Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

Junger organizes his narrative around both spatial and chronological principles. The spatial development takes the reader out of Gloucester onto the open sea and then the narrative attention ranges widely across the North Atlantic, encompassing the swordfishing fleet, the sailing yacht Sartori, various freighters caught up in the storm, Sable Island and important coastal points, and even Caribbean weather systems which will eventually impact the North Atlantic. The chronology follows the last days of the Andrea Gail, but also goes back in time to the days of dory fishing off Georges Bank and literary and historical references from the nineteenth century (for example, to Moby Dick). Junger also courageously interrupts both spatial and chronological development with learned technical disquisitions on how waves form, how people drown, how boats turn over, and so on. These mixed developmental patterns and disquisitions are held together by a clear, forceful prose that nevertheless conveys great human feeling for the doomed fishermen whose story it records.

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Junger also occupies a position somewhere in between pure factual reporting (as mentioned, he does not consider himself a journalist) and a novelist writing a dramatized version of a historical event. The author steadfastly resists the temptation of fictionalizing the last hours of Billy Tyne, Bobby Shatford, and the others, instead relying on parallel situations, both historical and contemporary, to establish what "undoubtedly" happened. Aware of his obligation to living relatives and friends, Junger records only what someone highly informed about the sea and shipwrecks believes transpired. He acts as a form of advocate for the missing men, giving them voices and imagining their fate (sometimes by offering alternate possibilities) but never shying away from the fact that they are truly dead. In a sense, Junger is helping the relatives come to term with the deaths by making their last hours concrete and imaginable, the absence of bodies or debris notwithstanding.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374

Even Sebastian Junger was surprised at the success of his book, a project which might seem unpromising if described in a publisher's proposal: a nonfiction work, part narrative, part history, part technical description, which dramatizes the effects of a major storm which hit New England a decade earlier. For all the mixture of genres and approaches, Junger grounds his discussion in a number of traditions, including the sea disaster story and a narrative which celebrates a way of life, but also relies on carefully written set pieces about wave actions, weather phenomena, and fishing boats. It is the artful combination of these elements that brought success to the project.

1. How does Junger locate his discussion in the tradition of the sea disaster story? What reminders to the reader show the long history of disasters at sea?

2. Much popular fiction is escapist fare which avoids reminding readers of unpleasant realities. Junger goes in exactly the opposite direction, focusing on working class labor and tragic events. How does he create reader interest in an industry lacking almost all the qualities that make a profession dramatic or romantic?

3. How does Junger create sympathy for the gritty, sometimes pub-crawling fishermen whose lives he traces?

4. The book builds slowly, like the storm itself, before it gathers rhetorical force and sweeps its many subjects together. Trace this development by listing the general topics each chapter covers. Where is the climax of the book? Is this climax identical with the climax of the storm?

5. One writing problem Junger faced was an unhappy ending known from the start of the book. How does he handle this problem? Does he provide any ameliorating elements which might lessen the effect of this unhappy ending?

6. Junger's prose is highly informed and sometimes a model of technical description. Choose the passage you think best describes a difficult technical question then decide what techniques the author uses to convey complex information in interesting and comprehensible ways. Give examples to make these techniques clear.

7. Another way The Perfect Storm goes against the grain of current practice is in its depiction of real heroism, as opposed to the superhero antics of Hollywood action stars. What does heroism consist of in this book? What personal and psychological qualities are involved?

Social Concerns

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The Perfect Storm, like Arthur Miller's classic play, Death of a Salesman, focuses the attention of the general public on the least noticed members of society, in this case the fishermen of Gloucester. The recurring phrase in Miller's work is "attention must be paid" to the life and death of Willy Loman, the salesman of the title who is a "low man" in his profession and in his life, an unimportant cog in a large mechanism that serves the interests of others. Whether consciously or not, Junger follows Miller's model of forcing us to pay attention to the common man, in this case the men who put fish on our tables, the usually anonymous workers in an extremely hazardous and low-paying industry whose agonies when things go wrong are rarely explored in the mass media. The Perfect Storm employs a wide variety of techniques to make sure that "attention is paid" to fishermen and their families; by its insistence on viewing its characters as complete human beings with full and complex lives, it forces readers to regard the loss of men at sea as more than just a filler news article on the inside pages of the newspaper.

