Steinbeck describes Henri, whose name isn’t really Henri and who has “steeped himself in stories of the Left Bank in Paris” so much that he almost sees himself as a French artist. Years ago, he decided to build a boat, but he works slowly because he rarely can afford the necessary materials. This, however, “is the way he want[s] it, for Henri never want[s] to finish his boat.” Still, he enjoys living in the boat, which is stuck on land. Over the course of the last decade, he has been married twice and has had a number of lovers, but they all leave for the same reason: the boat is too small, and they miss having a toilet. “Each time he was left alone,” Steinbeck writes, “he mourned formally for a while but actually he felt a sense of relief.”
When Steinbeck says that Henri “mourn[s] formally for a while” before feeling a “sense of relief” when a lover leaves him, he suggests that it’s a misconception to think that grieving is always a terrible thing. Indeed, Henri simply goes through the motions of this kind of sadness, but in reality he actually finds “relief” in this melancholy. In this way, Steinbeck intimates that sadness and melancholy can actually fuel a certain kind of happiness or—at the very least—contentment.
Whenever his lovers leave him, Henri likes to “buy a gallon of wine,” lie down in the boat, and drink heavily. “Sometimes he cried a little all by himself but it was luxurious stuff and he usually had a wonderful feeling of well-being from it.” During one of these moments, he sees two people standing outside his boat. Emerging from the cabin, he sees a man and a little boy, who is laughing. As the man smiles at Henri, he takes a blade from his pocket and cuts the boy’s throat, though the child goes “right on laughing.” Seeing this, Henri screams so loud that it takes him a moment to “realize that neither the man nor the baby [are] still there.”
Steinbeck’s assertion that Henri’s crying is “luxurious stuff” confirms the notion that there can be pleasure and contentment (or “well-being”) in feeling melancholy or lonely. On another note, it’s difficult to know what to make of Henri’s vision, as Steinbeck neither confirms nor denies whether what he sees is really there. However, readers ought to embrace the ambiguity of this scene, since the vagueness of the entire situation resembles what Henri himself must feel, thereby honoring Steinbeck’s desire to let life itself “crawl” onto the page.
Running to the laboratory, Henri tells Doc what he’s just seen. “Is it a ghost do you think,” he asks Doc. “Is it some reflection of something that has happened or is it some Freudian horror out of me or am I completely nuts? I saw it, I tell you. It happened right in front of me as plainly as I see you.” Doc, for his part, says he can’t be sure, and when Henri asks him to come back to the boat, he replies, “No. If I saw it, it might be a ghost and it would scare me badly because I don’t believe in ghosts. And if you saw it again and I didn’t it would be a hallucination and you would be frightened.”
Doc’s unwillingness to go to the boat with Henri provides insight into the way he views reality. Indeed, Doc is a pragmatic man who holds firmly to his ideas about the world around him. However, he’s also a curious, inquisitive, and flexible thinker who understands the disorder and chaos of everyday life, meaning that he has no problem acknowledging that his entire worldview might be wrong. Because he doesn’t want to refigure the way he moves through life, then, he refuses to go back to Henri’s boat, thereby preserving his belief that ghosts don’t exist.
Just then, a girl arrives to go on a date with Doc. Upon hearing Henri’s story, though, she agrees out of curiosity to accompany him back to the boat. Disappointedly, Doc watches them leave. “The girl never did see the ghost,” Steinbeck writes, “but she was fond of Henri and it was five months before the cramped cabin and the lack of a toilet drove her out.”
The fact that this woman is willing to accompany Henri back to his boat in search of a ghost is a testament to her kindness and ability to empathize, for she clearly sees that he is under emotional duress and needs someone to come with him. This, in turn, leads to yet another one of Henri’s relationships—one that ends, like all the others, with a pleasant but melancholic kind of loneliness.