The narrator always considered his mother his enemy. He believes that she misunderstands and disapproves of him. His mother always hated his father, even after he died, and she considered him his father’s child. The split between the narrator and his mother begins when his mother wants to leave his father, and she wants to bring the narrator with her to live with her mother. But the narrator’s father, who’s bedridden with an illness, promises him a “whole box of crayons” if he chooses to stay with him. So, the narrator decides to stay rather than leave with his mother.
The narrator’s voice and tense in the opening sentences indicate that he is narrating the story retrospectively, looking back on his childhood family relationships from a later date. The narrator’s claim that he “had always considered” his mother his enemy suggests that something may have happened to change his opinion of his mother, and that he no longer thinks of her in this way. By stating that his mother “misunderstood” him, the narrator is also implying that the misunderstanding may go both ways—that he might, in fact, have misunderstood his mother just as much as she misunderstood him.
The narrator’s father is a driver on a sugar plantation in Cunupia, on Trinidad. He is violent, treating the laborers like they’re enslaved (even though they are free), and is rumored to kick the laborers. However, the narrator does not believe these rumors, because it is well-known that the people in Cunupia hold grudges and “think nothing of killing,” and he believes his father knows better than to get on their bad side.
Throughout its history as a British colony, Trinidad played a key role in the global sugar trade, creating immense profits for Britain at the expense of exploited workers. After the British Empire abolished slavery in the 1830s, planters in Trinidad turned instead to a system of indentured South Asian labor. Although “The Enemy” is set during the 1940s, after the end of the indentured labor system, it still takes place in a world that has been shaped by colonial history of Trinidad. At this time, it was still a British colony, and plantation workers, even if they were technically free, continued to be harshly treated and exploited. Although the narrator’s father is a colonial subject—likely the descendent of South Asian indentured workers, as Naipaul himself was—he nonetheless upholds the colonial hierarchy by harshly punishing the workers on the plantation and using physical force to force them to work faster. Therefore, although the narrator’s father does not actually have much power in the colonial system, he nonetheless becomes the target of the workers’ revenge—what could be seen as a kind of revolt against the plantation system. The narrator’s remark about the tendency of people in Cunupia to hold grudges foreshadows the threats the family will endure as the story progresses.
The narrator’s family starts out living in the barracks of the sugar plantation, but then his father insists on moving to a nearby wooden house. His mother is afraid and tells him to live in the house by himself, but the narrator’s father wins out, and they move.
The narrator never quite explains why his mother is so reluctant to move into the house, but one possible interpretation is that she knows the plantation workers hate her husband, and that they want revenge. While they are living in the barracks, they are safe, because the plantation owners will presumably protect them. But if they live on their own in the house instead, they are more isolated and therefore more vulnerable. The father’s insistence on moving to the house, despite his wife’s fears, may suggest that the house symbolizes something important to him—perhaps his literal and figurative separation from the plantation workers as an authority figure.
After they move to the house, the “trouble really start[s].” One day, a man comes to the house and asks the narrator’s mother when her husband is coming home. When she tells him she doesn’t know, he responds threateningly that he can wait. The narrator’s mother tells him that her sister is coming over soon, so he will not be able to do anything. The narrator, terrified, starts to cry, and when his mother shouts at him to shut up, he goes to another room and walks around saying “Rama! Rama! Sita Rama!” because his father has told him to say this whenever he is in danger.
The narrator never fully explains this man’s intentions—perhaps because he is still a small child at the time and doesn’t fully understand the implications of the scene. To the reader, it is clear that the man is threatening to hurt, even to kill, the father. One explanation of the man’s actions could be that he is a plantation worker whom the narrator’s father has mistreated. The narrator’s response—to walk in a circle saying “Rama! Rama! Sita Rama!”—demonstrates the father’s influence over his son and also shows the father’s way of dealing with dangerous situations, which is to retreat to religious faith.
