The Day They Burned the Books is a captivating story that uses symbolism and imagery to complement the themes of racism, self-acceptance, and the unkindness of love. Jean Rhys short story is set in the Dominican Republic in the 1900’s just before world war one. At this time, the socioeconomic times in the Dominican Republic were not favourable and very hard on the people who lived there. The narrator tells the story though first person meaning that this person is a participant in this story and is telling it through her eyes but is young and naive.
Even though the story is told through a young person’s eyes you still get the major symbols like the books, the burning of the books, the library where the books are read and the racism and abuse behind Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer’s relationship. There are some major images in this story such as the friendship between Eddie and the narrator, the image of Mrs. Sawyer as a woman, and the negative treatment of Mrs. Sawyer. In the beginning, Mr. Sawyer was paid, given a private income, to leave the country away from his family and go to the Dominican Republic because he gave his family name a bad reputation.
He married a woman from the Dominican Republic who is of African American color “never decided why he had chosen to settle in a place he didn’t like and to marry a coloured woman” (2593); they have a boy named Eddie. The first symbol that is significant is the library at which the books are and where Eddie and his friend, the narrator, enjoy reading the books. The library is a symbol of peace and serenity, a place that is quiet. It is also a place to get away from his parents drama. Eddie goes to the library to gain knowledge of the European ways and to find out more about his identity.
He also goes to the library to feel closer to his father because they do not really have a relationship, because his father hates his mother because she is of African American descent. He dislikes Mrs. Sawyer because he was forced to leave England and was sent to the the Dominican because his family did not want him around, he is also stuck in his European ways. This Symbol is ironically a circle of hatred all due to his family sending him away. The next huge symbol is that of the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer, He treats her terrible but yet she stays with him.
Mr. Sawyer calls her terrible names such as “You damned, long-eyed, gloomy half caste” (2593) and a “look at the nigger showing off” (2593), he also pulls her hair “he had pulled Mrs Sawyers hair. ‘Not a wig, you see” (2593) and tells her that she smells terrible “you don’t smell right” (2593) which is due to the food she eats. In addition, Mrs. Sawyer begins to have a large amount of hatred towards the European ways because Mr. Sawyer does not have anything around the house that symbolises people of the Dominican “I knew that she hated the room and hated the books” (2594).
He does this because he resents having to come here to live. Mr. Sawyer has a hard time accepting Mrs. Sawyer and Eddie because he was forced to live here but also because he has a hard time accepting himself because he knows that he is the reason that he got sent to the Dominican Republic. The relationship between Mr. Sawyer and his son Eddie is minimal but is also a significant symbol. If Eddie wants anything to do with his father, he has to go to the library because his father will not even give him the time of day.
Like what was mentioned previously, the library is a symbol of Mr. Sawyer and a way for Eddie to get closer to his father. Another symbol, which seems to be the most significant of them all, is the burning of the books “They are going to be burnt – yes, burnt” (2595). The reason to which Mrs. Sawyer burns the books in the first place is because they symbolize her husband in that the books were all European and that there was nothing about the Dominican Republic culture or way of life even though we was married to and had a child with a woman from the Dominican.
In burning those books, she turned her son against her because that was his way of being somewhat close to his father and she destroyed that “Now Ive got to hate you too. Now I hate you too” (2595). Therefore, he started to become just like his father in hating his mother too. The first image in the short story was that of Eddie and his best friend who is actually the narrator. Even though they are of different race, they do not care and remain best friends.
The narrator shares the same amount of interest in the books as Eddie and is in the library everyday reading and learning about European ways to help Eddie get closer to his father “’My room,’ Eddie called it. ‘My books” (2595). When Mrs. Sawyer is looking through the books deciding what to burn and what to sell, they each grab a book to save and run “He snatched the book out of her hand and gave her a violent push” (2595) “I grabbed a book from the condemned pile and dived” (2595). They, oddly enough, have a love hate relationship as well “I loved, but sometimes despised him” (2592).
If Eddie wanted to do something that she didn’t agree with she would tell him and vise versa. Another Image, that is positive, is that of Mrs. Sawyer. She is a nice, respectable woman of African American color “a decent, respectable, nicely educated coloured woman, mind you” (2593) “Mrs Sawyer must have been very pretty once but, what with one thing and another, that was in days gone by” (2593). She lets Mr. Sawyer treat her terrible because she knows that when he dies she will get compensated for all of the pain, humiliation, and abuse she has suffered over the years.
For example, like mentioned before, he calls her names, pulls her hair and, verbally abuses her by telling her smells. You get the image; from Mr. Sawyer’s description of her, that she is a woman that does not keep her hygiene clean when really she is a nice, clean, respectable woman who is abused by her husband that she thought loved her. He really only married her because he needed to show his parents that he is responsible but in the end they really did not care. The image of Mr. Sawyer is a negative one.
He is a man who cannot accept himself because his parents could not accept who he was so therefore he cannot accept anyone else. Because he cannot accept anyone else, he treats his wife and son terribly and still manages to get what he wants because he is wealthy. He always reminds his wife of how lucky she is to have been able to marry a wealthy white man. The way it is described that he treats his wife is a negative image because it is associated with the negative subject of abuse. There are many themes in this story such as racism, self-acceptance, money, and social status.
The major theme out of them all is self-acceptance. If it were not for Mr. Sawyer’s parents sending him away because they could not accept whom he was then he would never have to try to accept himself let alone his wife and son. He also would not be in this marriage and Mrs. Sawyer would not be treated this way. Overall, even though Mr. Sawyer is dead his legacy lives on through the books and now through his son, Mrs. Sawyer will never be able to get away from her husband to be able to accept herself.