Thematic Analysis: How the Ocean is Used in Zong!

In Zong! By M. NourbeSe Philip the ocean is a very central theme. What the ocean represents is as dynamic as the ocean itself. In Moana, the ocean represents freedom and a break from tradition. In The Life of Pi, the ocean is a prison keeping Pi and the tiger trapped on their small boat. In my eyes, the ocean is a mystery, somewhere we don’t fully understand yet. Being on the ocean changes someone too. In Moana and The Life of Pi, being on the ocean caused them to grow up in a positive way. In Moby Dick the ocean drives Captain Ahab mad in his pursuit of the whale. All of these different views and experiences can be mashed together to give us a taste of Zong!.

    First let’s look at our first taste of the ship, in the end of Citizen. The image as a whole evokes a feeling of Thalassophobia (fear of the ocean). The waves crashing against the boat makes me feel pessimistic about the future. I feel this can be representative to the conflict between civilization and the cruelty found in human nature. Specifically The way the boat (one of the advanced forms of transportation at the time) is just a toy compared to the wave and might of the ocean. Also fear inducing is the site of the fish eating the overboard slaves. A large component of thalassophobia is that you don’t know what’s underneath you. You can assume what you want about what’s swimming around you, but you don’t know for sure what they are and what their intentions are until too late. Like the slaves on the ship could only assume what the intentions of the crew was. Based on my background in a christian house, I also immediately thought the zoomed-in image was reminiscent of Hell. The scarlet reds imbued in the waves reminds me of dancing fires. The soulless eyes of the fish and awkward scaling of the birds carry haunting demonic forms. In this picture, the ocean is clearly not a good place to be. The author contrast this with the quote on page 2 “The sea was not a mask.” A mask is used in literature as a way to hide shame, such as in Lord of the Flies. In our text however we can’t let the crew use the ocean like this. We need to hold them accountable for their actions. As Turner seems to hint at the ocean being a cruel location where unspeakable horrors happen, Philip argues that the cruel location is in fact not the ocean, but the hearts of us.

    Another aspect of water present is that water alters how we perceive things. At a metaphorical level, the shape of water is undefined and dynamic, much like the shapes of the poems themselves. This can be very confusing when first opening the book. I vividly remember taking my first look back in January, and immediately setting it back down as a problem for future Liam.  The confusing shape of the poems also relates to how the Philip felt writing this piece. We learn in the end section that she wasn’t sure what the main focus of this paper would be. The internal conflict she felt could be seen as waves crashing over each other, as each idea she had was washed away by something else she wanted to do.

Question one: What does the ocean symbolize to you? Even if you don’t live near the ocean, what are ways you see it come up in literature?

Question two:What was your initial reaction to seeing the structure of the poems? What did the structure make you assume about the poems?

8 thoughts on “Thematic Analysis: How the Ocean is Used in Zong!”

  1. Hey Liam, this is a great blog post. I really enjoyed how you referenced several other sources that related to the central theme of the ocean in Zong!. I also grew up in a Christian household and like you, one of my first thoughts when I looked at the image of the ship was that it reminded me of Hell. I would imagine this is also what the slaves perceived the ocean as during the Zong Massacre. To answer your first question, the ocean symbolizes mystery and the unknown to me. I become anxious when I compare of the size of myself to the ocean, the insignificance terrifies me. It makes me feel like I could be so easily swept away by waves, ended and forgotten about. Although when I read Zong!, it symbolizes danger and darkness from what actually is known. It is not a mystery what happened to these people, I agree with you that people need to be held accountable and the ocean can not act as a mask.

    1. Hi Liam, I enjoyed reading your blog post. The use of references and connections brought me right into understanding the point you’re making (Also you taught me what thalassophobia is). The use of the ocean in this book is key to its foundation, like you said. And I also had your first initial reaction of reading a poem and thinking, “wait, what is this?” But when you point out that is supposed to be representative of the ocean it makes more sense. On page 194, Philip states, “Some-all the poems- need a great deal of space around them- as if there is too much cramping around them, as if they need to breathe…” This makes me realize that she is trying to symbolize the ocean; but it left me with another thought. Why would she want the words to “breathe” if the story is about the slaves drowning (losing air to breathe)? Or is it simply just to symbolize the vastness of the ocean itself. After reading this section of the book, I have a better understanding now on how to tackle the poems.

