Visual Poetics and Realist Narrative

As a realist novel, The North Water can be read in relation to the classic realist novel of the nineteenth century. It is well known that nineteenthcentury literary realism was closely associated with the visual arts. Peter Brooks (2005, 3), in his book focusing on nineteenth-century literature and the visual arts, shows “how centrally realist literature is attached to the visual, to looking at things, registering their presence in the world through sight”. However, instead of a conventional realist novel with its belief in a transparent window into the world, The North Water is a representative of a new kind of realism in the twenty-first century. As Ian McGuire (2015, xi) himself puts it in his academic study of contemporary American realism, especially in the work of Richard Ford, “contemporary realism, rather than being merely conventional or reactionary, can offer its proponents an aesthetically and philosophically sophisticated way of engaging with and contesting the particularities of contemporary, even postmodern, experience”. More particularly, McGuire promotes the notion of pragmatic realism in which the “traditional realist claims to represent or grasp reality are maintained”, but they are tempered by a “pragmatic, antifoundationalist awareness that any reality that the realist grasps is only ever temporary” (xvii). In any case, the particular realism of The North Water has to do with evoking the senses, smells and sounds of the Victorian era, and McGuire’s employment of present-tense narration is almost able to transport the reader to the grim realities of the depicted environments.6 As one critic notes, the use of the present tense in McGuire’s narrative is “the most obvious way” in which the novel “represents a distinctively contemporary form of realism” (Battersby 2018, 6n). I would add, however, that the use of the present tense in historical fiction - which is supposed to be cast in the past - evokes a traumatic and experiential presence of the things of the past in the reader’s mind.

While The North Water does not directly refer to the Franklin story, its imagery and heritage remains a powerful influence. Especially the sinking of McGuire’s fictional ship, the Volunteer, and the gradual demise of its men in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Ocean, seems to grow from the generic narrative and stock images created by this particular historical tragedy. Therefore, the mystery of the Erebus and the Terror, which has provided both artists and researchers with much ground for fertile imagination, resonates in McGuire’s fiction, even so that one is able to read the novel’s fictional ship as a ghostly projection of these two historical ships. Besides this individual case belonging to Arctic imagery and mythology, there is also a larger historical basis for The North Water, namely the

British exploration and exploiting of the Arctic Ocean in the nineteenth century and the massive slaughtering of whales and seals for oil and fat. The North Water tells a violent story of cold, pain, suffering and death, and because of its affective realism and its powerful evoking of the actual historical past, it is difficult to read the novel only as a pure fiction.

As Eric Berlatsky (2011, 24) suggests in his study on postmodernist historical narrative, what is real is precisely that what cannot be rendered satisfactorily in narrative; rather, the strangeness, the incomprehensibility and the inexplicability of the real does not serve “comfortably to fit into the unity, coherence, and comfort of the narrative”. In my reading, The North Water is a disturbing fictional narrative of painful historical events. Accordingly, when the protagonist Sumner finally realizes the cruel realities of the Arctic Ocean, with his shipmates dying on the ice, he “feels, as he watches, that he is seeing something that he shouldn’t rightly see, that he is made an unwilling party to a horrifying but elemental truth-telling” (McGuire 2016, 197). In passages such as this, McGuire’s narrative simultaneously emphasizes its mimetic realism - human experience in natural surroundings - and its artificiality as a self-reflexive narrative about Arctic narratives.

As suggested earlier, we can also read McGuire’s novel with the help of visual poetics, a method developed in the fields of structuralist nar-ratology and in studies focusing on verbal and visual representation (see, e.g., Bal 1988). In her influential work, Mieke Bal reads Rembrandt’s paintings textually and Proust’s literary works visually, arguing that “the visual and the verbal domains interpenetrate, influence, and inform each other” (Bal 1991, 19) and asking: “How can an image be written? And once written, how can it be read?” (Bal 1997, 1). While literary texts are often only metaphorically visual, they may give reasons to a visual reading by constructing pictorial spaces and perspectives or by containing allusions to the visual arts, such as painting, photography or cinema. As Marianne Hirsch (2010, 211) notes, ekphrastic verbal descriptions of visual forms, objects and artworks typically evoke existing images, including concrete, recognizable texts. However, “prose pictures” (211) have no clear reference point; these are literary images that the reader visualizes in her or his mind as resembling paintings, photographs or other visual media. When speaking of narrated or literary images in this chapter, instead of concrete visual ones, I rely on John Hollander’s (1995, 4) helpful distinction between ‘actual’ ekphrasis, in which existing images such as paintings or photographs are being described, and ‘notional’ ekphrasis, in which the object is a purely fictional image brought into being by the poetic language itself. Therefore, while there are no direct allusions to Turner’s paintings or to specific historical drawings or photographs of ships such as the Erebus and the Terror in McGuire’s narrative, the narrative encourages a visual reading, which consists of the reader’s knowledge of the images of the Arctic in the nineteenth century.

