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Masters of the Dew: lesson on responsibility

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Masters of the Dew. In Jacques Roumain’s rich bibliography, stands out this novel, written in Mexico City in 1944, first published four months after the author’s death and translated into several languages: English (Masters of the Dew), Spanish (Gobernantes del rocío), Russian (Khoziaeva rosy), German (Herr über den Tau), Portuguese (Os Donos do carvalho), Italian (Il giorno sorge sull’acqua), Romanian (Stăpânii apelor) and others. 

Masters of the Dew Summary

Manuel returns to live in Fond-Rouge, his native village, after spending fifteen years working in Cuba. On his return, he finds the village divided by rivalries and devastated by drought. He refuses to submit to misfortune as others have done, feeling sorry for themselves. He sets out in search of water, and eventually finds it in the hills. With the support of his fiancée Annaïse, a member of the family of an opposing clan, and at the cost of his life later taken by Gervilen, he convinces the villagers of the need for reunification. After Manuel’s death, the peasants dig the irrigation canal to distribute the newfound water to the village. Annaïse takes comfort in the hope of having Manuel’s child.

A fairly easily grasped plot has been developed through this story, resulting in a work understood in various senses, and therefore overflowing with meaning, all the more so as it can be appreciated from different perspectives. In the same vein, we have been inspired by this novel, which we believe to be as yet inexhaustible: we believe that there are still lessons to be learned from this gigantic work. Specifically, there are a number of philosophical and environmentalist elements that still make sense today, and which deserve to be identified and appreciated. In what follows, we shall concentrate on these. Our approach will be to present what we consider to be Roumain’s answers to a series of questions, notably on religion, man and his immortality, and his relationship with the environment.

The humanistic philosophy of action in Masters of the Dew

If for some, Masters of the Dew is a peasant novel, for others it is a thesis novel. In the sense of the latter perception, the novel is understood as a channel through which the author conveys his philosophy. It is from this perspective that Roumain’s work is said to be a testament to his greatest socio-political, economic and cultural wishes for modern society. But what philosophy does Roumain convey in this text? One of the main key takeaways of Masters of the Dew is the following: every human being on earth must make himself useful to his community (or, more broadly, to humanity) through his work (not religion).

Masters of the Dew asks questions along the following lines: what to do, when to do it, where to do it and why to do it. The well-established situation in the initial stage shows us that because of the evil (drought and inter-clan conflict) that struck Fond-Rouge, the village was in need of restoration. Because of the drought, water was needed more than ever, and the spirit of community and brotherhood had to be rekindled. Drought was perhaps the most visible problem in the village, but it wasn’t the only one. Hatred was also raging.

Drought being the most immediate source of the most obvious aspect of the problem in Fond-Rouge, improving life in Fond-Rouge would mean, first and foremost, finding and bringing back water. But how to find and bring back that water? That’s exactly one of the questions around which the whole story unfolded. Two possibilities were proposed: the villagers could either hope in divine providence, the favor of the gods, or they could decide for themselves to search until they could find and bring back water to the village, through their collective efforts.

Of these two possibilities, the second seems to have triumphed. Indeed, according to the author, the recovery lay in the villager’s actions rather than in divine providence. In this sense, Manuel had to break with the villagers’ religious and superstitious beliefs, teaching them to act.

At the same time, for Roumain, the same willingness to act resolved the problem of the hatred ravaging the village, since the Coumbite, essential to the success of the Action which by its very definition implies collaboration, could not be realized in hatred. To answer the question of what to do, when to do it, where to do it and why to do it, Roumain’s philosophy in Masters of the Dew concluded that villagers themselves had to seek, find and bring water to the village without wasting time, in order to remedy the drought problem. No question of relying on gods in defiance of our own actions capable of wonders: a veritable materialistic plea.

Being useful without relying on religion

Manuel is often portrayed as a savior, the black Christ. But at the same time, a careful reading of Manuel’s own words reveals that he didn’t really believe in any gods, let alone in the possibility of improvement thanks to them. Instead, he believed in human strength and in the sacrifice we can make to improve our own living conditions on earth. Manuel criticizes the other community members for crying out their misery to the loa, offering ceremonies so they’ll make it rain. He believes all that is nonsense and macaquerie. Because what counts is man’s sacrifice (Roumain, 1944). 

According to Manuel, the good Lord had nothing to do with the issues in Fond-Rouge. He thinks that there is heavenly business reserved to the angels, and earthly business, which is a battle day after day, without rest (Roumain, 1944). 

It’s clear, then, that for Manuel the character and Roumain the author, if there were divinities and heaven, they could only look after their own affairs, leaving those of mankind to their own care. Even if Manuel sometimes showed consideration for the customs of the ancients, it was only because he wanted to have fun, and because of the tolerance, love, forgiveness and reconciliation that he advocates throughout the story. 

A redefinition of the human being by Roumain

Mutual aid is a fundamental and essential factor in this novel, where it is presented as necessary to the fulfillment of the duty to act usefully. The human being himself is redefined on the basis of his level of association with his fellow human beings: a determining factor of individual strengths and weaknesses for Roumain. The novel shows that people’s strength lies in their collectivism, while individualism makes them weak and powerless in many ways. This is exactly what Manuel means when he states that one needs the other, one perishes without the help of the other and that together we are so much more capable (Roumain, 1944). 

