Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano

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Under the Volcano Summary

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English writer Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano (1947) concerns the final day of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic diplomat whose friends try to stop him from drinking himself to death in Mexico. Under the Volcano is ranked eleventh on the Modern Library’s list of the best English language novels of the twentieth century.

Monsieur Laruelle and the local doctor, Dr. Vigil, sit and drink in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac. It is November 2, 1939, the Mexican Day of the Dead. They discuss their mutual acquaintance, Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul living in Mexico. They talk about his alcoholism and the surprising fact that Firmin’s wife, Yvonne, returned to Mexico for him.

The book switches back to the same day one year earlier in 1938. Firmin is at a hotel drinking, as he always does. His alcoholism is so bad, he can’t even put on his socks. Yvonne enters, wondering whether Firmin will ever get better. Firmin tells Yvonne that his younger brother, Hugh, will arrive later that day.

Firmin resists the temptation to drink, but only for a few hours before great suffering and shaking sets in. He tries to have sex with Yvonne, but he cannot perform. Firmin tells a bottle of whiskey, “I love you.”

Firmin’s younger brother, Hugh, arrives; it is suggested that he and Yvonne share an attraction and, possibly, an affair. The two ride horses and visit a brewery, remembering better times.

Firmin suffers hallucinations variously caused by hangover, withdrawal, and finally drunkenness as he gives in to his alcoholism after finding a bottle of tequila in his garden. Dr. Vigil arrives and encourages him to go on a day trip with him to help rejuvenate his body and spirit.

In an inner monologue, Hugh bemoans his failed musical career and his anti-Semitism, which is exacerbated by a Polish Jew Bolowski, perceived by Hugh to have ruined his music career. Hugh is angered by Bolowski’s failure to release Hugh’s music and later, after Hugh cuckolds him, Bolowski sues Hugh for plagiarism, though the charges are later dropped.

Firmin goes to Laruelle’s home with Yvonne and Hugh. Yvonne and Hugh quickly grow impatient and leave. Firmin starts drinking again, despite Laruelle’s protestations. The two go to a fiesta, but Firmin escapes to a bar to get drunk. He wanders around, loses his possessions on a carnival ride, but has them returned to him by a group of local children.

Firmin travels on a bus with Yvonne and Hugh to the town of Tomalin. The bus stops for a man who appears to be sleeping on the side of the road but is, in fact, dead. There is bloodstained money under the dead man’s hat. Nobody helps him or offers to carry him to the authorities because of a law that holds good Samaritans criminally liable for a person’s death after the fact.

They arrive in Tomalin. While at a bullfight, Hugh jumps into the arena and tries to fight the bull himself. Meanwhile, Firmin and Yvonne say they love one another, though Hugh and Yvonne appear to grow closer, swimming with one another and berating Firmin for his drinking. Firmin and Hugh argue about politics and there is a great deal of tension among the trio.

Switching to Yvonne’s perspective, Yvonne and Hugh realize that Firmin has left the Salon Ofelia where he had been drinking. While searching for him, they arrive at a fork in the road between two volcanoes. Yvonne suggests they take the main road because there are at least two bars on that road. They take that route, but Yvonne is killed, trampled by a horse with a number seven branded on its leg.

Firmin drinks in the shadow of a volcano called Popocatepetl. After an argument with the local police, the police chief shoots Firmin, throwing him into a ravine. The shot, however, startles the horse that tramples and kills Yvonne in the previous chapter.

Under the Volcano is a shattering look at alcoholism, lost dreams, and regrets; it has a permanent place in the Western canon of literature.