The Wanderer

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The Mysteries of Life and Death Theme Analysis

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.
The Mysteries of Life and Death Theme Icon

The Wanderer raises a lot of questions about the purpose and meaning of life, as well as the relationship between life and death—what death is really like, and whether it truly provides a path out of life.

Perhaps one of the most profound moments of the book is when Sophie and Cody discuss life and death after “The Wave” almost kills them. Sophie and Cody wonder if whether, when you almost die, you actually do die—but you just automatically are reborn and continue living your life as if nothing happened. Further, they wonder if people live their lives on millions of different “planes”—if when one life dies, another life branches out, as if from a central life-trunk (owned by one person) with millions upon millions of different life-branches—like millions of different lives of the same individual. This scene between Sophie and Cody exposes the psychological intensity behind their trip across the ocean. The trip from Connecticut to England is not merely a geographical journey; it’s a mental one, as well. Faced with death, and with a wide-open sea that seems totally detached from ordinary, everyday life, Sophie and Cody (and the rest of the crew) are almost forced to ask these big questions about the nature of existence.

In one of his diary entries, Cody raises an interesting question about human identity and the mystery of life: why don’t we notice how we change through time, but rather have these random moments when we suddenly realize that we’re entirely different than we were before? In other words, if we’re always changing, what about us stays the same, and why don’t we notice ourselves changing? This question highlights the way in which time on the ocean has changed Cody’s thinking: taken out of his ordinary life and thrust onto the seas, Cody starts wondering about the nature of existence—things that we take for granted in our daily lives.

Another instance where the characters contemplate the mysteries of existence occurs after the crew has departed from Nova Scotia, when Sophie is partnered with Dock on night-watch. Dock asks Sophie “What’s it all about?” Sophie wonders what Dock is talking about, and he replies that, by “what,” he means “life” itself. It seems as if Dock is called by something that he cannot give words to—he can only use the word “it” at first to describe what’s calling him, then chooses the word “life.” It’s as if Dock’s mind has been brought to a basic mystery that is at the heart of The Wanderer, a mystery that makes the book into not a geographical journey, but a psychological one as well.

While The Wanderer never reaches any solid conclusions that give answers to the mysteries of life and death, working rather to explore a moment in its characters’ lives where they are forced to confront them, the book nonetheless shows how being confronted with such mysteries—encountered, in the book, during a time of great danger—can bring people together. The crew becomes closer, and its members begin to appreciate one another more, at the advent of their traumatic encounter with the nearly fatal wave. Further, the book emphasizes the importance of owning one’s own story, and of discovering it amidst the mysteries that life throws at us. Sophie’s journey across the ocean is a journey into an immense mystery, yet she comes out of it with a fuller knowledge of herself and her history.

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The Mysteries of Life and Death ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Wanderer related to the theme of The Mysteries of Life and Death.
II. Shakedown Quotes

Out here, there isn’t day and night and then a new day. Instead, there are degrees of light and dark, merging and changing. It’s like one long stream of time unfolding in front of you, all around you. There isn’t really a yesterday or a day before, which is weird, because then what is tomorrow? And what is last week or last year? And if there is no yesterday or last year—or ten years ago—then it must all be now, one huge big present thing.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Open Ocean
Page Number: 46-47
Explanation and Analysis:

Finally out on the open ocean, sailing on to Gran Manan from Martha’s Vineyard, what Sophie anticipated about the ocean—that out on it, all of time is connected—is coming true, and affecting her sense of passing time and life itself. Faced with a vast body of water expanding out onto a seemingly endless horizon, the sense of past-to-present-to-future is eroding for Sophie. The word “day” seems meaningless, as if the vastness Sophie is experiencing cannot possibly be measured by our conventional, rigid ways of ordering time. If the days can all blur together like this, and the word “tomorrow” is just a concept that humans make up in their minds, then, Sophie thinks, time must really just be “one huge big present thing.”


