Is it socially acceptable behaviour for people to dedicate their lives to an object? Sure, one might say. People have passions and hobbies; these “objects” are worked hard for and should be enjoyed. Although most would say that this type of behaviour is not how normal people should live and that life’s fruition lies in the hands of social interaction; we can only truly enjoy life in the company of other humans, not objects. Where is the line drawn? Is it possible to cling on to a possession so much that it starts to detrimentally affect the person involved? W.D. Valgardson’s short story The Novice demonstrates that this is certainly a possibility.
The protagonist undergoes a similar situation; he gets caught up in idealism (glamorizing his boat – his prized possession (named Sally Anne) – to nearly abnormal proportions) which skews his perception of “truth”. The reason he acts this way is due to his lonely, one dimensional, and peculiar lifestyle. Readers of Valgardson’s short story should learn that people are prone to romanticizing their material possessions, and that such behavior is caused by isolation and the refusal to live in accordance to societal norms, which is likely to result consequences such as irrational thoughts and the inability to face the truth.
It is very evident that the protagonist makes his boat out to be a lot better in terms of functionality, prowess, and plain importance than it actually is. Valgardson’s first sentence informs readers that the boat “founder[s]” (p. 5), which is ironic due to the fact that the story is about a man’s unconditional love for his boat. It is easy to say that the protagonist goes overboard when it comes to loving his boat. The author employs personification in the passage: “He had always thought its intricacy would protect it” (p. 5), to suggest that the protagonist – the “mate” – believed that his wonder and awe for his beloved vessel would be what kept it running.
The mate’s living situation is another example of his romanticism for his boat. He lived and slept on his boat every day possible, and went he couldn’t due to the winter, “he lived alone in one room in an old house near the harbor” (p. 5) where he would anxiously wait for the season to come. Lastly, the mate is said to repaint his boat almost religiously, regardless of his wear and tear. He and his crew would apply coat after coat on the aging craft until it reached the status of Valgardson’s simile: “majestic as a shrine” (p. 5). In doing this, however, the protagonist is not just covering up the boat; he is also covering up his own insecurities. Regardless of how rusted and ramshackle the boat became, he insisted on dowsing it with artificiality to emulate a sense of newness and to appease his single-minded ideology. This compulsive romanticism is brought upon by his anomalous lifestyle.
The protagonist chooses to love and cherish his boat likely due to the fact that he has nobody around him for which he can do the same for. Not only does the mate isolate himself, he also doesn’t live the life of the average commoner. An illustration of his non-accordance with traditional societal lifestyle is the fact that he signs as deck-hand on the Sally Anne immediately after “Grade ten [was] finished with” (p. 5). Regardless of whether, in the setting, public schooling ends in the 10th year or it is an indication that he dropped out, it still doesn’t follow the idealistic approach of finish school, get a degree, and obtain a steady paying job. He completely jumps the gun, because his personal idealism interferers with social idealism.
Secondly, the protagonist’s mindset is that he had to be “careful not to encumber himself with a wife and children” (p. 6), as if the archetypal series of events for a typical male seemed like a toxic path leading to voodoo badness. He doesn’t only choose to live without a wife or children; he goes one step further and believes that it is cumbersome. Finally, the most telling passage: that “He had never done anything except work on the boats” (p. 5). Of course, these words are hyperbolic in nature, but would be almost effortless to believe given the context, which goes to show how isolated and unorthodox the protagonist is. This type of behavior, however, is certainly not healthy, as his close-minded idealism assuredly has its consequences.
The protagonist experiences severe repercussions due to his all-consuming lifestyle, including the inability to come terms with truth and an irrational mindset as the boat sinks. However, this idea doesn’t immediately stand out, as some would argue that the mate actually comes to terms with his obsessiveness, as demonstrated in the passage “His faith in the boat had been overwhelming that he had to force himself to realize it had been destroyed.” (p. 5). The significance of this line is not the fact that he did realize it had been destroyed, it’s the fact that he had to force himself to. No man who has come to terms with his obsessiveness should have to force themselves to see what’s right in front of them. To further emphasize, he shouldn’t receive any pats on the back for noticing that his foundered ship was indeed wrecked.
Another pro-epiphany argument would suggest that the passage “Other men had other passions to disturb their lives” (p. 6) demonstrates that the protagonist understands that his passion is disturbing his life, but just refuses to give it up. When, quite frankly, considering the orientation of the protagonist’s mindset and the context leading up to the line, it is likely an elitist point of view, advocating the idea of boating to be the ‘thing to do’ whereas anything else is just a disturbance. These two ideas showcase how the mate is unable to face the truth, and when he does for the slightest moment (“…force himself to realize” (pg. 5)), it takes a lot more effort than it should. In fact, at the end of story, the only thing that motivates him to think of ideas on how to rescue himself and his crewmates from the wreckage is his determination not to die, meaning that he doesn’t truly snap out of his isolated mindset.
Even if he actually does, as some readers may argue, it is an artificial desperation measure that would presumably revert back whenever possible. Regardless, the protagonist is filled with false hope, and fills the rest of his crew with false hope, because he spent his life partaking in actions such as admiring the intricacy of his boat rather than practicing safety measures or learning any survival skills. Instead, he has this irrational goal of waiting until “Dawn” (p. 6), as if it’s the guardian angel that will save them. In reality, the coming of dawn will likely accomplish nothing. What good can light do for a man whose knowledge comprises not of survival but solely of boats, but doesn’t even have an actual boat anymore? Needless to say, it would be of no help, and while the mate’s newfound tenacity is certainly admirable, it is at the same time senseless, and serves as an example of his aberrant thoughts that exist as a result of his closed life. With this in mind, it is likely that the protagonist and company’s demise is seemingly inevitable, regardless of the fact that he believes and leads his crew to believe that the dawn will be their savior.
The Novice is a short story that illustrates how people resort to idealizing their personal belongings in the absence of social interaction and regular lifestyles, and how this is likely to result in irrational thoughts such as false hope in times of crisis and moreover, the inability to face the truth. It is shown in many lines through both figurative and literal depictions that the protagonist is extraordinarily passionate about his boat. Because of this, he develops a mindset that shuns having a family, and doesn’t even contemplate pursuing any type of education. This sort of close-mindedness starts to take a toll on him while he tries to survive the shipwreck, as illogical thoughts start to enter his mind and challenge his ability to face the truth; to see what is right in front of him, which will likely result in his demise.
Does that mean that he is in this situation because he only cared about his boat? Not entirely, but there could be some truth to the statement (although readers don’t even know for sure, as Valgardson does not reveal the cause for the wreck in the excerpt). Furthermore, while some readers may propose the idea that the protagonist somehow comes to terms with his ideology and snaps out of his isolated mindset, the narrator’s techniques and subtleties would likely suggest this to be false, as discussed. In the end, one could say that The Novice is just a story about a man who loves his boat and has rotten luck, and literally, they wouldn’t be incorrect. But, it’s about something bigger. Something between the lines. Valgardson vividly demonstrates that idealism is significant in an individual’s life because it is what truly shapes the individual’s view of what “truth” really means.