The Wanderer

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Themes and Colors
The Passage of Time  Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Dreaming vs. The Real World Theme Icon
Family and Personal Identity Theme Icon
The Mysteries of Life and Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Wanderer, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family and Personal Identity Theme Icon

At the core of The Wanderer is an exploration of family relationships—particularly the father-son relationship between Mo and Cody and the relationship Sophie has with her foster family. The book explores how individuals—particularly Sophie and Cody—partly form their identities based on the relationships they have with their family.

Though Sophie’s life seems to be at the core of the book, Cody’s log entries also feature prominently throughout. One of the main topics Cody’s entries focus on is his relationship with his father. Mo and Cody’s relationship starts out pretty rocky. Mo is constantly criticizing Cody for goofing off and not taking things very seriously. Compared to the seriousness of Brian, Cody’s casual and joking attitude about the crew’s voyage comes off as carefree and lacking in commitment to the hard work sailing requires. Throughout the book, though, Mo begins to view and treat Cody differently, and vice-versa.

For example, after the Wanderer is struck by a wave that nearly spells the whole crew’s death, Mo begins to be less critical of his son. He starts to appreciate the fragility of life, and realizes that he has been taking his relationship with his son for granted. Cody writes about this change in his father’s attitude with amazement—he’s simply not used to being treated so kindly by his dad. Cody also realizes just how little he knows about his father—he says he comes to see Mo in a totally different way. He views his father as another human being, and not some brooding, inhuman figure of authority.

Sophie’s relationship with her family is also complicated, because she technically has two of them—her old deceased parents, and her new foster family. Her relationship with her foster grandfather, Bompie, evolves throughout the story and has complications as well. In a way, The Wanderer is not just about a trip across the ocean—it’s about how its crewmembers navigate their own personal problems (which, in the book, largely have to do with an individual’s relationship to his or her family) in a vast sea of chance and possible danger. Sophie is certainly no exception to such family issues. She’s lost the memory of her old parents from her conscious mind, forgetting their tragic death and thereby believing herself to be an original member of her new family. Her journey to England results in her unraveling the truth of her own family history.

At the beginning of the book, Sophie says that the sea is calling her—though she doesn’t know exactly why. The call just feels instinctual. Yet, by the end of the book, we find out that Sophie’s voyage across the ocean was a way for her to relive the trauma of her parents’ death and come to terms with it. Sophie’s understanding of her relationship with her foster family comes full circle: she realizes, at least to an extent she hasn’t before, that her original parents died in an accident at sea. While it’s not clear whether Sophie finally understands that “the little kid” she talks about is actually herself, she nonetheless starts on the path to forming a truer relationship with her past and with her current family—Sophie starts to realize her true identity.

The Wanderer therefore explores the dimension of family life in its characters’ psyches, and how a sense of being in a family and related to others is at the very core of our identities.

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Family and Personal Identity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Family and Personal Identity appears in each Chapter of The Wanderer. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Family and Personal Identity Quotes in The Wanderer

Below you will find the important quotes in The Wanderer related to the theme of Family and Personal Identity.
II. Shakedown Quotes

Sophie talks about my aunt and uncle as if they are her real parents, even though they are only her adopted parents and she’s only been with them three years. Brian says Sophie lives in a dream world, but I think it’s kind of neat that she does that. At least she isn’t sitting around moping about being an orphan.

Related Characters: Cody (speaker), Sophie, Brian
Page Number: 23-24
Explanation and Analysis:

Written in his first journal entry, Cody here tells us something important that Sophie has left out of her journal entries so far—the parents she’s been telling us about are actually her adoptive parents. As we find out later in the book, Sophie has largely blocked out all of her memories of her biological parents from her conscious mind, as if something deep inside of her psyche wants to erase her past and start life over from scratch. While Brian thinks that the world Sophie has invented for herself is too dreamlike and irrational, Cody seems to be constantly fascinated by it.

