American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes
THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL (1998). Andrea Barrett (1965- ) is the author of five novels and a collection of short stories that won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1996. Her The Voyage of the Narwhal combines fact and fiction to explore mid-nineteenth-century fascination with the Arctic.* The sea functions throughout the novel to represent human intrigue with nature and to provoke the crew into a battle for their lives.
Having had his work from a previous voyage appropriated by the captain, protagonist Erasmus Darwin Wells, a naturalist, is given a second chance to advance scientific knowledge. Erasmus’ dream is compromised by having to choose between promises to his sister, Lavinia, to protect the captain, Zeke, who is also her fiance, and saving the lives of his crewmates. Erasmus must wait for Zeke to return from a solo expedition or lead his crewmates to safety, which is further complicated by his increasingly tumultuous relationship with Zeke and feelings of ostracism from the crew. Erasmus is also confronted by injured and disgruntled crewmates who refuse to spend another year trapped in ice floes.
Erasmus’ decision to save his crewmates haunts him until Zeke miraculously returns home, having been saved by the Esquimaux. Zeke, in a quest for glory, is willing to exploit the people who helped him, which precipitates Erasmus’ final act of bravery: returning a motherless boy to his Arctic home. Erasmus also comes to terms with his relationship to nature and to the Esquimaux.
Caroline J. McKenzie