The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Burning Water is not a novel filled with strongly drawn characters. All of them, at times, tend toward parody. Captain George Vancouver would much prefer to achieve glory by fighting the French than by exploring the British Columbian coast. He is a man with no social graces who has advanced in the navy through his technical skill and his ability to outlive his fellow officers while at sea by eating sauerkraut to stave off scurvy. He is a man who loves tight discipline and the neat and the straightforward. “For him the simple was the same as the beautiful.” A Protestant of Dutch extraction, Vancouver takes his pleasure not in observing the remarkable landscape of the Pacific Northwest but in its accurate reproduction in his chart work. Dr. Archibald Menzies is “an animated personification of the curiosity of science.” He reflects the eighteenth century dedication to the accumulation of knowledge. The good doctor should be an ideal companion for Vancouver; both are intelligent, thorough, disciplined, and professional. Menzies, however, is arrogant, and he will not grovel before Vancouver to earn his friendship. Menzies has no romanticism in his character. He shoots and dissects an albatross while at sea on the very day that Samuel Taylor Coleridge publishes his famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798).

Admiral Don Juan Quadra, by fifteen years the senior of George Vancouver, survived in the Spanish navy by “thriving...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

George Vancouver

George Vancouver, the commander of the British warship Discovery. A short, thickset man resembling a bulldog in appearance and temperament, Vancouver is willful, impatient, and unyielding. He is a strict and capable captain and an almost fanatically precise surveyor who does not believe in the existence of a Northwest Passage. A homosexual, he feels great affection for Admiral Quadra as both a father figure and a lover. Toward the end of the Discovery’s voyage, he suffers severely from tuberculosis and from the emotional trauma of Quadra’s death. He hates Menzies because in him he sees a mirror of his own flaws. He prefers warfare to trade and would rather be fighting the French than expediting commerce in the New World.

Archibald Menzies

Archibald Menzies, a botanist and surgeon traveling as a civilian passenger on Vancouver’s ship. He is collecting plants for the Royal Society. When the ship’s doctor falls ill and returns to England, Menzies takes over his responsibilities. Witty, argumentative, and intelligent, he is Vancouver’s only intellectual equal on board theDiscovery, which perhaps accounts for the tension between them. Almost despite himself, Menzies cannot seem to refrain from antagonizing and provoking the short-tempered Vancouver. Menzies takes a scientist’s interest in the lands they visit and in the customs of the native people, things for which Vancouver has little patience. When a negligent sailor allows Menzies’ painstakingly...

(The entire section is 633 words.)