This novel, published in 1996 and winner of the Whitbread Prize (shortlisted for the Booker), is set on the Titanic’s fateful voyage, and it is about loss, but not just the loss of those who set sail. Every Man for Himself is about the loss of love, the passing of an old world, and the painful birth of the new one as exemplified by our 22-year-old narrator. Morgan has known both deprivation and privilege, having had a foot in both worlds. Yet, he is not like his wealthy friends aboard ship, nor is he like the laborers who serve there. Morgan’s dilemma is determining his place in the world, reconciling his past with his present and finding a path forward in a changing world.
When we meet Morgan on April 8, 1912, he has already experienced some extraordinary things, including having a stranger die in his arms on the street that very day. He thinks,
I was destined to be a participant rather than a spectator of singular events.
He has also stolen a painting from his cousin’s house with a plan to take it back to America. We learn that Morgan, an orphan, is the nephew of industrialist J.P. Morgan and that he did work for the firm that built Titanic. Morgan’s roots are somewhat seedy and the details of his mother’s life and his early life are slowly revealed with some of the more spectacular detail coming from a fellow passenger, the mysterious Mr. Scurra. Scurra possesses a magnetism that seems to be irresistible to everyone he meets. He has a large, distinctive scar on his lip and a different explanation of its origins for each character. Scurra’s occupation is unknown — lawyer, detective, doctor? Whatever it is, he is a man with knowledge, experience, confidence, and discretion. Morgan finds himself confiding things to Scurra that he’d never told others and wishing for the man’s approval. Others, such as middle-aged Mr. Rosenfelder, a tailor with big dreams for his business, turn to Scurra for advice on business and personal matters. And the lovely Wallis, object of Morgan’s affections, is drawn to Scurra for purely personal reasons.
Once Titanic sets sail, the colliding worlds of upper and lower class meet in Morgan. The working class men on the ship, such as mechanic Riley and steward McKinlay, recognize Morgan’s lowly roots and are occasionally rude and sarcastic with him. Rosenfelder, Scurra and Wallis, however, see that Morgan is not like his society friends. Wallis tells him, “You don’t skim the surface.” Rosenfelder goes so far as to openly question Morgan as to why he is even friends with them when “none of them are normal.”
My friends, he argued, were not living in the proper world. Their wealth, their poorly nurtured childhoods, their narrow education, their lack of morals separated them from reality.
Scurra knows in detail how Morgan’s background is different from his friends’ and he sees that Morgan is an idealist. Morgan’s and Scurra’s conversations about Morgan’s socialism cause Morgan to question his values and his plan for putting them into action. But it’s an action of Scurra’s that serves as the catalyst for Morgan’s great epiphany. Afterward, he sees his fellow passengers with different eyes and prepares himself for the next phase of his life. Alas, this all occurs just before the Titanic hits the iceberg.
Bainbridge’s attention to detail makes the story, even though you know what will happen, all the more riveting. Factual details about the workings of the ship, the passengers, contemporary politics, and labor are all right on. The detail that she invents to propel her story forward is even more impressive. There are several characters besides those already mentioned whose behavior seems to represent the political and cultural dynamics of the period. Charlie is innocent and naive, not at all worldly or in tune with current events, needing guidance from others to carry on; Ginsberg is the opposite — savvy, informed, looking out for himself, he seems to possess knowledge that others lack or simply don’t wish to acknowledge. The female characters all seem to have direct knowledge of heartbreaking relationships, either through their parents’ emotional instability and marital discord or through their own ill fated relationships. Among the passengers on the ship is “Benny” Guggenheim and his mistress, who has this to say about marital infidelity:
If you’re rich, nobody gets hurt. Who can accuse Benny of neglecting his family? … if a man was next to broke his woman was called a floozie; if well-heeled, a secretary.
Generally speaking, the women in this novel seem to have little in the way of prospects outside marriage. The exception, Adele, is lower class and rides in steerage, but even she would get nowhere without the help of Scurra and Rosenfelder.
Every Man for Himself is an aptly titled novel. Certainly, once the ship starts to sink, it is “every man for himself,” but more importantly in the changing world of the early 20th century, every man, or any man regardless of class, might find himself with the opportunity to act, to make his own life on his own terms. Rosenfelder and Scurra show this to Morgan, and Morgan perhaps represents a new generation’s chance to remake itself, to shake itself out of complacency, and not just for personal gain. As Morgan says,
There has to be a new way of living … a different way of …men being equal….