For the last couple of weeks, my purpose of my life has been to avoid reading Lord Jim. Now don’t get me wrong: the AP English Challenge is important to me; I WILL finish Lord Jim by the end of the month, and I will read it carefully and thoughtfully. But a little procrastination never hurt anyone, especially when one is trying to relive one’s youth.
But really: if a person is trying to avoid Lord Jim, that person probably shouldn’t read Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat – because The Lifeboat is almost exactly the same as Lord Jim, except that it’s shorter and most of the time it is perfectly clear which nouns the pronouns are supposed to refer to.
Like Lord Jim, The Lifeboat is about moral dilemmas and the ocean. Like Lord Jim, Rogan’s novel is very well written – although in a post-Hemingway, 21st-century kind of way – and both use a highly subjective first-person narrative mode (in The Lifeboat, most of the novel is told through a journal of her experiences that the protagonist writes while in jail awaiting trial) that complicates the reader’s attempts to determine objectively what happened during a chaotic emergency at sea.
There are no guano islands in The Lifeboat, however – which is too bad, since I SO enjoyed the long digression about guano islands in Lord Jim.
The Lifeboat is set in 1914, just at the outset of World War I and two years after the sinking of the Titanic. Newlyweds Henry and Grace Winter are crossing the Atlantic on a ship called the Empress Alexandra when an explosion in the ship’s engine room causes the ship to sink. Grace escapes on a lifeboat with 38 other passengers; Henry’s name never appears on any list of survivors after the wreck and is presumably killed with the ship.
Protocol requires that a trained sailor be present on each lifeboat to provide leadership; on Grace’s ship, the trained sailor is the authoritative yet enigmatic Mr. Hardie. Other than Hardie, there are only seven other men on the ship, since the tradition of protecting “women and children first” prompted the ship’s crew to load women on the lifeboats before men. Two women – Ursula Grant and Hannah West – emerge from the group as leaders. Grace’s perspective dominates the novel because it is her journal that recounts the events that happen in the lifeboat, but Grace herself is quite passive on the boat and keeps most of her thoughts to herself.
Grace makes a number of observations early in her time on the lifeboat that contribute to the novel’s suspense. First, while Hardie assures the passengers on the lifeboat that the captain of the ship sent out distress signals before the ship sank, Grace remembers hearing a sailor, Blake, tell her husband Henry that the telegraph machine on the ship was broken. Grace also remembers seeing Blake and Hardie seeming to conspire together before the ship sank, in spite of the fact that Hardie claims to hate Blake and refuses to steer the lifeboat anywhere near the boat that is manned by Blake. Grace also seems to suspect that Hardie may have had something to do with the explosion in the engine room – a question that the novel never answers. Furthermore, Hardie is carrying and guarding a mysterious box.
And every novel needs at least one sketchy character who guards a mysterious box, right?
Like the Titanic, the Empress Alexandra was not adequately built to allow its passengers to survive a shipwreck. The ship’s plans indicate that each lifeboat can hold forty passengers, and the lifeboats are labeled with this specification. However, Mr. Hardie informs the group that in fact the ship’s original owner had been determined to cut costs and had altered the plans so the lifeboats were built on a smaller scale. As a result, with 39 passengers, the lifeboat is overloaded and quickly begins to sink. The passengers quickly learn that in one of the other boats, Blake physically ejected two passengers in order to increase the likelihood that his boat would stay afloat long enough to be rescued. Hardie doesn’t go to this extreme, but he does repeatedly suggest that some of the passengers should “volunteer” to go over the side of the boat in order to save everyone else, and after they have been drifting for several days Hardie insists that the seven men on the boat draw straws to determine who will “volunteer” to sacrifice himself, resulting in the death by drowning of three men. The obvious corollary about the relative “worth” of various passengers is both implied and discussed outright, and Grace makes note of the irony that allows that passengers to both consider men more “useful” than women because of their physical strength and also ultimately to deem them expendable because chivalry dictates that men should sacrifice themselves to save the lives of women.
While I don’t remember its plot well enough to comment on it in detail, I thought often of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” while I was reading this novel. The idea of groups of people drifting around in a lifeboat, at the mercy of the weather and the ocean and the cruelties of their fellow passengers and awaiting a rescue that may or may not ever come seems almost too obvious a symbol for the Hobbesian, naturalistic, Social Darwinist approach to the human condition. Certainly this is the effect that Rogan is going for here – her characters even discuss Hobbes’ “Leviathan” in some detail, and it is no accident that one of the first passengers to be tossed overboard is the deacon who constantly tries to use Biblical passages and Christian imagery to strengthen his fellow passengers’ resolve.
Long story short, at the outset of this novel Grace – along with Ursula Grant and Hannah West – is awaiting trial for the murder of Mr. Hardie. I won’t go into detail about the process by which the balance of power on the lifeboat shifts from Mr. Hardie and the other men (who make up a minority on the boat) toward Ursula, Hannah, and the rest of the female majority and about how Hardie is killed in the process. I will say, though, that while I wouldn’t say that I loved this novel (though I admire it and find it well crafted and well written), I do find the way Rogan plays with gender politics to be very interesting. Grace recognizes the fact that she is essentially “useless” on the boat because she has been raised as a woman of the upper classes in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. She recognizes the absurdity of her corseted, weakly muscled body, yet it is through her apparent weakness and passivity that she and many of the other women on the boat are able to survive and take control of the boat in spite of Hardie’s physical strength, knowledge, and authoritative demeanor.
Wasn’t there once a season of Survivor where they pitted the women against the men? I didn’t watch it, but I would guess that it might have been a lot like this novel. But probably without the corsets.
I liked this novel and admire Rogan’s elegant prose. Whenever I read historical fiction, though, I always find myself asking why now? What is it about the world that we live in today that prompted this writer to choose this historical situation for her novel? Usually the parallels are easy – sometimes even painfully easy – to find, but in this case I’m still not sure. I’ve already said that there is no question that Rogan is aiming for some larger existential truths about the human condition, and she largely hits what she aims. But these truths seem distinctly nineteenth-century to me, and the links to our own world and our own time seem tenuous. Don’t get me wrong – in theory a gigantic, poorly engineered sinking ship is a fabulous metaphor for our time, but only in general terms. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but when it comes to the specifics there is something off, and I can’t quite figure out what Rogan is trying to say with this novel.