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1. Relating / L’Écosse en relation

“From place to place and sea to sea”: The Art of Relating in R. L. Stevenson’s The Wrecker

Julie GAY


Cet article vise à explorer la polysémie fertile du terme anglais « relating », qui peut évoquer le fait de connecter des éléments hétérogènes entre eux, mais aussi le fait de raconter une histoire. Une analyse des liens qui unissent ces deux sens du terme pourrait ainsi permettre d’apporter un nouvel éclairage sur l’art de la fiction stevensonien, et en particulier sur son aspect éminemment géopoétique. En effet, relater l’histoire d’un roman comme The Wrecker implique non seulement de connecter divers espaces entre eux en suivant la trajectoire chaotique des personnages à travers le globe, mais aussi de tisser des liens entre les différents genres associés à chacun des espaces explorés. D’un point de vue narratologique, il s’agit en outre de dessiner un réseau d’échos entre les histoires des différents narrateurs, et de laisser ainsi des indices au lecteur qui devra les assembler. La circulation archipélagique du personnage autour du globe est ainsi reflétée par l’errance générique et narrative du récit mais aussi par celle du lecteur, dont le rôle dans ce processus de « relation » apparaît crucial puisqu’il lui revient de tisser des liens entre ces éléments hétérogènes afin de cartographier au mieux les contours du récit.

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1The rich polysemy of the term “relating”, which may refer to the idea of connecting or linking heterogeneous elements together but also to the act of recounting a story, offers a particularly interesting point of entry into Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrecker (1892), written in collaboration with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne as they were sailing around the Pacific islands. Indeed, not only did this novel bring together two distinctive literary voices, but it was also Stevenson’s first attempt to relate some of his experiences in the Pacific and weave them into fiction by connecting them both with his Scottish past and with his French and American travels, which resulted in the creation of an extremely heterogeneous literary piece. In analysing the complex relationship between the concurrent meanings of the term “relating” in The Wrecker, this article thus aims to explore this novel’s innovative (geo)poetics and to shed new light on what we might define as Stevenson’s “art of relating”.

2In effect, relating such a “globe-trotting story” (TW 406) not only entails connecting various geographical spaces as the narration follows the characters’ chaotic trajectory across the globe, but also weaving together the various genres associated with these spaces. At a narratological level, it moreover involves building a network of relations between the two narrators’ tales, and thus leaving clues for the reader to put together in the manner of a puzzle or a game of “dominoes” (TW 406). The characters’ archipelagic circulation around the globe is therefore echoed by the narrator’s generic and narrative wanderings, as well as by the readers’ crucial role in the “relation” of the tale, which requires them to connect all of these heterogeneous elements together, and arrange them into a coherent whole.

3In the novel’s Epilogue, Stevenson himself commented on the chaotic spatial structure of The Wrecker, which according to him is “full of the unrest and movement of our century, so that the reader is hurried from place to place and sea to sea, and the book is less a romance than a panorama” (TW 404). The novel is in fact organised spatially around several geographical scenes corresponding to the various chapters (or “acts”) in the main character’s life, as is evidenced by the reflexive use of the theatrical metaphor throughout the novel: “Little did I suppose that I was leaving Act I, Scene I, of the drama of my life” (TW 125). The novelist’s role thus seems to lie in relating each spatial scene with the corresponding event or story, as Stevenson noted in his essay “A Gossip on Romance”:

One thing in life calls for another; there is a fitness in events and places. […] And many of the happiest hours of life fleet by us in this vain attendance on the genius of the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and perhaps ages back, to members of my race; and when I was a child I tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try, just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story. Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck. (233-34)

4The narration therefore becomes a panoramic landscape made up of several spaces upon which the character will appear and play his part, hence connecting the various scenes together:

[The novelist] can show his readers, behind and around the personages that for the moment occupy the foreground of his story, the continual suggestion of the landscape; the turn of the weather that will turn with it men’s lives and fortunes, dimly foreshadowed on the horizon; the fatality of distant events, the stream of national tendency, the salient framework of causation. And all this thrown upon the flat board—all this entering, naturally and smoothly, into the texture of continuous intelligent narration. (“Victor Hugo” 21)

5At first, this “panoramic” form of narration follows a rather linear spatio-temporal structure in The Wrecker as the narrator Loudon Dodd, who is introduced in the Prologue as a trader in the Marquesas, starts relating his story to the friend who hosts him there. He goes all the way back to his birth in America and quickly moves on to his transatlantic voyage to France, with a short stop in Scotland which allows him to introduce his Scottish origins. The first part of the novel is hence dedicated to the partly autobiographical narration of the character’s attempt at an artistic career in France, which comes to an abrupt end when his father goes bankrupt and passes away. This allows Stevenson to weave his own life into this “queer yarn” (TW 14) and connect the scene of his present life (in the Pacific Islands) with those of his past (in Scotland and in France), as he himself suggests in the epilogue addressed to his friend Will Low, whom he assumes is bound to recognise these “memories of a common past” and “be a little pleased to breathe once more for a moment the airs of [their] youth” (TW 406).

