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.
The Mysteries of Life and Death ThemeTracker
The Mysteries of Life and Death Quotes in The Wanderer
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.
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.
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.”
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!”
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.
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.
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?
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.