“The Passenger” and “Stella Maris” by Cormac McCarthy
“The Passenger” and “Stella Maris” are Cormac McCarthy’s, now 89, newest novels in many years. Like the brother and sister, Bobby and Alicia Western, who are entwined with each other and who are the main characters in each novel, these two novels are a pair. Both novels continue McCarthy’s quest for the eclipsed God who reigns over what is, in these novels, a gray world—gray in meaning and purpose, gray in human behavior and activity. In such a world it is hard to discern God. Bobby and Alicia wrestle with this question—where is God in the gray and surreal world in which they live?
Both these siblings, who literally cannot live without each other, are the offspring of a father who worked on the Manhattan Project and who, having seen what destruction human minds beings could wreak, leaves the children with their grandmother. Both Alicia and Bobby are exceedingly intelligent. Bobby studied physics at Caltech and Alicia, at the age of 13, studied mathematics at the University of Chicago. But their genius is too much a weight to bear. Their insurmountable knowledge of science, philosophy, literature, and mathematics brings them to peer too deeply into what may be a void instead of a reality.
Bobby leaves his studies and goes to race cars in Europe where he ends up in a coma from a crash. Alicia leaves her studies and struggles with hallucinations. One astonishing hallucination is the Thalidomide Kid who taunts and seems to reign over Alicia’s fragmented mind. She ends up in Stella Maris, a sanatorium, in endless conversation about philosophy with her psychiatrist. Shortly after, Alicia commits suicide thinking that her brother would die in the coma. She could not live without him.
“The Passenger” then tells the story of Bobby’s desperate journey through his grief over the loss of his sister, Alicia, to suicide. Bobby and Alicia are both haunted by the fact that their father worked on The Manhattan Project, but now, Bobby feels responsible for Alicia’s death because he thinks that his one job was to take care of her, and he failed.
Bobby yearns to understand reasons for existence and to know whether God is real because he hopes and wants to believe that he will meet his sister again. McCarthy paints a gray world but throughout we see Bobby looking for the light of God and we hear him admit that he believes in God even though he is not sure as he is searching through the grayness. Bobby says, “I don’t know who God is or what he is. But I don’t believe all this stuff got here by itself. Including me. Maybe everything evolves just like they say it does. But if you sound it to its source you have to come ultimately to an intention” (70). “He thought that God’s goodness appeared in strange places. Don’t close your eyes” (71).
The setting for “The Passenger” takes place in New Orleans where Bobby has become a deep-sea diver. He does a rescue dive and locates a plane with seven dead passengers aboard. The submerged plane was not opened until Bobby and his partner got there and torched open the plane’s door. However, it is revealed that one passenger was missing from the plane and Bobby even goes back to the islands near the crash and finds a hidden life raft. Then, mysteriously, Bobby finds out that he is being followed. It is not clear whether he is being targeted by the feds for tax evasion, or if he was being interrogated about his knowledge concerning the plane crash and the missing passenger.
It appears that someone escaped from the plane. Bobby was questioned about this, but the mystery of the missing plane passenger is never solved, and McCarthy goes on with the story without ever bringing the reader back to the plane crash and who was missing or why? Perhaps this is the metaphor for the crash of the Western world? Or for Bobby’s journey and his life of wandering, hiding, and trying to escape or cope with his grief and guilt? And are the feds a representation of how Bobby haunts himself and is driving himself to escape rather than confront and experience grief and loss? Is Bobby the missing passenger from his own life—or is God the missing passenger?
Through the character of John Sheddan, McCarthy says that grief is “the stuff of life. A life without grief is no life at all. But regret is a prison” (140). Bobby is entrenched in the intensity of his loss and he cannot find his way out of the prison of his guilt. Because of this, he refuses to engage in life, and he is mired in his misery but still searching for answers. To find answers, he travels, and suffers and searches for the hope he can’t seem to find in the gray murky world of his journey. Sheddan says, “Suffering is part of the human condition, but misery is a choice” (348). His grandmother, GranEllen, tells him, “You have to believe there is good in the world. If you don’t, you won’t have a life” (170).
Bobby leaves New Orleans and goes on the road. He travels in an old truck through Texas, Colorado, and Montana. He spends the winter in an old farmhouse in Idaho with no heat or electricity, living the life of a long-haired, bearded ascetic. He trudges for miles through snow to get food. Then he goes to Stella Maris, the psychiatric institution where his sister had been a patient. He speaks to patients who knew his sister. One of them says, “Everyone is born with the faculty to see the miraculous. You have to choose not to” (324). Again, McCarthy is showing us that human existence is capable of experiencing the divine.
Bobby Western is the passenger in his own life. He allows his profound grief to plot and plan his journey. He finally makes the ultimate escape living alone in a windmill on a beach off the coast of Ibiza. Does he go there to make peace with the loss and grief, not only of his sister, but of the loss of his own life? McCarthy tells us that Bobby at last reaches a conclusion. “He knew that on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly upon his pallet in an unknown tongue” (383).
These novels bewilder us with questions about human existence and its meaning or purpose. They present us with a horrifying vision of the world we create. They immerse us in those terrifying human feelings of love, grief, and death. These novels are McCarthy at his best.
Michelle Loris, PhD. and PsyD, graduated from Sacred Heart University in 1970 as a first-generation college student, and went on to earn a doctorate in American literature from Fordham University and a doctorate in clinical psychology from Antioch New England University. Her books include “The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor” and “Innocence, Loss and Recovery in the Art of Joan Didion,” as well as numerous articles on literature, the humanities, and clinical psychology. Dr. Loris was Connecticut’s Professor of the Year in 2013 and is the 2022 recipient of SHU’s Distinguished Alumni Award. She is currently an Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at SHU, where she is also the Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies and a professor in the Department of Languages and Literature.