Soon, the narrator’s aunt comes over and asks what is wrong, explaining that she felt like something was wrong and had to come and see. The narrator’s mother, despite having put up a brave front throughout the scene, now starts to cry. The narrator explains that “all this was only to frighten us, and we were certainly frightened.” From this point onward, his father always carries his gun with him, and his mother keeps a cutlass nearby.
It’s implied that the man leaves after the narrator’s aunt arrives, though the narrator doesn’t explain why. One possible explanation is that the man only wants to harm the narrator’s father, not his family members. The man’s visit shows that the narrator’s mother was right to be afraid of moving to the house, and from this point forward the family lives in constant terror.
At night, the narrator and his parents start to hear voices outside. The voices say things such as how they are lost and need lights, or how the narrator’s father’s sister has died suddenly, or how there has been a fire at the sugar mill. The family lies awake, waiting for the voices to quiet. But when they do fall silent, it is “even more terrible,” because the voices are still out there, waiting for them to come outside. In the morning, they hear footsteps walking away from the house. Every night they lock themselves up to try to protect themselves from the voices.
Just as the motives of the man who threatens the narrator’s mother are never fully explained, the voices that the family hears are left somewhat ambiguous. However, the most likely explanation is that they are the voices of people—workers on the plantation, or those workers’ family members—who are trying to lure out the father so that they can harm or kill him. Perhaps one reason why the narrator never gives a definitive explanation is that he is only a small child at this point in the story, and so he does not fully understand the situation himself. The lack of a definite explanation about the voices creates an almost supernatural quality. Regardless, the voices are the clearest embodiment of the continual terror that haunts the family when they move to the house.
At one point, the family gets a dog, Tarzan, who sleeps outside. One morning, after a silent night, they find that he has been killed and cut into pieces on their steps. The narrator’s mother starts to beg his father to let them move out of the house. But his father refuses, as if he “didn’t really care what happened to him or to any of us.” His father starts to hang up words of hope around the house, from the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible or his own imagination. He starts to lose his temper at his wife, screaming and throwing things at her. Eventually, she leaves to go live with her mother, while the narrator remains with his father.
The murder of the dog is a terrifying indication that the voices pose a real, and not just an imagined, threat to the family. Although it’s possible that the murdered dog was simply intended to frighten the family, it seems more likely that it is a threat of what might be done to the family members themselves. The narrator’s father’s stubbornness in refusing to move out of the house, even in face of these threats and his wife’s pleading, again suggests that the house holds some kind of symbolic value for him, perhaps as an embodiment of his authority and status. And, as a result, he “doesn’t really care” what happens to him or his family—he only cares about projecting a powerful, self-assured image. Another interpretation is that he is afraid of showing any weakness or believes that he will be dishonoring himself by admitting he’s afraid. Instead of taking practical steps to protect his family, he takes refuge in religion, mixing together Hinduism, Christianity, and his own imagination. His abuse of his wife echoes his mistreatment of the workers (which, perhaps, is the source of all their troubles in the house). The narrator’s decision to stay with his father, rather than leaving with his mother, seems to be the major falling-out point between him and his mother—perhaps because she feels that her son has chosen her husband over her, despite his abusiveness and recklessness.
After the narrator’s mother leaves, his father falls ill and spends much of his time in bed. The narrator stays by him and talks with him. During their conversations together, the father teaches the narrator three things: the first is that his “real father” is not him, but rather God. The second is that things fall because of the law of gravity—the narrator’s father spins a bucket of water to demonstrate this. The third is that you can blend two colors together to form a different color, which he demonstrates by having the narrator close his eyes as his father mixes yellow- and blue-colored pencils to make green.
The narrator’s father’s weakness and illness seem to be a result of the constant fear that weighs down on him as he lives in the house. The father’s “teachings” to his son may be motivated by the knowledge that he will die soon. These scenes are some of the few genuine moments of connection, perhaps even love, that any of the family members in the story share with one another. The first teaching, about God as the narrator’s “true father,” demonstrates the importance of religion to the father’s worldview. But this is combined with an interest in science, as demonstrated by showing the law of gravity, as well as art, as demonstrated by the blending of the colored pencils. For the father, these areas of knowledge seem to all be connected, each of them revealing something wonderous about the world.
