The Other Plot on “The Other Boat”

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On the surface E. M. Forster’s “The Other Boat” seems simply like a tale of lust and forbidden homosexual love. The coming together of Lionel and Cocoanut even seems to be a fated event, as the two knew each other briefly in boyhood. However, there is much more going on behind the tragic homosexual love story. In fact, there is even a devious subplot, that positions Cocoanut as the main character of the story as opposed to Lionel. As many of the clues sprinkled across this short story lead us to believe, Cocoanut is plotting Lionel’s downfall since before they meet on the second boat.

If we are to assume Cocoanut as the main character of the seedy subplot of this story, we should get a thorough look at his character. Once we are on the second boat, one of the first descriptive actions of Cocoanut that we get is him “climbing about like a monkey” (“The Other Boat” 2127). While this may allude in some way to his physicality (small, brown), we get the direct action of Cocoanut acting like a monkey. Monkeys, being small, nimble creatures are seen as being mischievous in many legends and mythologies. In places such as (ironically enough) India, monkeys have been known to play “harmless tricks,” such as stealing money, food, or… car parts.

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Monkeys do whatever suits them in the moment. Yet, they also play tricks. Cocoanut acting like a monkey is important to the rest of the subplot. Our actions become us, they are the mark of our character. If he acts like a mischievous little monkey, then he carries that mischievous, tricky quality with him.

When it comes to Cocoanut, mischievousness seems to fit the bill. Most honest men are straight-up about who they are. They have no angles. They can tell you any old fact about themselves off-hand. However, Cocoanut has an ease about keeping his identity a secret. Not even the reader knows his real name until the end of the story, and even this is a guess.

“For Cocoanut possessed two passports, not one like most people, and they confirmed a growing suspicion that he might not be altogether straight…. The information on the passports was conflicting, so that it was impossible to tell the twister’s age, or where he had been born or indeed what his name was” (“The Other Boat” 2132).

The fact that Cocoanut has two passports is suspicious in and of itself. However, what’s worse is the use of the word “twister” here. The way it’s mentioned in the text does not directly mention that it is Cocoanut who twisted the information. Yet, it is heavily implied by talking about the same two passports that are within our monkey’s possession. The word “twister” connotes a rearrangement, or a lack of clarity here. When someone says that you “have something twisted” it means that you have a bad understanding of the situation, or were misinformed. Yet, here it is Cocoanut who is causing the misinformation. He purposefully changes, creates, and utilizes two passports. It is also important to note that when someone lies, there is something to hide. Cocoanut is creating a cover, a fog or smoke, to cover something up. But what? Lionel even alludes to the very shadiness of the situation. He is suspicious of Cocoanut after knowing he has two passports. However, Lionel only sees this as an oddity, and does not seek to clarify things.

We get another view into Cocoanut’s character after he and Lionel have finished their “business.” He notices Lionel’s groin scar, wondering how it was acquired, and suggesting revenge. Lionel disagrees and Cocoanut answers: “‘Oh Lion, why not when it can be so sweet?'” (“The Other Boat” 2131). If we weren’t already suspicious of Cocoanut, it would be hard not to be here. He specifically describes revenge as being sweet, like candy. Things that are sweet (candy, pastries, honey) are made for the purpose of being consumed. And the purpose of eating is to sustain life. It is something we must regularly do, multiple times a day. To Cocoanut, revenge is a sweet cake, partaken of every now and then, but bordering necessity. But why would Cocoanut seek revenge? And on whom? We have only seen him, at least on the second boat, interacting with Lionel.

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As lovers do, the two continue their after-sex chat about various things. Lionel’s father even comes up, and it is mentioned that he “went native” and found a wife in Burma. Naturally, Cocoanut asks: “‘Might not therefore there be offspring?’ ‘If there were, they’d be half-castes‘” (“The Other Boat” 2134). Once Lionel finishes his thought about any illegitimate siblings, the next paragraph starts: “The half-caste smiled as the warrior floundered” (“The Other Boat” 2134). First, there is a doubling of the use of the word half-caste. It often means mixed race. Yet, since India has a caste system in their society, the term connotes that the person in question is half Indian, or has one foot in the caste system. Given the ties India has with Britain, it’s not any sort of leap to assume that the majority of half-castes had an English parent as well. That is certainly what Lionel means, when talking about the joining of his father with his new wife. However, the text decides to juxtapose Lionel’s mention of half-caste siblings with the mention that Cocoanut is half-caste. That seems strange. We go straight from siblings to Cocoanut. Huh. He is also seen smiling, while he watches Lionel “flounder.” Lionel is floundering over the thought of his father going native. Yet, Cocoanut is calm, collected, and… happy about Lionel struggling. There seems to be something Cocoanut knows that Lionel doesn’t, and something that may not be clear to the reader. The text is, however, giving us a message about the relation of the two. They’re not just lovers, they’re brothers.