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IV. Under Way Quotes

I stared out at the water and up at the sky and had the strangest rush of feelings. First I was completely peaceful, as if this was the most perfect place on earth to be, and then suddenly the peacefulness turned into wide, wide loneliness.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Open Ocean
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

Sophie writes this entry while The Wanderer is sailing from Gran Manan to England—the crew hasn’t yet encountered the nearly-fatal storm of the fifth chapter.

Here, the conflicted dynamic which characterizes Sophie’s relationship with the water reappears. Sophie, looking out over the horizon of the ocean, experiences both a sense of blissful tranquility, and then a sense of vast emptiness and loneliness. The water, for Sophie, has this central ambivalence to it. At one moment, the ocean calls to her—pulls her to it in an enchanting excitement—but in the next moment she fears the ocean, or it inspires feelings of immense isolation.

This ambivalence is the central mystery of the ocean; at once beautiful in its seeming endlessness, it is also terrifyingly powerful, and almost too vast, too limitless, such that it could mean human life is essentially empty and meaningless. Perhaps this mystery is what provokes so many of the philosophical questions about life which the characters raise while out at sea.

V. Wind and Waves Quotes

Last night I dreamed about Sophie, and this morning I asked Uncle Dock if Sophie knew what had happened to her parents. He said, “At some level, Sophie must know. But consciously? That’s something only Sophie can answer.”

Related Characters: Cody (speaker), Sophie, Dock
Page Number: 178-179
Explanation and Analysis:

Cody writes this while The Wanderer is sailing from Gran Manan towards England, before the ship encounters the nearly-fatal storm.

Dock’s response makes a crucial point about Sophie’s psyche. At some level, deep down in her mind, she must still have memories of her parents and their deaths. But at the conscious level—at the level of her everyday awareness—Sophie doesn’t seem to remember. Sophie’s mind is therefore split in two. At the level of her conscious thoughts, she lives in something of a dream world, imagining her adoptive parents to be her real ones, having no apparent recollection of her past life before them.

However, at a deeper level that Sophie isn’t aware of consciously, there must still be in her mind a knowledge of her past. This fact, that Sophie still remembers her true past in some form, is evidenced by the “little kid” she sometimes mentions. Often bringing up a story about the little kid whenever she’s asked about her (Sophie’s) past life, it seems that Sophie has projected the past she doesn’t want to remember—that is, her own—onto the fictional “little kid.”

I was going overboard; I was sure of it. Underwater forever, twisting and turning, scrunched in a little ball. Was this the ocean? Was I over the side and in the sea? Was I four years old? In my head, a child’s voice was screaming, “Mommy! Daddy!”

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wave, The Open Ocean
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

Sophie writes this passage after a violent wave has hit The Wanderer in the nearly-fatal storm it encounters en route to England. Here she reflects on her experience of being swept up by it.

The most significant part of this passage is perhaps the child’s voice that Sophie hears. We can infer that the screaming she hears is actually her own—that the screaming is part of Sophie’s past, of Sophie’s memory of being with her parents when they died at sea. We can imagine that when she was swept away from her parents in that tragic accident, a very young Sophie would cry out for her mommy and daddy.

And now that Sophie has encountered another, similarly violent wave at sea, it makes sense that—in the moment of being swept away—the traumatic memory of her parent’s death (which she’s blocked out from her present awareness) would surge forth to her conscious mind. This newly experienced sensation of being swept away must have triggered her blocked-out memory of being swept from her parents as a small child—a memory which reappears in a particular form: the voice of a younger Sophie screaming. Of course, Sophie does not recognize this yet. She does not process what she hears in this way; she simply reports what she heard, and leaves it at that.

And I keep thinking about the wave dream I used to have. What seems especially eerie is that the wave in all of those dreams was The Wave—exactly the same: the same height, the same shape. The only difference is that the wave in my dreams was black, and this one was white. . . .
I can’t get rid of the feeling that the waves of my dreams were all pointing to The Wave that got us on the ocean.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wave, The Open Ocean
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

Sophie writes this in the aftermath of the nearly-fatal storm, as The Wanderer is on its final stretch to England. Perhaps the most significant element of this passage is Sophie’s connection of The Wave of her dreams with the violent wave she and the crew of The Wanderer faced at sea in real life. She says that the two are nearly identical in form, except for their color—and she feels that somehow the waves of her dreams were all leading to the wave at sea.