The narrator tries to make up tricks to show his father. But when he finally finds a trick he feels certain his father doesn’t know (rubbing soap onto the palms of his hands until it disappears), his father dies that very night. There is a heavy thunderstorm, and the father and son try to protect themselves from “bad spirits.” The narrator’s father is terrified, convinced that “they” are here, and that “they” could do whatever they like to him and his son in the darkness and noise of the storm. He asks his son to repeat the mantra of “Rama! Rama! Sita Rama!”
The narrator’s desire to show “tricks” to his father seems to come from a desire to reciprocate his father’s teachings—to show his father something new and unexpected about the world, as his father has done for him. The thunderstorm that terrifies the narrator and his father seems to represent the unavoidability of their fears. Their attempts to protect themselves—the narrator’s lighting of the oil lamp to keep away “bad spirits,” and his father’s command to repeat the mantra—seem paltry and insufficient in face of the storm’s all-consuming force. The father imagines the voices in the noise of the storm and believes they will now come to kill himself and his son at last, whereas the narrator hears nothing. This suggests that the father is afraid of an entirely imagined threat.
The narrator tries to assure his father that they will be safe, that they have the gun and cutlass to protect themselves, but his father does not seem to hear him and keeps repeating, “It so dark.” The thunder gets closer, and the wind blows open some windows, extinguishing the oil lamp and letting heavy rain into their house. The narrator feels “lost in the black world” and screams until the storm lets up, forgetting about the soap trick he has come up with.
The weapons that the narrator mentions are inadequate to soothe his father’s fear, just like the lamps and the mantra. The father’s obsession with the darkness of the thunderstorm suggests that the thunderstorm is a kind of elemental symbol of fear—in addition to posing a practical threat, darkness also represents the unknown, and human beings fear what they don’t know or understand.
The narrator explains that his father died of fright. Everyone they know insists that he and his mother must leave the countryside, and that the safest place for them to go is Port-of-Spain. At first, everyone ridicules the narrator’s father for having died of fright, and the narrator believes that he will have to deal with the shame of it for the rest of his life. But soon, he forgets about his father and starts to think of himself as “the boy who had no father.” Once the narrator and his mother move to Port-of-Spain, he even becomes grateful for having lost his father, realizing that the “normal relationship between father and son” is “nothing more than the relationship between the beater and the beaten.”
The narrator’s remark that his father died from fright is ambiguous. One interpretation is that his father was already weakened from his illness, and perhaps would have been killed by this illness anyways, and that the stress caused by the thunderstorm was what finally caused his health to fail. Another possible interpretation is that the father’s illness was, in fact, some kind of psychosomatic disorder caused by the constant terror of living in the house, surrounded by voices and threats. If this is the case, the description of his father as dying “from fright” seems accurate. Strangely, the narrator seems far more worried about the possible shame of having a father who “died from fright” than upset at the loss of his father. He is even grateful for his father’s death, having become convinced that his relationship with his father would have necessarily transformed into one of violence and domination. This is arguably an accurate assessment of the father’s character, but it may also be the narrator’s way of coping with his father’s death—avoiding grief by convincing himself it was all for the best. Whatever the case, the narrator’s remark that the relationship between father and son is always one between “beater and beaten” suggests that family relationships are often marked by fierce conflict and struggles of the will.
At first, the narrator’s mother tries to “knock out all the nonsense” that the narrator’s father taught him, but she soon “[loses] interest” in her son, simply beating him from time to time. The narrator has difficulty learning how to tie his shoes, because he had never worn shoes when they lived in the country, and his mother beats him for it. He feels ashamed of his inability to learn to tie his shoes, but he manages to discover a trick that allows him to get by. He convinces his mother to always buy him a larger size than he needs and never unties the shoes after the shop attendant ties them for him, simply slipping his feet in and out.
