The Boat Is Sinking! Bail!
The ending of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is rather open and ambiguous—to me, at least. It’s quite possible Andrew Miller might read my thoughts here and say, “Huh? No, you didn’t understand my book at all.” (Reminds me of the film, Annie Hall, where Marshall McLuhan chastises a fellow who’s spouting off about his writing). I’m going to risk it. But it does bring up an important point. Two people can read the same story and reach two different understandings. An author can create a story and have the curious experience of having readers understand it in a different way then the author intended. The process of reading is a group effort.
After the climax of Lacroix and Emily killing Calley, there’s an anticipation of what happens next—what does the story want to reveal of the future? And how to end the novel?
Lacroix tends to Ranald, buries Calley, and returns to Emily. As he returns, he sees, “…the mast-tips and royals of a ship, something big, broaching the northern horizon. He was stunned.” It is doubtless the Chiron, the ship that carries emigrants from Scotland to Canada, a vessel and function that has been foreshadowed. He tells Emily he has seen it. Then he tells her he thinks Calley was not just a nutcase, but under orders to kill him, that other assassins will come for them both. “Then, he told her what he intended to do.” It becomes clear, I think, from the text that what he intends is to rendezvous with the Chiron and sail away to Canada, thereby escaping those who would harm him. Emily wants to go along. They pack and Lacroix leaves letters of explanation for Cornelius and Jane, and for his sister Lucy.
They head for the boathouse.
A rowboat is there, also foreshadowed. However, it does appear to be leaking, but Lacroix decides that’s no big deal. He gets Emily in the boat, and they set out on the ocean to rendezvous with the Chiron.
“At what he reckoned was a good half-mile from the shore he saw that the water in the bottom of the boat was now deeper by about an inch. Perhaps two. Did it matter? If they were sinking, they were sinking very slowly and would have time to row back to safety.” (Lacroix is not a sailor).
They continue and are taken along by a current. No sign of the ship.
Now we are on the last page. For some reason, Lacroix peers into the water, where he sees creatures. “Small, with bodies like globes of purest glass, their legs trailing under them like ribbon, like soaked cotton…And once he started to watch them he could not stop…The creatures, animate bubbles that fed, quite possibly, on light itself, were trying to teach him something he did not know he would be able to bear.”
He looks at Emily and is astonished to see she has taken the silk bandage from her eyes. Her eyes are shut, but she has (to Lacroix) “an expression of deepest joy, the same face she might have shown the congregation at her father’s house in the days before the dreams turned sour.”
She speaks the last line of the novel. “John! Now we shall be entirely free!”
The first time I read the book, I was stunned by the ending. Upset, actually, because I read it as showing that Lacroix and Emily were about to drown in a sort of mutual suicide pact. I was hugely disappointed while, at the same time, deeply impressed with the drama and pathos. I was surprised at something I wasn’t expecting and maybe a little mad. I grasped at the possibility the ending was literal, that the next thing that would happen would not be death but rescue by the ship that would take them to Canada where, if they didn’t necessarily live happily ever after, they would live.
This second read-through I don’t know if it’s much clearer, best beloved.
We readers know that throughout the novel, Lacroix thinks of suicide as justice for his actions in Spain, a prime example being during his sea-voyage to the Hebrides during which he considers the ease of drowning himself. I believe the primary motivation for killing Calley rather than accepting death, is that Lacroix wants to protect Emily. If it was just him, I wonder if he might have offered Calley no resistance.
The title of the book can be troubling here, as it picks up ambiguity. Literally, the characters could be entirely free by living. But the title has a disturbing reference to death, of a religious sense of being entirely free of the cares of life. Sour dreams.
However, we also have some interesting counter-arguments to this suicide theory. First, on the sea voyage, Lacroix doesn’t slip over the side and die. In fact, he remains with the living and acts heroically to protect a sailor from impressment by the British navy. Then, we have his confession to Emily and his evident relief at being forgiven—at least by her. There’s a sense in which this exchange frees him.
And we have a strong foreshadowing of the Chiron taking people away to Canada, a place where, again, they may be free of poverty and oppression. (a lot about being free).
So he’s got reason to live, he’s got a means of escape. He’s got a woman who loves him, and he’s faced his fears.
So why does he head out in a leaky boat with Emily and then get mesmerized by what—shrimp in the water? Plankton? Call a whale, man. The passage I quoted above sort of feels like he’s giving up.
There’s no clear answer here. I’d like to think Lacroix and Emily rendezvous with the Chiron and escape to Canada, to freedom. A lot could happen after the novel’s end. How easy is it, by the way, to stop a large sailing ship in order to pick up two souls in a rowboat? I don’t know.
I do know Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a great book that raises important issues about violence and war and reactions to trauma. I highly recommend it. The openness of the ending only seduces the reader more.