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Ships that pass in the night

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

Beatrice Harraden


M.A. Donohue & Co., Chicago

252 melancholy pages for a three-day cold in January.

Overall: A rather sad and pensive perspective on life.


Bernadine has always been a rather serious kind of person and consistently engrossed with work, but recently she became sick and has gone to a hotel that serves as a kind of temporary home for people in recovery from various illnesses. There she meets Robert, known as ‘the disagreeable man’, who is somewhat rude and has a very pessimistic outlook on life. He generally keeps to himself, but for some reason is drawn to Bernadine and befriends her.

Bernadine confides to Robert that due to her illness she has had to give up her life’s work, and for that reason she is depressed and discouraged. The disagreeable man tells her that many people have been through the same and the best course is to just learn not to care.

Robert and Bernadine spend much time together and she learns that he has a kind and generous side. He ends up telling her that she could be content and useful as a writer and encourages her in that respect. Through her encounters with other guests at the resting house and her conversations with the disagreeable man, she softens her view of people and of herself. She becomes more patient and content with her situation.

Eventually Robert reveals that his selfishness is justified because he has made ‘the one great sacrifice’, and that is to live one’s life for the sake of another. In his case, he lives only to take care of his mother, and when she dies, he intends to end his life as well.

When it comes time for Bernadine to return to her home, Robert says they will miss each other but then it will pass, like everything else. But after she leaves, he writes her a long letter saying how much he loves her and how much she has changed him. However, he doesn’t have the courage to send it. Soon after, his mother dies and he surprises Bernadine with a visit. They come to understand their love and affection for one another and agree to continue their relationship. Later that same afternoon, Bernadine gets knocked down by a wagon in the street and dies.


The first sentence in the story sets the tone for this book: “…we start life thinking that we shall build a great cathedral,…and we end by contriving a mud hut.” The book is dripping with disappointment, pessimism, and bitterness. That the setting of the story is a home for the sick and invalid is symbolic, for the moral of this story is that as the years wear on, we all end up with some kind of sickness in our minds or in our hearts, pick one: regret, cynicism, hopelessness, loneliness, neglect…etc. And just when the author starts to give us some hope that, in spite of everything negative, there can be a place of peace and happiness, she strikes that idea down with tragedy.

With scant mention of the joys of life, the author is saying out loud what we all know is true: There is plenty of disappointment in life. She examples that some give up and some keep trying; some make peace with life, and some wallow in self-pity - but in the end we all have to carry on. From that perspective, Robert’s attitude that nothing really matters seems justified. Yet he himself suggests that in shocking Bernadine with his rude and callous behavior and attitudes, he saves her from adopting the same by making her quite conscious of her desire not to become like him. So it seems, then, that the author at least hints at the disadvantage of a such an outlook on life.

The whole story seemed to lead up to the idea of coming to terms with life, with opening up to possibilities, and finding a certain amount of happiness after so much disappointment. But even that is too much to hope for. The ending message is that we must carry on with our lives anyway.

To the Author's Credit and Discredit:

The Author’s credit and discredit goes to same point – it’s a matter of perspective. The point being: ending the story with the unexpected and violent death of her heroine. I, for one, loathe tragic endings. But more than that, for 247 pages the story is based on conversations and musings about life, a casual pace of people walking around talking and thinking. It’s all very passive until page 248 when Bernadine, for some undisclosed reason, went to the city and while walking in the street got struck by a wagon and killed. It feels like a sucker punch. I wanted to slam the book closed and throw it against the wall. My first thought was that the author had always intended to have her heroine die, but she put it off too long and had to do the deed in a hurry and out of sync with the rest of the book.

On the other hand, if her intention was to drive home the pessimistic and cynical point that life is full of tragedy and disappointment, but we must carry on anyway, then, touché, well done.

Best Line:

If everyone who wrote books now would be satisfied to dust books already written, what a regenerated world it would become!

Honorable mention:

…the words which he was intending to speak died on his lips.

When you (stop to) rest you will know how weary you are.

…the retracing of one’s steps is more tiresome than the tracing of them.

She …was learning to measure people…not by what they have done or been, but by what they have suffered.

…we are not living in a poetry book bound with gilt edges. We are living in a paper-backed volume of prose.

…only a very clever woman would wear such boots and hats.

If there be a God…he will understand better than ourselves that life is very hard and difficult, and he will be astonished, not because we are not better, but because we are not worse.

The Title of the book,

Ships That Pass in the Night, I suppose refers to the two main characters and their brief relationship. It also reflects the attitude of the book that life is a just series of people and events that come and go, and not to be taken too seriously.

The best thing about this book

is it's size. It's the perfect little book for my hands, for my purse, to pull out at the airport...and it's in very good shape considering its age.

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