This last point is interesting, because it might explain two important things: one, why Sophie’s been having her nightmares about the wave, and two, one crucial motivation for her to embark on her trip over the ocean. We might say that Sophie desired to embark upon the ocean in order to master her fear of water, a fear represented by The Wave in her dreams. But why?

Well, if Sophie has blocked-out the memory of her parents’ death (when they died at sea in her company) from her conscious, everyday awareness, then The Wave nightmares might be a way for Sophie to relive, in her dream-world of sleep, that blocked-out memory in order to conquer it and strip it of its pain. If we accept this as the case, then the dreams in a way propelled Sophie to try and remember what she’d blocked out—to face and conquer her fear of water or The Wave, and therefore reconcile herself with her parents’ death.

If this is the purpose behind the dreams, then what does it tell us about Sophie’s motivation for embarking on the trip? When Sophie says that The Wave of her dreams pointed to the wave in real life, it suggests that she, on some mental level, desired to endure a trip over the ocean in order to face the fear that’s been the cause of her nightmarish dreams—to face the fear in real life. Sophie wanted to conquer her fear of the ocean on the ocean, to kill the fear once and for all—a fear caused by her parents’ death.

Last night, Cody and I got into this very serious talk about Life. We wondered if maybe people never die, but simply live on and on, leaving other planes behind. When you come near death, you die on one plane—so to everyone you are with, you are dead, but you—the you in you—doesn’t stop existing. Instead, you keep living the same as always and it just seems as if you’ve had a close call. We wondered if maybe we’re not each just one person, but many people existing on millions of different planes, like a line that branches off and branches again and on it goes, but it always has one central trunk.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker), Cody
Related Symbols: The Open Ocean
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

Having endured the violent wave and passed through the storm, Sophie writes about a conversation she had with Cody regarding, rather appropriately, life and death.

Since they both were the most injured by the wave—the most brutally swept up in its overwhelming force—Sophie and Cody have probably come the closest to death among the crew. Having had near-death encounters, their minds must subsequently be fixated on the fact that they saw their lives vanish before them, only to be saved because they both had their safety harnesses on at the time.

Their question about death—about whether one ever really experiences death, or rather just keeps being reborn on different “planes”—is therefore fitting. Did they actually die when the wave struck? Have they been reborn? While they do not give the question an ultimate answer, the fact that they’re raising it shows that the ocean has deeply changed them. They’re asking questions about the fundamental nature of life, of existence—they’re thinking about life in a way they never have before. Had they stayed on land and never ventured out onto the open ocean, it’s not likely they would be wondering if, in a single human lifetime, there are actually millions of different life-branches.

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.

VI. Land Quotes

I’m not in dreamland or earthland or mule-land. I’m just right here, right now. When I close my eyes, I can still smell the sea, but I feel as if I’ve been dunked in the clear cool water and I’ve come out all clean and new.
Bye-bye, Bompie. Bye-bye, sea.

Related Characters: Sophie (speaker), Bompie
Related Symbols: The Open Ocean
Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:

The last sentences of the book, Sophie concludes her journal with these words. Without going into any specifics, she claims to no longer be caught between the personality extremes which her father, as the first chapter showed us, has used to define her. By harking back to her first journal entry, Sophie gives a sense of closure to her journey. She’s changed from how she was before the trip, and she lives a more present life: a life not dominated by any one extreme of emotion, and which becomes freer, every day, from the painful past it once covered up.

Further, by suggesting that she’s been dunked in a cleansing water of renewal, Sophie subtly references the baptism of Frank’s son on Grand Manan. Though the baptism scared her back then—since seeing the people getting dunked triggered her fear of water—she now embraces the imagery of being baptized and reborn. Sophie is embracing the changes which, through acknowledging the truth of her past, are altering her view of herself, her history, and her world.