E.M. Foster’s The Other Boat highlights the impact of society on interracial and homosexual relationships between different social classes. The author uses animals to symbolize a hierarchy between different social classes, such as the “monkey” which symbolizes lower-class, half-caste Cocoanut and the “lion” which symbolizes the British officer Lionel (Foster 2132). Lionel’s reservations to have a public relationship due to social views constantly clashes with Cocoanut’s confidence in their relationship. Although confident in his capabilities, Cocoanut’s manipulative power eventually fails to convert Lionel’s internalized fear and stigma of the social norm. Tension cultivated by the struggle for control between the two protagonists as well as pressure from social norms and inevitable discrimination predicts the doom of the relationship.
Cocoanut and Lionel both want to dominate this relationship between them, and this irreconcilable conflict magnifies the tension which eventually leads to the tragedy of the story. Cocoanut is a controlling person and his intelligence makes him “become influential in shipping circle” (2126), as well as invent novel “financial possibilities that do not appear in the City columns” (2132) to profit from them. Those abilities support his self-claim “I am clever, I have money” (2133) and convince Cocoanut himself that he is capable of gaining control of his relationship with Lionel. From the very beginning of their first meeting “as men” (2133), Cocoanut creates the chance to be alone with Lionel in a shared cabin, seduces him, and develops the intimate relationship with Lionel. In addition, he also likes to send luxury gifts to Lionel and settle Lionel’s gambling debt, which is another way of showing off economic dominance. More smartly, Cocoanut acts feminine role in their physical intimacy, which veils his true personality and reduces Lionel’s vigilance for power rivalry. Lionel, on the other hand, indeed believes that he is in charge of his life and this relationship until he is told that the whole journey is a set-up by Cocoanut.
Lionel can’t resist the pleasure Cocoanut provided yet is afraid of the possibility of their affair being exposed to the public, which he believes will then ruin his career, reputation, and life. He decides to give up on Cocoanut and return to his standard social life. However, during his fight with Cocoanut, his suppressed aggression and virility is released during his “sweet act of vengeance” (2142) in their final lovemaking scene. In order to regain control of his lover and his life, he ultimately kills his lover and commits suicide in order to claim his self-ownership. This love story begins with Cocoanut’s scheme and ends with Lionel violence, during which the struggle for the domination pushes their disagreement into the climax and results in the downfall of the relationship.
Foster uses Lionel’s mother (2133) to symbolize an authority figure of prevalent social norms at the beginning of 20th century, which strictly bars the intimate relationships between different social classes, different races, as well as homosexuality. Their attitudes toward Lionel’s mother indicate Cocoanut’s rebellion and Lionel’s restraint to the pressure of social norms and show their divergence which leads to the end of the relationship. Cocoanut shows aggression when Lionel mentions that he writes about Cocoanut’s presence to his mother. He thinks Lionel’s mother is “vengeful”, hence his primary goal toward “the movement of love” (2139) is to “keep him from her” (2133), to diminish Lionel’s mother’s impact on him, and to dissociate Lionel from his current social status through which he wins his war against social norms. On the other side, Lionel who is brought up by British social norms complains his mother “understood nothing and controlled everything” (2140) but still writes everything to his mother. His fear of transgression is deeply implanted by his mother’s suffering and disappointment caused when his father abandons them for a native girl. Although Lionel himself enjoys the intimacy with Cocoanut, he cannot and does not want to escape the shackles of social disciplines.
Lionel’s doubts about discrimination appear to stand up in line with Cocoanut’s defiance of social orders; however, pressure caused by discrimination limits his transgression. Cocoanut “played around” (2139) conspiracies which lead Lionel’s detachment from British society. He has “no scruple” (2133) of doing whatever he wants. As he is of a lower class and the class being discriminated, Cocoanut has nothing to lose therefore nothing stands in the way of him fighting for what he wants. Cocoanut fights for Lionel because he loves him. Ironically, he handles this intimacy as a “trick” (2133) and sees Lionel as a “toy” (2128). He has a unique attitude of living where he treats it as if he is playing a game. Cocoanut perfectly knows what social status means to Lionel, but he wants Lionel to rebel against his society for him, just like what Lionel’s father did once. In this way, he can have full obedience of Lionel and he can mock the existing social hierarchy, discrimination, and norms. On the other side, Lionel expresses his doubts and disagreements about discrimination. He cannot stand to share a cabin with a “wog” (2129) at the beginning, not because of people of color themselves but due to the discriminative attitude from his white peers in the boat. His discrimination is “tribal rather than personal” (2128) and he feels “wrong” (2129) after laughing at a racism joke. However, the pressure caused by discrimination magnifies Lionel’s anxiety and fear of his disobedience and eventually leads to his explosion.
The tragedy of the young couple is rooted in their own internal characteristics as well as external pressure from social norms and discrimination. Even today, discriminations of races, social classes and homosexuality dampen the happiness between two people. These discriminations can affect one’s personality, therefore, affecting how they view themselves or act in a relationship, as in the case of Lionel and Cocoanut.
Foster, E. M. “The other boat”. The Norton Anthropology of English Literature, Volume F. Reidhead, Julia. W.W. Norton&Company. 2012. Page 2122-2142