Vandover and the Mazatlan (Group 3)

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 3)

  1. William Koch

    “A deafening, crashing noise split the mournful howl of the wind, and far underneath him Vandover heard a rapid series of blows, a dreadful rumbling and pounding that thrilled and quivered through all the vessel’s framework up to her very mast-tips. On all fours upon the deck, holding to a cleat with one hand, he braced himself, watching and listening, his senses all alive, his muscles tense. In the direction of the engine-room he heard the furious ringing of a bell. The screw stopped. The Mazatlan wallowed helplessly in the trough of the sea.”

    Building off of Michael’s commentary, I think it’s interesting the manner in which sea-associated imagery becomes used to portray degeneracy and primitiveness in the novel. There is a natural chaos on the water that is demonstrated through the howling and thrashing of the wind, and this chaos compels Vandover to go to all fours to protect himself. It is a natural instinct, but one that plays into an animalistic, primitive image associated with the burgeoning Darwinism of the late 19th-century. Interesting, too, that the image plays to both the idea of social Darwinism and self-preservation, while also portraying man in an animal-like posture.

    The sea, too, becomes allegorical to Vandover’s brutishness and self-oriented thinking. As Michael suggests, Vandover’s vices lead him astray from “a path of assured success” presented to him. I think we see that represented in this chapter and the manner in which Vandover leans into the self-preservative and animalistic thinking necessary for both his personal survival and personal indulgences. He becomes, like the Mazatlan, a vessel that has survived chaotic (albeit self-imposed) conditions and now “wallows helplessly” and aimlessly as a consequence of these decisions.

  2. Michael Frank

    “By its means he could barely distinguish great, livid blotches of fog or cloud whirling across the black sky, and the unnumbered multitude of white-topped waves rushing past, plunging and rising like a vast herd of black horses galloping on with shaking white manes. Low in the northeast horizon lay a long pale blur of light against which the bow of the steamer, inky black, rose and fell and heaved and sank incessantly. To the landward side and very near at hand, so near that he could hear the surf at their feet, the long procession of hills continually defiled, vague and formless masses between the sea and sky.”

    Another ocean metaphor has made an appearance in ‘Brute,’ though this time its usage is a little different than in The Awakening. Unlike the pernicious call to freedom that the ocean represented through Chopin’s usage, Norris’s ship sequence gives a sensation of a spirit adrift. This imagery of blurred surroundings remind me of the painting we discussed in class and how the lack of borders seemed to give an uncertainty to the very environment. This seems to be the spiritual space that Vandover occupies.

    Vandover is met with crossroads his entire life and he tends to make decisions that are to his detriment. At the beginning of the chapter, Vandover misses his scheduled steamer to have a “moonlight picnic down on the beach.” This selfish impulsiveness also led him to drink, gamble, and stray from a path of assured success. Privilege and opportunity aside, he cannot tame his spirit. The rocky sea where the path is unclear is exactly where Vandover has lived his whole life.

  3. Alexandra Lawson

    “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” (67).

    Much like Dan discussed, this paragraph is revealing of the way in which ‘the brute’ inside of Vandover serves to control is me-oriented actions. In line with the books theme of social Darwinism, when faced with a life-or-death situation, Vandover’s primal instincts surface, and he fails to suppress the animal that lives within him. Following, Ida’s suicide Vandover had redoubled his efforts to hide this evil instinct. His efforts to avoid Grace, spoke to these attempts at suppression. Upon seeing Grace on the ship, “in an instant all the old evil instincts were back again, urging and clamoring never so strong, never so insistent. But Vandover set his face against them honestly, recalling his resolutions, telling himself that he was done with that life” (63). To me, the illustration of Vandover later giving into these forces on the ship illustrated his lack of control of ‘the brute.’ While in some less intense instances, such as his interaction with Grace, Vandover appeared to have some success, ultimately his response on the boat revealed that he and his crew mates all lay victim to its pull. Vandover, seems caught in the illusion that he is able to control these instincts, and spends large amounts of time convincing himself that he has them controlled. However, when it comes down to it, he falls prey to them, just like everyone else. This illusion of control, is what makes these impulses so dangerous for Vandover, and I believe that his time on the boat reveals Vandover’s inner evil, likely foreshadowing a lack of control I suspect to surface again later in the novel.

