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The voyage of the narwhal is a novel by Andrea Barrett, who reveals many aspects of the search for fame and glory, versus search for the truth. When the characters leave for the voyage with the same mission, it is the drive of their different motives for the expedition that separates their destiny on the trip. It was the commander that in blindness of fame led the expedition to tragedy and loss. Through out this novel the author reveals through the characters that the search for the truth is more important than the search of fame and wealth.
Barrett begins the novel with the crew loading the ship for the expedition, to search for the famous British explorer Sir John Franklin and his men, lost in the artic. It was said that any man to find him would have been assured of fame and glory. The expedition's youthful commander, Zachariah Voorhees also called Zeke, is determined to search for the men, lost now for nearly a decade. As being the captain of the merchant ship for years, he now is planning for a voyage through the Arctic and to discover places never seen before. The story is told from an omniscient point of view where different people's personal feelings and thoughts are revealed in many ways.
Erasmus Wells, a middle aged man is the Philadelphia naturalist. He joins the expedition partly because he hopes to make up for the miserable failure on an earlier expedition, then secondly because his sister Lavinia is engaged to marry Zeke, so he serves as a protégé, as he promises. He hopes that in this expedition, he could gather enough information from the regions natural history. He plans this time to bring something home from the trip. In Erasmus' earlier expedition of Wilkes he is not credited with any of his efforts, when Wilkes writes a book and doesn't even mention him there. Erasmus also fails after being engaged to his fiancé when shortly before marriage she dies of a heart disease. He grew up studying plants and animals with three older brothers and a younger sister. His mother passed away short time after the birth of Lavinia, And since being the youngest of three he was left to care for her. After so many failures in his life maybe this expedition was another chance for him to succeed.
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Once they leave for the voyage it will be the women who stay at home, and only dream and imagine what an expedition to the arctic would be like. Alexandra, Lavinia's friend is now staying at the Well's house to keep Lavinia company, while Erasmus was gone. As the women can only dream the things that Erasmus and Zeke now experience; although they themselves are longing for some glory or recognition. In this part of the novel the author expresses through the characters that the women didn't have much rights because they were counted lower than men and one could have little chance to earn the glory and fame as much as men did. As she read a book from one of the Franklin voyages to Lavinia she herself felt sort of "locked up" while the adventurous explorers traveled through the seas. Lavinia too, could only imagine herself there, on the ship with Zeke. She would give anything to be there.
The author reveals more and more about Zeke's hungry ambition for fame and glory. Zeke's goal as Erasmus discovers to his cost, is not just to find the Franklin party but be the man who did. He being the commander he was in charge of everything. Now they sailed further through the arctic. There was glaciers every where. Zeke so far guided the ship with captain Tyler. Everyone has been dependent on his knowledge of the maps. Some of the previous whaling men remembered these grounds from when they went with the whaling vessels. But as they drew nearer they were amazed at the scenes of enormous ice bergs and at the nature in here. They were to make their way through some land passages pulling the ship and between the ice burgs squeezing between, and head up to King William Land, where it is believed that Franklin Ships had gotten lost. The men were already getting tired and worked out by the days work in the below freezing temperature. Although Zeke lifted their spirits by telling them, stories about Franklin's men and their adventures, it was the hope of future success that kept them going from day to day. Some times they stopped at some places, to hunt, gather specimen or study the landscapes.
The Ships surgeon Dr. Boerhaave, turned out to be a naturist himself. As Erasmus soon found out he was better educated then him. He said that at one point he had the two jobs on a ship, the surgeon and ship naturist. But he admitted that it was a relief to have one job to focus on better. As they both became friends things on the ship got harder and harder. Soon they found contact with one of the Esquimaux tribes whom they traded needles and knives for a dozen sledge dogs. Erasmus with the help of Dr. Boerhaave, collected some specimen which he preserved securely. They collected plants that he's never seen before. He would jot notes in his journal describing the life and beautiful scenery in here. Everyone was trying to record this piece of their life. Every one would somehow long to be recognized for this hardship that they went through.