This being the case, we can affirm that in this novel the duty to act is not the cause, in any form whatsoever, of selfish competition between humans. Instead, useful action must remain an opportunity for collaboration and fraternity between human beings.

Being useful is being immortal

Roumain also sees a close connection between human actions and the meaning of life. Manuel tells Annaïse that one day every man goes to earth, but that life itself, is a thread that doesn’t break. Because everyone during his existence ties a knot in it. He continues by mentioning that it’s the work we have done that makes life worth living for ages (Roumain, 1944). 

This philosophy thus touches on a perception of life understood on a transformational basis. In this novel, for Roumain life is a continual return, and even death is just another name for life. For him, death is a pure and simple change of state, and even more than that, he suggests that dying for the good cause implies becoming an immortal, thanks to the souvenir of the good deeds. We can understand why Manuel could not be afraid of dying for the benefit of the community’s happiness. We can clearly deduce that, for Roumain, we are mortal only when we refuse to make ourselves useful to humanity, to perform good deeds within our community. 

Men and women are complementary beings

Should these good deeds be done by the man, the woman, or both? This is where the man vs woman vs social mission trilogy is taken into consideration in the philosophy outlined in Masters of the Dew. While the man is recognized as strong and free, the woman is seen as fragile, and of the duty of submission to the man who then becomes her master. In the light of Masters of the Dew, this duty of submission implies that women are in domesticity; a domesticity that women supposedly accept.

Nevertheless, for Romain, this difference between man and woman is not in the least a form of discrimination. It is first and foremost functional. It’s a difference that seems to be based on a certain division of labor: the man is the one who works in the fields, and the woman is the one who takes care of the home.

It’s worth noting that Annaïse, Manuel’s wife, did play one very important role in the whole process of bringing water to the village: to make the other women persuade their husbands of the need to collaborate with Manuel. This may be a way to tell that women are better at persuading both women and men.

A marxist materialist ideology

What we’ve seen until now may suggest that Roumain was pursuing a Marxist materialist ideal in Masters of the Dew. He raised the question of man’s need to believe in and rely on his own material means. Roumain’s explanation of the origins of the oppression and misery of the underprivileged bears witness to his Marxism. His views on the state, the economy, and religion also speak volumes.

All in all, Roumain seems to have been hostile to religion. In the novel, by establishing the evidence that opportunities for change were only to be found in human action, Manuel ended up undermining religious beliefs in Fond-Rouge. In light of Manuel’s views, and to quote Marx, for Roumain to speak of religion was to evoke “the opiate of the masses”, the illusion that prevents them from changing what should be changed. According to Marx, to conclude:

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions” (Marx, 1843).

We can quickly see that, for Marx, discouragement of religious practice, or even the disappearance of religion, has a decisive advantage: it makes human beings aware of their own condition, which they can improve, and of the immediate material means at their disposal to do so. Roumain’s work on religion is in line with this approach.

Moreover, as with Marx, the fundamental definition of the human being in the novel lies in his nature, his capacity to produce his means of existence: the individual is thus the one who is obliged to work, the one for whom working to improve living condition constitutes a characteristic element: confidence in the virtue of labor. In this way, the villagers ended up taking it upon themselves to make life better in Fond-Rouge.

This same idea can be carried through to the perception of an effective economic system, where we note that the latter is presented as being better when it is socialized exactly as Marxist thought would have it. 

In this vein, Manuel continues to encourage the coumbite, which is a form of the collectivization of the means of production, and also the assembly of the Masters of the Dew: a community of workers with the intent to resist the bourgeois domination, oppression and, above all, the individualism embodied in the character of Hilarion. He insisted on the idea that there is only one way for us to be saved: remake the assembly of the workers of the earth to share the pain and the work between comrades. At one point in the story, Manuel even believes that what counts is rebellion, as long as one’s arms are not shaken and one has the will to fight adversity (Roumain, 1944). 

In other words, Roumain glosses over religion, considers the human being as the only one with power over his or her condition of existence, proposes socialization of the economy and communitarianism, and denounces capitalism. This, among other things, is why we can say that Roumain’s philosophy is imbued with a Marxist materialist ideology. 

From this same perspective, we can say that when Roumain’s philosophy shares with us that happiness and prosperity on earth depend exclusively on the effort and confidence of human beings in their own labor force and their community, to which all their actions must be beneficial, what we can understand is that both religion, and the capitalist tendency of the economy, are real obstacles to human well-being, and that we should fight (hence the sacrifice of man, and the usefulness of man on this earth) against everything that can only be profitable to egoists, who through their insatiable and disordered thirst for exploitation, are responsible for the degradation of the quality of life, including the environment.

The protectionist vision of the environment in Masters of the Dew

Roumain establishes an essential link between deforestation, erosion, impoverishment of agricultural land, drought, and consequent misery. He thinks about trees as the roots that make friends with the earth and hold it, giving the waters of the rains for its great thirst (Roumain, 1944). 

