The Drowned World

by

J. G. Ballard

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The Drowned World: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Over the next two weeks, Kerans sees Strangeman frequently while Strangeman drives his hydroplane through the lagoons and supervises his crews of divers as they search for treasure. Kerans doesn't pay much attention, as his dreams now occupy his waking time as well as his nights. He occasionally engages with the real world when Strangeman calls, but is otherwise constantly preoccupied. Strangeman makes fun of Kerans, joking that leaving the sea two hundred million years ago was a bad idea. His crew paints “TIME ZONE" on a building visible from the Ritz.
Strangeman seems to be the embodiment of the attitude that people should "live for today." Though he's interested in a comparatively shorter-term future than Kerans is, he's actively working to build a future that's by humans, for humans, and reveres humans of the past. Kerans, on the other hand, seeks a future devoid of humans—he exists in an altogether different zone of time from Strangeman.
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Strangeman invites Kerans, Bodkin, and Beatrice to a diving party. He has already begun to court Beatrice, but she habitually refuses his invitations to midnight parties. Strangeman has also noticed that Bodkin spends much of his time paddling around the old University quarter, leading Strangeman to assume that Bodkin is after treasure. After an unsuccessful attempt to catch Bodkin diving at night, Strangeman had decided to throw the diving party to expose Bodkin's treasure. When Strangeman invites Kerans and mentions Bodkin's "search for treasure," Kerans assures Strangeman that Bodkin is only after old memories. Strangeman laughs.
Strangeman's suspicions about Bodkin show that he truly only cares about finding treasure. Memories of the mind with no associated object (like a statue or a painting of value) simply have no meaning for him. However, this also shows that, even though he's working against Kerans and Bodkin, he's similarly disconnected from other people. Strangeman is nevertheless unable to empathize or understand that Kerans and Bodkin have different values.
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At 7:00am, the Admiral collects Kerans, Dr. Bodkin, and Beatrice and takes them to the depot ship. Kerans is skeptical of Strangeman's assurance that the lake is free from reptilian pests, but he sees that the lake is completely clear of iguanas and alligators. Kerans looks down through the clear water at the planetarium below. He remembers that he hasn't been in the water in ten years, and he reminds himself of the swimming he does in his dreams. Kerans sees an albino python swimming and Big Caesar, another of Strangeman's crew, wrestling with an alligator at the edge of the lagoon. Kerans thinks that there have been a surprising number of albino creatures since Strangeman's arrival.
Water is an important motif throughout the novel. It's dangerous and even deadly because of the lethal reptiles and the risk of drowning, but it's also life giving: life began in the water and evolved from there. When Kerans tries to remember the swimming from his dreams, it shows that the dreams truly have the power to change how people act during their waking hours. In this sense, the dream state is much like an altered waking state.
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Strangeman watches the struggle between the alligator and Big Caesar as though he wants the alligator to win. He turns Beatrice to watch as well, and seems disappointed when his crew hoists the alligator's decapitated head high in the air.
Strangeman's attitude towards the alligator complicates his belief in humans and their superiority, as it suggests that there are times when he wishes that nature would indeed triumph over humans.
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Two crewmembers make a preliminary dive down to the planetarium. A third goes down in a suit with a telephone transmitter, which he uses to describe walking through the pay-box and then "the church." Strangeman declares the diver a fool and sends others down as Kerans, Beatrice, and Bodkin sip cocktails. Beatrice asks Kerans if he's going to dive. He assures her that the big suit is perfectly safe, but she looks worriedly at the sun. Kerans follows her gaze and realizes that the lagoon is heating up as the day progresses, and the divers underwater almost seem to pulse like they're in his dreams.
Although Strangeman is derisive of the diver with the telephone, the diver's decision to call the planetarium a church foreshadows the spiritual experience of sorts that Kerans will have there. When combined with the intense heat, the water becomes less welcoming. Although both heat and water are vehicles for evolutionary change, Kerans's body is still very much a human body. The pulsing of the divers again reinforces that Kerans's dreams are crossing over into real life.
Themes
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Kerans leans over to Bodkin and whispers that Strangeman is looking for his treasure. Strangeman notices them whispering and stalks over to them. Kerans makes a joke about the treasure, which seems to anger Strangeman. Strangeman insists that Beatrice dive. She refuses, but Strangeman says that she'll be "a Venus descending into the sea." He tries to take her hand, but Beatrice flinches. Kerans takes her arm and offers to go down instead. Strangeman is suddenly magnanimous and orders the Admiral to prepare a suit for Kerans. Dr. Bodkin warns Kerans that the water will be very warm.
The legend of Venus states that she was born from the sea and ascended from it. This puts Strangeman’s description of Beatrice's dive in a sinister light, given how unpredictable Strangeman's mood is. However, the suggestion that she return to the sea does bring in the larger evolutionary cycle that threads through the novel. Returning to the sea is a very possible end of the neuronic journey, as it would mean the return of an evolved creature to where it came from.
