At the beginning of the story, what seems to hurt Mafatu the most is his own debilitating fear of the sea. This fear does not hurt him physically, but it does hurt him psychologically. Describing Mafatu’s fear of the sea, the narrator says that the “thunder of it filled his ears” and that he feels always surrounded by “the mutter of it at sunset, the threat and fury of its storms.” The sea is here personified. It “mutter[s]” and seems to consciously, willfully threaten Mafatu. The sea is, to Mafatu, an omnipresent, menacing, antagonistic force.
Mafatu speculates that his fear of the sea first began “during the great hurricane which swept Hikuru when he was a child.” During this hurricane, Mafatu and his mother became stranded in the middle of the ocean. Their boat was surrounded by “circling” sharks, and Mafatu became “filled with terror.” This experience seems to have traumatized Mafatu.
Mafatu’s fear of the sea is particularly hurtful to him as a Polynesian, because in Polynesian culture, courage and fearlessness are so highly valued. Indeed, as the narrator says, for the Polynesians, “There was only courage.” The narrator also poses a telling rhetorical question, posed from the perspective of the Polynesian people. He asks, “A man who was afraid—what place had he in their midst?” The implied answer, of course, is that such a man has no place in their midst at all. This is arguably why Mafatu’s fear of the sea is so hurtful to him. It makes him an outsider among his own people.