Bryant little better than Jane knows Jimmy and, furthermore, that if we reduce Bryant to a mere type, we are misreading him in essentially the same way that Jimmy misreads him.
To avoid such a misreading, we must take more fully into account the single scene that conveys Bryant's point of view. In depicting Bryant's response to the film For Love of Ivy, as well as his manner with the cabbie who drives him back to Thrushcross Grange, Naipaul shows that, because of his limitations, Bryant struggles all the more to articulate his frustrations, his yearnings, and his status in society. His limitations might prevent him from reaching the sort of self-rationalizations that at least temporarily abate Roche's, Jimmy's, and Jane's underlying anxieties, but his limitations do not prevent him from struggling with emotions that are every bit as self-tormenting and ultimately as self-destructive as theirs. On a first reading, this fairly lengthy scene focusing on Bryant may seem something of a tangent, but, with further consideration, we should recognize that it has the purpose of establishing that Bryant is not a type, even though he will be treated by others as a type and will continue to respond according to type.
Moreover, we cannot treat Bryant as some sort of primitively perverse loose wheel in this novel, for he has a clear place in a scheme of carefully established parallels among the more significant male characters. At the center of this scheme are Jimmy and Meredith, who both seek to dispel private inadequacies in public political successes, but who both fail because they are more pettily calculating than astutely perceptive. Similarly, both Stephens and Roche may be paired because their experiences demonstrate to them that they lack the blanket convictions required for a sense of political purpose, and yet, they do not foresee how circumstances will allow them to be used politically. Finally, Bryant and Harry complete the scheme because both are curiously aloof from the immediate political crisis. At bottom, Harry knows that, barring some accident, he can transfer his life to Toronto, and, likewise, Bryant knows that, barring his death, he has no escape from his conditions of existence on the island. In addition, although Bryant and Harry manage to get the facts of the political situation more readily than others do, both are preoccupied by pitifully private, sexual crises: Bryant's involving Jimmy and Jane, and Harry's involving his estranged wife and her new lover. Harry uncharacteristically takes to carrying a handgunBostensibly to protect himself from his man-servant Joseph, but more accurately to demonstrate to himself that he is capable of decisiveness should he need to leave the island and his wife behind. In the same vein, Bryant convulsively kills JaneBostensibly because he hates her sexually and racially, but more accurately because killing her allows him to repress the need he has felt to kill Jimmy.
Neither Harry nor Bryant is pointedly scarred by events, but they are the most transparently scared of all the characters of this novel. Although they represent opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum, they share essentially the same fear that the political crisis will overwhelm their personal crises and leave them somehow always isolated in a very private despair. Thus, in a sense, the pairing of Harry and Bryant provides a framework in which we can place the other male characters, as well as JaneBcharacters who to varying degrees are able to sublimate this fear, to delude themselves that the political crisis might serve to resolve their personal crises. It is necessary, then, that we see Bryant as a minor, but carefully defined character whose characterization is integral to the balanced development of the novel. His killing Jane is a horrible act, not because he is a madman, but because it saves him at least temporarily from madness. This distinction emphasizes, rather than is extraneous to, the absurdity of all of the politics that presumably might define the direction of existence on this island, as well as the directions that Roche's, Jane's, and Jimmy's lives do take on a more individual level.