6Loudon Dodd’s subsequent return to America and move to San Francisco introduces another shift in his life and in the narration, as he enters the world of business through the intermediary of his friend Jim Pinkerton. This new scene is itself divided into two chapters, as Stevenson again reflexively highlights:

It is very much the custom to view life as if it were exactly ruled in two, like sleep and waking; the provinces of play and business standing separate. The business side of San Francisco has been now disposed of; I approach the chapter of diversion and it will be found they had about an equal share in building up the story of the Wrecker—a gentleman whose appearance may be presently expected. (TW 114)

7In this highly metatextual passage, the narrator comments on the very essence of Stevenson’s art of “relating” in both senses of the word, as it seems to lie in weaving several spaces but also several aspects of life together in the manner of a patchwork, whilst self-consciously highlighting the very seams that connect them. This passage is all the more pivotal as Stevenson appears to be disposing of linear chronology altogether and moving towards an essentially spatial narrative form, as is suggested by the use of the spatial metaphor “province”, which is associated with the literary terms “chapter” and “story”. Indeed, instead of introducing the next episode of Dodd’s life it merely adds another temporal layer to the same time span by going back on the way he occupied his free time in San Francisco, which is associated with another, more marginal “province” of the city: “From what I had once called myself, The Amateur Parisian, I grew (or declined) into a water-side prowler, a lingerer on wharves, a frequenter of shy neighbourhoods” (TW 115).

8This spatial transition moreover leads to a generic shift, “the provinces of play and business” actually referring to the various genres Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne attempted to combine in this novel, as the former suggests in the Epilogue:

We had long been at once attracted and repelled by that very modern form of the police novel or mystery story […]; attracted by its peculiar interest when done, and the peculiar difficulties that attend its execution; repelled by that appearance of insincerity and shallowness of tone, which seems its inevitable drawback. For the mind of the reader, always bent to pick up clues, receives no impression of reality or life, rather of an airless, elaborate mechanism and the book remains enthralling, but insignificant, like a game of chess, not a work of human art. It seems that if the tale were gradually approached, some of the characters introduced (as it were) beforehand, and the book started in the tone of a novel of manners and experience briefly treated, this defect might be lessened and our mystery seem to inhere in life. (TW 405)

  • 1 Stevenson would later highlight the hybrid nature of his realistic “yarn” in a letter to Charles Ba (...)
  • 2 See the passage quoted above (TW 114).

9The “province of business” would therefore correspond to the realistic first part of the novel, which aims to give more depth to the detective story genre associated with the “province of play” and characterised by its lack of realism (“no impression of reality or life”) and a certain “shallowness of tone”. The fictional ideal towards which the authors strive thus seems to lie in combining realism1 with romance, and more particularly with the detective story, to create a new form that Stevenson associates with the epic mode: “so that […] the book is less a romance than a panorama;—in the end, as blood-bespattered as an epic?” (TW 404). Significantly, Stevenson resorts to the same spatial metaphor (“approach”/”approached”) when metatextually commenting on the transition between chapters within the novel2 and between genres in the Epilogue, which again highlights the spatiality the novel’s formal and generic structure.

10Moreover, he uses another particularly meaningful metaphor to depict the way he relates these heterogeneous elements into a coherent whole, associating the art of relating with that of weaving:

The tone of the age, its movement, the mingling of races and classes in the dollar hunt, the fiery and not quite romantic struggle for existence with its changing trades and scenery, and two types in particular, that of the American handy-man of business and that of the Yankee merchant sailor—we agreed to dwell upon at some length, and make the woof to our not very precious warp. (TW 405, emphasis mine)

11The very structure of this sentence, with its long paratactic enumeration and accumulation of noun groups, mirrors the chaotic and haphazard “mingling” of disparate elements that this “queer yarn” (TW 14) operates. This complex narrative process is again associated with a form of spatial movement (“changing trades and scenery”) that does not appear to follow any linear or causal structure, as Dodd struggles to bring the various parts of the puzzle together in order to solve the mystery at hand. This is precisely what Roderick Watson notes in his insightful analysis of the novel’s philosophical implications:

The very plot of the novel itself operates by way of a similarly fluid conglomeration of coincidences, changing ambitions and confusions of identity, just as its physical settings flit from Paris to Muskegon, from San Francisco to Sydney, from Edinburgh to the Marquesas. (125-26)

  • 3 The novel has in fact often been considered by critics and even by Stevenson himself as mainly his (...)

