“Little Plastic Shipwreck” is a story defined by the hierarchy of the protagonist’s workplace, Oceanworld, in which Roley is positioned between his boss Declan at the top and the animals at the bottom. However, despite the apparent rigidity of this hierarchy, Roley succeeds in subverting it in subtle ways throughout the story through moments of compassion. By depicting the ways in which compassion can work as a counterforce to an oppressive hierarchy within the small-scale environment of Oceanworld, Kennedy is arguing in favor of compassion as a kind of antidote to broader systemic cruelty, though compassion can’t transform these systems on its own.
Oceanworld is a place dictated by an inflexible hierarchy, reflecting the ways in which hierarchies pervade every aspect of human existence. Both Roley and Samson the dolphin are shown to have little to no agency within the hierarchy of Oceanworld. The spectacle of the dolphin show epitomizes this: Declan flings a hand out to the pool, which signals to Roley that is supposed to make a move to retrieve a fish from the bucket, at which Samson jumps out of the water. The audience are supposed to believe that they are witnessing Samson’s eagerness to meet them, but really, they are watching a command being passed down the chain, from Declan, to Roley, to Samson. By portraying this hidden structure beneath what is portrayed to the public as a genuine, spontaneous interaction, Kennedy thus suggests that authority and hierarchy are present everywhere, even when we might not detect them.
There’s even an implicit hierarchy among the animals at Oceanworld. Samson’s proximity to human characteristics makes him the most popular animal at the zoo, and for this reason, the one who is able to generate the most money: “the reason visitors loved Samson so much was that he was the only creature at the aquarium who seemed to be able to create a facial expression”. After Samson’s death, Declan delegates the violent, messy task of cutting up Samson’s body to Roley, his inferior. Roley’s instant aversion to this command shows that he considers this objectifying act to be a betrayal of his friend, while Declan’s insistence that Roley carry it out implies that he is perhaps aware of the deep bond that existed between Samson and Roley, and in particular, that he’s aware of the threat it poses to his position in Oceanworld’s hierarchy. Kennedy thus illustrates the toxic nature of hierarchies, and the way in which people are pitted against one another in order to maintain the status quo.
Within a hierarchical structure, compassion and friendship are subversive forces. Samson’s death causes Kaz and Roley to recall fond memories Samson. Kaz tearfully recalls a moment in a past dolphin show when Roley delayed reaching for the fish, causing Samson to miss his cue. Despite Roley nearly losing his job over this, he maintains that it was “the one day of work that he had actually enjoyed.” This moment illustrates a closeness among Kaz, Roley, Samson and the other employees, showing that Roley’s subtle moment of revolt had not only been for his own sake, but for the sake of everyone else at Oceanworld with whom he had a bond, including Samson. The closeness of Declan’s subordinates is a direct threat to Declan’s authority, as encapsulated in the image of Kaz and Lara “trying so hard not to laugh” at Roley’s act of mischief.
The stakes of Roley’s revolt against authority are heightened at the end of the story, when Roley refuses to cut up the body of Samson, looking at Declan with “his hand on [Samson’s] flank” and saying “you fucking do it.” The affection with which he notices the “nicks and cuts, the marks and old scars” on Samson’s body prior to this refusal shows that his love and compassion for Samson are what give him the courage to defy Declan’s authority. As Roley leaves Oceanworld, he thinks of Samson’s eye “holding Roley’s own before moving to his hand in the bucket, full of such understanding, and such forgiveness.” The fact that Kennedy mentions “forgiveness” here suggests that Roley perhaps even feels a little guilty for his participation in the dolphin show, in so far as it exploited Samson’s charisma for profit. This deepens the reader’s sense of their bond showing that it had a complexity that is surprising for a relationship between a human and an animal, suggesting that the hierarchy within which they are forced to operate at Oceanworld is artificial and able to be diminished through compassion and friendship.
Despite the cruel, rigid hierarchical structure within which Roley and Samson work, they have managed to form a deep bond with one another that keeps the systemic cruelty of the system in check. Yet it is doubtful that Roley’s final subversive act ultimately stimulates any real or lasting change to the culture of Oceanworld, since the way in which Declan eventually fires him makes him seem disposable. However, the fact that Roley’s bond with Samson remains intact at the end of the story, despite Declan’s forcefulness, shows that the presence of compassion can at least limit the way cruelty is passed on within a hierarchical system, allowing friendship to flourish within it.
Hierarchy, Authority, and Compassion ThemeTracker
Hierarchy, Authority, and Compassion Quotes in Little Plastic Shipwreck
Declan swore long and low when he came over and looked into the pool.
“Use the chains,” he said dismissively. “I reckon that thing weighs one hundred and fifty kilos. Haul it out and then drain the pool.”
“What will I do with him?” Roley couldn't help the personal pronoun, wasn't going to call Samson an “it.”
Roley would crouch at the edge of the platform, following Declan's repertoire of gestures and punchlines, the rhetorical questions (“And do you know WHY they breathe that way, kids? I'll tell you why!”) until he reached the point in the script where he'd say, “Well, now, a dolphin can stay underwater for up to FIFTEEN MINUTES, but luckily for us here today Samson can't wait to meet you!” and Roley would reach casually into the bucket and Samson would arc up like clockwork and break the surface, his calm, loving eye on Roley alone.
Roley had a theory that the reason visitors loved Samson so much was that he was the only creature at the aquarium who seemed to be able to create a facial expression, apart from the sea-lion Rex, whose eyes were so fogged over with milky-blue cataracts […] The turtles were totally vacant—they had the hateful, icy glare of an old drunk—and of course the fish had no expression whatsoever. Just looked at you as they cruised past, a vegetable with fins. No short-term memory, that's what Kaz said when he told her his theory. “That's the cliche, right?” she said, tapping the glass of one of the tanks. “Nothing going on. You put one in a fishbowl, and they start swimming around in circles, and every time it's like: Look, a little plastic shipwreck! Five seconds later: Look, a little plastic shipwreck!”
Roley looked at Samson's grey flank, noticing the nicks and cuts on it, the marks and old scars. He thought, sick with grief, about the way his wife's fingers sought out the small secret place under her hair where there was a tiny dent, still. He laid his hand on that flank, feeling its muscle, and he heard the moment waiting, and said into it, “You fucking do it.”