Vandover and the Mazatlan (Group 2)

In the slides, I brought up Vandover’s time at sea on Mazatlan, but there’s much, much more to say about that trip.  It’s the most dramatic action in the novel and is a pivot, sitting near the middle of it. Like the Imperial, the Mazatlan is, in part, a physical manifestation of Vandover’s consciousness, a chamber of his mind brought to vivid life in the world of the book.  Pick a paragraph or so where you learned something about Vandover’s frame of mind from his time on the ship. Include that brief passage from Vandover in your post and tell us in a paragraph what you found in it.  If people want to write about the same passage, that’s fine, but everyone who does that should offer new observations.

6 thoughts on “Vandover and the Mazatlan (Group 2)

  1. Colston Merrell

    “There was nothing picturesque about it all, nothing heroic. It was unlike any pictures he had ever seen of lifeboat rescues, unlike anything he had ever imagined. It was all sordid, miserable, and the sight of half-clad women, dirty, sodden, unkempt, stirred him rather to disgust than to pity” (87).

    The above paragraph was one that made me pause as I originally made my way through the novel, as it was the first one I could make note of that would mark or foreshadow Vandover’s ultimate disenchantment/boredom art. His almost monomaniacal obsession with the physical appearance of the women on the boat(s) is both interesting and unsurprising; in the midst of so much chaos, pain, and squalor, shortly after he’s witnessed something like a murder at sea, Vandover can’t help himself from making note of bare, feminine skin and the way it does or does not ignite his more carnal passions. His disgust here is a manifestation of his greater phoniness that is present to the reader throughout the novel. This is a man who paints blithely of things he knows nothing about and whose compass of morality spins like a gyroscope to map neatly atop his most immediate wants or needs. There’s a way in which his “artistic mind,” which will be all but evaporated by the end of the novel, is unable to confront, here, the visceral, sensual details of actual bodily life. While Norris might have viewed the scene of the shipwreck as a manifestation of human baseness or some kind of animal chaos, I would argue that more disturbing than any of the individual lived conditions of the people aboard the lifeboats is the way that Vandover (and perhaps Norris) seems to feel a superiority to this lower, more vulgar way of being, as if to suffer, here, with these low people is an affront to an artistic sensibility of suffering that is much more grand, beautiful, and odorless. Vandover’s disgust at the scene is perhaps a parallel of his disgust with himself, which will become more present later, but lurks latent here, too. Still, there are a number moments where it seems he still lacks the self-awareness to evaluate his thoughts and desires appropriately. Shortly after boarding the schooner that saves his life, Vandover sees that “the woman he had particularly noticed in the lifeboat [is] clad in a night dress” and “wonder[s] vaguely where the dress had come from she was now wearing” (89). Despite his best efforts to exalt himself to some imaginary sphere of aesthetic innocence, Vandover continues to show symptoms of a profane obsession with all things corporeal.

  2. Annabella Twomey

    “Vandover’s very first impulse was a wild desire of saving himself; he had not the least thought for any one else. Every soul on board might drown, so only he should be saved. It was the primitive animal instinct, the blind adherence to the first great law, an impulse that in this first moment of excitement could not be resisted. He ran forward and snatched a life-preserver from the pile that was stored beneath the bridge.” (iBook, page 230).

    It is significant that the author describes this as Vandover’s “very first impulse” because it is his primitive initial impulse for a reason, and is characteristic of the victimization and excuses he exemplifies throughout the novel mainly in the incident with Ida. The scenes at the Imperial reminded me of scenes from “American Psycho” (a book/movie I believe we are going to study in this class?) where men were often reduced to a wholly vulgar perspective of objectification of women and no accountability for their actions. It is a somber depiction of male nature. Additionally, the disastrous scene of Mazatlan also reminded me of “The Titanic” particularly with the “every man for themselves” attitude that most humans adopted in that movie. Although many of us are not considered as immoral as Vandover, Norris asks the readers to internally examine what our own reactions would be in that scenario, and perhaps it is a disconcerting realization to feel anything in common with this man.

    Although, as referenced in some of the paragraphs my peers posted, Vandover has glimmers of redeeming moments, such as trying to help the Salvationist with her life preserver, and then again yelling at the captain to let the “little Jew” onboard, he is still leaving the moral decision making up to authority figures (in this case, making an excuse that the dead woman thinks Jesus will save her, and still letting the captain decide the Jewish boy’s fate and not really helping him). This paragraph, and the rest of the Mazatlan trip, demonstrates that even though Vandover can outwardly present moments of positive human nature, in the darkest moments he is not going to actually take accountability or action in volunteering to help. This is a similar sequence of actions to his brief guilt with the situation with Idea, before completely victimizing himself and then viewing it as an opportunity of celebrating and rejoicing in his life undeservedly.

