The devil inside that won’t be caged or fixed by words: Fluidity and ethics in Ian McGuire’s The North Water

Open access


In Ian McGuire’s novel The North Water (2016), Patrick Sumner, a young medical doctor recently dismissedfrom the British Army with his reputation and professional prospects in ruins, accepts a poorly paid position as a surgeon on a whaling ship in his attempt to flee from his past and his troubled conscience. However, contrary to his expectations, in the Arctic Circle he faces an ordeal far more demanding than anything he has hitherto endured in the form of the harpooner Henry Drax, a dangerous psychopath who is ready to abuse and murder anyone who is an obstacle to the satisfaction of his brutish physical needs. Confronted with violence and cruelty beyond understanding, within the fluid framework of the distorted ethical norms and values of the heterogeneous crew, the embittered Sumner is gradually forced to abandon his protective shell of resigned indifference and reassess the moral stances and responsibilities of a civilized person when faced with human wickedness. Though McGuire acknowledges primarily the inspiration of Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy, this paper argues that in ethical terms the novel responds to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, pushing the protagonist’s relationship to the other to an extreme by making the other an embodiment of pure evil.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Andress D. 1998. “Truth Ethics and Imagination: Thoughts on the Purpose of History.” In: Arnold J. K. Davies and S. Ditchfield (eds.). History and Heritage: Consuming the Past in Contemporary Culture. Shaftesbury Dorset: Donhead.

  • Arenas E.C. 2011. “Villains in Our Mind: A Psychological Approach to Literary and Filmic Villainy.” In: Fahraeus A. and D.Y. Çamoğlu (eds.). Villains and Villainy: Embodiments of Evil in Literature Popular Culture and Media. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi pp. 3-27.

  • Blanchot M. 1986. “Our Clandestine Companion.” In: Cohen R.A. (ed.). Face to Face with Levinas. Albany: State University of New York Press.

  • Cartwright J. 2017. “The North Water by Ian McGuire review - a shocking evocation.” The Guardian February 5 2017. [qt. 15-4-2019]. Available at: <>

  • Chomsky N. 1988. Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.

  • Conrad J. 1983 (1899). Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Books.

  • Conrad J. 1999 (1900). Lord Jim. Mineola: Dover Publications.

  • Dilman I. 2005. The Self the Soul and the Psychology of Good and Evil. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Dunmore H. 2016. “The North Water by Ian McGuire review - a voyage into the heart of darkness.” The Guardian February 19 2016. [qt. 15-4-2019]. Available at: <>

  • Evans D. 2016. “Ian McGuire The North Water. ‘Subtle as a harpoon in the head but totally gripping’ boo review.” The Independent February 9 2016. [qt. 15-4-2019]. Available at: <>

  • Forbes M. 2017. “The North Water review.” The Financial Times February 5 2017. [qt. 264-2019]. Available at: <>

  • Gibson A. 2001. Postmodernity Ethics and the Novel. London andNew York: Routledge.

  • Guerard A. 1958. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Historia Editor 2017. “Historia Interviews: Ian McGuire.” March 11 2017. [qt. 15-4-2019]. Available at:

  • Hunt D. “Ian McGuire: Questions & Answers.” [qt. 3-5-2019]. Available at: <>

  • Hyde S. 2017. “Writing as an act of hope: an interview with Ian McGuire.” The American Literary Review February 1 2017. [qt. 15-4-2019]. Available at: <https://americanliteraryreview.eom/2017/01/02/writing-as-an-act-of-hope-an-interview-with-ian-mcguire/>

  • Kohlke M-L. and C. Gutleben 2010. “Introduction: Bearing After-Witness to the Nineteenth Century.” In: Kohlke M-L. and C. Gutleben (eds.). Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma: The Politics of Bearing After-Witness to Nineteenth-Century Suffering. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi pp. 1-34.

  • Mandler P. 2002. History and National Life. London: Profile Books.

  • McGinn C. 2003. Ethics Evil and Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • McGuire I. 2016. The North Water. London: Scribner.

  • Mills J. 2016. “On the brink of extinction.” In: Naso R.C. and J. Mills (eds.). Ethics of Evil: Psychoanalytic Investigations. London: Kamac pp. 3-43.

  • O’Donnell P. 2016. “The North Water by Ian McGuire review: the elements of style.” The Irish Times February 13 2016. [qt. 5-4-2019]. Available at: <>

  • Onega S. C. del Río and M. Escudero-Alias 2017. “Introduction.” In: Onega S. C. del Río and M. Escudero-Alías (eds.). Traumatic Memory and the Ethical Political and Transhistorical Functions of Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan pp. 1-17.

  • Paulson R. 2007. Sin and Evil. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Pojman L.P. 2000. The Moral Life: An Introduction Reader in Ethics and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Rigsby J. 2016. “The North Water: A Blood-Drenched Tale of Arctic Whalers.” The Los Angeles Review of Books May 3 2016. [qt. 10-4-2019]. Available at: <!>

  • RNZ 2017. “Awild dark whaling tale.” March 11 2017. [qt. 6-5-2019]. Available at: <>

  • Russell B. 1912. The Problems of Philosophy. E-book (

  • Steger J. 2017. “How Ian McGuire wrote his acclaimed novel of a whaling ship full of dark deeds.” In: The Sunday Morning Herald February 9 2017. [qt. 29-5-2019]. Available at: <>

  • Toibin C. 2016. “The North Water review.” The New York Times April 11 2016. [qt. 10-4-2019]. Available at: <>

  • Weil S. 1968. On Science Necessity and the Love of God. (Trans. R. Rees). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Journal information
Impact Factor

CiteScore 2018: 0.24

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.114
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.781

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 41 41 12
PDF Downloads 42 42 12