The Cost of Free Will
“The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn.” David Russell
Deciding the path on which you wish to tread for the rest of your life is a difficult one and often complications arise. In this short story, the son is unsure of whether his chosen role is the one he truly wants. However, because of the decisions he has made, there is no way to go back across the already charred and blackened bridges of his past. The author develops the idea that when roles are pressed upon individuals, the result may be decisions that are not necessarily desirable to them. In Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat,” the father sacrifices himself in order to give his son the opportunity to choose a life other than the one the mother favours. However, his death forces the son to make a choice that is traumatic for both the mother and the son. On one side of the equation, the narrator’s father has been a fisherman all his life, but not by choice.

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He does not love the sea and has no desire to stay there. He wishes for more than a small village can offer. The father was never “intended for a fisherman either physically or mentally” (MacLeod 460). He has many skin problems and his body is seemingly falling apart because of a lack of adaptation to the salt water. He also struggles because his mind does not adapt to the life of a fisherman. As discussed by Christian Riegel, this bodily rejection of the occupation is a manifestation of the poor combination of the father and the sea, as well as a manifestation of what the son could become (237). But in order to cope with his occupation and lifestyle, the father escapes through reading. The number of books owned is astounding, for there were so many “they filled a baffling and unknowable cave beneath the bed, and in the corner of the bureau they spilled from the walls and grew up from the floor” (MacLeod 453).

However, in trying to release his son from a life of bondage, the father actually traps him. He leaves no choice but to walk away from the sea. Contrasted with the father whose opinions are expressed hrough his actions, the mother’s beliefs are voiced often. The mother forces tradition on her entire family, but especially on her only son. She uses guilt to manipulate her son, attempting to keep him in the “chain of tradition” (MacLeod 452). She sees her son as next in line to take up the torch of spending his life by the sea, not necessarily by choice, but because it is who he is meant to be. It is in his blood and in his soul. He is expected to choose this life because it’s tradition. The protagonist’s mother is also mildly disgusted with his father because even though he works as a fisherman that is not where he places value; it is not where he wants to be. As the story unfolds, and we watch the father teach his children beyond the ocean, the mother becomes angry.

She sees that it is nigh impossible for her and her traditions to compete with such knowledge and freedom in words. For that reason, throughout the narrator’s life, the mother is seen refusing to try to understand the father’s, and children’s, need and want for education. She even says: “God will see to those who waste their lives reading useless books when they should be about their work” (MacLeod 543). She does not see education as anything more than a waste of time, while seeing nothing but value in the hard work of a fisherman’s life. The mother’s opinions are found to be constantly pressuring her son into staying and fulfilling her dreams. But when he chooses something else, her life is forever affected by the knowledge that she has no sons or son-in-laws to follow in a tradition that is so dear to her.

It is a tradition that has been built for so many generations and is central to her life. This explains why the son knows that she “looks upon the sea with love and on me with bitterness because one has been so constant and the other so untrue” (MacLeod 462). However, according to Göran Duus-Otterström, there are two ways in which individuals can interfere with another’s choice. First, you can interfere paternalistically and for an individual’s own good. But we can also interfere with a person’s choices on representative grounds. In this form, we replace a person’s actual choices with our own in a way that we believe the other would choose to do (257).

The protagonist in “The Boat” faces both of these interferences but the narrator’s reaction to each is quite different. At first, he does not fight the conformity, but rather goes along with it. He spends much of his childhood pleasing both parents, working on the boat as well as reading and studying. The father dreams of escaping the sea and assumes his son does the same. He wants to give his son what he always wanted. He does not want to see his only son choose a life that he has hated for the majority of his. However, instead of giving his son freedom, the father burdens him with pain that is difficult to comprehend and has resulted in him losing a portion of his character. He obtains his dreams of finishing high school and entering university but at a great cost.

The son, in the end, is still met with a choice between the sea and the world. And as long as the son remains awaking in the early morning hours, to dress himself and meet shadows beside a boat that does not exist, he is trapped. According to David Stevens, he finds himself caught between his wish to heed his ancestral calling and his immense fear of the physical dangers and emotional destruction that may result from the fulfillment of that wish (267).

And so he continues search for a boat that “rides restlessly in the waters” (MacLeod 451) and waits for the day he does not find himself wiping tears away from his eyes (MacLeod). But he is unsure that day will ever come because he is still unsure if his decision is the right one. Ronald Dworkin, as quoted by Duus-OtterströmF, discusses the idea that individuals should lead lives according to their own choices, and not be swayed by the opinions of others. This is displayed well in this context because the underlying idea is that if a person does not run his or her own life, others would run it for them. However, it could also be argued that unless people get to run their own life, they may not choose to live lives of the right kind (282). In the case of Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat”, it is clear to see that those closest to us are those that will affect our decision making the most. It also implies that our choices have the ability to change the course of other individual’s lives.

This brings up the concept that free will isn’t always free. The father and mother both pressure the son to do what they wanted for him. And in sacrificing his life, the father left no other way out. The son had to leave the fishing village, and part of himself, behind because he had made a promise and that was the cost of his choice. He hurt his mother and himself in the choosing. He was forced to burn a bridge that he may not have wanted to. The father saw himself as a hero, but is he? Or has he simply forced his opinion onto a son that didn’t have the chance to make up his own mind?

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