The Perfect Storm begins with a two page chapter titled "Georges Bank, 1896," a short recapitulation of the despair a fisherman went through on a doomed boat in the nineteenth century. For most readers, recollections of the Rudyard Kipling Captains Courageous literary tradition remain vivid enough to sustain an awareness of how dangerous fishing was in the days of sail and oar, and Junger does describe some historical losses of vessels and men off Georges Bank and the Grand Banks. However, his point in doing so is the opposite of what readers might expect, not to celebrate twentieth century progress in safety but rather to show how fragile and tenuous modern safeguards actually are. A loss of electronics quickly sends a boat back to the nineteenth century, leaving its sailors unsure of their true location and completely ignorant of the changing conditions around them. While fishing boats are equipped with automatic distress signals known as EPIRBs, the device on the Andrea Gail, the boat whose loss is explored in The Perfect Storm, fails to function as it should. Sideband radio, weather faxes, even cellular phones serve to inform the fishing fleet of danger and to link individual boats into a network, but these communication devices which are so sturdy on land are far more vulnerable at sea. When an extraordinary storm puts men and machines under stress, the battle to survive the sea reverts to timeworn nautical strategies rather than to high-tech solutions.

The Perfect Storm also establishes how cavalier government and industry oversight of the fishing fleet can be. The Andrea Gail is a well set-up boat, but she has been modified to carry more fuel and supplies without benefit of testing or analysis of how these changes will affect her seaworthiness. An extended and carefully written disquisition on why and when boats founder makes readers appreciate how dangerous casual modifications to fishing boats can be, and even worse, how stability can be affected by where gear is stowed, how fish are stored in the holds, and how a captain and crew react to fairly trivial breakdowns in equipment. The seeming strength and safety of steel-hulled boats is somewhat of an illusion; in fact, while they will endure far more pounding than will wood boats, whose seams eventually open, steel boats turn over and founder more readily than wooden ones. Unlike, say, trucks or airplanes, which are fairly standardized and therefore fairly predictable in their handling, fishing boats can be modified by "eyeball engineering" and then loaded in perilous fashion, making them potential disasters in challenging conditions.

Given the level of unpredictability in vessels and equipment, it is not surprising that fishing is still among the most dangerous of occupations, just as it was in the days of dories rowed out to Georges Bank. Then, the Gloucester fishing industry lost several hundred men a year to drowning, or four per cent of the town's population. A large storm could result in half a dozen ships and hundreds of men lost overnight, with bodies littering the beaches of Newfoundland. In fact, an estimated ten thousand Gloucestermen have perished since 1650; Junger points out that going out to sea to fish has been far more perilous to Gloucestermen than journeying abroad to fight in foreign wars. Given such technology as global positioning by satellite pinpointing a space smaller than an average suburban house, readers can be forgiven for thinking of offshore dangers as distant and dated as frontier gunfights, but in fact, fishing remains the most dangerous occupation in the United States: more fishermen are killed per capita than police, taxi drivers, or convenience store clerks. While fishing gear, electronics, and helicopter rescue have revolutionized some aspects of the trade, it remains inherently perilous, especially when out of reach of the shore (helicopters can carry only about four hours worth of fuel) or during bad weather, which can wipe out communications with electronic "noise." The day-to-day life of a fisherman offers multiple chances to be swept overboard by a "rogue" or freak wave, to be bitten by a dead shark hauled on deck (the reflex survives death), or to be pulled underwater by a fishing line paying out rapidly (baiters put squid on large hooks which are clipped to the "longline" drifting behind the boat; a second's inattention is paid for by being hooked through the hand and dragged down, a death sentence unless a shipmate notices and reacts within seconds). One horrendous scene describes a fisherman gone overboard being pulled on deck with a gaff, just like a fish, the damage done by the gaff secondary to saving his life in a rough sea.

