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  1. Book ImageVoyage of the Narwhal: A Novel

    Andrea Barrett

    "A luminous work of historical fiction that explores the far reaches of the Arctic and of men's souls." —Denver Post


The Voyage of the Narwhal is a novel of polar exploration: about the men who sailed north in the mid-nineteenth century at the height of America’s great romance with the Arctic; about the Inuit encountered in a frozen landscape, and about the women left behind, making journeys of the imagination as they waited at home. Through their encounters with the Arctic, the characters also explore ideas of race, culture, and evolution that were current just before the Civil War. And they confront more timeless issues as well: the costs of obsession, the varieties of love and of meaningful work, what it means to be human.

“Writing The Voyage of the Narwhal took me on an unexpected journey,” Andrea Barrett says. “While writing my previous book, Ship Fever, and researching the stories of Irish emigrants on their way to Canada, I read a few pages about a ship that was sunk by drifting ice floes off Newfoundland. That image—the jagged ice, the hole in the ship, the people sinking helplessly—flung me back to the territory of a childhood obsession with polar explorers. What was it that had drawn me so deeply into those stories? The ice, the snow, the winter—long nights and the days that last for months: Why had those tales gripped me so? On Cape Cod, where I grew up, I hid under bridges and up in trees and in hollows at the base of sand dunes, reading about Peary and Nansen and Shackleton, shutting out everything else in my world; longing so fiercely to be those explorers and not grasping for years that they were men, and I wasn’t; that the forces and desires driving them could never be mine, and were not all noble; and that what separated me from them was not just gender but time and space and politics and the changing nature of the world. Yet something real joined me to them as well: an escape from the pettiness of the self, and a longing to embrace the whole world. Somewhere in my teens that obsession went underground. Then it resurfaced, two decades later, altered but stronger than ever.

“Ned Kynd, a minor character in Ship Fever, continued to haunt me long after I’d finished writing about him and his family: What might have happened to him, I wondered, after he was separated from his sister at Grosse Isle and shipped upriver? At first I envisioned a companion novella, something short and largely about Ned. But almost as soon as I started work I realized that I’d entered an imaginary world very much shaped by my own Arctic obsessions, and that this was going to be a full-length novel.

“I embarked on this novel almost by accident; so, too, does the American naturalist who became its protagonist set off almost accidentally for the north. It’s hard for us to imagine, now, how exciting those Arctic expeditions were; they caused a fever resembling the early days of the space program. The commanders of these expeditions were the astronauts of their time, celebrated with banner headlines and huge parades. When one of the most famous—Elisha Kent Kane, who appears in the background of this novel—died, all of America mourned him at a funeral exceeded only, a few years later, by Lincoln’s.

“My naturalist isn’t one of those actual Arctic explorers, though; he’s an invented character, and all his companions and their expedition are also invented. You might wonder why I’d want to invent yet another expedition, when the late 1840s and l850s were so rich with actual expeditions. One reason is that no single expedition encompassed all I wanted to say about the nature of exploring in that time and place. Another, perhaps more important reason is that only by inventing an expedition, and following where that led me, could I share in the process of discovery those real explorers experienced. It was a strange, secret pleasure to take material so far removed from my own quiet life, and to remake the traditional matter of a quest narrative in my own way.”

