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Hessler 1 Chelce Hessler Booker Prize Winners Dr. Heather Levy Research Paper 12.05.

2013 Between Realities: A Perceptual Dissection of Offshore It is a common, almost innately human, hope to believe in the triumphant power of our own perception that somehow if we are willing to devote ourselves wholly to an idea it will manifest as truth. But, in spite of our narrow, subjective lenses, there is an objective external reality, one that will ultimately triumph when pitted against our own finite, flawed vision of truth. It is this failure to accept what is when it isnt what we want, this instinctive and seemingly selfdefensive weakness, that plagues us; by eschewing genuineness, we sacrifice any chance of being genuinely happy, instead committing ourselves to a deep suffering rooted in our refusal to accept the disparity between what we are and what we want to be. In Penelope Fitzgeralds

Offshore, this blindness lies at the heart of each characters hardships

Richards denial in recognizing his deteriorating marriage and

Hessler 2 myopically dutiful social protocol, Nennas inability to cope with her inadequacy as a wife and mother, Maurices numb detachment, halfhidden by his superficial presence, even Penelope Fitzgeralds own impulse to create a world steeped in such bleak denial - all of these are circumstances of chronic desperation, wrought by the painful erosion of well-worn illusions and the underlying rejection of the pervasive nature of concrete reality. The concept of reality is a question of infinite complexity that has fascinated and bewildered thinking minds for centuries. Theories regarding the metaphysical nature of shared existence are rampant, and many contradictory theories have each proven to exhibit a reasonable degree of plausibility. That said, for the purposes of this paper, reality will be defined as an objective truth that exists external to the realm of the subjective (and thus without influence from the perception of the subject). In other words, The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are (Primacy of Existence). Though this definition, provided by philosopher and author Ayn Rand, may seem

Hessler 3 to be a harsh depiction that excludes rather than explains our autonomy, intellectuals across varying disciplines have examined life and come to similar conclusions; Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes Your concept or perception of reality is not reality. When you are caught in your perceptions and ideas, you lose reality (61). Psychologists, too, after spending years dissecting the theoretical micromechanics of human behavior and interpretation, have similarly stated that reality is a world that is resolutely independent of the egos desires and needs (Casey 9), or, simply, as Jacques Lacan said, The real is what does not depend on my idea of it (Fink The Lacanian

Subject 160). With this working definition of reality now established,

we can move forward to a more intimately examine the tragedy and brilliance of Penelope Fitzgeralds Offshore. Seemingly the sturdiest character in the uncertain lapse known as the Reach, Richard, at first glance, appears to be nearly immune to the plight of perceptual dissonance. As his narrative progresses, though, we see him less as the glorified commander holding the ships and their inhabitants together at the seams, and more as an empty vessel offering himself to be filled only by his usefulness to others a misguided

Hessler 4 cadet, reporting and fit for duty, but little else. In one passage early on, Richards rotely internalized dogma is laid bare in the brief and devastating damnation Duty is what no one else will do at the moment (Fitzgerald 6). Binding altruistic obligation, the often extolled, yet rarely questioned burden metastasizes in Richard, becoming a senseless substitute for purpose of being. To Richard, the act of providing for his community is beneficially baseless. He does not help because it will cultivate a better living environment for him or his neighbors, or even because he thinks it will enrich the lives of those around him; observe the following exchange between him and Nenna: [Nenna] knew that he was good, and kept an eye on everybody, and on the whole Reach. 'I shouldn't be any happier, you know, if everything on Grace worked perfectly.' He looked at her in amazement. 'What has happiness got to do with it?' (82). Rather, Richard does not think or question the reasoning behind his actions at all, such a servant of seemingly unshakable duty, he is. The dangers of such drastically unwitting obedience are dire; says Ayn Rand: The meaning of the term duty is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher

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If one were to accept it, the anti-concept duty destroys the concept of reality: an unaccountable, supernatural power takes precedence over facts and dictates ones actions regardless of context or consequences. (Rand 107) She further goes on to state that these tendencies are symptomatic of an overwhelming lack of harmony with ones own external reality: A disciple of duty looks inward, he is self-centered, not in the rational-existential, but in the psychopathological sense of the term, i.e., concerned with a self cut off from reality; self-centered in this context means: self-doubt-centered. (111) Indeed, Richards world is shrouded in doubt, but because he does not understand that his unflinching sense of duty is what has caused it, he can only dig himself deeper. All of his relationships and interactions throughout Offshore are imbued with obligation, in contrast to reality and often to the detriment of his own happiness. Perhaps the foremost portrayal of this is his fading marriage. Though he senses that his wife is unhappy with their lifestyle (a vivid reality that deserves to be acknowledged and acted upon), he cannot reconcile this, nor can he fathom leaving the Reach in order to save their


marriage. This creates an imagined predicament for Richard, in which he perceives that it is not only possible, but necessary for him to satisfy both his marital duties by keeping his wife happy, and his personal duties by not giving up on the ship that is making her miserable. This impossible, invented reality is obviously contradictory at the most fundamental level, but because Richard refuses to acknowledge what he actually must do (choose between Lord Jim and Laura), he takes hollow half-measures in a weak attempt to ease her unhappiness: I want to take you out to dinner, Lollie, he said. Why? You look so pretty, I want other people to see you. I daresay theyll wonder why on earth you agreed to go out with a chap like me. You don't really want to go,' said Laura, but she disappeared into the spare cabin, where, unfortunately, her dresses had to be kept. Richard took off his slippers and put on his black shoes again, and they went out. (Fitzgerald 50) Even this scene is mired in a sense of bleakness, the mark of obligation masquerading as love. Sadly, this divergence from reality seems least apparent


to the people inside of the charade. In a telling exchange between Martha and Tilda, the young girls scrutinize the relationship: 'He looks tired all the time now. I saw him taking Laura out to dinner yesterday evening. Straight away after he'd come back from work! Where's the relaxation in that? What sort of life is that for a man to lead?' 'What was she wearing?' 'I couldn't make out. She had her new coat on.' 'But you saw the strain on his features!' 'Oh, yes.' 'Do you think Ma notices?' 'Oh, everybody does.' (53) Richard continues clinging instinctively to his duties, but when Laura does eventually leave him, he finds himself thrust into a rare moment of clarity. He sadly reflects I couldnt really believe she wouldnt like [living on Lord

Jim] (80). In coming a step closer to realizing reality, he recognizes that it

was the fallacy of perception, of his belief that they could be happy in spite of all the evidence otherwise, that is at the root of his sadness. In this moment, and maybe for only this moment, Richard finally sees just how far apart the life he thought he was living was from his actual external existence. A few boats over, on Grace, Nenna too struggled to live in accordance with actuality. Her delusions came, however, not from a passive blindness,


but an unrelenting, unconscious resistance at the core of her psychological being. When Nenna is confronted with her own deficiencies in dealing with the situation of having to repair her broken marriage, be a present and caring mother to her children, and independently look after herself and her boat, she slips into a state of self-subversive panic, which manifests in a form that most closely resembles regression. This deference is not uncommon, psychologically speaking: A particular crisis in self-perception may arise when an internal or external event occurs that clearly violates the preferred view of self. In such cases, it is necessary for the self to have some mechanism or process to defend itself against the threatening implications of this event. Such processes are commonly called defense mechanisms. (Baumeister 2) The reason why people default to this particular form of coping is also the reason it is vitally damaging to human existence; All Defense Mechanisms share two common properties: They can operate unconsciously, they can distort, transform, or falsify reality in some way (Anxiety and Ego Defense Mechanisms). The unknowing synthesis of reality provides people an ostensible escape from their truthful, undesirable conditions. However, the resolution of these circumstances often requires real action on the part of the

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subject, whose efficacy is wholly ruined by the fact that they are basing their concept around artificial constructs. In Offshore this disparity becomes alarmingly apparent in Nennas renunciation of her maternal role. In an embodiment of the defense mechanism known as regression, Nenna begins to make choices that serve only her own fleeting, erratic, selfish, immature impulses with little regard to how they will affect anyone else, namely her children. Abandoning her violin-playing, impulsively marrying Edward, her persistent and unfounded faith in his failing financial competence, the purchase of Grace, her hasty and painfully strained reunion with Edward, her disinterest in her childrens schooling and basic care, her legitimate wish to relinquish her parental responsibilities to Edwards mother when examined as such, her entire adult life becomes clear as a chronological composition of reckless decisions, the consequences of which she can only escape from by regressing further and further until she feels that she has devolved into a sufficiently comfortable state by eliminating all traces of the looming threat of adulthood. Says Jung: The patient's regressive not just a relapse into infantilism, but an attempt to get at something necessary...the universal feeling of