  4. Joseph Levine

    “At one time Vandover caught sight of the little Jew of the plush cap with the ear-laps; he was grovelling upon the deck, huddling a small black satchel to his breast; without a moment’s pause he screamed, “God ‘a’ mercy! God ‘a’ mercy!” The sight revolted Vandover and in a great measure helped to calm him. In a few moments he had himself in hand again, cool and self-collected, resolved not to act like a fool before the others, but to help them if he could.” (Kindle Locations 1614-1618).

    Vandover appears to take solace in watching the Jew panic as chaos ensues across the ship. In seeing the Jews’ distress, Vandover is reminded of his superiority over him, and he decides “not to act like a fool before the others” like the jeweler. I was struck by how in the midst of frenzy, rather than worry about the ship sinking, Vandover is instead preoccupied with what the Jew is doing. Even more absurdly, Vandover cares about how he is perceived “before the others”; people are fearing for their death, I don’t think they are much paying attention to what Vandover is doing. Thus, in addition to his social darwinist fascination with the Jew, he displays overt narcissism in considering himself to be the center of attention as the ship is sinking. This may betray the foundation of eugenicists and white supremacists of the time, whose narcissism surely comprised a large part of the foundation of their views. In terms of how “the sight revolted” him, Vandover is completely averse to religiosity, and loathes the Jew as well as the Salvationists raising a hymn and others praying. Vandover feels no compulsion to pray to a higher power, only to survive at all costs like a cornered animal. He condescendingly resolves “to help them if he could”, but of course he does no such thing when he watches the Jew beaten to death as he clings to the lifeboat for his life. This reminds me of how eugenicists often claim that selectively culling the population is for the betterment of humanity, when in reality it is a tool of oppression and a means to fulfill their own vanity.

  5. Haley Glover

    “The sailor at the oar jerked and twisted it, but the Jew still held on, silent and breathing hard. Vandover glanced at the fearfully overloaded boat and saw the necessity of it and held his peace, watching the thing that was being done” (81).

    Vandover prior to this passage was among the Jew’s supporters. Crying to the sailors in his defense, Vandover shouted “But you can’t let him drown… take him in anyhow; we must risk it” (80). Vandover’s initial response is selfless and concerned with the wellbeing of others. However, as has been exemplified throughout the novel, Vandover’s internal “brute” prevails over his attempts to construct himself in a humane moralistic fashion. Consistent with the novel’s social darwinistic leanings, Vandover’s fabricated innocent and pious self dissolves the instant a threat is registered. Only upon noticing the boat would sink with the addition of the Jew does Vandover fear for his own life above the life of others. Frequently pointing to the wild desires and vulgarity of women, Vandover attempts to bury his animalistic tendencies with those of others, resulting in sudden outbursts of savagery and a general confused sense of identity. Such a volatile identity is evident in Vandover’s unstable character that is swayed by his environment, those around him, and his own survival. Instead of taking action, Vandover watches on from the safety of the boat, allowing others around him to determine the situation, much like he relies on Geary. Lacking a clear sense of self, Vandover oscillates between saving others and saving himself, often caught in a limbo space of inaction between the two, as he wrestles with the brute not only inside himself, but in all those surrounding him.

  6. Dan Cielak

    “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.” (Norris 67).

    This paragraph is very revealing of Vandover’s overall character development through the first part of the novel. The way Norris describes Vandover’s first impulse here as being a “primitive animal instinct” is very accurate. Vandover’s actions seem to be geared towards benefiting himself, only. And, at various points throughout the first half, it seems as if Vandover only acts in ways that satisfy his primal urges. For example, the time he slept with the prostitute while he was a student at Harvard, or the time he pressured Ida Wade to sleep with him, he was acting out of a primal desire to have sex and procreate. Likewise, when he would venture out to the Imperial with his friends to drink and eat excessively, he seems to be elaborating on this animal-instinct to gorge himself. Thus, I think that the description of Vandover’s “impulse” affirms his characterization as a ‘me’-oriented person. Furthermore, there are very few instances I can point to where I truly feel that Vandover acts selflessly and goes out of his way to do something for someone else.

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