Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1822
The “beginning without beginning” that affects D. throughout his life, and which is the source of his creative voyage toward both Ushant and the self-destructive elements in his life, lies in his discovery, at age eleven, of the bodies of his parents, whose bitter quarrel had resulted in a murder-suicide. He sees part of his quest as the attempt to reconcile these parents in himself and to deal with their deaths through his art. The chosen action for D. is to journey back and forth across the Atlantic, and the resolution of his odyssey will be the reconciliation of the opposites of his life through creativity.
The book’s six sections follow in the most general way the chronology of events in D.’s life, shifting time and place continuously. After the initial introduction to the form and method of the book and the appearance of D.’s cabin mates and the four translators of his life, D. returns to the world of his childhood and the images of his parents: the lackluster mother and the elegant, handsome doctor father. D. describes his house in Savannah and its two doors, one leading to the stately lawn and graceful garden and the other to the back streets and raw adventures. This dualistic view pervades the entire book, especially when D. is comparing England and the United States, his mother and father, Savannah and Boston, or East and West, and it clearly adds to his fears as a child and the ambiguities of his self-image as a man and an artist. At this point, D. does not tell how his parents died but only of his sense of dislocation when he was moved from Savannah to New England to be cared for by cousins, aunts, and uncles.
Section 2 of Ushant moves to the world of New England; it describes D.’s first recognition that he is caught between two worlds, a pattern which is repeated throughout his life and which leads him ultimately, though with difficulty, to a reconciliation of the two. D. remembers himself as a source of embarrassment to the family because of his parents’ deaths. He is passed from house to house until the family recognizes that it needs him as much as he needs them in order to deal with the guilt and sadness connected with past events. The portrayals of Aunt Sybil, the Beloved Uncle, and the powerful Aunt Maud are striking, particularly when D. contrasts their northern coolness and firmness with exciting, passionate Savannah, a place of beauty and “incredible and cruel fertility.” Nevertheless, it is in Boston, Concord, and later Cambridge that D. develops his poetry, that “deepest and most secret habit of his nature.”
These accounts of D.’s childhood are the most affecting sections of the book, because they are mainly centered on character portraits of the family past. The influences of environment and heredity become marvelously mixed when D. tells of ninety-five-year-old Aunt Jean, who, in her delirium, confuses D. with various family members who lived in the nineteenth century. In this scene, D. becomes a composite portrait of five generations; he feels a queer combination of anonymity and identity within the structure of his family, an ambiguity which he in turn passes on to the three D.’s who are his children. In his way, all D.’s relatives help compose the moving pattern of his life. Perhaps most significant, Aunt Sybil and the Beloved Uncle allow D. to see the portfolio of his father’s poems, thereby helping him to exorcise his guilt and shame and encouraging his desire to write by showing him that writing was a “family habit.”
The third section of the narrative centers on D.’s excursion into the world of Bloomsbury after his break with Harvard University. It begins with a contrast between D.’s adventurous Cousin Del, whose passion for ships and the sea D. shares, and the Frightened Uncle, who always sat on the fence and never learned to live. Though D. is not given to some of the dangerous exploits of his cousin, he does heed the words of the uncle who tells D. not to make his mistake. Consequently, D. decides to leave Harvard after a year and spend time in London. It is here that he meets Tsetse (T.S. Eliot), of whom he had heard at Harvard, and other American literary lights, most of whom, in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, have returned to the motherland of the English language. D., speaking now as the poet, sees this as symbolic and describes people and places in England metaphorically. For example, he refers to his three wives as Loreleis I, II, and III, to T.S. Eliot as Tsetse (perhaps because of his somnolent voice), to Ezra Pound as Rabbi Ben Ezra (a sharp reference to Pound’s anti-Semitism), and to Malcolm Lowry, who is given to theatricality, as Hambo. More relevant to Ushant’s major themes is the symbolic juxtaposition of places and persons. D.’s parents, especially, are associated in his mind with England and America. He sees England as an ordered, social, traditional, and maternal influence and America as a chaotic, individualistic, iconoclastic, and paternal influence in his life.