Why would men (and today, some women) put themselves at such risk in such a thankless trade? While a share of the profits of several weeks of fishing can amount to several thousand dollars, normal life is suspended while at sea, and many in the profession spend a good deal of their earnings in compulsive celebrations when they arrive back home. Junger is at pains to deconstruct the romance of fishing: "Most deckhands have precious little affection for the business. . . for them, fishing is a brutal, dead-end job that they try to get clear of as fast as possible." The young men of Gloucester fish to make money fast, to get themselves out of financial trouble. In The Perfect Storm, for example, Bobby Shatford has a bad feeling about his current berth on the Andrea Gail and wants desperately to stay with his new love, Christina Cotter, but forces himself to make the trip to keep up his alimony payments. The working class people who end up on fishing boats have sometimes made a bad bargain between immediate necessity and long-term benefit, but once in the life, they find it hard to return to the far less lucrative forms of manual labor that are a safer alternative. Junger makes us feel the reluctance of a crew to return to sea, as well as the brutal economic forces that require them to do so again and again. The fishing life often leads to alcohol abuse, divorce, and reckless behavior on shore; these consequences of having normal life routines suspended for weeks at a time make the practitioner of the trade even less able to seek other forms of work. At least miners and factory workers are protected by unions and government agencies; workers offshore tend to be individualistic free spirits, contracting their persons and their labor for short periods and trusting their captains and boat owners to treat them decently. They operate offshore, beyond the psychological and sometimes even legal attention paid to onshore workers, and Junger's goal is to make their lives visible and affecting.

Literary Precedents

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The Perfect Storm is in the tradition of the disaster story. Sometimes written as fiction, sometimes as researched historical fact, these stories trace the development of a natural disaster and give a precise accounting of its human costs.

Walter Lord's A Night to Remember (1955) is one of the most influential of modern disaster stories. It provides a chronological, moment by moment recreation of the sinking of the Titanic based on interviews of surviving passengers, so that readers experience a gripping you-are-there account of the last moments of the seemingly unsinkable great ship. Lord captures the ironies in details—a falling funnel that, while almost hitting a lifeboat, knocks it thirty yards away from the wreck, and thereby saves it from being sucked into the foundering ship's downpull; a survivor calmly riding the sinking vertical boat down until he can step into the sea without even getting his head wet while waiting to be successfully rescued. Lord's cold logic, dry, bitter wit, and meticulous scholarship set a high standard for others to follow.

Following in Lord's tradition A. A. Hoehling's They Sailed into Oblivion (1959) dramatically recounts more than twenty great sea disasters that shocked the world while William Hoffer's Saved! The Story of the Andrea Doria, the Greatest Sea Rescue in History (1979) recreates the events of the collision between the Stockholm and the Andrea Doria that left the latter sinking and put the lives of hundreds of passengers at risk.

Shortly after Lord's influential novel, John D. MacDonald set another fictive standard in his Murder in the Wind. Therein, five sets of characters try to outrun a hurricane in western central Florida and finally seek refuge in an old house only to have the forces of nature overcome them. The storm itself, based on a hurricane that hit Florida in the late 1940s, becomes a violent, destructive character. Twenty years later in Condominium (1977) MacDonald again captures the destructive fury of a hurricane, as he tells what happens to Golden Sands, a "dream" condominium built on a weak foundation in a bad location, the result of secret real estate swindles, political payoffs, The Perfect Storm 315 shoddy maintenance, and construction in violation of building codes.

Adaptations

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The Perfect Storm was made into a film of the same name which premiered the summer of 2000. Bill Wittliff's screenplay focuses efficiently on the main ideas of the book, while state-of-the-art visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic translate a surprising amount of Junger's descriptions onto the screen. The film was directed and produced by Wolfgang Petersen and stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

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Critical Essays