As they move through the frozen lands, the sledge dogs slowly died out, even the commander's personal pet which he adopted as a baby. So now they are forced to pull the ship themselves. Finally when they have reached the other side they ship further until they discover an Esquimaux tribe. Joe who is the ship's only interpreter knows their language. They come in contact with them and are treated friendly. Commander Voorhees demands information about any ships that they might have seen. The Esquimaux at first deny seeing any ships. Then after another visit to them, when they offered gifts to them they confessed that their hunters spotted a boat once but the men were dead in it, they clamed that it drowned and nothing is left anymore. They brought out some relics that they took from there. Later the men traded the Esquimaux knives, needles and other things for fresh meat.
The relationship between Zeke and Erasmus slowly splits as you go further through the novel. The Barrett uses different techniques to express how their motives are different from each other. Erasmus is somehow looking for evidence to piece together the natural history of the arctic. Zeke on the other hand is looking for any evidence of the Franklin men. But himself he can't sleep when he hears any news of the Franklin. He is aspired by the fame and glory after he finds Franklin men, that soon that's all he cares about.
In pursuit of personal glory he is more than willing to sacrifice the ship and the crew. Although other characters disagree with commander Voorhees, they soon start to despise him. In here is where the conflict soon begins. The characters soon realize Zeke's selfishness and very little can put up with him anymore. After they recover some of the relics of Franklin boat they now plan to leave before they get caught in the winter. On one of the exploration trips that they were on, one of the crew members gets really sick, and after a while he dies. After this the men even more want to go home.
Therefore nothing would stop Zeke's ambition to search for the open polar sea, which could bring him so much fame and fortune. Now he announces that they were to go further south and hopefully plot some land before they go home. They were to search farther and extend the map, and then before the winter they would leave. Unfortunately the weather got worse and worse as they went further. On day they went out to try to hunt something and another crew member falls through the broken ice and drowns. This shows even more that the more they try to reach something such as fame for selfish purposes the worse it gets the worse it gets. The crew is already tired and only complains about Zeke's fault. But to the expeditions gain they discover new places and they name them. Finally when they head home, they find their way blocked by a dense mass of ice that has floated in since they entered the basin. The crew worried they don't have enough supplies to last the whole winter.
Through the many things that happen during the novel, the moral in some ways is always pointing to the main theme of the book. Possibly if they would not have taken this part of the trip and went home without the fame, but just with the discoveries they made maybe then they wouldn't lose the Franklin artifacts later in the story, and wouldn't get separated with Zeke like they had. On one of the trips the group with Zeke go with the Esquimaux hunters to their village to get help for their crew which majority is sick from lack of vitamins. When they gladly helped and gave fresh meat to the group, their member Joe who is the interpreter abandons them and leaves for Green Land. And on the way back the ice cracks and Dr. Boerhaave slips under. And yet again when Zeke wants to leave to explore the coast while the ship is in ice, no one comes with him this time.
The author uses characterization to express the main idea through the novel. Zeke's ambition characterizes him as an energetic, courageous, but also "meanspirited deviousness."(160) This shows that he is striving for his goal and do anything to complete it, he is going after his long waited dreams. However that he is mean spirited shows that he cares more about himself than anyone else. However Erasmus is somewhat the opposite. He is described by his "dithering indecision" but he is kind hearted. In many cases it is showed that he cares more about other people and focuses on finding the truth rather than striving for fame and glory. It is important how the author characterizes people because in this novel through the character's own feelings or thoughts the story is revealed. Omniscient point of view adds more detail and a wider range of views. The story is told from different sets of eyes.
Now the author creates a certain type of irony. When Zeke doesn't come back by the certain time appointed, they plan the trip to leave. The crew is short on supplies and would never last through another winter. By this time the ice was supposed to melt but never did, so they must make the journey on foot. After hard weeks they make it to the Baffin Bay where they sight a whaling vessel. The men think the voyage was a loss, because they lost the Franklin artifacts, they lost the ship, and now with Zeke gone they lost their wages. Some go with the seal hunters to make up for the wages lost on the expedition. But Erasmus now lost all hope for any recognition, he failed again. His sister can't even look in his face anymore. He just tried to save the crew, but failed to Zeke.