12The “warp” of romance thus becomes intricately intertwined with the “woof” of realism, creating a hybrid form which Dodd metatextually describes as “the romance of business” (TW 178) when evoking his next (ad)venture, that will lead him to visit a new province at the crossroads of play and business, the aptly named Midway Island. He and his friend Jim decide to purchase a mysterious wreck in the Pacific, which Jim is convinced contains a “treasure”: “Well, here I’ve tumbled over a whole pile of [dollars] on a reef in the middle of the Pacific” (TW 127); “It took my fancy; it was so romantic, and then I saw there was boodle in the thing” (TW 131). The imaginative appeal of the wreck is combined with the lure of profit to create a hybrid form of business romance, leading to the displacement of some of the most typical romance motifs. Philip Stevenson notably analyses The Wrecker as a deconstruction of Treasure Island, in which Stevenson3 endeavours to “wreck” the romance tropes associated with his own seminal adventure novel (60), yet I would argue that they are not destroyed but hybridized and displaced, and hence paradoxically given new life.

13The archetypal treasure island of Stevenson’s early literary days has indeed turned into a dollar wreck, while the treasure quest has become a “dollar-hunt”:

[Of] all forms of the dollar-hunt, this wrecking had by far the most address to my imagination. […] I was haunted by a vision of the wreck, baking so far away in the strong sun, under a cloud of sea-birds; and even then, and for no better reason, my heart inclined towards the adventure. (TW 131)

  • 4 See for instance Edwin Eigner (99-106) or Roderick Watson (116).

14If Jim is consistently described as an incurable romantic (“reality was his romance” (TW 92)), Dodd had so far appeared as a down-to-earth, realistic character, which makes this shift in perspective all the more significant. The two men’s friendship is in fact based on a “fundamental difference of taste and training accepted and condoned” (TW 50), which has to do with their view of life but also of literature, as is evidenced by the rather metatextual literary debate they have upon reading the article reporting the story of the wreck: “‘Just listen to this,’ interrupted Jim. ‘It’s miserable copy; these Occidental reporter fellows have no fire; but the facts are right enough, I guess’” (TW 127). To which matter-of-fact Dodd replies, after listening to his friend read the article: “You will never know anything of literature […]. That is a good, honest, plain piece of work, and tells the story clearly” (TW 129). The opposition between “fire” and “plain” truth to the facts thus seems to reflexively echo the authors’ literary dilemma, while the two men’s eventual collaboration mirrors the novel’s attempt to reconcile two apparently opposite literary tendencies: “I knew that my friend had succeeded in my education; that the romance of business, if our fantastic purchase merited the name, had at last stirred my dilettante nature” (TW 178). The two friends, who have been analysed by various critics as doubles4, might therefore be understood as objective correlatives to the genres they stand for, and the way they “relate” to each other as a metatextual comment on the novel’s hybrid (geo)poetics, so that realism and romance appear fundamentally linked and even somehow interchangeable:

This was our second parting, and our capacities were now reversed. It was mine to play the Argonaut, to speed affairs, to plan and to accomplish—if need were, at the price of life; it was his to sit at home, to study the calendar, and to wait. (TW 178)

  • 5 Note again the use of the theatrical lexicon with the term “play”, which portrays Dodd as an actor (...)

15Dodd’s voyage to the Pacific thus dramatizes5 another generic shift, this time towards the genre (and province) of maritime “adventure” (TW 131) or quest, as the mythical reference to the “Argonaut” and the element of danger highlight: this new type of epic adventure mixed with business (“affairs”) may embody the perfect combination of imaginary appeal and pragmatic realism, the modernity of which partly lies in the way it reflexively displaces typical romance motifs.

16The very object of the quest is constantly shifting, as the characters try to uncover the mystery of the wreck:

I knew that scarce a ship came in from any Chinese port, but she carried somewhere, behind a bulkhead, or in some cunning hollow of the beams, a nest of the valuable poison.
Doubtless there was some such treasure on the Flying Scud. How much was it worth? We know not, we were gambling in the dark […]. (TW 137)

17Here the treasure has become a “poison” and is associated with the illegal activity of “gambling”, turning the pair into a modern form of business pirates ready to engage in criminal activity: “Smuggling is one of the meanest of crimes”; “to smuggle opium is an offence particularly dark, since it stands related not so much to murder, as to massacre” (TW 164). Jim and Dodd’s romantic treasure quest hence swiftly takes on a much darker undertone as they prepare to wage a new kind of economic battle, that of outbidding their adversaries at the auction: “Long before this, word had gone abroad that there was battle royal: we were surrounded by a crowd that looked on wondering” (TW 137). Although the bathetic use of the term “battle royal” ironically highlights the contrast between this metaphorical fight and real, hand-to-hand combat, it still captivates the crowd’s attention as their wonder “deepen[s] to excitement” (TW 127) upon watching the adversaries struggle for their booty, making it the perfect illustration of the “romance of business” genre.

