“The Sea Devil” by Arthur Gordon (United States)

There is a striking parallel between “The Sea Devil” and the plot of Everyman, a medieval morality play. Everyman’s action begins in heaven: God, looking at mankind’s sinfulness, summons Death, his mighty messenger, to call Everyman to a general reckoning.  Everyman searches high and low for something to stand by him in his hour of need and finds only his own Good Deeds. Good Deeds, and her sister, Knowledge, instruct Everyman in the right way to behave. Thus, at the eleventh hour, Everyman is saved.

“The Sea Devil” is a secular morality tale based on a similar structure: it is a retributive, although uncaring, Nature whom this modern Everyman offends by his tacit belief in man’s proud mastery over Nature. It is this pride that puts him in danger of death and devil (both figured in the giant ray), while his good deed (kindness to the baby porpoise) and his ability to reason finally save him.

Whereas the moral of Everyman is that we should forsake sin and devote ourselves to good deeds, which alone are pleasing to God; the chief moral of The Sea Devil is that we should never let our pride and greed blind us to the fact that we along with beast and bird and fish are all Nature’s creatures. In any fair battle, Nature is more able to turn her giant fist against us than we are to turn ours against her.

But the moral here is somehow not as convincing as the one in Everyman, perhaps because it is constantly being undermined by the diction, pacing, and tone of the whole tale. The man may free the half-dead mullet and vow never again to go casting alone at night, but the reader cannot forget how much of the tale is a celebration of the fierce exhilaration of the hunter at the moment of ambush.

  1. Review the traditional literary conflicts:Character v. Character, Character v. Nature, Character v. Machine, Character v. Self, Character v. Supernatural, Character v. Society, Character v. Destiny. Can you think of other categories? Recall stories, films, novels, poems, myths, and television programs that would fall into the character-against-nature category. Make a list and add suggestions from other students.