Last Updated on October 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
Old Chris Christopherson looks upon the sea as the symbol of a malignant fate. True, he is now skipper of the coal barge Simeon Winthrop, but in his younger days he was an able seaman and boatswain on the old windjammers and visited every port in the world. As far back as he knew, the men of his family in Sweden followed the sea. His father died aboard ship in the Indian Ocean, and two of his brothers drowned. The curse of the sea is not confined to the men in the family. After the news of her husband’s and her sons’ deaths, Chris’s mother died of a broken heart. Unable to bear the loneliness of being a sailor’s wife, his own wife brought their young daughter, Anna, to America to live with some cousins on a farm in Minnesota. Anna’s mother died, and the girl is being brought up by her relatives.
Chris did not see his daughter for almost twenty years. One day while he is having a drink at Johnny the Priest’s saloon near South Street in New York City, he receives a postcard from St. Paul telling him that Anna is on her way to New York. This news throws Chris into something of a panic, for living on the barge with him is a middle-aged prostitute named Marthy. Chris decides to get rid of the woman. Being a kind-hearted soul and genuinely fond of Marthy, he dislikes the idea of turning her out, but Marthy says that Chris always treated her decently, and she will move on to someone else. When Marthy catches a glimpse of Chris’s daughter, she is shocked. Anna is twenty years old and pretty in a buxom sort of way, but her painted face and cheap showy clothes are telltale evidence of what she is—a prostitute. Marthy wonders what Chris’s reaction is going to be.
In his eyes, however, Anna is the innocent child he always imagined her to be, and he is even hesitant about ordering wine to celebrate their reunion. Life on the barge is an entirely new experience for Anna. She comes to love the sea and to respond to its beauty with the same intensity with which her father responds to its malignance. With the soothing effect of her new environment, and the presence of her father’s gentleness and simplicity, Anna begins to lose some of her hardness and to build some faith in men.
One night, while the Simeon Winthrop is anchored in the outer harbor of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Chris hears cries for help. He pulls aboard the barge four men who have been drifting for five days after the wreck of their ship. One of the men, an Irishman named Mat Burke, takes an immediate fancy to Anna, and even in his weakened condition he makes it clear that he intends to have Anna for his own. Mat represents everything in life that Chris hates. In the first place, he was a stoker on a steamship, an occupation the old windjammer sailor regards as beneath contempt. Second, Mat follows the sea and so is connected in the old Swede’s mind with inevitable tragedy. Last, and most important from Chris’s viewpoint, Mat is obviously in love with Anna and wants to take her away from him. To Anna, on the other hand, Mat represents all that she has always wanted in life. At first she is naturally suspicious of his Irish glibness, but she soon begins to see that underneath his voluble exterior there are some genuine convictions, a basic core of integrity that gives her a sense of security as well as, in the light of her own past, a gnawing fear.
Her father and Mat are mortal enemies from the start. This conflict reaches its climax one day in the cabin when Chris, goaded on by the Irishman’s taunts, comes at Mat with a knife, intending to kill him. Anna comes in as Mat overpowers the old man. She realizes that they are fighting over her as if she were a piece of property that must belong to one or the other.
This situation is so close to her previous experience with men that she makes them both listen to a confession of the truth about herself, of which apparently neither of them has been aware. She informs her father that his romantic picture of her idyllic life on the Minnesota farm is untrue from beginning to end, that she was worked relentlessly by her relatives, and that at sixteen she was seduced by one of her cousins. At last she went to St. Paul and entered a bawdy house, where her experience with men did not differ greatly from what she knew on the farm. She informs Mat that for the first time in her life she realizes what love might be. Mat, having neither intelligence nor imagination enough to appreciate Anna’s sincerity, angrily calls her names and leaves the barge in disgust. Chris follows him, and the two men proceed to get drunk. Anna waits on the Simeon Winthrop for two days, hoping that Mat will return. Finally she prepares to go to New York and resume her old profession.
Her father is the first to return with the news that to save her from going back to the old life he has signed on the Londonderry, a steamer to Cape Town, Africa, and made arrangements for his pay to be turned over to Anna. When Mat returns, Anna feels sure he came back merely to kill her. He is bruised and bloody from waterfront fights. He, too, signed on the Londonderry, and the irony of her father and Mat on the same boat strikes Anna as funny. Finally she makes Mat see that she hates the men who have bought her and that all she wants is the assurance of one man’s love.
Chris is glad that Anna and Mat are reconciled and are going to be married and be happy, for he now realizes that much of Anna’s past misery is his own fault. At the same time, however, he wonders what tricks the malignant sea will play on Anna and Mat in the future.