Vandover and the Mazatlan (Group 4)

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.

5 thoughts on “Vandover and the Mazatlan (Group 4)

  1. Alexander Merrill

    “Vandover saw a great many others praying; there was even a large group gathered about the band of Salvationists trying to raise a hymn. Every now and then their voices could be heard, singing all out of tune, a medley of discords.
    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.” (Chapter nine)

    I think Vandover’s reaction to the group prayer is highly telling of Vandover’s internal struggles and provides insight into his behavior. He is simultaneously calmed by how revolting the group prayer is, while using their behavior as a pedestal of superiority. This is a very strange position. Not only does something revolting calm him down – which seems very backwards – but he is also looking down on this activity that brings him comfort. Why would he feel revolted at something that makes him feel good? To me, this is symptomatic of the root of Vandover’s issues – he has lost any sense of his own identity and is thus massively insecure. This insecurity drives his judgement on those who are praying, but I think this insecurity likely also drives, or at least significantly contributes to, Vandover’s other questionable behavior in the novel.

    He wants to pursue art, but his lack of self-control when it comes to partying and engaging in debauchery consumes his ability to be productive in the society and culture in which he exists. This inability to fulfill his goals and potential I’m sure weighs heavily on him, further contributing to the degeneracy he involves himself in, continuing this cycle. Ironically, it seems that part of his motivation in his behavior comes from the desire to improve his social standing when in reality it contributes to his downfall. Unlike Geary for example, Vandover is not able to properly judge his behavior and doesn’t seem to know quite how to act in order to achieve his goals. I would suggest that this inability to lead himself stems from his insecurity. Since Vandover does not know, or at least trust, what to do for himself, he looks to those around him for guidance, and often seems to come to the wrong conclusions from his observations.

    In this particular passage, Vandover’s insecurity-based judgement and conviction of superiority over the praying crowd is what finally allows him to collect himself in the face of the sinking ship, and furthermore inspires him to try to help other passengers. In order for him to try to do the right thing and help people, Vandover needs an affirmation of his superiority over the people he is helping – only then would they deserve or need his help. While reading this, I couldn’t help but feel the insecurity that I believe Vandover struggles with, and I think this insecurity is important to think about in the context of his mental state over the course of the novel.

  2. Rachel Horowitz-Benoit

    “Best of all, however, was the example of a huge old fellow wearing the cap and clothes of a boatswain’s mate of a United States battleship; he seemed to dominate the excited throng in a moment, going about from group to group, quieting them all, spreading a feeling of confidence and courage throughout the whole ship. He was an inspiration to Vandover, who began to be ashamed of having yielded to the first selfish instinct of preservation.”

    This passage is almost a direct response to the passage that Gordon and Henry quoted, and I think it’s interesting how we were all struck by his selfishness as an animal instinct. This paragraph to me identifies shame as one of Vandover’s driving forces. His guilt over the suicide of Ida is superficial; he transmutes the emotional effect into shame by coming clean to his father. He makes himself a scolded child rather than an adult that caused someone’s death. In the boatswain, Vandover sees the imaginary ideal of his personality that does not exist; that is, of the selfless, chivalrous hero, which he could only be if not for his inner brute. He feels admiration for the man and shame in himself, but these feelings do not move beyond the hypothetical. Vandover’s imagined ideal of himself, as it is represented by the boatswain, is further shown to be a fiction when the crew member suddenly jumps to his death from the sinking ship, inspiring others to join him. Vandover’s ideal is a fiction, which removes from him the responsibility of ever actually achieving it.

  3. Jacob Morton

    “Vandover saw a great many others praying there was even a large group gathered around the band of Salvationists trying to raise a hymn. Every now and then their voices could be heard, singing all out of tune, a medley of discords. 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.” (p. 81)

    I was fascinated by the presence of religion in this passage–specifically Vandover’s revulsion towards it. While it is not entirely clear yet how much of said revulsion is prompted by the collective praying versus the young, Jewish boy–a character he is explicitly said to feel “disgust” towards later on in the chapter–his subsequent interaction with the “Salvation Army lassie” affirms that he is somewhat repulsed by both. Vandover does not see the point in praying at a moment of crisis such as this–in his mind, it’s not up to Jesus whether they die on that vessel or not. Not only that, he finds the act itself foolish–something he’d be humiliated to indulge in while in the presence of others. This lack of faith hints at a superiority complex we’re already quite familiar with this deep into the book. Religion offers characters an accessible cultural fixture to comment on; it’s a topic everyone has an opinion on. It creates a distance between believers and non-believers–one that provides an endless supply of compelling arguments and even scathing condescensions from either side. A character who chooses not to believe in the power of prayer speaks for itself; it gives Vandover the platform to scoff at the other passengers and their gullible trust in mythology.

  4. Henry Mooers

    “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.”

    I found the above to be very telling of Vandover’s frame of mind during his trip on the ship for a number of reasons. First of all, despite detailed correspondence between himself and his father outlining the date at which Vandover should leave for Europe, the boy still managed to leave a day later due to a moonlight picnic. In certain aspects, the selfishness demonstrated by Vandover’s failure to return to his family as he said he would is echoed at a more extreme level in the above paragraph. This is obviously a repeated theme.

    In general, one can tell that Vandover’s mindset is highly self centric from the above quote during his time on the ship. Until the storm hits, he mostly keeps to himself, and does not spend much time with others.

    I also found it interesting because the quote seemed to be a bit of a microcosm for Vandover’s character in general. He is an impulsive individual, who is easily influenced by some of his more animalistic desires. We can see this influence in the gradual moral degradation that his character experiences in the story. He is selfish in that his primary desires are for things that will grant him instant personal gratification. These two qualities are reflected in the paragraph in my view.

  5. Gordon Lewis

    “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” (p.63).

    I found this paragraph to be particularly illuminating of Vandover’s condition at the time of the sinking of the Mazatlan. Previously, we saw Vandover convince himself that he had changed, no longer allowing himself to succumb to his base desires. We can see this manifested in his refusal to speak with Grace Irving on the Santa Rosa, as well as the two weeks he spent at Coronado Beach where he recovers mentally from Ida’s death and is steeled in his new conviction (“He said to himself that he was a changed man; that he was older, more serious”).

    However, once the Mazatlan starts to sink, we see Vandover almost immediately revert to his brutish, primal urges. He thinks only of himself, running to get a life-preserver without a second thought as to the proper way a ship should be evacuated. When the crewmen reassure the passengers that everything is fine, he even feels ashamed that he reacted in such a base way, pointing out that the boatswain’s mate was conquering the moment of excitement by taking control of the situation and spreading confidence and courage to the worried passengers. This paragraph highlights the difficulty of Vandover’s struggle throughout the book, and that just because he spent two weeks away from San Francisco, that doesn’t mean he has been absolved of anything or changed in any meaningful or significant way.

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