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Need more? Time to head back to the first boat. As the children are all playing together, Olive rushes up to her mother and a gentleman, both of whom instantly start talking about Cocoanut. “‘Touch of the tar-brush, eh?’ ‘Yes, but it doesn’t matter on a voyage home. I would never allow it going to India'” (“The Other Boat” 2123). Two things are of note here. Firstly, it is stated that the boat is headed “home.” It is also stated that they’re not heading to India. So home must be Britain, since those are the only destinations of our two boats. It may not be uncommon, but it is certainly odd that a young Indian child is going to Britain. Especially since we now know that Cocoanut is half-caste. Still, this could be any parent taking their child to England. What’s stranger is that the mother states she “would never allow it going to India.” While racism is alive in this text, it’s not what stops the Mater from letting her children play with Cocoanut. There seems to be another implication behind the children playing together on the way to India. She is suspicious of someone seeing them all together, perhaps. Her former husband, as we know, is still in India. Surely, she wants nothing to do with the man who abandoned her. It is also likely that people in India know her husband. Seeing his children from two different wives playing together would be quite the scandal. If we are to assume that Cocoanut and Lionel are blood relations, it would explain the Mater’s specific disdain for Cocoanut, and her barring any India-bound playing.

Yet, what is it that Cocoanut is truly planning? We know by now that he has lured his half-brother into bed, repeatedly, and is basking in his incestuous revels. But we still don’t know why revenge is relevant. There is an incident just as the two are about to turn of the light and head to bed. Lionel checks the door and realizes that it was unlocked the whole time. This shocks him severely, given the illegality of their midnight romps. Of course, they then get into a fight over the necessity of the door being locked. Cocoanut, who cares little about the door being locked, starts to cry.

“He was weeping because he had planned wrongly. Rage rather than grief convulsed him. The bolt unbolted, the little snake not driven back into its hole — he had foreseen everything else and ignored the enemy at the gate” (“The Other Boat” 2139).

Cocoanut is not crying because he and Lionel are fighting. His plan did not go accordingly. That much is directly stated. What plan was that? It is stated that “rage rather than grief convulsed him.” If he were grieving, it would have to be over fighting with his lover. Yet, this is not the case. Instead, his is angered. There is another driving force. His plan has been foiled. If it were a plan simply of love, he has attained this again and again. There would be very little reason for anger. No, there is something more for Cocoanut to be angry about. The bolt is specifically mentioned. Lionel did not think to lock the door. Yet, Cocoanut says “‘I knew it was unlocked all the time'” (“The Other Boat” 2137).

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This was purposeful. Something about being caught is important to Cocoanut. Especially that night. It should be noted that homosexuality was illegal in both Britain and India at this time, and could be severely punished. Lionel even mentions that he could be court-martialed if he’s caught. This is likely what Cocoanut wanted. If Lionel was caught, revenge would be short in coming. And we know how slimy Cocoanut is. Even though homosexual acts were illegal in India, he could have easily faked his identity with one of his two passports, or found some other means of escape.

In the end, Cocoanut’s attempt at revenge on Lionel is foiled. They both die tragically. However, Cocoanut may have succeeded. Yet, why was he plotting any revenge at all? Mostly, this can only be assumed. Since the two are brothers, it could be that Cocoanut is jealous of Lionel and his life in Britain, of his apparent wealth and status. It could be that he believes he deserves something of Lionel’s based on shared blood. Still, one thing is certain: the monkey, behind the scenes, was plotting his lion’s downfall.

Works Cited

McGhee, Beth. “Homosexuality in the First World War.” WW1 East Sussex, 8 Feb. 2016, http://www.eastsussexww1.org.uk/homosexuality-in-wwi/.
Military.com. “Courts-Martial Explained.” Military.com, CodyUnderwood, http://www.military.com/benefits/military-legal-matters/courts-martial-explained.html.
Military.com. “Courts-Martial Explained.” Military.com, CodyUnderwood, http://www.military.com/benefits/military-legal-matters/courts-martial-explained.html.
“The Other Boat.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, by Stephen Greenblatt et al., W.W. Norton, 2012, pp. 2122–2142.
Sinai, Roy. “Gay In India.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 11 July 2012, http://www.forbes.com/2009/07/06/gay-homosexual-court-decision-opinions-contributors-india.html#2c10b43fddc9.
“Symbolic Monkey Meaning and Monkey Totem Meaning.” http://Www.whats-Your-Sign.com, 26 Apr. 2018, http://www.whats-your-sign.com/symbolic-monkey-meaning.html.
“A Timeline of Gay Rights in the UK.” The Week UK, The Week UK, 27 July 2017, http://www.theweek.co.uk/87213/a-timeline-of-gay-rights-in-the-uk.
“Twister.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/twister?s=t.

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