  3. Carl Langaker

    “She started up to follow him and the boom of the foremast, which the accident had in some way loosened, swung across the deck at the same moment. Vandover was already out of its path but it struck the young woman squarely across the back. She dropped in a heap upon the deck, then her body slowly straightened out, stiff and rigid, her eyes rapidly opened and shut, and a great puff of white froth slowly started from her mouth. Vandover ran forward and lifted her up, but her back was broken; she was already dead. He rose to his feet exclaiming to himself, “But she was so sure–she knew she was going to be saved,” then suddenly fell silent again, gazing wonderingly at the body, disturbed, very thoughtful.”

    What I find interesting about this paragraph is that it feels very representative of both the innocent and naïve sides of Vandover’s character. Upon seeing the young Lassie die, Vandover is both disturbed and thoughtful. It seems here that the latter emotion in particular reveals his inability to fathom the severity of the situation that he is in – his expressed thoughtfulness upon Lassie’s death feels quite absurd, as if someone dying is a far-removed concept from the world he lives in. This brings to mind the passing of his mother, and how he barely remembers anything from that time, as if he is actively blocking it from his memory. I think this captures a lot of the general naïvete/ignorance that Vandover exhibits as we follow his youth and eventual entry in to the adult world after moving to San Francisco. For instance, when going to the Imperial with his friends, they are obnoxiously reckless, get viciously drunk, and have no concern for the consequences of their actions (notably the “ripe as cherries” night) – however, it is only after Ida kills herself that he has a wake-up call moment, realizing that he in fact needs to seriously evaluate his actions. Another relevant quote from his stay on the Mazatlan that builds on this is: “there was no panic; there was excitement, confusion, bewilderment, but no excess of fear”. Again, though Vandover realizes that something is slightly amiss after the first big bang from the hull, because nobody has actually been hurt (and there seemingly is no immediate present threat), he trivializes the situation, and somehow manages to find it exciting. In the same way that he feels excitement and bewilderment moments before the Mazatlan begins to sink, he has these same emotions when he meets new girls and is out drinking with his friends, as we see both from his time at Harvard and in SF – however, we repeatedly see this excitement followed by deep trauma, with the boat sinking and Ida committing suicide respectively.

    However, while part of Vandover’s mentality is due to a clearly ingrained arrogance, I think there is a shred of genuine innocence deep down within him – this comes to light by his insisting “ But she was so sure–she knew she was going to be saved”. The way he says this, rephrasing his sentence halfway through, is very revealing of the shock and trauma he immediately feels – it reminds me of the way he handles hearing that Ida has committed suicide. When he initially hears that she is ill he brushes it off, largely spurred on by his perception of her attitude and personality the night they go to the Imperial together; he assumes that she will be alright, because of how she has presented herself to him and how she comes across face-value. Similarly, the Lassie insists that Christ will watch over her and ensure that she will stay safe. What I therefore find interesting is that there is something of a sense of betrayal in his tone as he insists to himself that the Lassie was going to be saved, just as there is when he first learns about Ida passing. This split feeling of betrayal and horror reveals that Vandover (to some extent) has good intentions deep down, but they are betrayed by his animalistic impulses.

    I think these two clashing sides of his personality make for a very interesting character. The reader wants the innocent part to emerge victorious, as Vandover is very likeable when we first meet him, and he additionally garners sympathy from his upbringing without a mother. However, it becomes gradually clear to the reader that his naïve and ignorant tendencies become more and more intentional, marking a shift from an innocent Vandover to an almost unrecognizably brutish character.

  4. Michael Taylor

    “But Vandover himself suffered too keenly to take much thought for the sufferings of the others, while besides that anguish which he shared with the whole boat, the pain in his broken thumb gnawed incessantly like a rat. From time to time he stared listlessly about him, looking at the dark sky, the tumbling ocean, and the crowed groups in the plunging, rolling lifeboat.

    There was nothing picturesque about it all, nothing heroic. It was unlike any pictures he had seen of lifeboat rescues, unlike anything he had ever imagined. It was all sordid, miserable, and the sight of the half-clad women, dirty, sodden, unkempt, stirred him rather to disgust than to pity.” (Amazon Kindle, 90)

    Rapid-fire-Tuesday-discussion-observations (go!): first, Vandover’s vanity & “self-indulgence”. He has just witnessed at least two people die, but the immediate pain in his thumb and the overwhelming experience of physical sensation prevents Vandover from thinking about anybody else. It also cannot be a coincidence that what commands his attention is the pain from a broken thumb – I sense a metaphor here for degenerate sexuality (the only more apparent symbol for *that* would be a missing nose). Second, artistic representation vs. reality. Vandover’s life is split in two between his idealized, fleeting world of art and the sinful, debased world to which he always returns. Vandover is able to paint the courageous lone soldier squaring off against a lion in the desert, but when crisis actually strikes in his life, he is the first to grab the life preserver. Third, women. Vandover has fallen far from his original “profound respect and… instinctive regard for women,” and it seems like this scene marks an inflection point in that sinister progression (16). It is honestly pretty messed up and I am not quite sure what to make of his feeling of disgust beyond marking it for observation and remarking that, at this point, it seems pretty clear that Vandover is well on his way to being a really bad dude.

