‘Letters From The Samantha’ by Mark Helprin

Helprin, Mark 1976

Letters From The Samantha by Mark Helprin, 1976

The magic trick:

Directly addressing the reader’s tendency to interpret the story and saying, ‘No, there’s nothing here to interpret’

The captain, our letter writer, in this story is all about control – if not necessarily control over his ship, control over his own narrative, the way everyone should perceive his actions. It’s his obsession. He doesn’t seem to want to recognize this or talk about it but it’s there.

You might say it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

There, I made myself laugh.

Well, anyway, the narrative stranglehold peaks near the end of the final letter when the captain addresses the reader. He tells us that there is no literary device at work here. He repeats himself, as if he is trying to convince himself. No symbolism, he says. Nothing to analyze. Nothing to interpret. Well, of course that only makes us want to consider all of it even more. And that’s quite a trick on Helprin’s part.

The selection:

He is not a symbol. He stands neither for innocence nor for evil. There is no parable and no lesson in his coming and going. I was neither right nor wrong in bringing him aboard (though it was indeed incorrect) or in what I later did. We must get on with the ship’s business. He does not stand for a man or men. He stands for nothing.

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