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childhood innocence, the sense of security, of protection, of reciprocated love, of trust. (Jung 32) Nennas regression is no secret to those who know her. Disappointingly, this includes herself. Nenna was a child again. She felt her responsibilities slipping away one by one, even her marriage was going (Fitzgerald 67). Her glimpses of recognition of her failures to exist as a functional adult being are a sign that at least, in some part, she is consciously choosing to continue demanding unreasonably disproportionate attention from other people. This is most apparent in her desperate, pleading interactions with Edward: 'Please give.' 'Give you what? You're always saying that. I don't know what meaning you attach to it.' 'Give anything.' She didn't know why she wanted this so much, either. Not presents, not for themselves, it was the sensation of being given to, she was homesick for that. (75) Edward, fueled more by anger than compassion, does not hesitate to spitefully articulate the pathologically skewed root of these needs; 'You don't want me,' Edward repeated, 'if you did, you'd have been with me all this time. All

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you've ever cared about is being approved of, like a little girl at a party' (75). His condemnation of the irreparable distance in their relationship is as hurtful as it is precise; Fitzgerald writes the marriage that was being described was different from the one they had known, indeed bore almost no resemblance to it, and there was no-one to tell them this (75). Even Edwards one effort to prove his affections, the bottle of perfume that he brings to Grace, is sadly misguided, thwarted both by a lack of fortune and a lack of intimacy (poignantly captured when Maurice quietly points out, 'I don't think Nenna uses scent at all' (109). Edwards lamentation of the bottle breaking shows just how ignorant he is of both Nennas tangible, practical needs and her juvenile, warped psychological needs: 'I came here to give her a present.' 'I know, James.' 'What do I give her now?' (110). As Jaques Lacan said, Just because people ask you for something doesn't mean that's what they really want you to give them (Fink Clinical

Introduction 20). The gift, a childhood token symbolizing love and adoration
that, for Nenna, is not at all about giving or receiving, but about showing that he cares; more specifically, in her regressive state, it is about showing that he is willing to take care of her, thus enabling her psychological deceptions to continue.

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This divergence from reality, however necessary it may be to Nennas psychological self-preservation, is not without its truly innocent victims. The most palpable suffering that arises as a result of this comes from Martha, who, in the face of being emotionally and fundamentally abandoned by her mother, must take the helm as the psychically oldest member of the houseboat, taking care of not only Tilda (who has hewn a remarkable, and circumstantially imperative sense of independence) but also Nenna, who has effectively reverted into a child role with her self-adopted adolescence. Illustrations of this in the novel are both numerous and heartbreaking: The crucial, moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long since been passed by Martha. (Fitzgerald 17)

Ma, where are your shoes?' asked Martha, drawing her mother aside and speaking in an urgent, almost tragic undertone. 'You look a mess. From Heinrich's point of view, you hardly look like a mother at all.' (86)

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Maurice, said Martha. Help me. Im trying to get my mother to dress and behave properly. (87) And perhaps most devastatingly: Martha left them, and went down the companion. Armed at all points against the possible disappointments of her life, conscious of the responsibilities of protecting her mother and sister, worried at the gaps in her education, anxious about nuns and antique dealers, she had forgotten for some time the necessity for personal happiness. (87) In sharp contrast, cementing Nennas estrangement from reality is the following thought, a reflection of hers offered like an acridly ironic shell of truth, internalized and then regurgitated with grossly insulting piety: It was quite wrong to come to depend too much upon one's children (18). For Nenna, the rift between her reality and her reality has become so daunting that even when she does come to a resolution of sorts it is her sister, Louise, who seems to make all the decisions and the arrangements for her and the girls to move to Canada. Louise steps in as the adult figure, giving Nenna no reason to develop beyond her defense mechanisms, further cushioning and

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reinforcing her dangerously unsustainable pseudo-reality, the only place in which she may ever learn to find solace. One of the most intriguing figures in Offshore is the endlessly enigmatic Maurice. Seen by others as the dazzling entertainer, the consummate confidante, innocently sly and sincerely gentle, Maurices role in the Reach is that of an odd sage, brimming with wisdom, but full of sorrow. Lines like Tenderly responsive to the self-deceptions of others, he was unfortunately too well able to understand his own (36). and He told the sombre truths of the lighthearted, betraying in a casual hour what was never intended to be shown (36). reveal the depths of the pained understanding in which he has come to live, making clear that what separates Maurice from the other members of the Reach is not his shared obliviousness to reality, but his solitary, stagnated, fragmented recognition thereof. In a telling passage, Maurice explains to Nenna: It's right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you're half in love with your husband, then there's Martha who's half a child and half a girl, Richard who can't give up being half in the Navy, Willis who's half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat

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who's half alive and half dead .. .' He stopped before describing himself, if, indeed, he had been going to do so. (38) In Buddhist philosophy, this cognitive process of realizing the nature of existence is seen as the ultimate (and only) way to end suffering by accepting it as reality. It is referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path, the final aspect of the core of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. Renowned Buddhist scholar Thich Nhat Hanh writes, The Buddha [said], The question is whether you want to liberate yourself. If you do, practice the Noble Eightfold Path. Wherever the Noble Eightfold Path is practiced, joy, peace, and insight are there (56). The Path, though seemingly a journey of clarity and simplicity, is actually tremendously formidable and demanding in its implications. Whatever comes together eventually has to come apart; therefore, all composite things are described as sufferingThere is no point in celebrating joy, because sooner or later it will turn into suffering. Suffering is a black cloud that envelops everything. Joy is an illusion. Only suffering is real. (29) As the path progresses and the learner evolves, this internalized acceptance of suffering blooms into an enduring tranquility that instills the disciple with peace and wholeness. If the process is terminated early, however, this

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understanding will be severely deformed, instead leaving the student in a state of disorientation and depression in which s/he cannot cope with the suffering they are facing because theyve not yet learned how. Hanh writes Once the door of awareness has been opened, you cannot close it. The wounds of war in me are still not all healed (16). Maurice has found himself at a crossroads; his course for realization and actualization has been set, but he finds himself paralyzed with fear after only the first few steps, and so he stalls, held captive by the grim truth in finally glimpsing his own suffering. Rather than strive to eliminate the concepts and fixations that have brought this suffering upon him, he clings to them because they are all he knows: Maurice, in the way of business, knew too many, rather than too few, people, but when he imagined living without friends, he sat down with the whisky in the dark (Fitzgerald 107); The barge took a great roll, and Maurice could hear the hanger with his good suit in it, waiting for the job which never came, sliding from one end of its rail to the other (108). At one point, Fitzgerald even observes that of all the boats on the Reach, Only Maurice was made fast to the wharf (11). It becomes clear that Maurice is living in a suspended liminality, a gruesomely constructed collage of halftruths that he cannot accept and half-deceptions that he will not surrender.

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His rejection of reality has condemned him to a misery that he can neither embrace nor escape. Of this Hanh says, Our suffering is holy if we embrace it and look deeply into it. If we dont it isnt holy at all. We just drown in the ocean of our suffering (20). For Maurice, this premonition proves to hold a tragic, morbidly literal fate: With that last heave, Maurice's anchor had wrenched clear of the mud, and the mooring-ropes, unable to take the whole weight of the barge, pulled free and parted from the shore. It was in this way that Maurice, with the two of them clinging on for dear life, put out on the tide. (Fitzgerald 111) In finding that the narratives of such ostensibly disparate characters as Richard, Nenna, Maurice, and all of the characters to an extent, are, in fact, so intricately interwoven through their disassociation from reality, one begins to wonder what Offshore may have meant to its creator on a personal level; why did she create these characters with these afflictions? Only in reading her letters, relics of correspondence between Penelope and those who she trusted most implicitly to understand her and love her, does one begin to see that Offshore is not, first and foremost, a work of fiction but rather more an instrument of catharsis to help the author cope with a time in her life that

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has been commonly accepted as her lowest point (Dooley 37). According to her son-in-law, who edited the collection, the printed letters begin the year after Grace sank, when she was putting her life back together after eight years of free fall (14), revealing that the fictional Grace, home to Nenna, Martha and Tilda, was actually a place where Fitzgerald herself lived and lost. He writes: [Offshore] was sometimes painful to read for her family. All art, the adult characters invented or composite, there is much in it that was recognisably the case: Grace, the houseboat, probably bought for its name as much as its cheapness, appears as itself, as does Stripey the cat, and the two little girls are called Tina and Maria in the manuscript. Reality dances with imagination in a treacherous way, games are being played with remembered facts, though not with the feelings beneath them. (27) With Fitzgeralds daughters, Tina and Maria, originally being cast to play Tilda and Martha, the implication becomes obvious; Fitzgerald identifies herself primarliy with Nenna, a brutally telling portrait of her impressions about her own flaws. In the letters she writes to her daughters, she does not speak explicitly to any insecurities about her maternal competence, but there

