The Khaki Dog
The Khaki Dog: an Oxymoron of a Beast / Symbolizing a Struggle Between the Classes
Dogs and the color khaki are two major symbols that appear continuously throughout Derek Walcott’s Omeros. While it initially seems that Walcott has a disdain for the four legged animal and a respect for the greenish hue, it later becomes apparent that Walcott intended for the dogs to represent the lower class and for khaki to represent the upper class. The combination of these two symbols creates a seeming contradiction turned social commentary that is the “khaki dog”: a lower class symbol in the guise of upper class that gets great courtesy not because of his actual being, but rather because of his outward appearance.
Walcott uses the word “dog” at least twenty-eight times throughout Omeros. In all but three of these times – when the word “khaki” precedes it – a dog is presented as being either enslaved or homeless. The first of these attributes that can be seen is that these animals are indentured servants to their human counterparts. A gleaming example of this fact is in that the dogs in the novel are constantly imprisoned, whether by being held behind a door, “The dog scratched at the kitchen door for him to open / but he made it wait” (12) or being held in an actual cage, “making sure to hook back the gate / so the dog wouldn’t slide out”(153). These excerpts exemplify a major aspect of slavery forced onto the animal, the latter example implying the dog would perhaps like to escape.
When the creature’s movements are not restricted due to a gate or otherwise, his actions are limited to those which are allowed for by the nearest human. “People took evening walks, / letting their dogs sniff the foam from a pewter surf” (186): this statement from Walcott’s novel shows, with the word “let”, that the creatures were not even able to smell the beach without permission from their owner. Finally, the character “Achille” says, “Look! I not your slave!” and immediately after the novel writes, “he, feeling like a dog” (38). Here, the character asks another character to stop treating him like a slave, which he connects synonymously with being a dog.
The second aspect of Walcott’s use of the word “dog” is to describe someone who is homeless or extremely poor. The first way he does this is by using a simile to parallel a dog and someone who sleeps on the street: “The sun slept in the street / like a dog, with no traffic” (274). This reflects a homeless person, since sleeping on the street is a major generalization for the homeless, along with eating from the trash. This latter stereotype can also be seen within the novel: “He gripped a frond / of the rusting coconut, swiveling its base / till it gave, then he dumped the rubbish in a mound / round the smoking drum. The black dog did dog-dances / around him, yapping, crouching, entangling his heel.” (162). Here, Achille dumped a pile of rubbish on the ground to the great delight of the animal, as if Achille were giving the creature a charitable feast.
The important similarity between the homeless and slaves, as related to this novel, is their shared social status. Both of these sets of people are in the lowest class of society for their time period; they are all outcastes.
Contrasting the novel’s lowly status of the word “dog” is the high status of the word “khaki”. Not including those times it is describing the color of an animal, this word is mentioned eight times within Omeros. Early in the book, it becomes evident that khaki is a color associated with military personnel: “He’d played the officer’s pitch. … The khaki shorts that proclaimed / his forgotten service” (26). This also hints at khaki being connected to officers, while “The Major stood, brushed off his khaki shorts, and rammed the pamphlet into his leather belt.” shows that not only is khaki a sign of officer position, it is also a signal of higher status in that his belt is made to sound expensive.
Later in the novel, the high social class that khaki symbolized earlier is blatantly defined: “I heard the brass bugle-note / of his khaki orders as we circled the Parade Ground” (267) and “picking up his accent / from a khaki order. ‘Been travellin’ a bit, what?’ / I forgot the melody of my own accent, / but I knew I’d caught him, and he knew he’d been caught, / caught out in the class-war”. In the former excerpt, the luxuries of being in the “khaki order” are shown, while in the latter, it is shown that the peculiarities that define those in this highest of social classes are often emulated.
The idea behind all of Walcott’s careful defining of social structure is to give him the opportunity to tear it down in a satirical commentary on the class system. In Omeros, the author introduces a very peculiar character: the khaki dog. While the introduction to this character in the beginning of the novel raises no flag, the later occurrences make the phrase “khaki dog” seem as an oxymoron: the symbols for the highest and lowest classes melded into one creature. This contradiction of a beast occurs at least four times throughout the book. The second time that the animal occurs in the novel, he is with neither master nor tether: “A khaki dog / came racing its faster shadow on the clean sand, / then stopped, yapping at the shell” (279), he is petted: “a man … pricking the dog’s ears, / making it whine with joy” (280), and he is followed: “I came down to the beach. In its pointed direction, / the dog raced, passing the daisy-prints of its paws.” (281). All of these lead one to think, compared to previous dogs in the novel, that this animal is very important. Another occurrence of the creature has him relaxing: “Seven Seas sat anchored in the rumshop window, / the khaki dog stretched at his feet clicking at flies.” (316) This, again, describes an apparently important animal: no other dog throughout the book are ever afforded an opportunity to laze around, let alone do so in full view of a human. The final appearance of this animal is on a fish boat: “and nod to a fisherman with his khaki dog / that skitters from the wave-crash” (321). Here, Walcott tells of seagulls who notice a fisherman simply because of the color of this creature that stands on his ship’s deck rather than the massive boat that houses the animal.
The first mention of this khaki dog, however, is a seeming contradiction in that he was explained to have been “on a leash” (17). The reasoning behind this apparent lapse in judgment of the captor of such a “noble” creature, however, is another clever jab at the class system. The owner of the dog does not realize how supposedly great his pet is because the man is blind: “A hot street led to the beach / past the small shops and the clubs and a pharmacy / in whose angling shade, his khaki dog on a leash, / the blind man sat on his crate after the pirogues ” (17).
Walcott goes through great effort to, albeit discretely, denounce the idea that any person is better than another solely based on their heritage. His challenge, however, was to tuck this social commentary out of immediate sight, keeping with the overall manner of the rest of the novel. As with several other aspects of the book, Derek Walcott puts to use an extensive network of metaphorical symbols to accomplish this task with great debonair.