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IV. Under Way Quotes

Here we are, well out in the big blue, rolling, rolling, sailing on to England. Out here, I feel as if the ocean is alive, as if it is living and breathing, and moody, oh so moody! Sometimes it is calm and smooth, as if it were asleep; and sometimes it is playful, splashing and rolling; and sometimes it is angry and knocks us about. It’s as if the ocean has many sides, like me.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Open Ocean
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

Having left Gran Manan to head towards the main destination of the trip—Bompie’s home in England—Sophie writes this in the first days of The Wanderer’s long stretch across the Atlantic Ocean. Here, we can feel Sophie’s enchantment with the ocean: a moody body of water that leaps from sleepy smoothness, to playful, energetic rolling, and even to an angry thrashing.

Though Sophie points out the ocean’s angry side here, the ocean doesn’t yet appear particularly threatening, like it will later in the book. For now, the ocean is a site of transforming wonder. It’s not a stage of death, as it later becomes for the crew. Further, Sophie’s identification in this quote with the ocean’s multi-faceted nature—with the fact that it has many sides, like her—harks back to the first chapter of the book, where she says that her father describes her as “three-sided.”

V. Wind and Waves Quotes

I feel as if there were things inside me that were safely tucked away, sort of like the bilge down there, hidden under the floorboards of The Wanderer. But it feels as if the boards were blown off by The Wave and things are floating around and I don’t know where to put them.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wave
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

Sophie writes this shortly after the last quote, in the aftermath of the violent Wave.

The sense that Sophie’s mind is divided between things she blocks out from her conscious mind (her everyday awareness) and things of which she is aware is further highlighted here. Sophie has blocked out the pain of her past, and what she’s consciously aware of are largely things she dreams and makes up, and which are therefore false beliefs (like her belief that her adoptive parents are her original ones). She’s conscious only of what it pleases her to believe, what she wants to believe, blocking out the pain of her past.

The floorboards Sophie describes are like a line that separates the painful stuff she’s blocked-out from what she wants to believe is real. It’s the line that keeps what’s blocked out totally inaccessible by Sophie’s awareness. The violent wave, however, has ripped up those floorboards. Reminding Sophie of the traumatic accident which killed her parents, the violent wave brings up pieces of her blocked-out memory of the accident up through the broken “floorboards” of her psyche. Things which were “safely tucked away” and “hidden” are now “floating around” like confusing fragments in her conscious mind.

I am thinking about Bompie. At last I will see Bompie. Why am I scared?

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker), Bompie
Page Number: 202
Explanation and Analysis:

Sophie writes this in the aftermath of the violent Wave, as The Wanderer continues towards Bompie. Here, the conflicted dynamic which characterizes Sophie’s relationship with water once again appears. Finally, Bompie is starting to get within her reach; Sophie is honing-in on Bompie’s house in England, and after waiting and hoping for so long, she’s finally going to get to meet him. The possibility of meeting Bompie, which used to be just something Sophie would imagine, now seems like a real thing that will actually happen.

But, despite all the excitement and anticipation she’s had about meeting her grandfather, Sophie is suddenly scared about seeing Bompie. Why? Though Sophie is pulled towards Bompie, as she gets closer to him she feels a fear which pushes her away. Why the push?

Perhaps Sophie is starting to doubt whether meeting Bompie will mean all the things to her she’s imagined it would. She’s thought about meeting him for so long, and what it would be like—but what if Bompie’s nothing like she’s thought? What if her sense of a deeply special connection with him gets crushed when she meets him in the flesh? What if the reality is a disappointment in comparison to her imagination? Perhaps these thoughts are subtly pulsing in the back of Sophie’s mind.

There's a little kid. And the little kid doesn't know what is going on. The little kid is just cold or hungry or scared and wants Mommy and Daddy. And when other people tell the little kid that Mommy and Daddy have gone to heaven . . . the little kid feels bad and wonders why they didn't take their little kid with them . . .
And everywhere the little kid goes, people ask what the little kid remembers about the grown-ups, who have gone away to the beautiful place, but the little kid doesn’t want to remember that painful thing. . . . The little kid wants to be right here, right now . . . not back at those times the little kid got left behind.
But no matter what the little kid might want, something inside pushes the little kid ahead while something or someone pulls the little kid back.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker), Cody
Related Symbols: The Little Kid
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

Cody writes this in the aftermath of the nearly-fatal storm, as The Wanderer regains control of its course towards England. He’s recording the response Sophie gave when he asked her if she “remembered things from when she was little.”

