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Literature / The Figurehead

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Don't they make a lovely not-couple?
Published by Crosbie Garstin in Vagabond Verses in 1917, "The Figurehead" is a Narrative Poem. Using Black Comedy to work to the punchline and Nautical Folklore as setting, the poem details the short but eventful career of the titular figurehead.

One day, a versed carver wanted to create a saint in wood, but the parson wasn't interested. With the carving already complete, the carver opted to paint it up as a soldier and sell it as a figurehead instead. Its ship sets out and reaches the equator, where the handsome figurehead catches the attention of a mermaid, who is none other than the daughter of Davy Jones. She tries courting the figurehead with songs and regularly climbs up the bobstay to be with him, but no response comes. Distraught, the mermaid calls on her father for help. Davy Jones sinks the ship, allowing the mermaid to gather the figurehead and take it to her grotto. She continues to court him day and night, but still is ignored. And she'll forever be. Because while the figurehead may have been reworked to represent a soldier, he continues to regard himself a saint.

The poem has been adapted twice under the same name. The first time was in 1953, when the poem was turned into a 7-minute Stop Motion short by Joy Batchelor, John Halas, and Allan Crick. It debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. The other is a 2016 children's book as a student project, which art can be found here.

"The Figurehead" provides examples of the following tropes:

  • All Animals Are Dogs: The porpoises and flying-fish follow the mermaid "like dogs".
  • All Love Is Unrequited: The captain, the (first) mate, the bosun, and by implication every man onboard tries to look their best for the mermaid, but she gives them nothing but the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, the figurehead ignores her despite all her efforts to please him.
  • Color Contrast: The whole sea & ship imagery generates a palette of blue and other cold colors. The figurehead springs out the moment his coat is said to be scarlet. This becomes more pronounced when contrasted with the captain, who wears a blue coat, and both adaptations make the most of this blue against red situation. On the other hand, the mermaid's lips are said to be red as coral, the one other moment a warm color is invoked, and neither adaptation incorporates it.
  • Daddy's Girl: The mermaid can't get the guy she wants, so she goes crying to her father. And he, for his part, immediately destroys the ship with a hurricane and thereby kills all on it.
  • Davy Jones: It's the Lord of the Ocean version. He commands hurricanes.
  • Diamonds in the Buff: In the poem, the mermaid's outfit is pointedly limited to a string of pearls and conches. Both adaptations ignore this: the short gives her nothing for her upper body and the book has her scales reach to breast height.
  • Elephant Graveyard: Overlaps with Derelict Graveyard. The mermaid's home is a grotto built from the bones of drowned sailors, which, like the wrecks of what once were their ships, are strewn about her domain.
  • Holy Halo: The children's book always depicts the figurehead with one to foreshadow the punchline. For the first part, this is ambiguously done by always placing the figurehead's head in front of the moon or sun. It isn't until he drifts to the ocean floor that his halo becomes unmistakably a halo.
  • Hypocrite: One reading of the final line that "the wooden-headed lunatic still thinks that he's a saint" is that he failed in being a saint by his own conviction he is a saint. Because his saintly refusal to converse with the mermaid doomed the crew; the very people he, as their ship's figurehead, was supposed to protect.
  • Innocent Bystander: The only crime the crew committed was sailing a ship with a handsome male figurehead. That does not warrant a death sentence.
  • Living Figurehead: Played with in a Bait-and-Switch manner. Up until the final lines, there's never a reason to assume the figurehead is anything but a wooden statue. The absence of any reaction to the mermaid is understood as him being not alive. This, in turn, makes the mermaid delusional and the crew's deaths tragically absurd and pointless. But then the final lines confirm, in so many words, that the figurehead is alive and that his disregard for the mermaid and the crew comes is a choice he's been making.
  • The Proud Elite: The irony is that this goes for both the mermaid and the figurehead. She is as good as a sea goddess and doesn't feel the need to care about anything but her own desires. He is convinced that he is nothing less than a saint and therefore is above it all.
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: The poem doesn't give Davy's appearance any description. The short runs with his ocean god vibe and depicts him as gigantic. The mermaid's even smaller than his ear!
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The mermaid is fairly traditional as far as can be gathered, but as the daughter of Davy Jones himself she certainly stands out. And it isn't a symbolic "all sea life are children of the sea god" either, because she's referred to as "Miss Jones" towards the end of the poem.
  • The Reveal: The fact that the figurehead is alive is the immediate one. The fact that he believes himself a saint instead of a soldier, an origin detail the audience will have long forgotten about by the poem's end, is the punchline.
  • Royal Brat: The mermaid is the ocean god's bratty daughter who thinks she should get whatever she desires.
  • Serenade Your Lover: The mermaid tries this at the surface and resumes her serenades to the figurehead down on the ocean floor once she's got him all to herself. He is not moved.
  • Unrequited Tragic Maiden: Ignoring, for a moment, that the mermaid is a bit of a Stalker with a Crush and responsible for the entire crew's death, she does draw pity for just how desperate she is for the figurehead to acknowledge her and for the audience's certainty that that desperation is all her love will get her.