18When Dodd and his crew finally reach the island and board the Flying Scud, a similar form of playful excitement seizes the troops:

I think we all drew pleasurable breath; so profound in man is the instinct of destruction, so engaging is the interest of the chase. For we were about to taste, in a supreme degree, the double joys of demolishing a toy and playing “Hide the Handkerchief”: sports from which we had all perhaps desisted since the days of infancy. And the toy we were to burst in pieces was a deep-sea ship; and the hidden good for which we were to hunt was a prodigious fortune. (TW 206)

19Yet the apparently innocent nature of the treasure quest, which is likened to child’s play, is immediately counteracted by the semantic field of demolition, highlighting its regressive, morbid and destructive aspect. The dream thus quickly turns into a “nightmare” (TW 207) and the hunt into “a violent and […] a mortifying exercise” (TW 222) in which the wreck is metaphorically depicted as a rotting corpse being thoroughly dissected:

It was therefore necessary to demolish, as we proceeded, a great part of the ship’s inner skin and fittings, and to auscultate what remained, like a doctor sounding for a lung disease. Every night saw a deeper inroad into the bones of the Flying Scud—more beams tapped and hewn in splinters, more planking peeled away and tossed aside—and every night saw us as far as ever from the end and object of our arduous devastation. (TW 222)

20The violence associated with this methodical and meticulous desecration of the wreck’s body, which is mirrored by the alliterative plosive, sibilant and dental consonants, appears all the more absurd and vain as it leads nowhere. The “perpetual disappointment” of this “hopeless, unremunerative quest” (TW 222) eventually causes the crew to become increasingly restless, to the point that to prevent a mutiny, Dodd and the ship’s captain Nares decide to offer a reward to the man who will find the booty:

And we called the boat away and set forth on our new quest. […] We made a singular picture: the hovering and diving birds; the bodies of the dead discolouring the rice with blood; the scuppers vomiting breadstuff; the men, frenzied by the gold hunt, slaying, and shouting aloud: over all, the lofty intricacy of rigging and the radiant heaven of the Pacific. Every man there toiled in the immediate hope of fifty dollars; and I, of fifty thousand. Small wonder if we waded callously in blood and food. (TW 225)

  • 6 Abjection is precisely defined by Julia Kristeva as a phenomenon of rejection, both mental and phys (...)

21This visually striking picture puts the finishing touches to the novel’s dark rewriting of the treasure hunt, the “new quest” being as devoid of romance as its reward is paltry: the “prodigious fortune” of the original hunt is deflated into the “jack-pot” (TW 224) of a gambling game amounting but to fifty dollars, while this new “treasure” is literally stained with blood. The paratactic structure of the sentence mirrors the chaos of the hunt, and its morbid nature is now brought into full light by the pervasive use of the military lexicon: “attacked”; “slashed”; “assaults”; “offensive”; “struggled”; “slaying” (TW 225). The birds moreover evoke vultures hovering above the wreck’s carcass, which is quite literally rejecting this abject violence in the manner of a spewing corpse6 (“vomiting breadstuff”). Yet instead of fighting true enemies, the adventurers are now “slaying” birds and “disembowel[ling]” (TW 225) piles of inert rice mats, in a new form of dangerless struggle which completely hollows out the adventurous naval battle and romantic “slaying of the beast” tropes. Moreover, the darkly anti-heroic behaviour of these greedy and almost mad (“frenzied”) men, whose corruption is symbolised by the bloodied rice, stands in stark contrast with the immaculate beauty of the ship’s “lofty […] rigging” and the “radiant heaven of the Pacific”, which can be read as the archetypes of adventure and are significantly placed “over all”. The striking visual dichotomy delineated in this “singular picture” thus seems to metatextually (or intermedially) highlight the gap between this grotesque hunt and the romantic trope of the treasure quest, which has been interchanged or at least merged with its dark, realistic double.

22The absurdity of this quixotic fight against windmills, or rather, winged animals, becomes all the more salient when we realise that there is, actually, no treasure, and that the only opium they find will not even cover the cost of the enterprise:

[T]he value of the opium on board the Flying Scud fell considerably short of ten thousand dollars […]. And fifty thousand was the price that Jim and I had paid for it. And Bellairs had been eager to go higher! There is no language to express the stupor with which I contemplated this result. (TW 227)