  2. Hey, Liam!! Great post! I thought it was really interesting how you brought in different films and pieces of literature to explain the different views and what the ocean symbolizes in other forms of media. To me, I always looked at the ocean as a big beautiful place, that is home to some of the most wondrous creatures. On the contrast, I have always been afraid of the ocean. I do not think it is so much the water part of it, but like you said, the unknown. I live on a lake, and have no trouble swimming and jumping in, because I know the craziest thing that could be at the bottom of the lake are some large fish. However, the ocean is essentially untouched when it comes to discovering what inhabits it. While there are many beautiful aspects of the ocean, there is also a very scary feeling that makes my skin crawl, knowing that things that we could never imagine may live somewhere along the ocean floor. I think the ocean can play into many things, depending on how the author wants it to be portrayed and what theme or feeling the author wants the audience to take away. In Jaws for instance, the ocean is home to a deadly shark, so it plays a role of mystery and terror. However, like you said about Moana, the ocean is a friendly and helpful source, that while sometimes in the film has its harsh moments, is there to assist Moana in completing her task. In the case of Zong!, the ocean can be seen as a life source, as well as a death penalty. On page 189, the quote “sixty negroes died for want of water… and forty others…through thirst and frenzy…threw themselves into the sea and were drowned”, shows that perfectly. The ocean means many things to many people, and it is really interesting how to the slaves on board, it was a need for life, while also being an escape of life.

  3. Hey Liam, very interesting blog post! To answer your second question, my initial reaction to seeing how the poem was structured was that I was very confused. Once I read a few pages I was trying to focus on complete words and tried to piece them all together to make some sense of it. For example, on the first page Philip writes ” w w w wa ter”. Although those are just letters not making up a complete word, you can piece them together to understand that it says “water”. The use of this structure made me assume that poems are meant to be slightly cryptic, and forces the reader to analyze the lines to discover the deeper meaning.

  4. Hi Liam! I really enjoyed your blogpost. To answer your first question, the ocean has always symbolized freedom to me. I personally don’t live near the ocean, therefore the ocean represents an escape for me. Whenever my family and I go on vacation, we go to the ocean. As well as that, the ocean represents mystery. Majority of the ocean is unexplored, and that blows my mind completely. The fact that this giant mass takes up a huge percentage of the earth, and most of it is completely unknown to man blows my mind. I think that the ocean means something different to everyone. For some, the ocean represents fear, while for others it represents comfort. Putting value on something so large seems bizarre, as the ocean is so large that it almost feels endless. A quote from Zong! that perfectly represents what the ocean means to other people is on page 169 “sixty negroes died for want of water… and forty others…through thirst and frenzy…threw themselves into the sea and were drowned”(Philip 169). For these people, the ocean represents want, desire, need, and then death. They died from dehydration, and the ocean represents their need for water. Overall a really thoughtful blogpost! I love the utilization of films within in.

  5. Hi Liam, great blog post! Really interesting analysis of how many roles the ocean plays in Zong! especially as symbolic for conflict. My initial reaction to the structure of the poems was confusion, or my brain trying to catch up and get used to interpreting the poem. Almost by the very end of each, I’ve gotten used to the poem and how it’s trying to convey something, and then it switches to the next.
    Specifically in #9, for example, I feel like the pattern is clearer by the time you reach “the sustenance/in want/the arrived/in vessel/the weight/in provisions/the suffered in/die” (18). To me it’s very reminiscent of the feeling of gasping for air between waves. The experience of getting your head over the surface long enough to catch a snippet of what’s happening, and making sense of it, then going back under.

  6. Liam,

    Great post! It was well thought out and creative.

    The ocean to me is very ambiguous, there is so much unknown. So much unexplored and so much that is unexplained. It’s scary, the thought that planes can be lost in the ocean and never found terrifies me. But at the same time I love the ocean. The beach makes me happy, the warmth and the sand, the swimming and fun that comes with it. Phillip says, “drowned exist did not.” This makes me think that if something is lost in the water or someone is lost in the water, they are gone to never be found again.

    The structure of the poems are very hard to understand. It’s hard to know where to start and stop, along with where breaks are supposed to be implemented. The first poem was the hardest, trying to piece together words and letters to make sense of it. The more I read through the poems, the more I feel I understand. Although they are still difficult. The structure makes me feel that just like the situation that happened was messed up, the poems are somewhat messed up. Theres is a similarity between the two.


  7. Hey Liam, really great job with your blog post! To answer your first question, the ocean usually symbolizes calmness and serenity to me. Usually when I am by the ocean I am really happy and relaxed. I do not live by the ocean so it’s always special when I get to go. When I saw the structure of the poems I was really confused and puzzled. It was super hard for me to understand what I was reading.

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