The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Shipyard belongs to that large group of contemporary novels which express loss of self. Onetti, however, is less radical than some of his contemporaries—a Samuel Beckett, for example—in his creation of depersonalized characters. The denizens of The Shipyard may have only an initial for a first name, but their selfhood acquires enough unity to make nearly round characters of them. Onetti sustains character and situation even as the text is expressing, directly or indirectly, that the characters are not persons, have no real identity.

Larsen is the antihero of both The Shipyard and Onetti’s 1964 novel, Juntacadaveres. (Only in this later novel were the events preceding the action of The Shipyard and the nickname “Corpse-collector” fully explained: Larsen, then manager of Santa Maria’s first and only brothel, put together a collection of metaphorically dead female bodies.) The intense third-person account of Larsen’s thought process in The Shipyard reveals the stubborn deliberateness and absurd logic that rule his self-defeating outward actions. With his low-life swagger, carrying his concealed pistol, Larsen walks through interpersonal roles that are models of deception and self-deception. Long experience in the lower depths should perhaps have left him thoroughly cynical before the action of The Shipyard begins. Like most Onettian protagonists, he does have a good dose of cynicism, but he is also a kind of degraded artist, even an oblique projection of the author. In the most hopeless circumstances, he resorts to his imagination in order to project a better world. Despite the many ironies that undermine conventional characterization, real sympathy is generated for Juntacadaveres Larsen, whose nickname identifies him as a vestigial exemplary sufferer, a post-Christian Jesus Christ.

The other male characters may all be...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

E. Larsen

E. Larsen, the antihero, a stout, balding, late-middle-aged former pimp with a swagger to match his former trade. He wishes to reintegrate himself legitimately into the area of Santa Maria, the Argentine or Uruguayan river city from which he was exiled five years before for establishing a brothel there. Larsen is named general manager of a bankrupt shipyard nearby at Puerto Astillero. Feeding self-delusion to justify his vitiated existence, he tries to make something out of its rusting plant, which has not received an order or paid its managers in years. He even courts the boss’s mentally defective daughter in the hope of possessing the seignorial house where she and her father live. Larsen’s end comes when he realizes fully, at long last, that his quest for upward mobility has been a farce. Apparently dying, he rides upriver on a ferryboat.

Jeremías Petrus

Jeremías Petrus (heh-reh-MEE-ahs PEH-truhs), the elderly owner of the defunct shipyard. Petrus, too, is self-deluded. He keeps up the role of willful pioneer of industry with his bustling gait, heavy eyebrows, and sideburns. When he is jailed for forgery, Petrus ages further overnight, calls the cell his office, and continues to make empty plans for the business with his visitor, Larsen.

Angélica Inés Petrus

Angélica Inés Petrus (ahn-HEHL-ee-kah ee-NEHS), the idiot daughter of the shipyard owner. Tall, blonde, and childlike, she emits involuntary bursts of laughter from her perpetually open mouth and is generally incapable of making coherent conversation. Larsen courts her with comic formality at their proper meetings in the summerhouse of...

(The entire section is 740 words.)