John Napper Sailing Through the Universe Themes

John Gardner

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

At the heart of this story is the conflict between optimism and pessimism. How does one face a world that seems to be ruled by chaos in the end? Both John Napper and the narrator see this chaos. Napper had hoped to find a positive meaning in the world when he was young, but all he saw in his search was the destruction in the world and the violence of the search itself, both of which he embodied in his paintings. The narrator, unlike Napper, is still searching, and so far he has not gotten beyond the signs of destruction, his vision of which he expresses through his taste for gloomy things and his destructive behavior—his drinking, for example, and the songs he sings about tragedy, as well as the hostile tricks he plays on the hypocrite who replaces Napper at the university and the fight he gets into at the end of the story. The narrator, in fact, is at the level that Napper was when he was young.

To be sure, the narrator is a pessimist, and John Napper is an optimist. It is more complex than that, however, for the narrator is a pessimist who yearns to be an optimist, while Napper is an optimist who refuses to give in to his essential pessimism. He has decided that if chaos informs the world, he will re-create the world from scratch, as it were, in his art. He will make the world a mask that hides the face of chaos. The irony here, as the narrator sees, is that some of the chaos comes through the mask in innuendos, and it is this that gives his paintings...

(The entire section is 501 words.)