23Dodd’s struggle to fathom this anticlimactic twist mirrors the reader’s inevitable disappointment and highlights the way this hybrid genre consistently baffles both the characters’ and the readers’ expectations, to the extent that it becomes practically unrelatable (“no language to express”). The combat against an inert and unthreatening adversary thus results in an unexpected and incomprehensible defeat (“we’re beaten” (TW 229)), and the absurdity of such a bathetic, near tragicomic outcome is underlined by the narrator when he remarks: “We were not merely bankrupt, we were comic bankrupts: a fair butt for jeering in the streets” (TW 227). Yet this quest yields another, more subtle reward, that of the relationship between the two men as they struggle side by side to keep up the fight: “as a matter of fact, in this silent comradeship of labour, our intimacy grew” (TW 222). Just when it seemed to have completely disposed of typical romance, the narrative reconnects with the motif of the band of brothers and the camaraderie of the initiatory quest, in which Nares appears as a father figure whose approval and pride might constitute a rather precious substitute treasure for the fatherless Dodd: “The captain’s tones affected me profoundly; and when Johnson and the men pressed round in turn with congratulations, the tears came in my eyes” (TW 226).

24This defeat moreover leads to a final shift of the quest’s object, as Dodd decides not to follow Nares’ advice and “let the blame’ thing lie” (TW 230) but instead resolves to unravel the mystery and even turn the quest into a man hunt:

“What are we to do about the Flying Scud and the dime novel?”
“I really have thought nothing about that,” I replied. “But I expect I mean to get at the bottom of it; and if the bogus Captain Trent is to be found on the earth’s surface, I guess I mean to find him.” (TW 231)

25The ultimate aim of the quest thus consists in uncovering a “secret” (TW 12), as announced in the novel’s prologue when Dodd proleptically summed up all his “business” (ad)ventures. To Dodd, then, the treasure eventually comes to lie entirely in the “dime novel”, that is, in the relation or story—the pair have indeed been metatextually referring to the ship’s story as a “dime novel”, emphasising its melodramatic and sensational dimension: “Nothing wrong with the dime novel, only that things happen thicker than they do in life” (TW 230). They then decide to burn the wreck’s remains, to prevent anyone from getting to its “treasure” before them:

I’m afraid of some one else—it’s the last thing you’d expect, so it’s just the first that’ll happen—[….] waltzing into that wreck that we’ve grown old with searching, stooping straight down, and picking right up the very thing that tells the story. (TW 231)

26In this passage, Nares again highlights the sensationally baffling nature of this tale, each unexpected turn leading to another displacement of the treasure, from the island to the boat, from money to human relations, and finally from the intradiegetic to the metadiegetic level:

Si “le trésor devient une manière de vide ou de néant” (Caillois 43), c’est qu’il est ailleurs : ni dans la cargaison, ni sur une île quelconque, mais dans la fausse histoire racontée par le capitaine Trent, dans la supercherie montée par d’autres trafiquants d’épaves. Le trésor n’est pas dans l’île, il est tout entier dans le récit. (Naugrette 136)

27The narrative’s ability to renew itself by redirecting the quest towards more complex or immaterial objects underscores the incredible plasticity of the treasure hunt motif and of romance in general, the codes of which are consistently subverted as they are given a more realistic and even tragic turn. In his seminal essay, Jankélévitch defines adventure as lying halfway between “play” and “seriousness”, so that relating this new kind of adventure might not necessarily imply breaking away from romance but moving away from the playful tone of typical “boyish” adventure towards its more serious counterpart:

[L]e sérieux prévaut ici sur le jeu et l’immanence sur la transcendance ; en sorte [que l’aventure] vire facilement en tragédie : le glissement se produit quand disparaît le grain de sel de l’élément ludique qui assaisonne et futilise toute aventure ; alors l’aventure tend à se confondre avec la vie elle-même ; alors les vicissitudes et péripéties dramatiques de l’aventure ont envahi toute l’existence. (Jankélévitch 16)

28This echoes Stevenson’s analysis of his own literary process in the Epilogue, in which he explains that the aim of combining these two apparently contradictory generic tendencies was for the tale to “inhere in life” (TW 405). One might therefore understand Stevenson’s “art of relating” as the art of playfully displacing romance tropes by self-consciously drawing the adventure narrative towards its more “tragic” or “dramatic” pole, an interpretation which seems to be confirmed by his use of the theatrical metaphor throughout the novel.

29The final act in the drama of Dodd’s life eventually leads him to fully embrace the genre of the detective story and his role in putting the pieces of the story back together, a part which he had already started to intermittently play on the wreck when gathering the clues left by their predecessors and trying to make sense of them:

Dinner came to us not long after, and we ate it on deck, in a grim silence, each privately racking his brain for some solution of the mysteries. I was indeed so swallowed up in these considerations, that the wreck, the lagoon, the islets, and the strident sea-fowl, the strong sun then beating on my head, and even the gloomy countenance of the captain at my elbow, all vanished from the fields of consciousness. My mind was a blackboard, on which I scrawled and blotted out hypotheses; comparing each with the pictorial records in my memory: cyphering with pictures. (TW 209)