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is a tone of guilt, of penance, even, that Fitzgerald adopts. To Tina, who, at this point, had just gone off to school, she writes, Im afraid Im not at all successful, as a mother, in not getting on your nerves: but I do love you very much. Its so queer with no voice coming from your room (67). It is as though she feels that her love is a burden, and furthermore one that she feels no right in passing along. As she ages, and naturally descends into dependence, her tone becomes more explicitly wistful and apologetic: Dearest Tina, I enclose the cheque feeling guilty as always at leaving everything to you to do. Do you wake every morning and check through a list of things that must be done before you go to bed again mine is very trifling and one way or another I am terribly behind terribly. And then I think of all you have to doGetting old is not to be recommended, but its so wonderful to have kind daughters wonderful. (114) The feeling of atonement and indebtedness that permeates these letters paints Fitzgerald as a figure of eternal contrition, desperately aching to compensate for some perceived lapse in maternal presence or inappropriate dependence

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sometime in the past. The irony of this is that, in the childrens minds, such a failure never occurred. From Fitzgeralds son-in-law: I was talking one day to Maria about the (often furious) parental rows she remembers from the early years of her childhood, over bills unpaid, repossessions looming, and Desmonds drinking, and about how secure the children nonetheless felt in the love of two kind, intelligent and funny people who simply couldnt manage the world, despite their best efforts, so that it mattered less that they never knew where they would be living next, or where they would be going to school, there was a kind of adventure in it (14) The suffering that Penelope Fitzgerald has endured results not from any legitimately poor parenting on her part, but from her slanted perception of what constitutes a good mother. Unable to recognize that her emotions were in discord with reality, she created a world in which her feelings were substantiated by a fictionalized dramatization of the mother-daughter relationships she was troubled by. Offshore represents Fitzgeralds artistic confession and rationalization of sentiments that she cannot otherwise justify in the context of reality. Nenna is not Penelope Fitzgerald, rather she is a projection of Fitzgeralds emotional concept of self disorganized,

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disappointing, and disillusioning. In an attempt to both explore and escape from the feelings she could not reconcile in reality, Fitzgerald created a fictional character, whose inability to cope with her reality evokes empathy; Nennas denial is tragic, but it is never malicious or cruel. It is only through the invention of this being, the tangibly personified existence of the anxieties that Fitzgerald had carried for years, not abstractly vilified, but made sympathetic at last, that she could finally see herself as someone worthy of forgiveness; it was only through the lens of fiction that she was finally able to see the truth. As long as the tree is behind you, you can see only its shadow. If you want to touch the reality, you have to turn around (Hanh 61). Illusion is an enticing and powerful force. Its deceptive warmth seems at times, inescapable. But reality persists; it does not ask permission, nor does it require acceptance to exist. For the inhabitants of the Reach, the consequences of refusing reality are vastly at work, leaving their hopes of happiness nearly shipwrecked. The book ends with Maurice being thrown out into the ocean, a metaphor, perhaps, for the state of disillusionment one experiences when their deceptions are, at last, ruthlessly ripped away. Many readers of Offshore have speculated about whether or not the two men aboard eventually die; a certain

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condemnation of a life anchored in the fragile world of fantasy. But, even in asking it, the ultimate fate of the ship becomes a curious question. Let me repeat: The book ends with Maurice being thrown out into the ocean. There is no after; there is no life to be debated, no reality to be resolved. In reality there is only this book; the book exists, and as such, the book ends. So why might the reader feel compelled to create something more, to take what is and invent what should be? People crave resolution, and optimism is obstinate. In spite of a persistent reality, some people will simply always cling to the idea that they will never have to see the bitter void of finality as long as they keep focusing on the glimmer of hope amidst the waves.

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Casey, Edward. "Freud's Theory of Reality: A Critical Account." JSTOR. The Review of Metaphysics, Volume 25, No. 4, Jun., 1972, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Dooley, Terence, and Penelope Fitzgerald. So I Have Thought of You: The

Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald. London: Fourth Estate, 2008. Print.

Fink, Bruce. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and

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Fitzgerald, Penelope. Offshore. New York: H. Holt, 1987. Print.

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