The Drunk Man
Just as the Englishman and Margaret are coming to realize that they view the world in the same way, a drunk man approaches them. He has a drink cooled with ice that was chipped off of the iceberg that has sealed their fate. In describing the drunken man, Margaret is forced to refer to the Englishman as “my man,” a familiarity that she notes. Both she and “her” man disapprove of the drunken man’s foolishness.
Margaret, the narrator of the story, is generally disdainful of men, finding them to be offensively patronizing and belittling toward women. However, on the night the Titanic sinks, she meets one man, an Englishman, whom she comes to trust, respect, and possibly even love. He is described as being stiff in bearing like an Englishman but having nice, soft eyes, “a woman’s eyes.” He is tall, wears tweed clothes, and has a moustache. When they first meet, he tries to comfort Margaret with the idea that the ship is unsinkable, but she tells him of her certainty that it is in fact going to sink, and she is impressed that he actually listens to her opinion, instead of thinking that she, as a woman, would not know about mechanical matters. As they are talking, a drunk man approaches, and both Margaret and the Englishman share a feeling of disgust. When he tells Margaret that she should get into the lifeboat that is being filled with women, she walks away, but he finds her, and the care that he has shown in seeking her out reveals to her that he really does understand her. He is the first man for whom she feels anything like love, and she shows her feelings for him by obeying his request to leave in the lifeboat; minutes later, the ship sinks, and he drowns. After her rescue, more than eighty years later, Margaret cannot get this nameless man out of her mind, and, thinking of him, she submerges herself into the cold water of her bathtub, dying just as he has in cold water.
The first-person narrator of this story was on Titanic when it sunk on the night of April 14–15, 1912. She was evacuated to a lifeboat, and, after drifting at sea for what seemed like just a few hours, suddenly found herself in modern times, rescued by a helicopter and taken to a room in Washington, D.C., where she is left to think about her past.
Margaret is a thirty-year-old woman. Her father, with whom she was particularly close, was a newspaper editor, and his intellectual curiosity carried on to his daughter. She is well-read, being familiar with authors such as the astronomer Percival Lowell and the economist Karl Marx, whose writings would have been considered inappropriate for young ladies in her day. When she recalls her father covering a coalmine strike in West Virginia, she thinks of him as standing up against the coal company and its “excesses.” She identifies with a strong feminist sensibility she has held to throughout her life. She is a great admirer of such luminaries of the suffrage movement as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. Her trip on the Titanic is a return passage from Europe. First, she attended a convention of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in London, where she was disappointed to find, when the women took their protest to the street, that the police opposed the protestors. Then she went to Venice, but soon became discontent with travel. Her status as a woman traveling alone was remarkable for a woman of the time.
As soon as the ship crashes, Margaret knows, intuitively, that the Titanic is sinking. She is willing to go back to her cabin and finish reading Edith Wharton’s Ethan Fromme before dying, but a man whom she meets on deck, an Englishman with a gentle disposition, implores her to abandon ship in one of the lifeboats reserved for women. Though Margaret hates exactly this kind of pandering toward women, treating them as if they are children, she agrees. For a moment, as he is escorting her to the lifeboat and saying good-bye, she almost reaches out and embraces him, but she is too self-conscious to do so. Out on the sea in the boat, her mind focuses on the man who had shown her so much concern.
Finding herself suddenly in the 1990s, Margaret adapts fairly well. She accepts modern conveniences such as the television and the computer, understanding them in her own terms. She is glad to see the gains that women have made socially (and assumes incorrectly that they are farther reaching than in fact they are), but these gains also leave her with a sense of loss, since the thing that she fought for her whole life no longer appears to be an issue. At the end of the story, she takes off her clothes and climbs in the bathtub, which is something that she specifically states she would never have done before, and she slides under the water, apparently drowning herself to be reunited with the man with whom she almost shared a tender moment.
See Captain O’Brien
It is clear that Margaret’s father was an important influence on her life. He was her intellectual inspiration. He took her with him to cover the coalmine strikes while he was a newspaper editor in West Virginia, and he gave her, as a teenager, a book about the possibility of life on Mars that he found so intriguing that he reported the author’s thesis on the front page of the New York newspaper he was editing at the time. Thinking about the new world of the future to which she has found herself transported, Margaret frames its wonders in terms of headlines that her father might have written for his newspaper. Her father is the only man to whom Margaret has ever been close. She remembers his death, just a year before the Titanic sank, when she was nearly thirty. At his bedside, she took his hand, an act of physical intimacy that, in the story, she finds herself unable to commit with the Englishman to whom she is attracted. His final words to her were, “I’m proud of you, Margaret,” which shows the source of her self-assurance, her energy, and willingness to stand up against social convention. The tears that she wept over him, she says, were “from gratitude, as much as anything else.” When the lifeboat full of women who have escaped the sinking ship is rescued, the women are all brought on board a helicopter. Since no time has passed for them and they think it is still 1912, they are amazed to find that the captain of the rescue ship, Captain O’Brien, is a woman: this instantly shatters all of their notions of gender roles.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Robert Olen Butler, Published by Gale Group, 2010