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‘The Passenger’ Character: Alicia Western, Explained – A Puzzle And A Dream At The Same Time

Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, “The Passenger,” is about two siblings, Bobby (Robert) and Alicia Western, whose father was a part of the Manhattan Project. Both the characters are well-read, like their father, with the brother having pursued a doctorate in physics and the sister in mathematics, both finally dropping out due to different causes. The novel’s exterior may seem to explore the lives of these two siblings, but it is actually far from that. It can best be described as a compilation of the author’s thoughts, opinions, and experiences that he has gathered after writing his last novel, The Road. That the writer has spent a fair amount of time in the company of leading mathematicians and scientists at the Santa Fe Research Institute is quite obvious in this latest novel of his. It starts with basic questions regarding Bobby Western’s life and past and moves on to some of the most complex and unsolvable questions about the universe. The companion novel Stella Maris also explores the same themes and characters but is narrated from Alicia’s point of view. 

‘The Passenger’ Book Summary

The novel begins with an italicized account of Alicia’s conversation with the Thalidomide Kid, or “The Kid,” who is a projection of her hallucination. These accounts appear at the start of every chapter, followed by the current events in Bobby Western’s life. Bobby Western currently works as a diver for a company, and he has been sent to an airplane crash site to salvage the remains. He dives in with his companion Oiler to find nine dead bodies in the airplane, but the tenth passenger and the plane’s Jepp case and data box are missing. Later, strange men in suits come to meet Western, asking him the whereabouts of the missing passenger and the items and turning his place upside down in his absence. Soon Western is on the run; his bank account is frozen; he tries to make ends meet doing some odd jobs, and after receiving the money Alicia had kept for him, he goes off to Spain and lives in a windmill. He writes in his black diary occasionally about his past memories and about his sister and lover, Alicia.

McCarthy’s Alicia: A Puzzle And A Dream At The Same Time

Creating complex female characters is not McCarthy’s strongest suit. Women, if present at all in his novels, are flat and sketchy. Alicia in The Passenger may appear slightly different from the rest, but she meets the same unhappy end as most women in McCarthy’s novels. The author admitted not understanding women on Oprah’s show, calling them “tough,” and also stated that most men don’t understand them but find them mysterious. So, women become “they,” meaning some completely different creatures other than men? And to understand them, some superhuman strength is required? Perhaps the novelist’s incomprehension or confusion regarding women is what lends the same effect to his fictional women as well. However, McCarthy tries really hard this time to construct a woman character and that, too, a central one. When she isn’t there on stage, characters in the book are talking about her, or her brother is reliving her memories. She takes up a lot of space, her death is what is causing her brother the pain, and her thoughts and opinions are revisited constantly in page after page of Socratic dialogues. Then what makes her so unreal after all? Remember La Belle Dame sans merci by John Keats? This ballad, written in 1819, has lines that best describes McCarthy’s Alicia (or should we say Bobby’s Alicia). The dame in the poem has a lot in common with her, especially the way McCarthy describes her. The only difference being that Alicia is not a fairy’s child but the daughter of a man who was involved in the making of The Fat Man and Little Boy. Maybe the fact that we can compare her to a character in a 19th-century ballad is what is wrong with her. McCarthy tries to sketch a perfect woman, very smart, very kind, and very beautiful, “a flat-out train wreck” (as John Sheddan puts it), in short, too perfect to be mortal. She is an object d’arte, and to top it off, her creator lends her the age-old common disease of women (which male writers have always loved to inflict their fictional women with), madness, altogether failing in his attempt to create a real woman. But maybe creating a woman in flesh and blood, a woman whom people could imagine and relate to, wasn’t his intention at all. Maybe his intention was to create a vessel in the form of a character that would speak his mind. The thoughts and ideas that the author puts forward are complex, which might be the reason why the bearer of those thoughts was structured in an equally complex manner, in an out-of-the-world fashion. Through her accounts, we get details of how she was sexually harassed at a very young age by her doctor, and needless to say, events like these triggered her and gave us The Kid and his spectacles. Bobby recalls how she always wanted to kill herself, arguing about how it was the best choice, and later our protagonist, like the knight in the Keatsian ballad, mourns her loss. Everything that he does or says has traces of Alicia in it. The novel begins with her body being found by a huntsman on Christmas, which strikes an ominous note, to say the very least. She adorns a white dress and hangs from the branches of a tree, the sight suggesting the death of the last angel on earth whose demise shall begin the process of ultimate destruction. And that’s what follows in the novel. It is total chaos. Bobby Western is trying to grapple with the demise of people close to him while living with the uncomfortable truths that Alicia has left him in their letters, only to succumb to his sister’s hallucinations. A constant effort is being made by the readers to gather a sense of what is happening; they are forced to confront uncomfortable truths like they never have, and as soon as one feels that they are close to comprehending it all, there is a collapse of the previously accumulated sense, forcing one to start searching all over again. The line between reality, imagination, and madness fades as all those in the narrative and all those reading it lose track of everything. In the end, what remains with Bobby Western is the beauty of Alicia that he shall take with him on his deathbed and what remains with the readers is the confusion: did McCarthy ditch every other thing and settle for the beauty of Alicia? Is that the only thing that became important in the end?

What we can safely conclude is that Cormac McCarthy has failed yet again when it comes to the representation of women in his novels. He might have chosen a woman to give voice to his wildest thoughts, but that’s maybe because he wanted to experiment with his characters as he has experimented with style and theme in his latest book. Alicia is only a mouthpiece and will sadly remain so, and chances are that Stella Maris will turn out to be even worse in this aspect.

See more: ‘The Passenger’ Book Summary And Ending, Explained: What Happens To Bobby Western?

Anantaa Ghosh
Anantaa Ghosh
Anantaa has completed her graduation and post-graduation in English literature. She works as a guest lecturer and is an avid and enthusiastic reader. She is deeply passionate about rivers and wants to pursue her research on water narratives.


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