Author Archives: Sarah Maphey

Nonfiction elements in Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Sailor Boy”

While Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Sailor Boy” is considered to be fictional, largely because of its involvement of fantastical elements, I believe the poem is rooted in the struggles Tennyson experienced in his childhood and adolescence, giving the fictional some non-fiction influences. The Sailor Boy recounts the story of a boy running away from home, and setting off to sea on his own. While some claim that the boy does this due to boredom or longing for adventure, looking at the piece from a more non-fictional perspective, the boy’s motivation can be interpreted as a need to escape due to a feeling of helplessness in his own home.

Tennyson was born the fourth of twelve children, and lived in England during the 1800s. Much of his family was plagued by mental illness, including his father, who was an abusive alcoholic, as well as several of his siblings. Every one of his siblings had a mental breakdown at some point in his or her life, some leading to drug use, and one to hospitalisation(“Lord”). Being raised in such a household would create stress, uncertainty, and a feeling of helplessness in one’s own life. These types of feelings are portrayed throughout “The Sailor Boy,” and I believe are a reflection of Tennyson’s adolescent emotions.  The poem was published in 1861, making him 52 at the time of its publication, which would make the poem a reminiscent expression of Tennyson’s decision to leave home at age 18. While Tennyson did not leave to become a sailor, he did leave to face the challenges of the outside world on his own, much like the speaker of the poem.

The speaker, like Tennyson, feels he has no control over his own life, and is helpless to stop the misfortunes that plague his family. This drives his need to escape home, as is evidenced by the lines, “But I will never more endure/ To sit with empty hands at home” (Tennyson 15-16). His hands represent action, or an ability to do something for others- as in the phrase “to lend a helping hand.” He feels there is nothing he can do for those at home, that he is useless in helping his family. Tennyson chose the word “endure,” meaning “to undergo (as a hardship) especially without giving in”(“Endure”). Doing nothing is not simply an unfortunate effect of his boring life; it is a hardship- something he must endure. He must sit and watch his family fall apart, time and time again, helpless to stop it. This helplessness, in part, convinces the speaker he must leave his home and go out to sea, or in Tennyson’s case to the outside world. He must seek a place where he has a say in what happens in his life, and where he is not doomed “to sit with empty hands” (Tennyson 16). This evidences a more non-fictional view of the poem, and shows it may, in fact, be based more in fact than in fiction.


“Endure.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.

“Lord Alfred Tennyson.” Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.

Tennyson, Sir Alfred Lord. “The Sailor Boy.” Poetry Lovers’ Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.

Nonfictional elements in Russell Banks’s “A Permanent Member of the Family”

The stories in Russell Banks’s collection, “A Permanent Member of the Family,” are tied together by a common theme of divorce. The story from which the collection draws its title is told from the perspective of a father whose family, many years prior, went through divorce. The story serves as the father’s “reclaiming” of a story that happened thirty-five years ago, and has become somewhat of a “family legend.” The story in question is of the circumstances which came about after the divorce and how they, inadvertently, lead to the father’s accidental killing of the family dog. While the story was published as a work of fiction, it is likely that the author used personal experience in writing the story. Upon first reading, I questioned how fictional this story actually was, particularly after finding that Banks, seventy-three when the story was first published, would be a similar age to the narrator. Upon further research, Banks also was raised in the place which the story is set, “a shabbily quaint village in southern New Hampshire.” (Banks 81) Therefore, though the story remains officially “fiction,” there were definitely elements of fact drawn from in its creation, as I believe there are in every work. Furthermore, the story’s, and collection’s, themes of divorce and family is something that the author is intimately familiar with. In an interview with The Washington Post, Banks stated that “one thing that has struck me through the years, first as a child of divorce and then as a divorced man myself…is the incredible, powerful need we have for family, its ability to provide us with strength and intimacy, support and love — and then, on the other hand, the incredible fragility of family.” (Burns) These are precisely the struggles which the narrator of “A Permanent Member of the Family” faces alongside his loved ones. The story brings to light the need we have for family through the interaction between a husband, wife, and their children after being separated, even if only a few houses down the roles. It illustrates the “fragility of family” through the vehicle of Sarge, the family dog, who refuses to stay at the house of the mother, and follows the daughters to their father’s house every time they make the trip down the street. In the words of the narrator, Sarge “functioned in our newly disassembled family as the last remaining link to our preseparation…to a time of innocence when all of us…still believed in the permanence of our family unit, our pack.” (Banks 86) Given the connection between Banks’s responses in the interview and themes developed in the narration, it can be inferred that Banks drew much from his own life and personal experience when creating this story. His young life as a child of divorced parents, and adult live as a divorcee himself, gave him insight into the characters of not only the narrator, but the daughters as well, and therefore allowed nonfictional elements to appear in and enhance this fictional story.

Banks, Russell.”A Permanent Member of the Family.” The O. Henry Prize Stories. Ed. Laura
Furman. Comp. Tessa Hadley, Kristen Iskandrian, and Michael Parker. New York:
Vintage Anchor, 2015. 80-91. Print. Ser. 2015.

Brown, Wesley. “Who to Blame, Who to Forgive.” The New York Times, 10 Sept.
1989. Web. 9 May 2016.

Burns, Carole. “Q&A with Russell Banks about the Special Quality of Short Stories.”
Washington Post. The Washington Post, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 May 2016.