D. also sees this duality in the attitudes toward England and America expressed by various American writers. At first, he connects himself to writers such as James and Hawthorne, for whom England and Europe held a greater fascination, at times, than America, even though both writers had their roots squarely in the American romantic and puritanic spirit. Yet as D. spends more time in England and on the Continent, he is drawn to comprehend and empathize with those writers, such as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson, who “stayed at home” and drew heavily on their own individual resources rather than a traditional sense of society. After his own struggle, D. accepts the American scene, “changing by realizing and accepting by changing,” or fusing the two worlds in himself as he had done with the opposing worlds of Savannah and Boston.
His voyage back to the United States provides D. with the characters for his novel Purple Passage (Aiken’s facetious title for his earlier autobiographical novel, Blue Voyage). Most significant of these characters is Cynthia, whom D. sees as the precipitator of his break with the United States, his fatherland. It is she who underscores the great differences between the two worlds: shaped, traditional Europe and raw, unfinished America, where the “sense of freedom is priceless.” While his affair with Cynthia lasts, he makes his break with Harvard and gives himself to the continental scene. Always, however, he struggles with his attraction to the United States and the need to explore and face his origins.
Breaking off from his explorations of his past, D. returns to the present aboard the eastbound ship. He emerged from the cabin at the start of section 3; now, at the beginning of section 4, he makes his way to the ship’s bar, where he hears the voices of some of his cabin mates. His physical movement parallels his spiritual growth, and as he leaves the cocoon of self to enter a larger world, his memories follow him. He recalls his meeting with Tsetse in Paris and the parting of their ways, Eliot returning to Harvard to study Sanskrit and D. visiting Naples, Rome, and the graves of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. D. remembers, too, that Europe was a way to deal with what he had thought of as the family madness, the insanity that caused him to break off his studies and come to Europe seeking experience. He sees his fate affected by Tsetse and by Irene, an English courtesan, who waits for him in Leicester Square in London. For D., these two influences— Eliot in art and Irene in sex—are intertwined, ambiguous yet determining voices in his life as an artist. He asks himself a question: Is the artist the healthy child of nature, her spokesman and her celebrant, or is he the unhealthy rebel pitted against the determining forces? D.’s answer is to celebrate those moments of expanded consciousness while maintaining an awareness of the underlying chaos of life.
Painful experiences with an Italian Berlitz teacher in Venice and later with a German waitress reveal D.’s timidity with women, a timidity based partly on his sense of inadequacy and partly on his fear of marriage. It is Irene Barnes, the Englishwoman he meets in London, who helps D. to “put on a new body and a new mind.” His brief interlude with her opens D. to the love of others and frees him from his narcissism. Even though he spends only a brief time with Irene, a time described by Aiken in a comic Joycean manner, she evokes in him a genuine feeling of love. This sense is augmented by an incident in which D. overcomes his repulsion and feels compassion for a man with a hideously scarred face sitting opposite him in a railway car. Small episodes of disclosure like these are at the very center of Ushant. Unlike other autobiographers, Aiken concentrates not on the chronology of events but on the minor experiences that brought about major changes in the growth of his soul.
D.’s recollection of the years before and after World War I become his main preoccupation in part 5 of Ushant. It is then that he makes the important decision to leave England and return to his roots in the United States. For Eliot and Pound, remaining in Europe meant turning away from America and American themes; Aiken was unable to do that. D. leaves England, sure of his place there. He will not return until after World War II. D. finds his enforced exile good for him; looking back on his life in England, he sees himself as a man who was writing with his eyes shut.
The final section of the book brings all the various elements that have made up D.’s complex life into focus. He recognizes that he had to journey to England to understand his American roots and to undertake the psychologically circuitous journey back to himself. In that journey, he learned to love and to value all experience.
The completed book, which the reader sees emerging from Aiken’s memory and imagination, reflects and refracts the author’s self. The book is by its nature both subjective and objective, and it is not always easy to comprehend everything that Aiken is trying to say. Aiken himself recognized this in a letter he wrote just before the book appeared. “[I was] early convinced that I should have to plump for an all or nothing nebular and tensionless spiral,” he says. “[Ushant] will thus select the particular reader I want. . . . [The] whole effect will be there for him if he wants it.”
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support