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Robert Olen Butler’s story “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed” is narrated by the ghost of a victim who died on the Titanic, whose spirit continues to haunt the waters in which he dwelled. Making his way from the ocean, to a cup of tea, and now to his current residence, a waterbed, the narrator describes his struggle through corporeal life. His struggle for something real, something physical. Throughout the story, Butler uses the narrator’s actions and emotions to portray the need for human interaction and a meaningful life.
Physical and emotional contact between others has always been an integral part of cognitive and emotional development. Our brains are cognitively wired to appreciate and desire human interaction. We crave it, and without it, we feel incomplete. This sort of “emptiness” is expressed repeatedly by the narrator throughout Butler’s story, both while in his physical and spiritual states. He not only makes it evident that he never had deep human interaction beyond saying “hello” and “goodbye”, he also expresses great sorrow and regret for this fact, unable to move on from his afterlife due to the exorbitant amount of grief. In order to portray the narrator’s lack of physical contact in his previous life, Butler uses both metaphors and personality traits. By using cigarette smoke to signify some sort of barrier, Butler also gives us a hint as to the narrator’s complete disregard to the human body. He even goes so far as to remark, “The body was never a terribly interesting thing to me. Except perhaps to draw in the heavy curl of the smoke of my cigar. One needs a body to smoke a good cigar” (4). This comment alone shows a clear carelessness brought on by years of a seemingly solitary lifestyle. Before going out to investigate the reason for the ship’s abrupt stop, the narrator states that he is hesitant to leave their company, although he hadn’t “said more than two words to any of them, beyond ‘Good Evening’” (4). His anti-social and indifferent attitude speaks of a simple, independent man.
However, we are quickly told that his indifference is not what it seems to be. When the narrator comes across a lone woman along the stairs, we see that his avoidance for human interaction stems more from inexperience than carelessness. As the woman speaks of their immediate fate, he feels a strong, unrecognizable urge to comfort her, going so far as to inquire, “Is this an eddy through what once was my mind? A stirring of the water in which I’m held? I ripple and suddenly I see this clearly: my wish to comfort her came from an impulse stronger than duty would strictly require” (7). On the outside, it appears as though he is simply overcome by her and wishes to be nearer and closer to her during their final moments. However, once you look below the surface, a much deeper meaning can be revealed. Allan Weiss helps to show this significance in his essay “Cycles Within Cycles: Mini-Cycles in Robert Olen Butler’s Fiction” when he writes, “[The narrator] swims both literally and figuratively in his own past, and as the story progresses he sees once again how he has let so many opportunities for love and connection pass him by” (73). As he feels his final moments counting down, his reflection upon his life proves to be insufficient, and his physical character actively seeks to fulfill that longing before his time on earth is finished, while his spiritual character ponders over many failed attempts.
After the narrator’s first encounter with this woman, his feelings begin to grow even stronger. Now he begins to describe the sensation of being “empty” in great detail. With the phrase, “It was then that I knew for certain that she was right. I knew the ship would go down, and I would die” (10), it is evident that he has lost all hope in not only his physical being, but his spiritual life, as well. Numb and unsatisfied, he can’t stop thinking about the woman, wondering if she is okay, praying for her to live. Upon finding himself unable to relax in his room, the narrator sets out to find her once again. He stresses his concern about finding her, the need for something familiar and physical. With each unfamiliar face, he grows more stressed, especially once he reaches the realization that he did not even know her name. Reflecting on this, he comments, “That realization should have released me from my search, but in fact I grew quite intense now to find her” (11). His yearning for human interaction pulls him out of his comfort zone and into the cold night in search of her, leaving him with thoughts and emotions that he is completely unfamiliar with. As the night goes on and his death seems more imminent, the narrator strives to find emotional and physical contact in any possible way. One example of this is shown when he explains his longing for her to have shared the understanding of their immediate danger with him only. Keeping this information between just the two of them would have provided some sort of intimacy, enough to keep him going in his final hours. Another example is seen when she reaches up to adjust his tie before boarding the life boat. “I braced for her touch,” he explains, describing himself as “breathless” (Butler 12). He longed for her touch, longed for any act of closeness, and yet, he never initiated any type of affection towards her. Some would say this is due to nervousness, but I argue that it has a deeper pull on his own knowledge of relationships. The narrator simply did not know how to behave on that level with another human being. He is not so much ignorant, but na?ve and innocent. Sheltered, barricaded by his smoke and himself for so long that being solitary is all he has come to know. Recognizing that “she must have understood what it is to live in a body,” he may even feel intimidated by her presumed ability and experience with human contact and relationships. And while he wishes for that same experience, those few moments he shared with her were not enough to change a lifetime’s worth of being recluse.
Once the woman boards the lifeboat and is no longer within the reach of the narrator, his feelings of being “empty” and “already dead” become more abundant and frequent. Even before death, he speaks repeatedly of being dead. “I stood before her and my arms were dead, my hands could not move. My hands and arms were already dead, it seemed, they had already sunk deep beneath the sea, for they did not move” (Butler 12). Years later, his spiritual body continues to feel this death and desolation, recognizing to this day, what his physical being lost, and what his spiritual being can never have. Staring at the couple lying above him in the waterbed, he describes his sudden revelation. “I know now what it is that brought me to a quiet grief all my incorporeal lifelong. And I know now what it is that I’ve interrupted with my cry… They had known to raise their hands and touch each other” (Butler 13). Missing his one and last chance to feel something, anything with another, it is as though a revelation has hit him.With this final statement, combined with his closing paragraph, the narrator summarizes the trials and suffering that he has experienced not only throughout the spiritual life that he lives now, but also his entire physical being. This realization that he is now trapped, regretting forever his many missed opportunities for interaction and affection, affects him immensely. This shows that in order for life to really be fulfilled, physical interaction with others, intimacy, and emotional contact are not only enjoyable, but necessary.
By avoiding interaction and giving up on it as a whole, the narrator of “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed” never stood a chance of living a fulfilled life. He may have physically died on the Titanic that fateful night, but he is perfectly aware of his metaphorical death that occurred long before he boarded that ship. Butler insightfully focuses his story on not only proving the need for physical contact in a fulfilled life, but also portraying the regret that accompanies its absence. The moment we let go of human interaction, the moment we stopped searching for love and affection in a partner — that is the moment we truly die.
Butler, Robert Olen. “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed.” Missouri Review 19.2 (1996): 11-22. Web. 19 November 2013. Weiss, Alan. “Cycles within Cycles: Mini-Cycles in Robert Olen Butler’s Fiction.” Short Story 17.1 (2009): 65-80 Humanities International Complete. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
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