Unsurprisingly (by this point in the book), Sophie, being asked about her past by Cody, starts talking about the little kid instead. The little kid, a fictional character onto which Sophie projects the truth of her own past in order to disconnect herself from it, wants so very much to be able to live in the present. Having gone through a very painful past of losing their parents, and then being, as we learn later on, chucked from place to place—from their grandpa’s (who died), to their aunt’s (who didn’t want the little kid), and then from foster home to foster home—the little kid has felt rejected and unwanted. The little kid even felt rejected by their own parents, wondering why they wouldn’t take their child to heaven with them. In order to get on with life and live happily, the little kid just wants to be able to look ahead, and not backwards at the pain of the past.

The “push-pull” dynamic at the core of Sophie’s psyche shines through here. Sophie (the little kid) feels pushed by her painful past into a better future, where she can live a happy, fulfilling life where she feels valued. Yet, at the same time, she feels pulled back by her painful past, for she can’t totally erase it, even though she tries.

In trying to get totally beyond her past by wholly forgetting it, Sophie, or the little kid, gets caught-up in this back-and-forth of being pushed and pulled. Perhaps if Sophie would try to reconcile herself with the past by remembering it and coming to terms with it—by recognizing the good parts about it—she could achieve a steadier state of mind. Cody, at the end of the book, tries to help her recognize this.

I could understand what he was saying, but I wondered if the same was true of children, that sometimes you can’t control things and sometimes you have to let go. Maybe you even have to let go of your parents. But then I was all muddled in my head and I couldn’t make sense of anything, not even where I was or why I was there.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker), Stew
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

Sophie writes this in response to a moment she shared with Uncle Stew as The Wanderer nears the coast of Ireland. Uncle Stew was saying that when it comes to being a parent, sometimes you have to just let go of your children and pray that they’ll be okay—that, eventually, you have to let go of trying to control everything about your child’s life.

Sophie reverses Stew’s statement by considering that maybe children eventually have to let go of their parents. It seems significant that Sophie writes, in the very next sentence, that her head started to get “muddled.” It seems as if the thought that children have to let go of their parents has troubled her and unsettled her in some way.

This makes sense, though, for it’s precisely what Sophie has had (understandably) a very hard time doing—letting go of, or moving on from, her original parents. By trying to block their memory out of her mind, she hasn’t let go of them; rather, she’s simply buried them deeper into her psyche. The idea of letting go of one’s parents, then, confuses her, precisely because she hasn’t let go. To truly let go of her parents, she’d have to remember them, and thereby come to terms with their death in order to move on with her life.

What I wonder is this: how come you don’t notice the time going by, and you don’t think you are changing in any way, but then all of a sudden you realize that what you are thinking today is different from what you thought yesterday and that you are different from what you were yesterday—or last week—or last month?

Related Characters: Cody (speaker)
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

In another interesting philosophical moment in the book, Cody raises this question as he’s recovering from his encounter with the almost deadly Wave. The violent storm has changed Cody, as well as his dad (Mo). Having faced death, Cody’s way of perceiving the world is different—and this includes his perception of his father. He now sees his father in a totally different light, as if he’s a stranger with a history that Cody is totally ignorant of. Mo has also changed—he realizes how poor of a father he’s been to Cody.

It’s therefore fitting that Cody raises this question about the nature of change. Why don’t we notice that we’re changing as we’re doing it? Why do we only have knowledge of our changes after they’ve run their course on us—after the fact that we’ve changed? Though Cody never gives an answer, it’s remarkable that he’s even asking the question. Cody, as we knew him in the beginning of the novel, is not someone who lives a “life of the mind”—he doesn’t typically ask questions like this. But now, his life having been altered by an encounter with death, Cody is thinking more about his life as a whole. The wave has changed his outlook on life.

Everyone is talking about reaching Ireland, but I feel weird, as if we’re not really going to get there, or as if I’m not ready to be there. And what will happen with Sophie when we do reach Bompie? Maybe that’s part of the reason I don’t want to get there. I’m afraid for Sophie.

Related Characters: Cody (speaker), Sophie, Bompie
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

Cody writes this shortly after his previous quote. The crew is mostly recovered from the storm, and soon Cody and Sophie will spot land—the coast of Ireland.