The source of the animosity between the narrator and his mother seems to be his mother’s belief that he is too influenced by his father, whom she hates. When she gives up on trying to rid her son of his father’s influence, she becomes alternately indifferent and abusive toward him. As he grows older, the narrator struggles to assert his own independence and competence, as symbolized by his inability to tie his own shoes. Instead of simply showing him how to tie his laces, though, his mother shames him for it, which arguably confirms the narrator’s belief that the relationship between a parent and child is essentially a relationship between “beater and beaten.” Additionally, incidents like this perhaps influence the narrator’s obsession with avoiding shame and dishonor.
The narrator’s mother treats him as if he is a “freak,” comparing him to all the other boys she knows who she believes are “better and more intelligent.” Yet she still shows “glimpses of kindness” to her son, such as forgiving him when he drops and breaks a glass. He starts to worry about his mother’s health, while she, according to him, “never worrie[s]” about his. She treats him with monthly doses of Epsom Salts and frequent visits to the government-run Health Office.
The narrator reveals his mother’s contradictory attitude toward him—sometimes shaming him and making him feel inadequate, sometimes showing him kindness and leniency. When the narrator says that his mother never worries about his health, there is a hint that he might not be a completely reliable narrator when it comes to his mother’s thoughts and attitude toward him. After all, she treats him with Epsom Salts and visits to the Health Office, which suggests that she does, in fact, care about his health.
The narrator admits that in his relationship with his mother, he isn’t a “saint” all the time. He’s sometimes overcome by an urge to not take orders from anyone, especially his mother, feeling that to do so would be to “dishonour [him] for life.” This urge often seizes him in the very moments when his mother is nicest to him.
The narrator shows self-awareness as he recognizes that the dynamic between himself and his mother is more complicated than just that of persecutor and blameless victim. The narrator and his mother are trying to assert their independence from and dominance over the other, respectively. The narrator associates obedience—especially obedience to his mother—with shame and dishonor, and he therefore tries to rebel against her authority. The fact that he does so when his mother is acting most kindly toward him may also suggest that he is used to his mother treating him abusively and therefore does not know how to respond when she shows him love.
To illustrate this point, the narrator recounts the story of when a man named Hat rescued him from nearly drowning at a place called Docksite. The narrator turns this experience into an essay for school and receives high marks on it from his teacher, who tells him he is a “genius.” When the narrator tells his mother the grade he received, she doesn’t believe him at first and rebukes him for lying. When she realizes he isn’t lying, though, she softens and asks him to sit next to her on the hammock. But he is seized by a “crazy fit,” the desire to be disobedient toward his mother, and refuses to sit with her.
This anecdote—a young boy writing an essay about the experience of nearly drowning—is repeated almost exactly in the author, Naipaul’s, A House for Mr. Biswas, with the character of Anand. It is likely inspired by an actual drowning that Naipaul witnessed when he was young. The praise that the narrator receives for this essay provides a hint that he, like Naipaul himself, may one day find his calling in literary pursuits. The mother’s tendency to belittle her own son is clearly expressed in her disbelief that he could receive such a high grade. When she realizes she is mistaken, she does not apologize for calling him a liar or praise him for the essay, but rather simply asks him to come sit with her. While the mother may intend to convey her love with this gesture, the narrator is likely hurt by the way she diminished his success and rebels against her for that reason.
Soon, the trivial disagreement over whether to sit in the hammock or not turns into a “struggle between two wills,” in which the narrator would rather “drown” than “dishonour [himself] by obeying.” In the end, his mother asks for the narrator’s belt and whips him with it. Even so, the narrator still refuses to sit in the hammock. He cries that if his father were still alive, his mother wouldn’t act like this.
The narrator’s description of this scene as a “struggle between two wills” represents his and his mother’s entire relationship—she is trying to assert her authority over him, while he is trying to rid himself of it. The narrator is perhaps trying to prove himself to be independent by refusing to take orders from his mother. But the fact that the narrator is most eager to rebel against his mother when she is acting most kindly toward him may also indicate that he is unprepared or unwilling to recognize her love for him. He only knows how to see her as an “enemy,” someone he must struggle against, rather than someone who might love him and whom he might love. His mother likewise seems incapable of expressing her love except by giving commands, and when she is rejected, she reverts to violent abuse.
