Places: Under the Volcano

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1947

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: November 1, 1938, and November 1, 1939

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Mexico

*Mexico. Under the VolcanoNorth American country whose tortured history–conquest and enslavement, revolution and unrest–serves as backdrop to the consul’s tragedy. The Mexico through which Geoffrey Firmin walks (or stumbles) is a surreal landscape of ruined gardens and stinging insects, where vultures perch in washbasins and thieves clutch bloodied coins stolen from the dead but Geoffrey recognizes it as a mirror of his private hell.


Quauhnahuac (kwah-NAH-wehk). Fictional Mexican town that is Malcolm Lowry’s nightmarish vision of Cuernavaca, a real city south of Mexico City. “Quauhnahuac” is, in fact, its original Nahuatl name, which means “among the trees.” The Nahuatl name refers to the forest that surrounds Quauhnahuac, a forest through which the characters wander in the book’s final chapter and which is linked to Dante’s dark wood. Lowry in fact conceived Under the Volcano as a part of a modern Divine Comedy he planned to write. Mexico for him was Hell, just as the northern wilds of British Columbia, Canada, dreamed of but never attained as a refuge for the consul and his wife Yvonne, was an earthly paradise.

Many landmarks in Quauhnahuac have thematic significance. Jacques Laruelle’s house, owned by Geoffrey’s friend and Yvonne’s former lover, recurs in several scenes, highlighting the consul’s fatal flaw: He cannot fully love and forgive Yvonne or himself. Another thematic marker is the cine (cinema), with a looming poster advertising a film about an artist with a murderer’s hands. The reference to murderer’s hands may point to the mysterious guilt the consul bears for a World War I incident that happened when he was an officer onboard a British ship. In that incident, German prisoners of war were said to have been burned alive in the ship’s furnaces. Jacques Laruelle, contemplating a different war, identifies the murderous hands with Germany itself. The biblical imagery of Adam and Eve exiled from the garden is clear and resonates with Geoffrey’s own fall.


Barranca. Deep cleft or ravine that runs through Quauhnahuac, encircling the city from beneath just as the volcanoes shadow it from above. While the volcanoes symbolize the “striving upward” of humanity toward the divine, the barranca is a dark abyss suggesting the entrance to Hell, a waterless River Styx. In chapter 3, Geoffrey tells Yvonne of his returning home to find their cat dead, its body thrown into the barranca, a foreshadowing of his own death, in which his body is flung down the ravine alongside the dog, which follows him like a familiar throughout the book.


Farolito. Cantina, or bar, where the consul is drawn into the fatal web of coincidence that leads to his death. “Farolito” is Spanish for lighthouse yet the bar is a dark, sordid place, and the consul is led deep into a series of ever darker rooms for his degrading encounter with the prostitute María. Here the consul finds the lost letters Yvonne has written him; here, also, he is mistaken for a spy and shot by the corrupt local police.

BibliographyDay, Douglas. Malcolm Lowry: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Demonstrates how the novel is intent on making a moral statement, which is achieved by Lowry’s presentation of the four major characters.Epstein, Perle E. The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry: “Under the Volcano” and the Cabbala. New York: Henry Holt, 1969. Examines Lowry’s use of myths and symbols for conveying the theme of Under the Volcano. Likens Lowry’s use of Mexican folklore to the Cabbala.Gass, William H. “In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life.” In Fiction and the Figures of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. Argues that Under the Volcano is a day-in-the-life story of British consul Geoffrey Firmin.Markson, David. Malcolm Lowry’s “Volcano”: Myth, Symbol, Meaning. New York: Times Books, 1978. Probably the most thorough investigation of Under the Volcano. Explains Lowry’s use of symbols, allusions, and themes.Spender, Stephen. Introduction to Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. New York: New American Library, 1971. Spender’s introduction is a must for anyone reading Under the Volcano for the first time. Puts the novel into its context in Lowry’s canon.
Categories: Places