We can deduce from this that, in Roumain’s environmental vision, the poor quality of agricultural land in the mountains is a consequence of deforestation. The arable land was not there anymore because it was no longer irrigated as it used to be.

As mentioned in the story, as soon as he arrived in Fond-Rouge, Manuel proceeded to observe the environmental disruption. I found that the environmental problems were due to the misuse of the environment. And finally, he proposed a resolution to water the land. And the implementation of such a solution depended on the reconciliation of the Dorisca and Sauveur clans. 

This point of view is interesting. Indeed, various research studies have already demonstrated the same type of relationship that can exist between deforestation, drought, and poverty. According to the FAO, for example, a very important number of indigenous people depend almost entirely and directly on forests (FAO, n.d.). Thus, any deforestation phenomenon can be a source of misery for humanity. Because when the land is deforested, and exposed to erosion, it often ceases to be fertile. 

Roumain’s environmental vision doesn’t stop there. For him, environmental protection and humanist collective consciousness go hand in hand. And this is to the point where one seems to automatically imply the other: protection of the natural environment promotes well-being for all, just as collective awareness of the need to protect this environment promotes the effectiveness of this protection. 

In the novel, since the division of land between the clans, there has been no effort to protect the environment. This lack of interest in the protection of the environment coupled with rivalries between clans, has made collective awareness of the degrading state of the environment less and less possible. In other words, according to Roumain, environmental problems are linked to individualism, and are as old as individualism itself. 

In the Master of the Dew novel, Manuel returns to Fond-Rouge and notes that it is the village’s will to tame the earth, not by exercising a selfish domination on nature, but on regulating the natural environment for collective humanist ends.

The submission of nature to selfish ends leads to destructive antagonisms for mankind, as illustrated by the rivalries between the Dorisca and Sauveur clans. But the mastery of nature with a communitarian and humanistic vision preserves the natural balance. According to this same vision, the problems  associated  with  abusive  and  disorderly  exploitation  of  the  natural environment can be prevented and resolved. But for this to happen, a collective concern for environmental protection is needed. 

So, in the novel Masters of the Dew, the environment takes on an anthropocentric definition where man, placed at the center of the environment, is obliged to live with it in a relationship based on protection: man protects his environment, or else terrible consequences (famine, poverty, anger, division, alcoholism, despair and depopulation) will overtake him.

Masters of the Dew is a masterpiece

This work, already recognized as the first Haitian text to be translated into over twenty languages, is the result of the author’s attempt to sow the seeds of a new consciousness. From this text emerges a materialistic philosophy justified in the responsibility of the human being in the process of improving his own conditions of existence.

For Manuel, and therefore for Roumain, what counts is human sacrifice. This philosophy extends to religion, which is seen as useless in improving difficult conditions. It redefines the human being, enclosing him in a communitarianism, where his strength and weakness are a function of his level of community involvement.

Romain defends the idea that death can only be a new form of life for those who believe in efforts or useful actions with the help and above all for the benefit of their community. All this leads us to understand the expression Masters of the Dew, not in the sense of those who exercise domination and exploit others, but rather in the sense of those who exercise the leadership necessary to draw attention to the importance of human and humanistic communitarianism efforts.

The work also presents a protectionist vision of the environment, in which the earth or the environment, even when modified by man, must be protected to avoid disastrous consequences. In this sense, whatever form the exploitation of its resources takes, it must be aimed first and foremost not at individual profit, but for the collective well-being. According to this vision, individualism destroys the environment that we can only protect together.

Jacques Roumain’s novel also implicitly defends the idea that only a collective awareness of the importance of a balanced natural environment can effectively contribute to solving major environmental problems. An example of this is the realization of the “Manuelian dream” of bringing water back to Fond-Rouge, which was ultimately only possible thanks to the reconciliatory collaboration of the entire Fond-Rouge community.

The Haitian novel Masters of the Dew proves to be a work of great significance and deals with major issues that still persist today. In this case, the questions we should perhaps be asking ourselves now include the following: how can we apply the ideas conveyed by Roumain through this masterpiece to the satisfaction of our concrete and immediate needs. How can we transform them today into effective elements of environmental policy to be applied to the world reality, where the need to protect the environment is increasingly felt? A debate based on such concerns needs to be launched as soon as possible. 


FAO. (n.d.). Numbers of Forest “Dependent” People and Types of People Forest Relationships. FAO.Org. https://www.fao.org/3/w7732e/w7732e04.htm

Marx, K. (1843). Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Cambridge University Press, 1977. Translated by Annette Jolin and Joseph O’Malley.

Roumain, J. (1944). Masters of the Dew, A Novel of Haiti (1st ed., Vol. 1). Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. Translated by Hughes Langston and Cook Will Mercer.

David Celestin
David Celestin

David Celestin is a diplomat turned creator and entrepreneur. David Celestin holds bachelor's degrees in Law, Philosophy & Political Science. He also holds a Master's degree in Management, has been a diplomat for over 7 years, and is now an entrepreneur and a content creator. Sharing his life lessons. Book your free business consultation

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