Ideas for Group Discussions

Surely the unusual, demanding formal quality of this novel will be the first topic of discussion, as reading it may well create negative responses and a feeling of being lost. Discussion may well center upon why Matthiessen has selected such an uncommon method of storytelling, and what possible advantages it may hold. Its impressionistic qualities may as well give rise to impressionistic responses, which can then be expanded into a discussion of themes.

1. Does the unusual experimental form Matthiessen adopts here — the dependence on dialogue, the typographical effects — serve its purposes? What would be lost, or gained, by telling the story in a more conventional way?

2. The form of the book tends to mute authorial comment on the actions of the characters. Where does the author invest his sympathies — in what character or characters?

3. What is it exactly that Captain Raib is trying to impress upon his crew, and why are they unable to learn their lesson from him? Is he too inflexible, or merely mired in the past?

4. What significance can be attached to the name of the ship, the Lillias Eden?

5. What function does Desmond Eden play in this novel, for Raib, or as a symbol in general?

6. In what ways do the ideas of Darwinism manifest themselves in this book, with respect to ways of life, human beings, or the natural world?

7. In what way does Speedy occupy a mediating...

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Literary Techniques

Far Tortuga differs from Matthiessen's earlier novels in its bold and sometimes risky experiments in form. With a determined avoidance of authorial intrusion, this novel offers a minimum of exposition or explanation. Characters are thus revealed almost solely through the quality of their voices, with the result that Far Tortuga more often resembles a screenplay than a traditional narrative. Matthiessen has commented upon this feature of the novel, and explains it as necessary in his attempt to create on the turtle boat "a small isolated world, a confined state which nobody could leave, and men who sing the refrains of their bewilderment over and over." Since the voices the reader hears singing here are sometimes unattributed, some have complained that the bewilderment is contagious. But the richly evocative text thus produced, the ominous, almost surreal air that pervades the novel, is undeniable. The narrative fragmentation of Far Tortuga is not merely a curiosity of technique; it is an element of the larger vision of the novel, a reflection of the fragmented lives of the characters and an inability of language to create coherence from them.

Matthiessen extends his formal manipulations into the area of typography as well. Fragments of prose are sometimes scattered about the page, deaths of characters are announced by the appearance of their names and an inky splotch on a page otherwise blank, and curious abstract sketches begin to...

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Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bender, Bert. “Far Tortuga and American Sea Fiction Since Moby-Dick.” American Literature 56 (May, 1984): 227-248. Bender places Far Tortuga in perspective in the tradition of literature of the sea.

Dowie, William. Peter Matthiessen. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Dowie provides a critical and interpretive study of Matthiessen, with a close reading of his major works, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.

Grove, James P. “Pastoralism and Anti-pastoralism in Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga.” CRITIQUE 21 (1979): 15-29. Grove outlines the conflicting pastoral and antipastoral themes in the novel.

Iyer, Pico. “Laureate of the Wild.” Time 141 (January 11, 1993): 42-44. Profiles Peter Matthiessen as an explorer, naturalist, travel writer, political activist, and teacher of Zen Buddhism. Includes an overview of his fiction and nonfiction.

Matthiessen, Peter. Interview by Kay Bonetti. The Missouri Review 12 (1989): 109-124. Matthiessen discusses his life and work and the influence of Zen Buddhism on his writing. He examines the tension between the pull of fiction and the time-consuming demands of his nonfiction.

Raglon, Rebecca. “Fact and Fiction: The Development of Ecological Form in Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga. CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35 (Summer, 1994): 245-259. Raglon explores the connection between Matthiessen’s novel, his experiences on a turtle boat, and his Zen attitude toward life. Raglon’s review of the variety of perspectives from which the novel has been approached is useful and illustrates that this complexity is one of the most compelling aspects of Matthiessen’s work.

Related Titles

Readers of Matthiessen's novels will find further expansions on his key concerns and beliefs in his nonfiction. The questions of cultural relativity raised in At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga find their echoes in such works as Under the Mountain Wall (1962) and The Cloud Forest (1961). His passionate championing of oppressed minorities manifests itself in Indian Country (1984), Men's Lives (1991), and elsewhere. And his deep attachment and dedication to the beauty and mystery of nature are evidenced everywhere. Perhaps the most thorough immersion in Matthiessen's world can be gained from The Snow Leopard, where he chronicles, in journal form, his pilgrimage to the Crystal Monastery in Nepal in 1973. While it offers the record of the sights and sounds of that journey, it also contains Matthiessen's reassessment of his values and beliefs in the wake of his wife's painful death from cancer, his meditations upon one man's place in relation to himself and others, and what may well be the clearest explanation of the central tenets of Zen Buddhism available in English. It is a stunning, extraordinary book, well deserving of the popularity and praise it has achieved.

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