30The spatial metaphor turns his mind into something like a detective’s office, furnished with a “blackboard” and containing various files or “records” where Dodd engages in a new form of exploration, which has moved from the physical island to the mental realm. This image may be reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’s “brain-attic” simile in “A Study in Scarlet” (Doyle 19), in which he describes the human brain as an attic, stocked with the furniture, tools and knowledge of his choosing. And indeed, when Dodd moves on to a more literal search he resorts to the same detective story lexicon as he tries to make “deduction[s]” (TW 210) based on the “evidence” (TW 211) found. Yet the mystery seems to resist interpretation, and the story to resist telling, being so distant from any known narrative that it appears almost impossible to grasp, as Nares remarks: “Trent and his whole racket has got to do with nothing—that’s the bed-rock fact; there’s no sense to it, and no use in it, and no story to it: it’s a beastly dream” (TW 213). This might again be understood as a metatextual comment on the utter novelty of the narrative, which departs from traditional tropes and constantly baffles the characters’ and readers’ expectations.

31Despite this “puzzl[ing]” (TW 213) conclusion, the pair refuse to give up and keep searching until Dodd makes his “crowning discovery” and finds the last picture to complete his “records”, now explicitly acknowledging the detective story intertext: “he might be the clue and spring of all this mystery; I scanned his features with the eye of a detective” (TW 218). Yet there remains a missing piece to this puzzle, which again questions the characters’ ability to tell the ship’s story:

“I would explain everything,” Nares replied, “but for the steam-crusher. It’ll all tally as neat as a patent puzzle, if you leave out the way these people bid the wreck up. And there we come to a stone wall. But whatever it is, Mr. Dodd, it’s on the crook.”
“And looks like piracy,” I added.
“Looks like blind hookey!” cried the captain. “No, don’t you deceive yourself; neither your head nor mine is big enough to put a name on this business.” (TW 219)

32The proliferation of inadequate signifiers highlights the inexpressible nature of this “puzzle”, while the two characters may be interpreted as the perfect embodiments of the reader or the literary critic/hermeneut, struggling to “put a name on” this hybrid, baffling piece of literature, midway between “piracy” and “business”.

33Dodd’s quest for this secret then leads him to retrace his predecessor’s steps across the globe, a trajectory which happens to be the mirror image of his own trajectory in reverse: “Singular, indeed, that while I was drifting over England with the Shyster, the man we were in quest of awaited me at my own ultimate destination” (TW 309). This reversed odyssey allows Dodd to connect the dots and partially piece together Trent/Carthew’s story, gathering clues in Hawaii, San Francisco, Britain and eventually coming full circle at the very place where he started his own journey, the French town of Barbizon. The multiple similarities between Dodd and the man he is hunting are thus progressively brought to light, as the narrative weaves a network of echoes between their stories: they both come from privileged backgrounds and had complex relationship with their fathers due to their dilettante nature and their predilection for art, which has led them to stray from the path intended for them by these authoritative figures. Moreover, they are both induced to participate, almost in spite of themselves, in a business adventure initiated by a particularly persuasive friend: “[Hadden] was a kind of Pinkerton in play” (TW 331). Several critics have therefore analysed the two as Doppelgängers (Watson 116; Eigner 109), a hypothesis which Dodd himself reflexively contemplates:

“The fact is I think I know the man,” said I. “I think I’m looking for him. I rather think he is my long-lost brother.”
“Not twins, anyway,” returned Stennis. (TW 282)

34If they are not twins, they are nevertheless engaged in a fight reminiscent of one (or two) of the most archetypal figures of the double—and, coincidentally, one of Stevenson’s most enigmatically hybrid creations—, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: “It seems we were born to drive each other crazy with conundrums […]. I have often thought my head would split” (TW 316). The use of the term “split” is particularly revealing here and hints at the dual nature of this violently divided self: a similar split seems to affect the very core of the narration, which is constantly torn between Dodd’s story and its narrative double, Carthew’s. The characters and their tales are hence constructed as two sides of the same coin, and the key to the narrative may lie in the complex relationship between these complementary elements: “What ties the two stories of The Wrecker most securely together is that Loudon Dodd recognizes himself in Norris Carthew” (Eigner 109).

