As summer nears, thoughts might turn to cruise ships, sailboats, and other relaxing watercraft. But we’re here to talk about vessels and voyages in literature, where sea things are often more dramatic.
Whether fictional characters are atop an ocean or river, it can mean adventure, discovery, danger, isolation, discomfort, romance, and other stuff that keeps readers glued to a book’s pages. Hopefully, water-resistant glue.
Among the writers who immediately come to mind when discussing sea literature are Homer and Herman Melville. (Homer’s last name was not Melville.) I haven’t read The Odyssey, so I can’t say much about that epic poem, but I’ve read most of Melville’s work — and a huge portion of it takes place off land.
There’s obviously Moby-Dick, but also Typee and Omoo (sailing to and from islands), Redburn (semi-autobiographical chronicle of an educated sailor’s voyage to England amid a rough crew), White-Jacket (an also-semi-autobiographical novel set on a U.S. Navy boat), Benito Cereno (riveting slave-rebellion story), and Billy Budd (unforgettable shipboard court martial). With his frequent emphasis on the sea, Melville certainly differed from many other authors who situated only one or a handful of their literary output amid the waves.
In addition to drawing on his own sailing experiences, Melville might have been partly inspired to write Moby-Dick (1851) after reading Edgar Allan Poe’s only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Poe also turned to the sea for some of his riveting short stories, including “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom.”
Later in the 19th century came Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (most of which takes place on or near the Mississippi River that Huck and Jim take a raft to), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Alexandre Dumas’ The Last Cavalier (which includes a memorable historical-fiction moment depicting the shipboard death of Admiral Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar). There are ultra-compelling water scenes, too, in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda.
Around the time the 19th century became the 20th, Joseph Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness (with its eerie voyage up the Congo River that would inspire the film Apocalypse Now) and Lord Jim (starring a young seaman whose abandon-ship cowardice colors the rest of his life).
After 1900, stories with some or many water elements continued to abound. For instance, Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf features a cruel and charismatic ship captain who makes life hell for his crew, and that same author’s Martin Eden stars a sailor-turned-writer who goes back to the sea for a fateful voyage at novel’s end.
There’s also Jim the retired ship captain who figures prominently in Anne’s House of Dreams — one of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables sequels. Another sequel — Jack Finney’s so-so From Time to Time that continues the story of that author’s haunting Time and Again — includes scenes on the Titanic. Speaking of that ill-fated ship, Robert Serling wrote Something’s Alive on the Titanic, a novel with a title that’s kind of hokey but with content that’s pretty absorbing.
A romantic river voyage for the ages ends Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, the title character of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree lives in a Tennessee River houseboat, a ship captain landing in circa-1600 Japan finds all kinds of intrigue in James Clavell’s Shogun, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex depicts a trans-Atlantic voyage of two Greek immigrants — a voyage to America so many immigrants made.
Also in post-1900 lit, a claustrophobic German submarine is the milieu of Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s Das Boot, a shark wreaks havoc in Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the title character boards a ship to her native Greenland in Peter Hoeg’s mystery thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and a shipwreck puts a boy and tiger in close proximity in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
Speaking of shipwrecks, let’s not forget Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century classic Robinson Crusoe.
What are your favorite literary works containing ships, sea voyages, water themes, and the like?
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