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Ultramarine Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Like that of Under the Volcano (1947), the story of Ultramarine is deceptively easy to summarize. On one level, it tells the story of forty-eight hours on board the tramp steamer Oedipus Tyrannus, “outward bound for hell”: forty-eight hours of unloading, loading, drinking, whoring, gossiping, and drudgery. On another level, in a series of internal monologues, it charts a sensitive young man’s confrontation with the human problems of sexuality, class conflict, and vocation, and the more philosophical problems of the nature of time and the status of the past—for in his mind Eugene Dana Hilliot’s Merseyside past is as vividly alive as the present: his childhood, his troubled relationship with his parents, his schoolboy traumas, and the idyll of his innocent relationship with Janet. In sum, then, Ultramarine tells of a spot in time when its protagonist is neither man nor boy, but both anticipates and achieves (at the novel’s close) a leap forward into manhood and acceptance of life, and also gazes back intently into childhood.

One hour out of Tsjang-Tsjang, as he spies on them at ease in the mess room, Hilliot dreams of being accepted by the crew. He misses a chance when a pigeon gets stuck atop the mainmast; it is Norman who brings down the bird, to the applause of all. Yet youth brings joy—on entering the harbor, for example, from which wafts the promise of exotic cargoes and erotic treats ashore. In these, however, Hilliot will not or dare not share. Nightfall finds him instead alone aboard, where an invitation to the quartermaster’s cabin leads to a proposition of a still more unwelcome kind. The night ends with a retreat, in dreams, into the securities of the past.

Next morning, stagnated at port, the crew turns to gossip and horseplay for amusement. Meanwhile, fed up with Andy’s taunts about his class and youth, Hilliot retaliates: trouble brews. His meditations center on celibacy, Janet, and the horrors of syphilis, the seaman’s scourge. His dreams become increasingly complex and story-like, absorbing all of his (and the reader’s) attention.

That evening, like rebukes, letters from his mother and Janet arrive at precisely the moment he succumbs to the call of the fleshpots ashore. In response, he embarks on an all-night binge—the quintessentially Lowryan core of the novel. At the Cabaret Pompeia, he spins fake autobiographical yarns to an uncomprehending German, Popplereuter, who accidentally pockets Janet’s letter. At the local cinema (featuring Olga Tschechowa in Love’s Crucifixion), he meets a very drunk Norman demanding of the cashier a “one third [class] day-return to Birkenhead Central.” The three take a sodden tour of the sights, including an anatomical museum, where “the visitor sees the awful effects of MAN leading a DEPRAVED life.” Nevertheless, Hilliot soon finds himself dancing with a girl at the Miki Bar whose calling card proclaims her “Olga Sologrub, queen of love. Night work a specialty.” A loss of virginity, however, is not in the cards. Instead, as Hilliot discovers when he withdraws for thought (and to discover his loss of Janet’s letter), the Tarot cards (according to a shadowy fortune-teller) foretell acceptance (“everybody like you when you play [the ukelele]”). More drunk, he returns to the Miki Bar. Olga is in Andy’s arms.

The next day, ship gossip focuses on Hilliot—so drunk the previous night that he slept on the wrong ship. His own meditations circle closer to dealing with that decisive moment...

(The entire section is 879 words.)