The Arctic That Was: Visual Poetics, Historical Narrative and Ian McGuire’s The North Water

Markku Lehtimäki

My focal text in this chapter, the British author Ian McGuire’s novel The North Water (2016), is a historical fiction situated in the late 1850s and telling of British whalers in the Arctic Ocean, its main story being set in and around Baffin Bay, the stretch of sea and ice between the east coast of Canada and the west coast of Greenland.1 As it is suggested - albeit in an ironic tone - in the narrative: “The North Water is the place to be” because “at the top of the world there must exist a great ice-free ocean, a place not yet penetrated by man where the right whales swim unhindered in numberless multitudes” (McGuire 2016, 103). McGuire’s grim narrative deals with the gradual diminishing of the whaling industry, as coal oil is replacing whale oil. When things go finally wrong in the planned six-month expedition, the whalers are no match for the Arctic’s vast indifference, its coldness and emptiness. The novel is clearly informed by the nineteenth-century knowledge of the Arctic as well as by whaling represented in literature, documents, maps, paintings and photographs, while it casts a contemporary, twenty-first-century look at the ethics and politics of exploiting the Arctic Ocean.

Because of the continuing influence of the Romantic and Victorian imagery of the Arctic in the British context, I argue that it is important to re-visit these classic accounts, including the historical story of the famous Franklin expedition, in a reading of a contemporary novel such as The North Water. As related to The North Water, it is possible to argue that previous representations of the Arctic (its light, darkness, emptiness and mystery) powerfully influence how the Arctic is seen in subsequent representations. Vision is here understood as a cultural and ideological activity, and it is constructed in media technologies available at a given time. In what follows, I will ask how our contemporary knowledge of the Arctic informs our reading of nineteenth-century visual representations of it and how the twenty-first-century novel sees the past history. In effect, I delineate the ways in which The North Water is influenced by nineteenth-century texts and images and how we can approach its narrative with specific methodological tools provided by visual poetics.

My chapter consists of three main parts. First, I discuss McGuire’s contemporary novel against the historical background of British exploration of the Arctic Ocean; second, I read McGuire’s realist narrative and its literary images with the help of visual poetics; and third, I analyze McGuire’s text as a reflection on the complex relationship between human language and non-human nature. In my reading, The North Water is not a superficial pastiche of nineteenth-century sea narratives, but a dark and pessimistic exploration of what it means to be a human being in the world of complex networks of man and nature, human and non-human.

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