The Oedipus Tyrannus herself is described in far more tangible and particularizing detail than the novel’s minor (and even some of its major) human characters. Ultramarine evinces as little interest in Orientals as it does in exploring the socio-political dimension of its Oriental setting (Merseyside is kept much more in mind). The working classes fare little better; in the mess room scenes, the slangy, gritty speeches are not ascribed to individual speakers but orchestrated into a counterpointed cacophony of voices—the speakers themselves are thus invisible, dehumanized.
Characterization of the women in Hilliot’s life is also weak. Olga, as her name and surreal calling card suggest, is a convenient symbol for fleshly desire. Even Janet is essentially the madonna to Olga’s whore; her independent voice is hardly heard until the reading of her letter. She is instead the auditor to whom Hilliot’s monologues are addressed, sometimes directly; the representative of old values; the soft white lamb of his overblown romantic-religious imagery. His mother, like his father, appears in Hilliot’s memories as both idealized figure and someone on whom to take novelistic revenge, perhaps for her bourgeois ordinariness.
Hilliot half humorously confesses to Popplereuter: “I am a strange man, or I would like to be a strange man, which is nearer the truth.” Even nearer the truth would be an admission that the internal voyage Ultramarine charts is a quest not only for manhood but also for identity, specifically identity as a writer—as the “dream”-telling episode, above all, would suggest. It is partly because Hilliot has realized this identity at the novel’s end that he can declare of his sensualist alter ego, rival and surrogate father: “I have identification with Andy: I am Andy.... But I have outgrown Andy.” By then neither the tattooed, chinless cook (the most impressive of the novel’s cast) nor the friendly, plucky, and eminently “normal” Norman has any further use as a model for selfhood; they can dwindle to mere friends.
Eugene Dana Hilliot
Eugene Dana Hilliot, the novel’s center of consciousness, an upper-middle-class youth, half-Norwegian and half-English, taking his first voyage as a deckhand. Sensitive, creative, out of place, and out of his class among the crew, Hilliot is the only character to be described in any detail. He has an identity problem that mirrors that of the author himself, whose own 1927 voyage to China Hilliot takes. Even his name is a compendium of references to the author’s literary influences: Eugene O’Neill, Richard Henry Dana, and T. S. Eliot (the crew pronounce Hilliot’s name “Illiot”). Hilliot wants both to be accepted as an “ordinary seaman” and to be extraordinary; at the age of nineteen, he has left boyhood behind but has yet to enter into adulthood. The voyage, his all-night “binge” ashore at Tsjang-Tsjang, his challenge to Andy, and his acceptance as part of the group will allow him to come to terms with the bourgeois Merseyside past of which he has freed himself, his schoolboy love, and his sexual urges, and to forge for himself an identity as a spinner of yarns and an expatriate (like his creator). Much of the novel is occupied with...
(The entire section is 809 words.)