The Boat by Alistair Macleod is a story of tragedy, revolving around the themes of duty, sacrifice, passion, and failed aspirations. The narrator’s father leads a life of failed dreams and aspirations, bound only by family expectations and duties. The story deals with unmet dreams and what it means for a parent to sacrifice their dreams for their children.
The Boat | Summary
The story begins with the narrator recalling waking up at 4 am, distressed by the dream he was having. He thinks for a second his father might be standing at the end of his bed, waiting for the narrator to wake up and go down to the boat with him. The narrator’s surroundings present a bleak picture, overflowing ashtray, the cold seeping through the entire atmosphere, and the tea gone cold. The flashbacks that follow tell the narrator’s childhood story. The narrator was born in a fishing family, whose father is said to spend his time divided between fishing and reading. The house is orderly and neat whereas the father’s room is disorderly and messy.
The story moves in a flashback manner, telling the childhood first and then following into teenage and finally adulthood. The siblings find the books and get engrossed in the fictional worlds. The older sisters of the narrator marry out and leave the narrator to make his own choice. This takes a toll on the mother, however, the father encourages his son to leave and pursue studying, something he couldn’t do. The narrator is torn between following in the family’s footsteps or leaving and finding his own path. The narrator ultimately leaves. The father might know that his life is over, seeing how he managed to fulfill all his duties. One day, while out fishing on his boat, accidentally falls into the sea, because of turmoil in the waters. Life is unpredictable and the sea is unforgiving. He doesn’t know how to swim and dies. The narrator ends the story with his father washing up on the shore, wearing his favorite boots.
The Boat | Analysis
The story begins with a cold and bleak atmosphere that foreshadows the life story about to follow. The flashbacks that follow are not going to end well, and that is mirrored in the present. The bleak setting with which the narrative begins sets the tone for the entire story.
The narrator’s father is shown to be immersed in his books during the time spent apart from fishing. This presents a divide between duty and dreams; responsibility and aspirations. The literature that the narrator’s father consumes provides an opportunity for him to escape the life he didn’t want in the first place. The dreams of reading and studying further are overburdened with the sense of responsibility and the need to continue the family profession, the burden that has now fallen onto the narrator. The rift that consumed the father is now plaguing the narrator,
The books strewn all around the father’s room and some into the kitchen are a constant symbol of escapism within the story. The mother despises the books, continuously telling the children not to read them. The mother considers the books a “colossal waste of time”, but the readers are made aware of the reasons that the mother might be saying this to discourage the children from following in the footsteps of their father. The mother is afraid her children will become disillusioned with the life they’re leading and might try to leave the family. However, her fears come true as the siblings find the book stash that their father is hoarding and are finally escaping within the life of fiction and the beyond. This leads to them actually seeing the truth behind their trapped lives and leaving the family behind. The books and the literature have a startling effect on the minds of the children who decide to leave.
The tradition that the family is following is marred with the regrets of the father who is “chained” to this fishing profession. The boat is the one symbol that keeps repeating itself throughout the story, even beginning and ending the story with it. The boat is used as a symbol for everything the father stands for, yet stays separated from. It represents the love he possesses for his family, the love that leads him to sacrifice his dreams and ambitions for the responsibility of his family. It also poses an image of the rocky journey of his life on the sea, and the love-hate relationship he shares with it. It is a symbol of the family heritage and the traditions and culture they follow. And at the same time, it represents the regrets and melancholia of the father. The sea that is unpredictable and stern and unchanging, might be a metaphor for the mother, who refuses to acknowledge anything that the children do against the tradition, be it reading books or marrying men from the big cities. Even the boat’s name is the mother’s maiden name, Jenna Lynn. It shows how the father is perpetually attached to this life and his remorse and grief are heightened by the world he witnesses through the books. This is the reason he encourages the narrator to pursue his studies and not support the family profession. The need to achieve the life he dreamed of becomes a tangible desire to push his son into that life. The narrator faces twice the pressure the father felt at his time.
The story is a tale of how the grief and unsuccessful aspirations of a parent manifest themselves within their and their children’s life. The narrator is left with a cold trauma that haunts him to this day. The past that was never reconciled leaves him shivering in the cold, bleak winter. The wintertime reminds him of the persistent past he lived through, especially his father whose life was never fulfilled according to his desires. This leaves a hollow space within the narrator too, as he witnessed it unfold in front of his eyes. A child witnessing a parent’s downfall and obsession turn into a lifelong trauma that fails to resolve itself. The mother refusing to acknowledge that her son has left the family profession only adds to the misery. The father’s death at the end of the story symbolizes a failed personal life and the death of a family tradition and legacy.
Notably, despite the evident tragedy that abounds in this story, there is the hope that one might gain the freedom to experience the world, free from any bounds, free in pursuing one’s own path in life. The father sacrifices his life for his family and his sacrifice provides his children a door through which they enter the world and carve their own niche. This is a story of how passion finds its way through a complex maze of generational pressure and familial responsibility.