“‘Where is it,’ thought Raskolnikov. ‘Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once.”
Dostoevsky, “Crime and Punishment”
Kafka wrote once that the only books worth reading are those that “affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply.” Gentleman Overboard, a novella written in 1937 by Herbert Clyde Lewis, came to me highly recommended and shook me to the core. The book was out of print for 80 years before it was rediscovered in 2009. I was gripped right from the first passage:
“When Henry Preston Standish fell headlong into the Pacific Ocean, the sun was just rising on the eastern horizon. The sea was as calm as a lagoon; the weather so balmy and the breeze so gentle that a man could not help but feel gloriously sad.”
A perfect gentleman slips on a grease stain and falls overboard. He manages to survive until the sunset. The time space in between is filled with his backstory and all the lowly and the sublime thoughts that go through his head and heart on the last day of his life.
There seem to be three essential thematic components to the story.
1. The awakening
“… one day in spring only three months ago, shortly after he had quietly celebrated his seventh wedding anniversary … Standish, sitting in his private office downtown, suddenly found himself assailed by a vague unrest. He stopped what he was doing and looked around at familiar things, the papers on his desk, the windows, the pictures on the walls, the two telephones. All these appurtenances had always been desirable and comforting; but now, Standish realized in amazement, they were but dust in his mouth. He felt sick, tired, and depressed. Making suitable apologies to Pym and Bingley, who were too preoccupied with financial transactions to observe how serious was his affliction, he went for a long and lonely walk around Battery Park.
Forces beyond his control grasped him and shook him by the shoulders, whispering between clenched teeth: “You must go away from here, you must go away!””
Standish decides to go on a long cruise alone. During his travels, he became especially mesmerized by the water and the sunsets. He felt a new zest for life. For the first time his soul had opened to something bigger.
2. Stripping off the layer of civilization
Standish would wear prim suits and ties on every day of the cruise. Having fallen into the water, however, the clothes became a heavy burden. Gradually, he had to remove his shoes, socks, trousers, finally the whole suit. He desperately tried to secure his wallet in the trunks. A few hours later, when the sunset was near, he did the ultimate:
“He suddenly realized his blue-and-yellow shorts and tight-fitting athletic shirt were a heavy weight. In a fitful outburst of temper he started ripping them off his body. The shorts came off easily, but he had to tug and strain hard to pull off the undershirt. He flailed around insanely in the water, tugging madly at the shoulder straps. Finally they came off somehow; he was free and naked. Being naked was a new sensation for which Standish was momentarily grateful. For a while he actually felt comfortable in the water. But then he realized with stark terror that that was because all his life swimming in the nude had been a pleasure, a relaxation, something to look forward to on a hot day. At the Athletic Club in New York, in the strictly male swimming pool that smelled of chlorine, he had swum naked on many pleasant occasions. Now being naked had a far different significance, and it made him shudder and feel clammily cold and exhausted when he thought about it. He had stripped to the flesh to prepare himself for death—it was as simple as that. Undertakers stripped their victims before dressing them for burial.”
Standish could not deny what was happening any longer. Nobody was coming to the rescue. He was now but a dot on “the endless swells of the remorseless sea.”
3. Existential loneliness and death
The beautiful sunset that he saw was also the sign that the Land of the Dead was now claiming him. He poignantly thinks to himself how when he is gone “New York City would be dotted with spaces that could never be filled by anyone but the real Henry Preston Standish.” The reader experiences haunting sense of loss. Standish ponders:
“It was a lonely way to die, but that made no difference, for all deaths, including the few seconds of falling off a roof, were singularly and completely lonely…”
Marie Louise von Franz devoted a lot of time to the themes of death and the dreams of dying patients. Through her research she concluded that the unconscious psyche held a firm belief in life after death. Under this link you can listen to a fragment from her lecture on the topic:
It seems that once a terminally person accepts that his or her death is inevitable, dreams undergo a distinct change. There are hints of continuing in the beyond and a sense of deep reassurance is conveyed. The final passage of Gentleman Overboard has a similar otherworldly, almost angelic feel:
“Out of the deepening purple the words came crazily melodious, sweeping him back into his mother’s arms: ‘You were only hair dust and warm body, a heart beating naked before me and a sorrowful voice like the murmur of water foredoomed forever to fall from a cave to a cave….'”
I was deeply touched by the ending. There is majesty in this man’s death: at one point he imagines there is a bell tolling for him. This resonates with Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and the motto he took from John Donne – “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” Mind you, Hemingway’s book was published three years later than this one. But one may argue that both novels share the theme of life being cut short tragically and prematurely.
If you want to find out more about the author of the book, who himself died alone and forgotten, read this excellent article.
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The theme reminds me of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, though it’s a very different take on the man alone.
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Yes, I can definitely see that, though I have never read that book. Gentleman is not a dystopian novel but still the theme of utter loneliness must be palpable in both books. I think Mary Shelley was a visionary.
Excellent review Monika, so tragically sweet and very very dark. Thanks for sharing it with us in such a compelling way. This choice seems so you 😄
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Thank you so much, Linda. I love that combination of sweetness and darkness. There are also a lot of comical elements, though the laughter is utterly Kafkaesque. You are right about the book expressing my inner life 100 %.
Thank you for your moving reflection on this little masterpiece. It’s been so humbling to see readers around the world responding to this simple existential tale.
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The book was discussed in “Literaturclub” on Swiss TV and that’s how I first heard of it. I was really glad to come across your article later and to discover your wonderful website.