35Therefore, when Carthew starts relating his own story in a chapter tellingly entitled “Face to Face”, it is only fitting that he should resort to the spatial image of division and symmetry to dramatize this shift, making the pair appear as a two-faced Janus-like narrator: “And now, said he, turn about: I must tell you my side, much as I hate it” (TW 317). The concurrent voices of this narrative duet become even more intertwined when Dodd starts reporting Carthew’s story in the third person, making it almost impossible to distinguish who is speaking. The resolution of the tale’s “conundrum” then lies in the intricate relationship between these two men, who end up being so close that Dodd eventually abandons his blackmailing scheme and starts working for Carthew as his supercargo, having finally found the real treasure(s), the sister story and the “long-lost brother”. However, this resolution is not narrated through the typical return to the heterodiegetic frame narrative, and the reader has to go all the way back to the Prologue to look for a first hint: Dodd had in fact announced from the start that he would end up being this man’s “bosom friend” (TW 12), the bodily image again highlighting their extreme proximity. This proleptic comment is eventually confirmed at the other end of the tale in its Epilogue, a final threshold which Stevenson unexpectedly crosses, claiming to have met his main character Dodd and asked him about the story’s outcome. Such an eminently metatextual encounter allows him to relate the end of the tale by establishing a “relationship” and even a dialogue with his characters and his readers, but also to blur the boundary between reality and fiction in a very modern way by hinting at the existence of a “real” Dodd. The fictitious nature of this dialogue is however brought into full light when he then addresses his reader and explains “the genesis and growth of The Wrecker”, the “several stories” (TW 404) they drew on and the characters and method they “invented” to narrate it (TW 405): “Thus it was that Loudon Dodd became a student of the plastic arts, and that our globe-trotting story came to visit Paris and look in at Barbizon” (TW 406).

36The modernity of Stevenson’s “art of relating” therefore lies both in its highly reflexive nature, and in the key role it offers to the reader in putting it together. The latter becomes increasingly involved in the narrative process as he must relate and weave together Dodd’s story with Carthew’s in order to get a full view of this “violent, dark yarn with interesting, plain turns of human nature” (Letters 3: 386), as Stevenson described it in a letter to Colvin. This active role of piecing together and reordering the patchwork or puzzle is the one Stevenson explicitly intended for his reader, as he suggests in the Epilogue in which he addresses his old friend Will Low, who embodies his “ideal” reader and the most able to relate (to) the tale:

For sure, if any person can here appreciate and read between the lines, it must be you—and one other, our friend. All the dominoes will be transparent to your better knowledge; the statuary contract will be to you a piece of ancient history; and you will not have now heard for the first time of the dangers of Rousillon. Dead leaves from the Bas Breau, echoes from Lavenue’s and the Rue Racine, memories of a common past, let these be your bookmarkers as you read. (TW 406)

37The domino metaphor not only implies bringing heterogeneous elements together (past and present, memories and fiction, history and story) but also combining them in a rather linear or at least orderly way, which implies that the reader has to fill in the gaps between these fragments in order to connect them (“read between the lines”), each “piece” being associated with a specific place (“Roussillon”; “Bas Breau”; “Lavenue’s”…). The reader thus acts as a cartographer in play, whose role is to connect the dots or at least draw a (random, tentative) network of connections between these spatial fragments, to obtain a full picture of this narrative “panorama”. Yet Stevenson himself suggests that there might be some missing pieces to the puzzle or map when he addresses his reader in the Epilogue and comments on this artificial, literally eccentric conclusion to the tale: “I hope I was well inspired, and have put all the questions to which you would be curious to hear an answer” (TW 404). The use of the verb “hope” highlights the tentative nature of this conclusion, while the polysemy of the term “inspired” hints at its essentially fictional and artistic dimension.

38Stevenson’s key role in this creative mapping process is thus reasserted by his eventual “deus ex machina” appearance in the Epilogue, which serves as a reminder that he is the one disseminating the clues and leaving the dominoes for the reader to pick up. The interview with Dodd tellingly takes place in a “toy-like church” (TW 401), in which the author seems to be the one pulling the strings or directing the scene: “And here it was I put my questions, and Dodd answered me. I first carried [Dodd] back to the night in Barbizon when Carthew told his story” (TW 402). If Stevenson is the interrogator and the puppet-master in this “dialogue”, he later describes himself (and Lloyd Osbourne) as the narrative’s architects or stage designers, as he comments on their role in “put[ting] together” “the scaffolding of the tale” (TW 404) and bringing various genres together. His own acolyte moreover acknowledges Stevenson’s superior role in the relation of the tale, describing his own role as preparatory, and his stepfather’s as sublimatory:

It was exhilarating to work with Stevenson; he was so appreciative, so humorous—brought such gaiety, camaraderie, and goodwill to our joint task. […] Well do I remember him saying: “It’s glorious to have the ground ploughed, and to sit back in luxury for the real fun of writing—which is rewriting.” (TW ix)

  • 7 To take up Mikhaïl Bakhtin’s term in The Dialogic Imagination, in which he defines the rather moder (...)

39Stevenson’s part in this creative duet was thus to weave together their two voices through the delicate process of “rewriting”, which resulted in a complex polyphonic7 piece: this dialogic mode is mirrored within the narrative when Dodd retells Carthew’s story in the third person, a story which is itself an embedded retelling of the one Dodd had been striving to partially put together throughout the tale. Yet the term “rewriting” might also apply to the way the authors established a self-consciously intertextual dialogue with various genres and literary traditions which they endeavoured to intricately intertwine in this hybrid literary patchwork, notably by bringing together contrasting figures and reconciling their opposite artistic tendencies through the rich symbolism of the double.

