Style and Technique
Because vision is so important to the story, and because the protagonist is a painter, imagery is John Gardner’s chief tool in projecting the story’s meaning. Light and darkness figure prominently throughout. Both are used to show the two sides of John Napper’s vision. Darkness predominates in his early paintings, emphasizing pessimism and the violence of Napper’s search for order and the violence in the world, especially the human world. Light predominates in his later paintings, underscoring the willfulness of his optimism and enthusiasm. Light is also embedded in the image of Napper’s hair, which is wild and white and often mentioned, and is meant to suggest a light in the darkness, optimism against a background of pessimism. Light is further inferred in the narrator’s epic poem, which is about the mythic hero Jason; the golden fleece he searches for corresponds to the light of a happy vision for which the narrator is searching.
There are other images in the story that belong to the contrast between light and dark, such as the bright flowers that are a staple of Napper’s paintings, the black hat that the narrator wears everywhere, the dark house and landscape readers see him in at the beginning, and the tomblike hotel he is staying in at the end.
Besides its use in dramatizing the meaning of the story, imagery is a mainstay of characterization in it. It is often through imagery that the characters are revealed, with Napper’s hair, bright eyes, untidy clothes, and gaily sinister paintings pointing to his mind and personality, and the narrator’s hat and Scotch pointing to his.
Finally, it should be pointed out that this story is autobiographical to an unusual degree. The narrator is clearly Gardner himself, at work on the book that eventually became Jason and Medeia (1973). Gardner’s first wife was named Joan; their children appear in the story as well. The title character, the painter John Napper, illustrated Gardner’s novel The Sunlight Dialogues (1972). Here, as in other stories in the collection in which “John Napper Sailing Through the Universe” appeared, The King’s Indian (1974), Gardner is playing with the conventions of fiction, testing them, experimenting with them. Only a reader with an intimate knowledge of Gardner’s life—and John Napper’s life—could say with authority where the autobiography stops and the “fiction” begins.