  5. Andreya Zvonar

    It was no longer the Mazatlan, no longer a thing of wood and iron, but some strange huge living creature that was dying there under his feet, some enormous brute that was plunging and writhing in its last agony, its belly ripped open by a hidden enemy that struck from beneath, its entrails torn out, its life-breath going from it in great gasps of steam. Suddenly its bellow collapsed; the great bulk was sinking lower; the enemy was in its very vitals. The great hoarse roar dwindled to a long death rattle, then to a guttural rasp; all at once it ceased; the brute was dead—the Mazatlan was a wreck.”


    This chapter kept me on the edge of my seat from the moment the Mazatlan started sinking (212). Many passages caught my attention, but I found this one particularly interesting because it speaks of the Brute. Norris dissociates the Brute from Vandover in this passage and instead refers to the Mazatlan as such in the ship’s dying moments. The personification of the ship allow the reader to easily draw parallels between the description and Vandover’s basic insticts. For example, the Mazatlan does everything it can to not go under. This is also Vandover’s instinct on page 212 : “Vandover’s very first impulse was a wild desire of saving himself”. This sentiment is once again repeated on page 231 when Norris simply tells us that “the primal instinct of the brute [is] striving for its life”. These examples all suggest that the Brute is animalistic and is first and foremost concerned with survival (like Darwin’s natural selection). As the pivotal moment in the story, it is important that Norris makes this abundantly clear because Vandover will begin to resemble the Brute much more as his life continues to spiral out of control. The sinking of the Mazatlan and its reclaiming of the term Brute might be foreshadowing Vandover’s own future, in which he will also be clinging to the last parts of his life as his vices start to take over. Lastly, I appreciate the way in which Norris rapidly progresses the events/thoughts of the passage. It begins with the ship in bad shape, but each new clause makes it worse. The reader feels the inevitable and knows that the ship has no chance. Again, this is how I feel about Vandover at the moment as his vices take control of him. Perhaps this ‘spiraling out of control’ is a common theme in naturalist writing as I have noticed it in abundance throughout Zola’s work (a contemporary of Norris as mentioned in the slides).

  6. Elizabeth Srulevich

    “The engineer, exasperated, caught up the stump of one of the broken oars and beat on the Jew’s hands where they were gripped whitely upon the boat’s rim, shouting, ‘Let go! let go!’ But as soon as the Jew relaxed one hand he caught again with the other. He uttered no cry, but his face as it came and went over the gunwale of the boat was white and writhing. When he was at length beaten from the boat he caught again at the oar; it was drawn in, and the engineer clubbed his head and arms and hands till the water near by grew red. The little Jew clung to the end of the oar like a cat, writhing and grunting, his mouth open, and his eyes fixed and staring. When his hands were gone, he tried to embrace the oar with his arms. He slid off in the hollow of a wave, his body turned over twice, and then he sank, his head thrown back, his eyes still open and staring, and a silver chain of bubbles escaping from his mouth.

    “Give way, men!” said the engineer.

    “Oh, God!” exclaimed Vandover, turning away and vomiting over the side.” (232-233, iBooks).

    It’s fascinating to read anti-semitic caricatures of my own people. That’s partially why this paragraph, and the character of the little Jew in general, caught my attention. Even as the Jew is dying, he’s still treated/described as an animalistic other, a non-human, his last breath literally referencing a stereotype (the silver chain of bubbles). In the “Social Darwinists and Norris’s Jew’’ slide, it’s written that “Social Darwinist racial classifying is most visible in the simultaneously weak but menacing Jew killed during the sinking of the Mazatlan.” I don’t think the little Jew is weak — he clings on to life as best he can, for quite a long time given the circumstances, as everyone around him wants him to die. It feels like a metaphor for much of Jewish history. Just in time for Passover!

    Regarding Vandover, I think this scene (coupled with a few paragraphs before) demonstrates his inability to stick to a moral compass, like how he actively wants to save the Jew at first, but then sits quietly and says nothing when he realizes saving the Jew might be too dangerous. Then he throws up when he watches the Jew die because he can’t handle it all (mentally and physically). Even just the very primal bodily function of vomiting is a big clue into Vandover’s proclivity for physical sensations.

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