  • 8 Ziethen notably defines geopoetics in the following terms : “Les géopoètes se distinguent par un no (...)

40This original literary relationship hence yielded a complex narrative object, which consistently questions what it means to relate a story: overall, it seems to me that Stevenson’s “art of relating” is depicted as an essentially spatial process, and its poetics, as geopoetics8. If the tale is depicted as a “poor ship” with the Epilogue as its “stern” (TW 404), its epic trajectory appears as haphazard and multidirectional as its diegetic equivalents. Relating this “globe-trotting story” (TW 406) could then be understood as launching into a meandering journey across unexplored literary territories, connecting various spaces but also various generic provinces and various narrative voices in search of the ultimate treasure, that of the ideal “epic” narrative which may be found beyond the boundaries of traditional literary dichotomies: “Écrire n’a rien à voir avec signifier, mais avec arpenter, cartographier, même des contrées à venir” (Deleuze and Guattari 11). The reader thus becomes an explorer and a geographer, who follows in the authors’ footsteps and participates in the relation or quest by reconstructing the itinerary and mapping out the story into a coherent yet polymorphous picture, filling in the blanks when necessary. In the end, one cannot help but wonder whether this ship too might have withheld some of its secrets and resisted dissection, so that the narrative’s ultimate treasure might lie in its beautifully indefinite contours: “On a part of our life’s map there lies a roseate, indecipherable haze, and that is all” (TW 179).

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Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Wrecker. London: Heinemann, 1925 (1892).

---. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Edited by Sydney Colvin, 4 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917.

---. “A Gossip on Romance.” Memories and Portraits. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905, pp. 229-53. Accessed 8 Jun. 2019.

---. “Victor Hugo’s Romances.” The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Vol. 2. London: Chatto & Windus, 1895, pp. 17-48., Accessed 8 Jun. 2019.

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1 Stevenson would later highlight the hybrid nature of his realistic “yarn” in a letter to Charles Baxter: “I believe The Wrecker is a good yarn of its poor sort, and it is certainly well nourished with facts; no realist can touch me there; for by this time I do begin to know something of life in the XIXth century, which no novelist either in France or England seems to know much of” (Letters, 3: 364).

2 See the passage quoted above (TW 114).

3 The novel has in fact often been considered by critics and even by Stevenson himself as mainly his own, since Lloyd Osbourne’s role in its writing was likely a subordinate one, the more so as the plot draws heavily on autobiographical material from Stevenson’s own life. This is why this essay’s focus will be mostly on Stevenson’s instrumental role in the novel’s creative process and aesthetics, although the details of his collaboration with his stepson will be further developed in a subsequent section.

4 See for instance Edwin Eigner (99-106) or Roderick Watson (116).

5 Note again the use of the theatrical lexicon with the term “play”, which portrays Dodd as an actor changing roles as he changes scenes.

6 Abjection is precisely defined by Julia Kristeva as a phenomenon of rejection, both mental and physical, of the abject: “Il y a, dans l’abjection, une de ces violentes et obscures révoltes de l’être contre ce qui le menace et qui lui paraît venir d’un dehors ou d’un dedans exorbitant, jeté à côté du possible, du tolérable, du pensable. C’est là, tout près mais inassimilable. Ça sollicite, inquiète, fascine le désir qui pourtant ne se laisse pas séduire. Apeuré il se détourne. Écoeuré, il rejette.” (9)

7 To take up Mikhaïl Bakhtin’s term in The Dialogic Imagination, in which he defines the rather modern technique of narrative polyphony and its ability to mingle various narrative voices but also to establish a dialogue with other literary pieces and genres.

8 Ziethen notably defines geopoetics in the following terms : “Les géopoètes se distinguent par un nomadisme autant intellectuel (White 1994 : 27) que physique, privilégiant le voyage, le mouvement et la transgression des frontières géographiques/linguistiques/disciplinaires. Le nomadisme se fonde sur des lectures extensives et l’appel du dehors” (par. 27).

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Julie GAY, « “From place to place and sea to sea”: The Art of Relating in R. L. Stevenson’s The Wrecker »e-Rea [En ligne], 19.2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2022, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Julie GAY

Université de Poitiers – Université Bordeaux Montaigne
Julie Gay recently completed her PhD in British literature at the Université Bordeaux Montaigne (CLIMAS). She holds the French Agrégation and is a permanent teacher at the Université de Poitiers. She studies insularity and adventure as places of literary renewal, focusing on R. L. Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and H. G. Wells.

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