Places: Youma

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1890

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1840’s

Places DiscussedSaint Pierre

Saint YoumaPierre (sah[n] pyehr). City on the West Indian island of Martinique, which is a French colony with a slave-based economy. Located fifteen miles from the cloud-crested volcano Mount Pelée, the town has a church, a convent and school, an army fort garrisoned by cowardly French soldiers, and homes of proud, conservative Frenchmen. Creole-speaking slaves work their masters’ sugarcane fields that reach to Pelée’s slopes, build zigzag roads through heavy forest growth up and down lush valleys, and toil as domestics in their masters’ houses. Madame Peyronnette’s mansion is on the Grande Rue, in the Quartier du Fort. Monsieur Desrivières’s city residence is on the nearby rue de la Consolation.


Anse-Marine (ans-mar-een). Prosperous estate on the east coast, inherited by Monsieur Desrivière, that is spoiled and idle. Youma, tall and graceful, has her own room in his plantation house. She dresses in vividly colored robes for special occasions. The stalwart field-workers, their half-naked bodies glistening like polished bronze, toil and sing under the sweltering sun, while their overseer guards them from poisonous snakes. The overworked women sing in caravans as they go to market balancing head trays of cocoa, coffee, coconuts, mangoes, oranges, and bananas. Other slaves work at nearby sugar mills and wharfs. Their sixty-foot-long canoes transport barrels of rum and casks of sugar to larger vessels waiting beyond the surf.

On Sundays, Madame Peyronnette occasionally visits Anse-Marine, dispensing small silver coins to swarms of obedient black children, inspecting their feet for possible infection, and often scolding their neglectful mothers. A Roman Catholic priest visits on horseback from the neighboring village, instructs the children in the Creole catechism, and hears their prayers to “Bon-Dié” and “Zézou-Chri.” Many evenings are livened by the telling and retelling of folktales by old retired slaves. One such story concerns a serpent that might bite a little girl, lost in the woods, but instead takes her to her mother. Mayotte, the child placed in Youma’s care, often accompanies Youma to the river to bathe, admire the vivid surrounding vegetation, and play with little crawling creatures on the adjacent sandy beach.

De Kersaint mansion

De Kersaint mansion. The only two-storied residence on a cottage-lined Saint Pierre street. The imposing structure has a massive door, windows with heavy shutters banded by iron, beautifully furnished lower rooms, and stairs of pine with a mahogany balustrade. When the house is besieged during the slave rebellion, its upper rooms are filled with French refugees from a mob maddened by oppression and excited by fermented drink. Armed with cutlasses, bamboo pikes, and sand-filled bottles, the rebels kill the French refugees, set fire to the downstairs, and feed the engulfing flames with splintered stair rails and furniture, portraits, curtains, and mats. Soon the house is a “skeleton of stone . . . black-smoking to the stars.”


Sea. When Youma and Gabriel rendezvous at the beach, Gabriel tells Youma that they can steal the master’s boat and sail to freedom. However, the ocean is a danger-fraught avenue to freedom. Looking across the water, toward the “silhouette of Dominica towered against the amethystine day,” Youma decides that liberty is a “shining apparition in the horizon,” but not for her.

BibliographyBisland, Elizabeth. The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906. Contains a significant letter from Hearn to a friend vouching for the historical truth of elements in Youma, including the house, the incident of the serpent, the girl who died, and the circumstances of her self-sacrificial act.Colt, Jonathan. Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Defines Youma as a prosaic and sentimental story and then, curiously, links the heroine’s memory of her deceased mother to Hearn’s yearning for his lost mother.Kunst, Arthur E. Lafcadio Hearn. New York: Twayne, 1969. Praises Youma as admirable in conception, balanced in development, and restrained in effect. Commends such distractions as sex symbolism, dreams, historical notes, and folktale elements.Stevenson, Elizabeth. Lafcadio Hearn. New York: Macmillan, 1961. Criticizes Youma, despite its early respectful reviews, for its slow start and digressions, insufficient passion, and lack of plot development.Yu, Beongcheon. An Ape of Gods: The Art and Thought of Lafcadio Hearn. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1964. Summarizes the plot of Youma and analyzes the two main characters as idealistically treated and yet, fortunately, not made into noble savages.
Categories: Places