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Kerans dons the diving suit and Strangeman tells him to try to get into the auditorium. He continues, saying that the suit makes Kerans look like a man from "inner space," but jokingly warns him that the suit won't protect him if he goes down far enough to reach the unconscious. Kerans waves as he descends the ladder into the water. The water is oppressively hot, so Kerans lets himself sink to the bottom where it's cooler. Kerans hears only the rhythm of his breath in his helmet as his air pump works, reminding him of his dreams.
Once in the water, Kerans finds himself very much in a dream state: his breath pulses rhythmically, the cool water is soothing, and he's truly a part of nature. Strangeman's comments suggest that he might be aware that the dive will trigger this kind of an experience, which suggests an ulterior motive. This again shows that he's seemingly incapable of understanding other people, even if he prefers the human world over the natural world.
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Strangeman checks in with Kerans over the radio, and Kerans begins to move towards the planetarium. Inside, Kerans sees that, aside from rust, it's entirely untouched by the outside world. As Kerans goes to fetch a hacksaw to attempt to get into the auditorium, he notices a door behind the ticket booth. He's easily able to bust the door down, and finds himself in a control room. Kerans suddenly feels alarmed as he notices that someone is working his air pump at a slower rate. He reasons that this is an exceptionally cruel way for Strangeman to kill him, and he probably wouldn't go through with it unless he was also planning to kill Beatrice and Bodkin.
There's a push-pull effect between the water and the air here. Although Kerans understands that the water is going to be one of the things that changes him and ushers him along in his neuronic journey, he also still needs to breathe air. The auditorium of the planetarium in particular is a place where groups of people gathered to observe images of the natural world. Now that it's part of the natural world, it's a place for Kerans to see the limitations of his own human form.
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Suddenly, Kerans sees another suited man and yells for Strangeman. He realizes that it's only his reflection in a mirror, and explains where he is to Strangeman. Strangeman asks him to find the safe, but Kerans ignores him and sits down in a chair overlooking the auditorium. He thinks the auditorium looks like a womb, and Kerans can't decide if he's listening to his own breathing or the booming of his dreams. Disconnecting the telephone cable, he descends into the auditorium, which is significantly warmer. The cracks in the dome seem like stars, and Kerans is entranced by this vision of the sky.
When Kerans observes that the auditorium resembles a womb, he begins to think of it as being life-giving to him. The booming he's hearing shows that the division between his dreams and the real world is quickly dissolving. By severing his communication with those above water, Kerans is able to insist that this experience be a wholly personal one, like his dreams.
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Related Quotes
Kerans begins to feel as if nothing is more important than preserving the "sky" he sees in the dome, which he supposes might be the sky seen during the Triassic period. He begins to walk back to the control room when the line that is supplying him air is suddenly yanked from him. Kerans angrily yanks it back and tethers it to the door handle. He walks back into the dome and tries to memorize the constellations on the dome. Suddenly, Kerans realizes his intake valve isn't working. He dizzily tries to untie his airline, but falls backwards.
Kerans's actions here show that he prioritizes the Triassic past over the present or his future—as he's willing to make a scene in order to spend a while longer gazing at the past. When his airline fails, Kerans is forced to reckon with the dangerous aspects of the water. Focusing so intently on the past has disastrous consequences in the present.
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Looking up at the dome, Kerans feels as though the water pressure is soothing and that his blood is merging with the amniotic water. As he loses consciousness, he lets his mind move towards the stars in the dome. Passing out, Kerans dreams that he's drifting in the "time-sea."
This moment confirms that following a neuronic journey to the end means embracing one's own death. It means giving in so Kerans becomes part of the past, both in mind (because of the dreams) and in body after his death.
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Kerans regains consciousness on the bright deck, where the Admiral performing CPR on him. Strangeman's face comes into view, and as Kerans sputters that Strangeman is responsible for what happened, Strangeman insists that he didn't try to kill him. Beatrice tries to comfort Kerans and assures him it was an accident, but Strangeman insists that Kerans tried to commit suicide so he could "become part of the drowned world."
Strangeman's observation is correct: becoming part of the new world means dying as a result of accepting it. Strangeman's word choice indicates that he understands that Kerans sees this end result as not an end, but a beginning. Even though it is death and the end of Kerans's life, it's the beginning of being truly part of the natural world.
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As Kerans returns to the Ritz later, he thinks about his experience in the planetarium. He wonders if he did indeed try to commit suicide, or if Strangeman had tried to hurt him. Kerans thinks about this for the next few days, and eventually connects it to Hardman's escape south, which he realizes is suicidal and an acceptance of the truth of neuronics. Finally, Kerans, as well as Beatrice and Dr. Bodkin, repress their memories of the dive.
When all three repress their memories and the truth that they learned, it shows that they're not yet ready to make this step to full acceptance of the truth of neuronics. This shows that something else will have to happen to them to trigger this final acceptance, just as something happened to Hardman that triggered his escape south.
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