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Literature as a Means of Escapism in Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat”

MacLeod’s short story “The Boat” presents several crucial themes for analysis, including an exploration of the tension between duties and aspirations. The author depicts the boat named in the story’s title as the embodiment of the narrator’s long-lasting family heritage as well as that of many other families living in the same village (MacLeod 224). However, despite the seemingly inevitable fate that awaits all the fishermen’s children, the narrator and his sisters grow up to be different. One after another, they become acquainted with the books their father keeps in his bedroom, and one by one, they realize that they no longer want the boat to govern their lives. Thus, literature becomes a means of escape for almost all the characters in the story, and the effect that reading produces on them is too powerful to overlook.

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Before mentioning the books and the narrator’s passion for them, the author describes the bearer of the name reflected in the title—the family’s boat, Jenny Lynn, which also happens to be the maiden name of the narrator’s mother. The custom of giving names to vessels is “another link in the chain of tradition” (MacLeod 224). Throughout the story’s events, it becomes evident that the boat serves not only as the means for the family’s existence but also as a powerful contextual symbol.

The narrator’s father spends almost all his time at sea, and some of the boy’s earliest memories of his parent are the smell and taste of salt (MacLeod 224) that come from the man’s daily routine, a consequence of fishing in the boat. Even when describing his mother, the narrator mentions the vehicle: he recollects spending time with her while the father “was away in the boat” (MacLeod 224). However, the remainder of the fisherman father’s time is spent in a way not connected to the “chain of tradition” at all (MacLeod 224): he stays in his room, representative of a sanctuary where he can escape reality.

The narrator’s father has reason to run away from the physical world in which he lives: this is not the world he wants or ever wanted to inhabit. The man’s dissatisfaction can be deduced from a variety of factors. His separate bedroom is probably the most prominent of these. Although the kitchen is the main room in the house, the narrator describes the father’s bedroom in such minute detail as to reveal and accentuate its significance.

The father’s bedroom exemplifies a spirit of rebellion that stands apart from the rest of the house. While everything is “clean and spotless and in order” in other rooms, this one embodies “disorder and disarray” (MacLeod 225). Moreover, evidence of disagreement in the father’s private domain is intimated by the man’s treatment of his clothes. The more comfortable pieces of clothing—“friendly,” as the narrator calls them—are simply thrown over a chair (MacLeod 226).

Meanwhile, the shirts that “strangle” the man along with the shoes that “pinch” him are kept in a closet (MacLeod 226). It looks as if he has accepted his fate of being a fisherman and has decided that at least his clothes should be convenient. It is possible to presume the man’s disappointment with his life because he spends all his free time reading. Books and magazines fill every vacant space in the bedroom: they “spilled from the walls and grew up from the floor” (MacLeod 226). The man is trying to distract himself from his failed life, and he escapes from reality through books.

At the beginning of the story, it is not clear why the narrator’s mother treats her husband’s room with contempt. She “despised disorder” and “had not read a book since high school” (MacLeod 227). The narrator notes that the fisherman’s wife considered the only book she read as a “colossal waste of time” (MacLeod 227) but later explains that the woman is afraid her children will follow their father’s example. As a matter of fact, the woman’s apprehensions come true: by “about the ninth or tenth grade,” all her children have individually “discovered” their father’s bedroom (MacLeod 227). At that point, “the change would begin”: the alteration their mother so greatly feared (MacLeod 227).

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It appears that the mother is the only one who is willingly “chained” to tradition (MacLeod 224). None of the other family members enjoy spending their lives in the same place and doing the same work every day. Thus, the father’s books and discussion of these books help the children to open their eyes and see how many opportunities they can have once they set their minds on them.

The narrator’s father does not seem to have a particular favorite among the authors he peruses. He reads everything he can manage to obtain, and the books and magazines in his room are “very weird and vary,” especially in the beginning (MacLeod 226). However, by reading Dostoyevsky and Faulkner, Haycox and Spillane, as well as other writers’ and poets’ creative works, the man is able to broaden his horizons, at least in terms of imagination.

Probably one reason why he dislikes his life and work is that he recognizes his numerous lost opportunities. Still, although he has failed to change anything in his own life, he makes it his aim to help his children to be able to seize their own chances. Thus, the mother’s hatred toward the girls’ reading is driven by her refusal to accept the possibility of them leaving her. However, the woman fails to prevent the girls’ visits to their father’s bedroom, the “rock of opposition” (MacLeod 227). Immediately, they become “spellbound” by reading and by the world they find through this means of expanding their horizons (MacLeod 227). The girls’ escapism differs from their father’s since they can still see that other world, whereas he can only regret never seeing it.

Finally, the story presents one more character who wants to break away from traditional life. This is the narrator himself, the only boy and youngest child, who enjoys reading as much as his father does. Unlike his sisters, the narrator feels much remorse for his passion because he realizes that he should be helping his father at sea. When the father falls ill, the boy helps his mother and uncle prepare the boat for work. The narrator wants to attend school, but he decides that he will sacrifice his aspirations for the sake of his family.

The teenager is torn between his desires and the feeling of duty. He admits that he wanted the two things he loved so dearly not to “exclude each other in a manner that was so blunt and too clear” (MacLeod 232). It is then that his father asks him to return to school (MacLeod 232). In this episode, escapism has two facets: the narrator wants to return to school himself, and his father wants the boy to study to compensate for the father’s lost opportunity.

Literature can serve as a means of escapism in various ways. Some readers develop their imagination through reading, whereas others acquire knowledge and decide to become scientists. However, for yet another group of readers, books become more than merely a source of entertainment or knowledge. This type of reader represents the bulk of the narrator’s family in “The Boat.” For these people, starting with father and ending with the youngest child, reading is a window through which they see new opportunities and a door through which they can go and experience the world.

While the mother of the family prefers the traditional life, which involves staying in the harbor and never seeing other places, such a lifestyle is stifling to her husband and children. The father is the only one who cannot escape, but at least he does everything possible for his children to feed a passion for reading. As a consequence, they inherit his love for new places, lifestyles, and adventures.

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“The Boat” by Alistair MacLeod is not only a story about hard work at sea. It is a story of true passion and dedication to knowledge which, though oppressed for many generations, finally finds its way to freedom. The fondness of the narrator’s father for books helps him to escape reality, at least periodically. For his children, though, release becomes possible to the fullest extent. Thus, the role of literature in the story is that of promoting escapism and making it possible for all the children in the narrator’s family to break free.

Work Cited

MacLeod, Alistair. “The Boat.” The Harbrace Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by Jon C. Scott and Raymond E. Jones. 5th ed., Nelson College Indigenous, 2011, pp. 223-235.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, July 9). Literature as a Means of Escapism in Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat”.

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