A Summary and Analysis of ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ is a 1968 short story by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014). The story, which consists of one long sentence, tells of a mysterious ocean liner which appears near a coastal village one night every March.

As with much of the fiction of writer Gabriel García Márquez, ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ is an example of magic realism (of which more shortly), so a few words of analysis are needed to understand the narrative. Before that, though, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot.

The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’: plot summary

The story is about a young man who recalls, one night when he was still a boy, seeing a vast ocean liner coming past the coastal village where he lives on the Caribbean. The ship is making its way towards the nearby bay. However, this gigantic ship, which had no lights on, only appeared to be there when no lights shone on it (other than the natural light from the moon or stars). Whenever the lighthouse beacon flashed upon it, it seemed to disappear.

The morning after he sighted the mysterious ship, the boy wondered if he had dreamt it. But the following March, one year after the initial appearance of the ship, he spotted the ship again, and rushed home to tell his mother, who was convinced the boy was imagining things because he spent too long sleeping during the day and going out at night to watch the dolphins in the water. The boy’s father had died eleven years before. Shortly after he sighted the ship again, his mother died, with local village rumour attributing her death to a curse laid on the old rocking chair his mother sat in while remembering her dead husband.

The boy became known as a local orphan, but none of the villagers showed much interest in seeing the mysterious ship on the night when it appeared. The boy became more determined to convince them that the liner is real. When the liner next appeared, he deduced that it had run off its correct course and needed guidance to set it right again. He took out a small boat and used a light to guide the ocean liner into the port, where its lights came on and the orchestra on board the ship began to play again, and all that had been dead on the ship came to life again. The dead animals that had been floating within the ship were dislodged and the ship was able to continue into the harbour.

The ship ran aground in front of the village church, and the boy – who had become angry that none of the villagers believed his story of the ghost ship – was vindicated when the people of the village came out and saw the destruction. The ship’s name was Halálcsillag, which means ‘death star’ in Hungarian.

The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’: analysis

‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ is structured in a deliberately confusing and almost dizzying manner: it comprises one single sentence, making it a headlong, breathless piece of writing, and the voice of the apparently omniscient third-person narrator merges with the young man who is the story’s principal character, making it difficult for us as readers to follow the narrative.

The story also fuses myth or fantasy with realism, as is common in works of magic realism: a literary movement in which the fiction-writer offers a realistic view of the world while also adding magical elements, and frequently blurring the lines between what is real and what is not. The ocean liner in ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ appears to belong to the latter category, having the quality of a phantasm or apparition which only appears on one night of the year, every March (the anniversary of its sinking?).

Indeed, the Halálcsillag or ‘death star’ carries a mythic or symbolic quality: it represents death whereas the village represents life. The ship’s encroachment upon the village represents the incursion of death into the realm of the living; indeed, the ocean liner represents the biggest (if not the best) of both worlds, the world of the living and the world of the dead. As the narrator tells us, it was the largest ocean liner ‘in this world and the other’ (emphasis added): the ship crosses the boundary between this world and the next, between life and death.

It is also deeply significant that this symbol of death, which is ninety-seven times longer than the village and thus easily dwarfs and consumes the world of the living, should stop in front of the church. A church is traditionally and symbolically viewed as a kind of ship of God: the central part of the church, the nave, takes its name from the Latin navis, meaning ‘ship’, for this reason. (Indeed, this is where the words navy and naval are derived.)

Churches are also buildings in which the gulf between life and death, or between this world and the next, is ‘managed’ via a connection with God, who promises a ‘good’ afterlife for those who follow his laws. The fact that the Halálcsillag is twenty times taller than the church steeple should leave us in no doubt as to which of these two ‘ships’ has the greater power and might.

In the last analysis, ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ is a kind of fable – as most of the short stories of Gabriel García Márquez are – and, specifically, in this case, the story is a fable about the ways in which people living their daily lives are reluctant to confront or address the reality of death. The villagers are quick to disbelieve the orphan boy who is the protagonist of the story – a boy who, perhaps because he has lost his parents while he was himself still so young, is able to ‘see’ death more clearly than most people.

And in this connection it is worth remarking that the story is also a kind of coming-of-age story, in that the unnamed protagonist begins as a boy but becomes a man when he guides the ship into the port and, in doing so, makes the villagers realise the reality of the ship (and, by extension, of death itself). He takes the initiative by going out with a light and getting the liner back on its proper course. He has taken his place in the world and asserted himself as an individual capable of making his own decisions.

However, we might regard ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ as a coming-of-age story with a difference, in that it is not the young protagonist himself who gains any new knowledge or undergoes any kind of epiphany. Instead, he leads others to realise something.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments are closed.