Cody’s initial fascination with Sophie’s weirdness and mystique has now turned into a genuine concern for her mental health and well-being. He seems to know that there’s something peculiar about Sophie’s relationship with Bompie—but not in the way that Brian thinks their relationship is strange.

While Brian is downright infuriated by Sophie’s insistence that she knows Bompie, believing her to be making up everything she says, Cody doesn’t seem to doubt Sophie, at least entirely. Though he’s unsure about how she knows Bompie’s stories, he seems more concerned about how she will react to meeting Bompie—how her emotions will hold up—and not so much about whether she’s lying or not.

Cody seems to understand that Sophie has identified with Bompie in a powerful way, and, knowing Sophie’s capacity to dream her world, perhaps he’s worried that Sophie has thought Bompie is someone he’s not, that he means something to her imagination which he cannot uphold in the flesh. Cody is perhaps worried that Sophie will meet Bompie, have her illusions about him shattered, and be deeply saddened.

VI. Land Quotes

I reached across the bed and touched her hand. “Sophie,” I said. “Maybe that’s not Bompie’s story. Maybe that’s your story.”
Bompie whispered, “Sophie, he’s right. That’s your story, honey.”
Sophie stared at me and then at Bompie. She looked so scared and so little sitting there beside Bompie. And then she put her head down on Bompie’s chest and she cried and cried and cried.

Related Characters: Cody (speaker), Sophie, Bompie
Related Symbols: The Wave, The Little Kid
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage, written by Cody when he and the crew have arrived at Bompie’s cottage, is arguably the climax of the entire book. Before this moment, Sophie has spent a good deal of time retelling Bompie’s stories to him. With each story, however, when Bompie becomes submerged in a body of water—whether it’s the new car story, the railway bridge story, the swimming story, or the ocean story—Sophie makes sure to emphasize the fact that Bompie really struggled and had a rough time in the water.

Yet each time Sophie gets to this part, Bompie says he doesn’t recognize it—he doesn’t remember ever struggling in the water that way. Finally, Sophie tells a story about when Bompie was out at sea with his parents and a giant wave came upon them. She then stutters, trying but unable to say that the wave drowned Bompie’s parents, and Cody finishes her sentence for her. Sophie then gasps in agreement with Cody, but Cody and Bompie say that Sophie is mixing her own story up with Bompie’s.

Sophie, therefore, is gently encouraged to accept the truth of her past, the truth of her own story. Until now, she’s blocked it out and transferred it onto other people, like the “little kid” and Bompie. Now, however, Sophie has to realize that all the time she’s spent idealizing Bompie has been largely due to the fact the she thought, on some mental level, that he shared her history and her traumatic past—even though she’d blocked it out.

Sophie is finally left alone with her own truth; she can no longer project it onto anyone else.

It was strange reading the ones about the car in the river, and leaping off the train tracks, and Bompie’s baptism, and Bompie in the swimming hole, and Bompie at the ocean. Most of what Sophie had told us was pretty much the way he had told it to her in his letters, except for the parts about struggling in the water. He was in the water all those times, but he hadn’t written about struggling in it.
Those parts had come from Sophie.

Related Characters: Cody (speaker), Sophie, Bompie
Page Number: 250
Explanation and Analysis:

Cody writes this shortly after the last quote, after Sophie has given him a notebook with the letters Bompie had written to her over a period of three years. Cody writes that Bompie’s first letter welcomed Sophie to her new, adoptive family, while each one after told her a story about his life.

This quote is important because it shows an evolution in Cody’s understanding of Sophie. He’s now not only certain that Sophie hasn’t (entirely) made up Bompie’s stories, but he’s also coming to see firsthand how Sophie’s traumatic past and fear of the water has influenced all her versions of Bompie’s stories—how her memories and fear of water, to a great extent, propelled her interest in Bompie’s stories.

Cody can now see that Sophie recited each story very closely to the way Bompie had written them, but also that Sophie added a part which she must have not realized she was actively adding. The parts about Bompie struggling in the water were what Sophie wanted to read in Bompie’s stories—she wanted to learn about and know someone who understood her own struggles with water.

