“Religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates”

Yesterday I said, somewhat flippantly, that Attwater, one of two excellent characters in R.L. Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne’s The Ebb-Tide was Mr. Kurtz, transplanted to the South Seas. That’s playing a little fast and loose. Attwater is not a government agent, but a very lucky man who has found what is still a totally private island in the South Pacific, whose lagoon is lousy with pearls. It’s just him and some natives there harvesting them, and he’s become incredibly wealthy. I mean “incredibly” literally—Herrick and his fellows don’t really have a conception of just how much wealth this man can have amassed here, but they know it must be a lot.

Attwater isn’t like Kurtz only in his relationship with natives, which is strange and a bit unsettling. He’s also an ideologue and a zealot, though of a different sort. Herrick, in fact, was expecting someone more like Kurtz, but realized instead that Attwater is also a deeply religious man, desperate to save Herrick. He is both a man of the world and a Christian, and he puts his “fingers…on the screws,” pushing Herrick “beyond bearing” in his effort to get Herrick to accept Jesus as his personal savior. When Herrick finally rejects this in no uncertain terms, Attwater leaves off, somewhat curiously.

The men are very different from each other. Herrick has spent his life incompetent and ashamed of it. He has no self-respect left, he’s dishonored himself, and took the ultimate step of changing his name and trying to escape his old life. He’s a man who has hit rock bottom and could use some saving. And when he finds himself locked in an immoral plan of questionable judgment with his shipmates Davis and Huish, he decides he will not be the cause of that plan’s failure—this is where he will finally become competent in the face of dire need, which he is able to do because he is “merely weak,” not “merely cowardly.”

Attwater, largely because of the influence religion has on his whole outlook, is almost the opposite. He is alone on his little island, at least in white men’s terms, but he is in the presence of God and the universe, never feeling alone. As Herrick says, far from incompetent, Attwater “knows all, hees through us and laughs at us like God.” And in the end, he will render God’s judgment upon the three men.

The first, Huish, is completely despicable and villainous, and he has his own plan to go after Attwater in the least honorable way possible. Attwater spares no mercy here. Davis would also like to kill Attwater, but here, Attwater has material he can work with. He scares the pants off the man instead, at which point he is finally able to save him.

But what of Herrick? Herrick actually disappears in the final scene. “Before Herrick could turn about, before Davis could complete his cry of horror, the clerk lay in the sand, sprawling and confused.” Huish is the clerk, and this is the last mention of Herrick—what happens to him?

The question is not rhetorical. Davis’s final cry, as he realizes Attwater will spare him, is “like that ofa child among the nightmares of fever: ‘O! isn’t there no mercy? O! what must I do to be saved?'” Attwater realizes that “here is the true penitent”—contrasting Davis, of course, with Herrick. Herrick has already answered this question for himself: there is no mercy, and there is nothing anyone can do to be saved. There are only “fairy tales” and “folklore” to tell yourself—even suicide is just another fairy tale, and not a real escape. “I must stagger on,” is Herrick’s basic statement on life, which ultimately pulls him out of this final scene because he can have no place in it; there is nothing for Attwater to do with him.

3 comments to “Religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates”

  • You’re reminding me how good this little novel is. The differentiation of the three voyagers is a big part of it. Even the repellent Huish is allowed to degenerate into the villain. That final scene you describe makes me mourn the missing end of The Weir of Hermiston, and whatever RLS would have written next.

    The complete shift to Davis is pretty weird. I didn’t notice it. “‘Ah!’ thought Attwater, ‘here’s the true penitent.'”

  • I didn’t notice it at all myself until I re-read a bunch, due to the lag between reading and blogging. All of a sudden I was like, wait, where did Herrick go? And…he didn’t. He just disappeared!

    I’m not sure how to, um, “ultimately interpret” this. Is Attwater crazy, semi-crazy, right, wrong? If Herrick is weak but not cowardly, is Davis both (or at least cowardly, which is worse)? I mean, I know who I sympathize with. But Attwater is like a force of nature. He is good stuff.

  • not sure how to “ultimately interpret”

    No kidding; me neither. Stevenson is an exploring sort of writer, and I suspect some of these ideas would have become more developed if he had been able to write more. What we have, here and in some of the other South Seas stories, and I think in Weir of Hermiston, is all pretty shadowy.

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