In my view, the violent practices of whaling and sealing in The North Water are a central part of the ways in which McGuire’s fictional narrative visualizes the imperialist mapping of the Far North with the scientific and technological tools available to the Victorian age. For example, in her book Whiteness Visible,Vaerie Babb (1998, 48) writes that “[m]aps foreshadowed visually the ways in which English narrative prose would claim land through words and as such are a fitting prelude to an analysis of accounts of exploration and their relationship to constructions of whiteness”. “Whiteness” is one way of conceptualizing and visualizing the Arctic; in The North Water, the Arctic is seen as white, black and grey, as it was in early photographs and charcoal sketches of the Victorian era.7 Similarly, in White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth-Century British Imagination, Jen Hill (2008,3) notes that the white polar space represents the limits of both the British empire and human experience, and that the Arctic in the nineteenth century was “a blank page on which to draft different national and imperial narratives that either embraced or critiqued Britain’s increased investments in imperial and colonial projects”. The imagined Arctic was more or less present not only in paintings and newspapers, as discussed by Potter (2007) and Cavell (2008), but also in some of the most memorable nineteenth-century novels from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), which, interestingly, at least implies that Africa as a “blank space” is similar to the Arctic.8

Studying visual poetics in relation to the natural environment, Thomas Patin (2012, xiii), referring to W.J.T. Mitchell’s notion of landscape and power, suggests that “landscape, when understood as a historically specific invention of a new visual or pictorial medium, is integrally connected with imperialism”. Or, as Babb (1998, 194n) argues, it is important to note how visual representations reflect and respond to the political, social and economic need of the dominant culture that created them. The North Water suggests how a perception of the natural world becomes mediated through cultural and artistic frames of reference. Accordingly, the narrative, which often employs Sumner’s point of view and the Victorian frames of seeing, typically uses similes to make the alien Arctic nature more familiar and easier to grasp: “In the middle distance, enormous bluewhite icebergs loom like broken and carious monuments. The thinner ice around their bases rumples and tears like paper” (McGuire 2016, 180). Or: “Next day, when he arrives at the mission, it is dark and cold, and the borealis is unwinding across the night sky in peristaltic bands of green and purple, like the loosely coiled innards of a far-fetched mythic beast” (283).

Accordingly, descriptions of Arctic landscapes in The North Water may occasionally be poetic and sublime, for example when an iceberg is seen as “immense, chimneyed, wind-gouged, sliding eastwards like an albinis-tic butte unmoored from the desert floor” (197). This language - which more or less belongs to Sumner’s poetic way of seeing the world - is somehow echoing one of McGuire’s literary subtexts, Herman Melville’s classic American novel Moby-Dick, or the Whale (1851), with its phrases such as “one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal” and “the unsettling polar star, which through the livelong, arctic, six months’ night sustains its piercing, steady, central gaze” (Melville 1851/1988, 54, 536). According to one reading, these few references to the Arctic nature in Melville’s text “suggest the influence of a Romantic aesthetic of the sublime mingled with Arctic fever, inspired in part by Sir John Franklin’s voyages and the rescue attempts that followed” (Kelley 2019, 38). As suggested previously, it was especially the disappearance of the Franklin expedition, which increased the public’s fascination with the Arctic, resulting in an “Arctic fever” by the end of the nineteenth century.

The visual style of The North Water resembles old photographs as well as those watercolors and charcoal sketches that Sumner is doing, while the Arctic landscape is always shown as grey, black and white: “Sumner looks at the distant crenellated line of bergs and land ice, the pale open sky, the dark impatient pitching of the sea” (McGuire 2016, 89); “Black mountains, gargantuan and sumptuous, rise off in the distance. The dangling sky is the colour of milky quartz” (244). The imagery is stark and suggestive, with “whiteness” and “darkness” as primary constituents of the narrative’s visual field. The Victorian sailors and scientists depicted in the novel try to control the environment with their optical devices and exact geographical coordinates, but “the flat Arctic light” (230) is merciless, and Arctic nature is indifferent to human hopes and efforts:

To the west, a long line of coal-dark mountains, ashen-tipped, rise up out of the hammered greyness of the sea. The two whaleboats move gradually onward. After several hours, they reach the craggy tip of Bylot Island, and then enter the mouth of Pond’s Bay. Rain clouds gather and disperse, the light is slowly failing. Cavendish peers eagerly through his telescope, sees first nothing, then, wobbling on the horizon, the black outline of another vessel. ... They all see it, but it is far away and seems to be steaming south already. The smoke from its stack makes a faint, angled smudge against the sky, like a thumbed-out pencil line. ... In another half an hour, the ship has disappeared into the haze, and they are alone again on the dark, brimful sea with only the brown snow-clad hills about them and the scuffed and mournful evening sky above.


In addition to a visual reading of its narrative prose, the novel’s visual descriptions of physical phenomena are likely to prompt its readers to entertain a surface reading, while the readers’ assumptions that there are interpretative depths under the surface may direct them towards a symptomatic reading (Best and Marcus 2009, 9). While the first mode of reading focuses on the visible and direct level of natural settings, physical action, character behavior and dialogue, the second mode of reading searches for invisible and indirect levels of motivation, such as hidden motifs and underlying themes.9

Employing the concept surface reading in the historical context of the Arctic exploration, Benjamin Morgan (2016, 10) suggests that cultural historians and literary scholars tend to ignore those textual aspects which are merely descriptive, because “[t]o become suspectible to interpretation, after all, something must also mean something else”. In his reading of nineteenth-century descriptions of Arctic weather and nature, Morgan writes that “[t]o the literary scholar, a whale is never just a whale, and the space opened up by the slippage between signifier and signified is the domain of interpretation” (19). According to a symptomatic reading informed by poststructuralism, in Melville’s Moby-Dick the whale and its color “are not in and of themselves significant; rather, they are free-floating signifiers to which different interpretations are attached, depending on perspective” (Babb 1998, 97). In my view, an environmentally oriented literary theory, such as ecocriticism, should read for the surface as well as for the depth; in other words, it should try to see that which is “evident” as well as that which is “hidden”. It is important to be able to read Arctic nature and its animal life as things in themselves without any pre-packaged allegorical load and human significance; and yet, in literary texts, specific images may have larger thematic functions. In the next section, I will focus on the complex relationship of nature and language in McGuire’s novel, which, as we have seen, tells a story of men at sea.

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