Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Love and Salt Water is an episodic novel, which captures sensitively what Henry James called “the strange irregular rhythm of life.” This strange rhythm is accentuated by the fact that its characters are constantly traveling. Those “who live on the periphery,” as Wilson points out, “are animated by circumstances and the urge that brought them there and by the fact that there is somewhere a place that remains (as yet) a centre, are moved by these things to go across the country again and again . . . to this centre, wherever it may be....”

There are some irrelevancies in the novel, but it is unified not only by the career of Ellen but also by the themes announced in the title. There are many kinds of love in the novel—romantic, familial, and that between friends. Yet love is difficult to achieve and not always easy to express, and it is often frustrated by loneliness, absence, or death; nevertheless, it remains the most important element in the lives of the characters and the life of the novel.

Salt water is ubiquitous, as the setting of Vancouver, the Gulf Islands, and the voyage of the freighter. The ocean has many moods, but its main role in this fiction is to be Joseph Conrad’s “destructive element” and Matthew Arnold’s “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.” The death by drowning of the bosun’s boy during a storm at sea in the first part of the novel is echoed by the near-death of Johnny at the end. At the same time, the sea is the medium of travel and excitement and the element Ellen loves to watch in Vancouver, especially for the movement of the seabirds, mammals, and ships. Tugs appear often in the book and seem to be symbolic of the persistence and strength of Ellen and Aunt Maury. The sea sings throughout the whole book.