The narrator continues to think of his mother as his enemy as he grows older, looking forward to adulthood when he will be able to escape from her. He describes the progress that sweeps through Port-of-Spain, fueled by American finance and changes in British colonial policies. The main symbol of this progress for the narrator is the replacement of the old, filthy latrines with new lavatories.
The narrator continues to long for independence from his mother—failing, or refusing, to see how she is not simply his “enemy” but also someone who cares about him. The detail about the latrines is important because it gives context that Trinidad is a colony in flux. In the 1940s, when the story is set, Trinidad was still a British colony, but the British Empire was also weakening as a result of anti-colonial movements. This may be why the British start to take a less obviously exploitative approach toward their colonies, using talk of “progress” to try to forestall challenges to their empire. However, the detail about American finance could indicate that it is, in fact, in the interest of more powerful, capitalist countries to improve the quality of life in Trinidad.
One of the first people to have a new lavatory built is Hat, and many people gather to help demolish his old latrine. The narrator is too small to help demolish it, but he goes to watch. The men try knocking down one of the walls in one big piece. As the wall starts to fall, the narrator goes “mad” for a moment and is seized by an urge to do a “Superman act” by rushing out and trying to keep the wall from falling. The last thing that he remembers is the crowd of onlookers yelling for him to look out.
The narrator’s motivation for rushing out and trying to prevent the wall from falling is never fully explained—likely because he himself does not really understand it, as indicated in his remark that he went “mad” for a second. However, one explanation is that, at least subconsciously, he wants to show off his fearlessness as a way of gaining some kind of honor or respect in the onlookers’ eyes. Although he is too small to help with the task of demolishing the latrine, he wants to find some other way to prove his bravery and manliness, as suggested by the phrase “Superman act.” This may be the same motive that leads the narrator to rebel against his mother’s orders, and it might stem from his shame at having a father who “died from fright.”
When the narrator goes unconscious after being hit by the falling wall, he has a dream of traveling on a bus surrounded by squawking chickens and old women carrying baskets of fruits and vegetables. The old women start chattering, and he tries to shout at them but finds that he can’t open his mouth. Then, he wakes up to water being poured on his face. The onlookers ask how he is feeling, and he insists that he’s alright, but soon his whole body aches and he is afraid his hand is broken.
The narrator’s dream, in which he is surrounded by chattering old woman but cannot open his own mouth to speak, suggests a sense of powerlessness. It may be a kind of allegory for his relationship with his mother, in which he is always struggling to assert himself but finds himself immobilized. The narrator’s injuries, especially his broken hand, also express a sense of powerlessness—his attempt at a “Superman act” has left him more, rather than less, vulnerable.
Just then, the narrator’s mother arrives, her eyes wet with tears. Someone tells him that his mother had been very worried. Looking at her tears, the narrator feels like he is going to cry. He realizes for the first time that his mother can be anxious and worried about him. In this moment, he wishes he were a Hindu god with two hundred arms, so that they could all be broken and he could once again enjoy the sight of his mother’s tears for him.
This moment marks an epiphany in the narrator’s understanding of his relationship with his mother. Throughout the story, he considered his mother an “enemy,” unable or unwilling to see the love that she has for him. This is not simply the narrator’s fault—it’s also a product of his mother’s inability to express her love to her son. It is only when she is afraid for her son’s safety that the mother, even inadvertently, fully shows her love for her son. This suggests that even contentious family relationships are often underpinned by deep love. The role that fear plays in this ending, bringing the mother and son together at last, echoes the earlier role that fear played in tearing them apart—when the mother, unable to cope with the terror of living in the house, left her son, sparking the initial split between them. The final image—of the narrator wishing to be a Hindu god with broken arms, enjoying his mother’s tears—marks a sudden shift in his earlier desire to be a “Superman,” to be independent of his mother and rebel against her wishes. Instead, he wants to be loved by her, and it is this willingness to be vulnerable—not a desire to be wholly independent—that provides the most fertile ground for love.