62 pages 2 hours read

Isabel Allende

Island Beneath the Sea

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


Island Beneath the Sea is a 2009 historical fiction novel by Isabel Allende. Set in the French colony of Saint-Domingue during the Haitian revolution, the novel traces an enslaved woman’s decades-long struggle to forge an identity, assert herself, and gain freedom. As with other works by Allende, the novel exhibits elements of magical realism, with mythological details from the protagonist’s Voodoo practice presented in a matter-of-fact manner.

This guide is based on the 2011 Harper Perennial edition of the text, translated from Spanish into English by Margaret Sayers Peden.

Content Warning: Drawing on the source text, this guide mentions physical and sexual assault, enslavement, and death by suicide. Additionally, some outdated racial descriptors are reproduced in direct quotations only.

Plot Summary

In 1770, the young nobleman Toulouse Valmorain leaves his native France for the colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean, where his father operates a sugar plantation using forced labor by enslaved African people. When his father dies, Valmorain takes over the plantation. He forms a friendship with Violette Boisier, a courtesan in the nearby city of Le Cap. Though Violette later falls in love with and marries Étienne Relais, a French soldier, she remains on good terms with Valmorain and agrees to help him prepare his home for the arrival of his new wife, a Spanish woman named Eugenia García del Solar. In so doing, she purchases a young, enslaved girl named Tété, whom she trains to serve as Eugenia’s maid.

Over the next few years, Tété becomes Eugenia’s trusted caregiver as Eugenia’s mental health declines. Meanwhile, Valmorain begins to rape Tété on a regular basis; this abuse leads to the birth of a son, Jean-Martin. Without Tété’s knowledge, Valmorain gives the baby to Violette and Relais, who are unable to have children of their own. After several miscarriages, Eugenia finally gives birth to a son, Maurice; by this time, however, she is unfit to care for the child, leaving Tété to raise him.

Tété falls in love with a young man named Gambo, who is newly arrived from Africa. Just before Tété gives birth to a daughter named Rosette, whose skin color reveals her father to be Valmorain rather than Gambo, Gambo runs away to join the Maroons, who are fighting to end slavery.

A few months later, Eugenia dies. Around the same time, uprisings among the enslaved people increase. Hours before Valmorain’s plantation is to be attacked by the rebels, Gambo appears. At Tété’s request, he leads Valmorain, Maurice, and Rosette to safety, with Valmorain offering Tété her freedom in exchange for Gambo’s help.

As they near the city of Le Cap, Gambo returns to the rebels, while Tété remains with Valmorain and the two children. They settle in the city, where Valmorain helps plot the colony’s independence from France with General Galbaud. When Galbaud’s forces are defeated, Valmorain, Tété, and the children flee to Cuba. After a brief stay there, they relocate to Louisiana, where Valmorain joins Sancho, Eugenia’s brother, in starting a plantation.

Valmorain prepares Maurice to inherit his property, but Maurice opposes slavery while remaining close friends with Rosette, to Valmorain’s dismay. Meanwhile, Valmorain takes another wife, a bitter and controlling woman named Hortense Guizot. When Hortense whips Tété, Maurice comes to her defense and retaliates against Hortense. As a result, Valmorain sends him away to boarding school in Boston, while sending Tété to work on the plantation instead of in the townhouse.

Around the same time, several of Valmorain’s friends and acquaintances from Saint-Domingue arrive in Louisiana after spending several years in Cuba, including Violette, whose husband died in the war; her friend Loula; and Dr. Parmentier, a physician.

In Boston, one of Maurice's teachers encourages his interest in abolitionism. During the summers, at Hortense's request, rather than return home, Maurice travels, and he does not return to Louisiana for nine years, though he remains in constant contact with Rosette, who is receiving an education at a convent. When Louisiana is sold to the United States, the convent closes, leading Violette to take Rosette under her wing at a finishing school she starts with the express purpose of attracting wealthy white men as lovers for women of color, a practice known as plaçage.

Meanwhile, with assistance from a local priest, Tété convinces Valmorain to honor his promise to free her and Rosette. After leaving Valmorain's household, Tété joins Violette and Loula and supports them in their business. At the same time, she runs into Zacharie, a sophisticated man she first met in Le Cap. Now emancipated, he begins to court her, even as she comes to terms with Gambo's death in battle.

When Jean-Martin, now a soldier in the French army, is posted to an assignment in New Orleans, Valmorain blurts out that the young man is the son of an enslaved woman. Jean-Martin, who did not know that he was adopted, is shocked, as is Tété, who recognizes him as her biological son. However, Tété chooses not to reveal the truth to him, not wanting to damage his relationship with Violette.

Maurice returns to New Orleans just before the ball that is intended to show off Rosette's eligibility for plaçage. Maurice attends the ball and renews his relationship with Rosette, announcing his attention to marry her despite the fact that they are half-siblings. Valmorain is outraged, but Maurice blames him for creating the situation through the abusive system of slavery. Tété agrees to help them, and the two are married by a naval captain a few miles offshore; they spend a short honeymoon on the boat before Maurice leaves for Boston, where he intends to prepare a home for Rosette to join him soon.

Tété, who is still seeing Zacharie, and Rosette both become pregnant, and Rosette decides to stay in New Orleans until her baby is born. Valmorain, who suffers a stroke after his falling out with Maurice, begs Tété to take care of him, but she refuses. Meanwhile, Hortense solidifies her control of Valmorain's plantation.

One day, Rosette gets into an altercation with Hortense, returning the white woman's slap. As a result, Rosette is sentenced to two years in the cramped, dirty jail. After an appeal to Valmorain, Rosette is released, but by that time she is sick and weak. She gives birth prematurely to a boy named Justin before dying. Tété raises Justin along with children of her own as a distraught Maurice gives up his ambitions and takes to aimless wandering. Despite these setbacks, Tété is fairly happy with the life and freedom she now enjoys.