Discussion Questions

  1. By today’s standards, the crew of the Narwhal sailed north with almost nothing: no radio, cellular phone, or electronic equipment; no reliable navigational devices; inadequate food and clothes; maps with big blanks of uncharted space. Compare this kind of nineteenth-century exploration with “adventure travel” today. How do these experiences differ, both for the adventurers and for those waiting for them at home? Do you think travel in the mid-nineteenth century took a different kind of courage?
  2. Many of the characters here might be described as obsessed, although the nature of their obsessions differs. What is driving each of the central characters? Is the search for glory and recognition different from the search for knowledge? How would you relate these characters’ goals and aspirations to those of people who set off now on such purposefully dangerous adventures as crossing Antarctica, skiing over the North Pole, or climbing Mount Everest?
  3. All fiction is in some way about the encounter of the self and the other. Our ideas of “otherness” though, vary with culture and time; mid-nineteenth-century American and European explorers, for example, sometimes described their encounters with people from other cultures in pejorative terms; as if those people were not fully human. And few written records from the period tell the other side of the story—how the Inuit, for example, perceived the strangers stumbling into their land. Who does Erasmus perceive as the other? Is he in some way a foreigner not just to the Inuit, but to his own culture? What about Alexandra and Zeke—or about Annie’s and Tom’s relationship to their own culture, and the other culture they briefly experience?
  4. Compare the responses of Zeke and Erasmus to the Arctic landscape and the Inuit. Can you describe the ways in which each makes use of what he’s seen and learned?
  5. What is the function of the quotations from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which Erasmus remembers his father reading: Are these linked to the discussions, late in the novel, about race and the human species?
  6. How do you view the relationship of Erasmus and Dr. Boerhaave? Toward each other they are tender, respectful, supportive, even loving; the best of friends. In another century, in other circumstances, do you think their feelings toward each other might have expressed themselves in a different way?
  7. Initially, the central women characters—Alexandra, Lavinia, Annie—seem to be in the background of the novel. Does this reflect a sense of what was permitted to women then? Compare their relationships with each other to those among the central male characters.
  8. Describe the journey that Alexandra makes during the course of the novel. How does it parallel the more visible, exterior journey made by Erasmus and the crew of the Narwhal? Does she find a form of freedom within the constraints imposed on her by her class and gender?
  9. Annie makes a journey as well—in its own way as profound and daring as that of the novel’s male voyagers, and with deeper consequences. Do you think she’s aware of herself as a kind of explorer? What does she see as her task when she agrees to leave her home with Zeke?
  10. Why is it so important to Lavinia that Erasmus guard Zeke from harm on his journey north—and why does she feel so betrayed when he fails? What do her responses say about the role of marriage for women in her place and time?
  11. Letters, journals, and diaries play a crucial role in this novel—as they did in the lives of many educated nineteenth-century people. What do they contribute to the novel? Do they reveal aspects of Erasmus, Zeke, Alexandra, dr. Boerhaave, and Ned we wouldn’t otherwise know?
  12. In Erasmus’s first journal entry, describing the scene at the dock earlier that day, he writes: “But when I describe it in words one thing follows another and everything’s shaped by my single pair of eyes, my single voice. I wish I could show it through a fan of eyes. Widening out from my single perspective to several viewpoints, then many, so the whole picture might appear and not just my version of it.” How does the structure of the novel as a whole mirror that initial statement? Did it seem important to you that the novel incorporate many viewpoints? How would the novel have been different if it had mirrored the published journals of the real nineteenth-century explorers and been written solely in Erasmus’s voice—or, for that matter, in Zeke’s?
  13. The epigraphs heading each of the chapters are from nineteenth-century texts, which the characters might have been reading. Take a closer look at these: Do we read them differently now than the characters would have read them then? Now take another look at the opening epigraph, which is from a text written exactly a century after the events in the novel and is about an antithetical landscape. Why do you think the author chose this? What is she asking you to think about?

About Andrea Barrett

Andrea Barrett is the author of The Air We Breathe, Servants of the Map (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), The Voyage of the Narwhal, Ship Fever (winner of the National Book Award), and other books. She teaches at Williams College and lives in northwestern Massachusetts.

Books by Andrea Barrett

  1. Book CoverThe Air We Breathe: A Novel

    "An evocative panorama of America...on the cusp of enormous change" (Newsday) by the National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever.More

  2. Book CoverArchangel: Fiction

    "[Andrea Barrett's] work stands out for its sheer intelligence…The overall effect is quietly dazzling."—New York Times Book ReviewMore

  3. Book CoverServants of the Map: Stories

    "Luminous....Each [story] is rich and independent and beautiful and should draw Barrett many new admirers."—Publishers Weekly, starred reviewMore