Cody’s book-long fascination with Sophie, then, develops here into a more nuanced understanding of how her inner world works.

Cody ripped off the wrapping. Inside was a pen-and-ink drawing of Cody juggling. He was standing on The Wanderer, and the boat was leaning way over, but Cody was perfectly balanced, and he was juggling not pretzels—or socks—but people. Each of us was a little wee tiny person up in the air, and Cody was juggling us.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker), Cody
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

Sophie writes this passage at Bompie’s. She’s writing about an evening when Uncle Mo distributed gifts of drawings and paintings he made on The Wanderer to Bompie and the crew.

This passage is significant because Mo’s drawing points out how Cody—though he was often framed in the book as a silly, unserious goof-off—has, in a way, been the most observant person on The Wanderer. While Sophie has a keen mind for observing people and things and investigating them, she’s often caught up in her push-pull world of struggling to know what’s true and what’s not. Cody, however, has carefully observed Sophie for a long time, and has come to an advanced understanding of why she thinks and acts the way she does.

While trying to unravel Sophie’s mysteries, Cody has also had to juggle the aggressiveness and anger of his father, as well as the bossy, accusatory, and overbearing natures of Brian and Uncle Stew.

And, while Cody and Sophie are both outcasts of the crew in a way, Cody has probably felt less connected to Sophie, than she has with him, since Sophie always seems caught up in her own dream world, in a place where she can’t always be reached. Cody, then, has been uniquely alone on the whole trip, juggling his relationships with all the other crewmembers on his own, with little support.

Further, this passage marks an important moment for Sophie, as Mo’s gift to her is a symbol of her acceptance into the family. While she wasn’t expecting to receive a gift, she did, much to her happiness, get one—just like everyone else. Sophie’s finally landed somewhere stable, in a family of which she can be a permanent member.

I’ve been thinking about the little kid. I think that one day the little kid got lucky and she landed in a place where it was okay if she couldn’t remember all the time, and because it was okay if she couldn’t remember all the time, and because it was okay not to remember, she started to remember. And along with the painful things came the good things to remember and maybe she felt as if she’d found some things she’d lost.

Related Characters: Cody (speaker), Sophie
Related Symbols: The Little Kid
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

Written in his last journal entry of the book, Cody records here his final thoughts about the little kid—about Sophie’s younger self, whom Sophie has tried to forget. Perhaps, Cody wonders, Sophie (the little kid) needed to reach a place where it was all right for her to forget her past—where it was okay for her to live totally in the present, however she conceived of it. This achievement was probably a good thing for Sophie, since it allowed her to acquire a sense of belonging with her adoptive family. No longer remembering her old parents or her constant skipping from foster home to foster home, Sophie could finally feel accepted, valued, and wanted.

But now that Sophie’s reached this point, Cody suggests that it’s become okay for her to start remembering the past, which explains why Sophie has, over the course of the trip, been slowly starting to remember what she’s blocked out. Precisely because Sophie reached a place where she could stop remembering her past and finally feel a sense of being present in a new life that welcomed her is why she now seems more prone to remembering her past. Maybe, at some level of her mind, she thinks it’s finally safe to start remembering.

Cody seems to imply that he thinks this new stage in Sophie’s life will be incredibly healthy for Sophie—that it will allow her to live not in a false present, but in a real one no longer held back by the blocked-out pain of her past.

I can tell that my now-parents are awfully relieved that I made it back in one piece. They keep coming into my room at night and sitting on the edge of my bed, and when I open my eyes, they say, “You okay? You need anything?” and I say, “I’m just fine.”

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker)
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

Sophie writes this in her last journal entry of the book; she’s back home in Kentucky, and Brian and Cody are staying with her for a couple of weeks. The trio intends to explore the Ohio River together.

Perhaps the most significant element of this quote is Sophie’s usage of the term “now-parents.” This is the first place in the entire book where Sophie has acknowledged that her current parents are different than her original ones—that they’re her adoptive parents, not her biological ones. This indicates that Sophie’s mind is starting to change: she’s starting to realize a truer relation to her past family as well as her present family. She’s no longer covering the former with the latter, and is starting to consciously recognize that she had a real past before her current parents. Sophie is beginning to understand her own story in a way she’s never been able to before.